Egypt resides in Northeast Africa, as it always has, and sand coats everything around it. Before eras and eras of colonization, before Cleopatra's rule, before the pyramids were even erected, sand was there. Sand, I learn during Assassin's Creed Origins' new Discovery Tour mode, was a huge nuisance too. It was so omnipresent that it was impossible to even eat food without sand getting in it somehow. This accounted for the epidemic of worn down teeth.
This is only one small tidbit I learned during my many hours trawling across the vast deserts of Egypt in Discovery Tour. Discovery Tour is just one part of the latest update for Assassin's Creed Origins, a game developed by Ubisoft that is carrying out its long life beyond its single-player campaign. Timed bosses, story-based DLC, and now a New Game+ mode have all joined the title in the months since its October 27, 2017 release date. But I've been patiently awaiting Tuesday's anticipated 1.3.0 patch more so than the others, the patch that brought Discovery Tour to the game at no additional cost.
Discovery Tour is a supplemental mode to Assassin's Creed Origins, launchable from the very first start menu you see. It's also available as a standalone purchase on PC for $19.99, for those who don't long to own the complete open world action game. It's a purely educational mode, encouraged to be utilized in schools and other educational settings. And it's frankly a marvel.
Every open world game we've experienced in the modern era boils down to one thing: kill other things, and sometimes climb up to the largest tower-thing in the distance to unlock more sections on the map. Over time, that rough design principle has been bent according to specific games, but one core element has remained the same: you always have to fight and kill a lot of things, and in some cases, hunt too.
Discovery Tour does away with all that baggage. In the mode, all you're tasked with is exploring the world. There are no bandit camps to liberate; nor side or main quests to embark on; no loot to collect ravenously. In Discovery Tour, your only goal is to learn more about the dense era of Ancient Egypt, from the details of mummification being married to class to the popularity of beer as a beverage in the early eras of Ancient Egypt. In Discovery Tour, players have the same sprawling world of Assassin's Creed Origins to freely explore, just as with the base game, whether you're into climbing pyramids or walking through the NPC-filled streets. Only now, the only thing leading the way is your own intellectual curiosity (and its stellar photo mode, should you want to be a historical photographer).
Venturing into Discovery Tour, I was curious how wide the mode's scope would be. What version of history would this tackle, as history is inherently biased? To what end would Ubisoft's recreation of Ancient Egypt be educational, and how dense would it be? It turns out, quite dense. Discovery Tour lets you waltz around Egypt as 25 characters, swappable from the pause menu easily. For instance, I chose Cleopatra as my embodied avatar, and then accidentally met another Cleopatra upon the tour designed about her life. The mode bears 75 "tours" in total, which range anywhere from 3 minutes and a couple of stops along their path to nearly 20 minutes and dozens of stops.
The tours are designed just as how you might imagine any narrated tour: except the only guide is a glowing line in the sand and the glistening points where you're encouraged to stop and listen to another new tidbit of narration from a historian. The stops along each tour vary. The majority contain an image you can glance at while listening to the narration, if you're sick of staring at Ubisoft's rendering of Egypt. Images range from classic paintings, photographs, sketches, to even ancient artifacts. Each tour has more than one stop. The longer ones, such as visiting the Great Sphinx of Giza, loop you around and even on top of the looming landmark as you learn both about it and Ubisoft's approach in digitally restoring it for the game. (In modern times, the sun has damaged the Sphinx's former color vibrancy, with only hints of red lasting, so Ubisoft's intense research led them on a path to accurately recreate its former glory.)
Those moments, where you learn not just about the finer details of Egypt's history but also Ubisoft's careful approach in depicting it, is where Discovery Tour is at its most enriching. We live in a time where games paste on facades of realism and other cultures without considering their implications. Assassin's Creed Origins, luckily, does the opposite. The series has long been a road of historical fan fiction, and continues that trend with the late game twist of Origins, but for the first time, the game also reckons with the era it takes place in; a time of Egypt trapped in colonized turmoil.
Discovery Tour is more historically enlightening than the original game, because it strips away all the Assassin's Creed bullshit we've come to expect from the series. Players are finally just given a truly open world to traverse and embed themselves in, without worrying about a rogue alligator snapping away at their livelihood. Educational games, all too often, are relegated as dull experiments. But Discovery Tour seeks to change that, and make learning about the past fun for people other than history nerds.
The mode has one minor blemish, as pointed out by Rock Paper Shotgun. For some reason, sculptures are censored. Boobs and flaccid penises are no longer engraved onto towering figures; now seashells cover their bits and pieces. It's an odd thing to change—assuming people and kids have never seen nude statues before, and would be titillated by them somehow—especially considering that the mode also includes classic paintings that portray nudity, and even have photographs of nude, mummified humans. The minor censorship feels needless, but overall, it's just a small change.
Earlier this month we published a survey from one of our freelance contributors, surveying a few independent developers whose games made a big splash in 2017. When asked about the future, What Remains of Edith Finch's creative director Ian Dallas answered, "I'd love to see more games from large teams that don't focus on combat. I just started taking a class on game animation and the lectures and work of other students has made me realize something: animation in games is almost entirely focused on people running and fighting. And those are beautiful and compelling subjects but in my dreams I'd go through 2018 playing strange and remarkable experiences without ever picking up a weapon. There's a very interesting world out there and I wish more games would explore it."
Discovery Tour seems to be the closest thing we have in terms of modern triple-A development that approaches that combat-free ideal. It's the sort of open world game that allows players to explore the intricately crafted open world of Assassin's Creed Origins at their leisure; no longer hindered by possibly getting spotted by enemy guards or attacked by a roaming hippopotamus. In Discovery Tour, Egypt is your oyster not to dominate, but to learn more about and respect. And that's an admirable thing.