It’s amazing what a little time off can do. Occasionally, we need to take a moment for ourselves before returning refreshed and ready to tackle new challenges. That’s the case with Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s long-running franchise that intertwines science fiction with history. Since its inception in 2007, a main series entry has been released virtually every year (it skipped 2008) up until 2015. With the ever-developing clash of Templar and Assassin orders throughout time beginning to grow stale, Ubisoft had to take a step back and reassess the future of Assassin’s Creed. So, for the first time in several years, the infamous Brotherhood skulked back into the shadows, readying itself to strike again in the future.
Here we are now, looking upon a revitalized continuation of Assassin’s Creed that takes its narrative back to its beginnings while modernizing its approach to gameplay. Crafted lovingly by the Black Flag team, Assassin’s Creed Origins overhauls nearly every aspect of its existing formula while remaining recognizable. The game takes place in Ancient Egypt circa 49 BCE and centers around Bayek, the last of the police-like Medjay. His heart-wrenching tale leads him on a quest for vengeance that has him crossing paths with notable figures, such as Cleopatra, and also results in the birth of the Assassins.
The premise that carries Bayek’s journey is the most enjoyable in recent memory from the series, although prior iterations didn’t exactly set a high bar to be beaten. The story of loss and revenge at any cost was easy to engage with, especially since Bayek is undoubtedly the most likeable protagonist since Ezio. Oddly enough, he’s almost one-upped by a second playable character inside the Animus, but I won’t ruin that for you. The real treat here, however, is watching the dawn of the Assassins. Anyone who has been along for this ride’s highs and lows since it first landed at the start of the last generation will appreciate the backstory provided in Origins. The modern day Abstergo segments return to flesh out the current events and, while they are closer to the days of Desmond, they pale in comparison to the historic portions. Overall, the narrative feels like it has more heart and soul than the majority of its predecessors, even if it doesn’t achieve the highest level of storytelling in this medium.
The main draw is the completely reworked gameplay on which everything is built. Assassin’s Creed Origins feels like a true RPG title and it brings a slew of new content to the table while simultaneously trimming away some fat. Bayek can no longer rely on the contextual button prompts that his fellow assassins utilized. Long gone are the Arkham-esque combo attack and counter systems. What has replaced it is akin to a Dark Souls-lite combat control layout. This means not a single attack is mapped to the controller’s face buttons, which definitely lessens the repetitious button mashing that preceding installments devolved into quickly. Engagements have a personal, tactical feel this time around and Bayek will have to be cautious in his approach. Light attacks, heavy strikes, dodging, and parries all come together to create a more robust gameplay loop. And you will regularly need to shake up the combination of the four to maximize your effectiveness against the increasingly difficult enemies.
One of the main reasons that enemies require a previously unseen level of thought prior to initiating conflict is that not everyone on the map is susceptible to Bayek’s hidden blade. This is due to the enhanced RPG focus of Origins, which incorporates a leveling system. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate played around with this idea loosely, but it didn’t impact the one-hit kill nature of the assassin’s signature weapon. Now everyone, including Bayek, has a character level tied to them. In fact, entire regions in this massive map of Egypt are divided by level groups, although you are free to venture into them whenever if you have a death wish. When Bayek comes across a target that is well above his current level, the option for an instant stealth kill immediately disappears.
The reason for this is that the hidden blade, along with all other equipment, has its own stats. Facing an enemy well above Bayek results in their health exceeding the damage output of the blade. Stats, such as damage and health, increase by leveling up and by using crafting components to enhance them. In addition, three skills trees–Hunter, Seer, and Warrior– appear that each contain their own perks (ex: controlling an arrow’s flight path if shot from a Predator bow) and support different playstyles depending on your preferred approach. Should you find yourself facing down an opponent too tough for you, the battle shifts to a high sense of tension, as these foes can end the assassin’s life in one or two strikes.
Planning out an attack is a great deal of fun, especially when the threat of such overwhelming danger is present. These moments typically arise from Ubisoft’s tried-and-true outpost liberation scenarios, which see a great deal of diversity in their presentation. Some outposts might only house a handful of soldiers in a tiny camp while others contain a small army patrolling a sizable fortress. Given that combat has been tuned for smaller engagements, running in and taking on the masses head-on almost always results in death and desynchronization. Silently stalking targets, locating caged animals to help turn the tides, and using Origins’ vastly improved ranged combat rarely fails to thrill. Even the pre-planning before striking is entertaining.
Since Ubisoft has completely removed the mini-map from the UI, making for much cleaner visual presentation, you won’t be able to constantly check it for info. With how beautiful Egypt is, it’s a good thing the developer found a way to keep our eyes focused on the various factors appearing on-screen instead of spending all of our time staring at a circle in the corner. To make up for the missing mini-map, Bayek can send his pet eagle Senu into the skies above to survey the land and tag enemies as well as points of interest. This takes Eagle Vision to a whole new level for the series and it is easily the most enjoyable use of the feature yet. Whatever Senu has his sights set that lie over the horizon, it’s always a treat when controlling this feathered friend.
Senu is firmly embedded in nearly everything you will do. Are you hunting down a bunch of bandits that made off with a family heirloom? Send Senu up and pinpoint their location. Is Bayek in dire need of an upgraded breastplate to pad out his health? Time to have your eagle-eyed ally locate the animal from which you can retrieve needed pelts. Senu hardly feels like an afterthought in his use and is easily one of the most welcome additions to the Assassin’s Creed formula.
The activities briefly outlined above can all be taken at the player’s own leisure. While different regions are artificially segmented by the level of their enemies, Bayek is free to roam the entirety of the map. This Egyptian setting truly feels alive, especially when measured against past titles. The land is lush with both human and animal life, both of which go about their daily routines. It’s a world rife with emergent gameplay opportunities and it may very well the most realized open world since The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Wandering the glistening sand dunes and bustling cities, such as Alexandria, provide shifting gameplay experiences that are just as much a joy to explore as they are to view. Origins really is a role-playing game that hosts a deeper experience than we have come to expect from the Assassins’ outings.
The game incorporates a randomized loot system that is separated by color-coded rarity in a way that is eerily reminiscent of Destiny, covering items like mounts and clothing. Being a well-trained Medjay, Bayek can carry out his missions with a wide array of weaponry, including sickle swords and spears. There are even four categories of bows–Hunter, Light, Predator, and Warrior–to collect for the varying situations you will find yourself in. All of these are part of the loot system, which has really tapped into the addictive nature of hunting down new equipment. Finding a sword that lights people on fire or a legendary spear that buffs damage at the cost of health via a curse is as exciting 30 hours into the game as it is at the start. When you finally do find a weapon you absolutely love, you don’t have to worry about it becoming obsolete in a few levels. The scattered blacksmiths will upgrade any weapon to your current level for a price. It’s a small feature, but one that made me enjoy those rare loot finds even more knowing I wouldn’t be parting with them any time soon.
Some RPGs live and die based on their loot systems and, in this regard, I was not left disappointed. In fact, the joy of the pursuit of unique gear pushed me to send Bayek into the furthest reaches of the map, diving into long-abandoned tombs, completely ignoring the main story for several hours. By the time I did return to the primary missions, my character was nearly twice the recommended level. Those who don’t dabble in as much exploration or lack that inner completionist nagging at them may find themselves having to grind a bit with the side quests to achieve the proper level to progress through the story.
It is here, in the side quests, that some of that old Assassin’s Creed formula rears its head. While the secondary missions do offer some lively characters, the fetch and escort quests are definitely in abundance. The escort options in particular present an odd design choice wherein allies can not die, but they can still be knocked down. The game will then inform you through text smack dab in the middle of the screen that their infinite health is low. It’s a small annoyance, but it is better than having some of these mindless followers die from a single fatal blow at the hand of an enemy that worked his way around you.
Other notably “Assassin’s Creed” moments involve Bayek latching on to unintended structures or failing to position correctly while perched atop walls. Then there are the ragdoll inconsistencies that, in all honestly, are hilarious rather than irritating. It isn’t as bad as it has been before, but these moments serve as a quick reminder that this is undoubtedly an Assassin’s Creed game. Fortunately, the climbing system has been altered to require more intentional input from the player, removing the automatic free-running/climbing/descending mechanics we had previously seen.
Assassin’s Creed Origins has returned from its break refreshed and refocused. This is what Assassin’s Creed should have always been. The RPG foundation has led to a more robust title in all aspects. The gameplay is engaging, whether you are powering through the main story or taking some time to hunt crocodiles or simply looking for the next best weapon. Origins is a breath of fresh air for the franchise and one it was in desperate need of. Ubisoft used the time off to really come back at the series from a new direction that redefines the Assassin’s Cred experience. This renewed vision brings forth the realization that Origins’ weakest moments arise when too much of its former self appears.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is raw in its brutality, but refined in its delivery. This is a new era of Assassin’s Creed and one that could serve as a strong basis for further RPG-focused installments in the series. It has re-emerged wearing the same trappings as other video game masterpieces while not losing complete sight of its own image, for better or worse. We have been reminded of the Brotherhood’s place in gaming and we are eager to see where this revitalized journey goes next.
9 Leaps of Faith Out Of 10
Release Date: October 27th, 2017
Available Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Disclosure: Assassin’s Creed Origins Was Provided By The Publisher For Coverage Purposes