Assassin's Creed: Origins Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
It’s safe to say that Assassin’s Creed is important to Ubisoft. Arguably this is their key franchise and as such something they want to look after, develop and sustain over many years. It debuted in 2007 which in the world of videogames is a long time ago, but between then and 2015 when the last main title was released - Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate - there have been eight releases in total, nine, if you include Rogue. That’s a lot of games in not very many years in absolute terms. To make this happen Ubisoft leveraged all their studios and all their resources, often having multiple teams globally working on any one title, each adding a bit of the game or updating a mechanic, and on the whole it worked. The first game garnered a decent reception but had much room for improvement. The next three, following the series’ still favourite protagonist, Ezio Auditore, nailed it and really made the series. Assassin’s Creed III tried hard but tired in the late-game, Black Flag had pirates and the sea and then Unity arrived. It was a fine game but broken. It was the first entry on the current generation of consoles and the brand suffered. Ubisoft suffered. Something had to change. So they announced that after the release of Syndicate in 2015 there would be a break in the yearly cycle...which brings us to 2017’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins.The different approach has enabled the development team to make bigger changes to the game than would otherwise have been possible. What has resulted is an enthralling and engaging episode in the Assassin’s Creed series, one which is very much a Creed game for long-standing fans to enjoy but also one which is rebuilt from the ground-up and very clearly not an Assassin’s Creed game, too.
Let’s go back to the start. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is set in the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Kingdom during the reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII circa 50 BCE. Basically we’re in Ancient Egypt in the time of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and the already decaying pyramids of Giza. It’s the furthest back in time we’ve gone in this series and the title indicates what the player might learn about the Creed as they make their way through the twists and the turns of the narrative created by Ubisoft Montreal. You are Bayek, an Egyptian Medjay - think Sheriff, leader - on the trail of vengeance in partnership with his wife Aya, both driven by a shared personal tragedy. You are not part of the Assassin’s Creed; it doesn’t exist.
Immediately evident is the welcome and wholesale update to the combat system. Brought into the modern world we now have a holistic third-person mechanic. You can carry a melee weapon of choice, be it sword, mace, spear or so on. The decision will be made based on your preference - I am a fan of swords regardless of the situation but what you have in your inventory will obviously play a part and there will perhaps be a context-sensitive decision, i.e. should you have multiple opponents you might choose a longer weapon to easier enable keeping them at bay, whereas one-on-one might preclude a choice of regular sword so you can get in close. In addition to the melee weapon you have shields (unless you’re dual-wielding) and with that the opportunity to block or indeed parry. Parrying can be extremely powerful if executed well with the correct timing, defending against an attack and creating an opening for a flurry of hits. The timing is hard to master though, especially as it depends on both the attack from the enemy and their weapon of choice. There is, of course, an option to dodge as well, and ranged weapons should you prefer.
In this Assassin’s Creed, open combat is much more regular than in previous iterations. Thinking back to the other games, the structure used to be that from chapter to chapter you would complete multiple missions, each one leading up to the assassination of a significant character. Stealth would be encouraged, and rewarded in many cases. Here it seems to have been waylaid. Situations and levels are laid out in such a way that’s it’s nigh-on impossible to get to a target unidentified. If you do manage it, something else prohibits you from completing the kill and making your getaway. For instance, and getting slightly ahead of ourselves, one mission I tackled was recommended for a level twenty-nine character when I was at the time only level eighteen. I managed to get into a security camp at night and make my way to the building where resting guards and others slept. I located my target, asleep and unguarded in a room all alone. Thinking I could quietly assassinate her and avoid a standard fight which I would definitely lose, I pressed Triangle to complete the kill but instead she woke up having had five health points taken off her. I had stabbed her in the head; I had assassinated her. But, she didn’t die. Thinking back to even the last couple of games there were some meaty missions where you could choose any number of ways to off your target(s) quietly and discreetly, kind of like a Hitman game. Here? You have effectively got a third-person action adventure where having a rumble is the way to end things.
I mentioned levels. In Origins Ubisoft have gone all the way towards an RPG. We have had levelling and certain RPG-lite aspects recently, but here it is full-blown. The whole game structure is an RPG now. Everything you do garners XP, be it finding a new location, killing a hippo or completing a quest. When you level up you gain an ability point, although there are other ways to gather these as well (finding and completing one of the twelve stone circles, for example - one of a number of special extra-curricular activities). Ability points can be spent on gaining abilities detailed on the skill tree. There are three branches: warrior - all about combat; seer - all about getting ahead of the game (e.g. poison darts or being able to move time to dusk or dawn) and hunter - all about, well, hunting. Throughout the game enemies will drop loot or you’ll find it when investigating one of the various types of location. All types of weapon can be obtained via loot drops and this is one way to get a more powerful weapon more suited to your own level. You can upgrade weapons, or your outfit, by crafting or visiting a particular type of vendor such as a blacksmith. This is important as you might really like one particular weapon and by upgrading it you can keep it relevant and useful until the endgame. You might like it because of the speed of action, its reach or perhaps its perks - some weapons poison anyone they touch, other increase the chance of bleeding and so on.
It’s not just the game and character mechanics that have changed and become much more RPG-like. The progression through the game is that way too. You have main quests and side quests and all kinds of things to do as you travel throughout the enormous expanse that is Ptolemaic Egypt. There is an abundance of quests and even more ‘other’ things to do. In a formal quest you’re typically going from place to place talking to folks and then being asked to beat some bad guys up or find a missing item or save a particular person. None of the sidequests are unusual in what they do. You might get the odd one which feels different to the rest - an investigation, perhaps, where you check out clues in a given area to determine what’s happened - but that is just relative to things in-game. Compared to other titles you have something which has borrowed wholesale to find its style and not really innovated within. That would come with the next game, if past Ubisoft titles are anything to go by. If there is one game which Assassin’s Creed: Origins really makes you think of it’s The Witcher 3. The whole game is a homage to that - the way you gather quests, progress, entertain yourself on your travels around a giant map and how you prepare your character for the travails ahead. It’s just not as strong as that game, but very little is.
It’s not only The Witcher that this game has learnt from. Destiny is another very strong influence. You have the menus which are navigated by movement of a circular reticule and long-pressing when you wish to choose a particular option. There are daily quests and a special vendor who moves around and you’ll want to visit regularly for your chance at getting a legendary or rare weapon. It’s not surprising that Ubisoft has looked around at the biggest and best games of the past few years to enable their build of this latest Creed game, but it is perhaps surprising where some of that inspiration has specifically come from.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a really enjoyable game. It is ginormous, it looks brilliantly pretty, it has masses of proper quests and all kinds of fun things to do in-between, be it avenge a fellow gamer’s death, raid a tomb (not quite like Lara, or in Ezio’s past adventures alas), or kill that dastardly lion. The map is all open from the start even if much of what you can do in a given area isn’t. That’s part of the problem - you need to choose what to do according to the level you’re at and there is no way around this. It means even if you just want to blast through the main game it will take twenty to thirty hours as you’ll need to build your level up around doing the main quests. It is unavoidably a grind. But the biggest and most fundamental issue I have with it, and for some it will have cachet and others it might even be a plus, is that despite being very clearly an Assassin’s Creed game it doesn’t really play like one. There’s no real stealth option. There’s no proper assassination. There is no chance to fully sync with a memory, only pass or fail now. It’s a million miles away from what this series used to be. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable game but it’s a seriously different one to what you’d perhaps expect, or want. Here’s hoping that with the next one the developers remember what an Assassin is and build that in - if they do then we’ll have a seriously high quality game on our hands.