I have a strategy that I sometimes deploy when I'm demoing a game. If I'm not sure where I go next, I'll ask one of the devs to take me to their favorite spot. That's what I did on Assassin's Creed: Origins, which I recently had the chance to play on Xbox One X.
They responded by taking me to a spot on the Nile and letting me watch as the boats gently down bobbed down the sun-dappled river. Then they dove into the water, and I marveled at the tiny, quick movements of the first below and the way that the rays sparkled through the deep.
To tell you the truth, I'm a little embarrassed to be waxing poetic like this. I'm not normally one to lose my mind over tech. Yes, high-fidelity graphics can be really impressive, but I've personally always put a premium on art direction. In my mind, Shovel Knight and Breath of the Wild are every bit as gorgeous as a graphical powerhouse like Assassin's Creed: Origins.
But that trip to the Nile? Yeah, that was pretty impressive.
Assassin's Creed Origin's is the latest salvo in the burgeoning 4K battle between Microsoft and Sony. To this point, the PS4 Pro-exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn has been the most impressive-looking game of this new era. It's still too early to say whether Assassin's Creed: Origins on Xbox One X will have it beat—I'll leave that judgment to our friends at Digital Foundry—but even without HDR (the displays didn't support it for some reason), it looks pretty amazing despite not being "true" 4K.
It's the sort of game where you want to just stand on top of a tower and stare out into the distance, jaw on the floor at how far the horizon stretches out before you. It's a real showpiece of a game. Clearly, Ubisoft wants to make sure that the series is refreshed in style.
The same praise can be heaped on the framerate. While I didn't get confirmation at whether it was running at 60fps in 4K, it did feel remarkably smooth, with nary a hitch or a slowdown to be found. (Update: AC: Origins has been confirmed to be locked in at 30fps at 4K). This is especially impressive in light of how big the world of Assassin's Creed: Origins. As I panned down the map, I had that same overwhelmed sense of scope that I had in Breath of the Wild.
Suffice it to say, this game is huge. And it feels polished, too.
I say all this as someone who has invested fully in a 4K console setup, having purchased a PS4 Pro and an upgraded TV earlier in the year. The visuals have clearly been a leap forward, but the framerate hitches during transitional scenes have really stood out to me, particularly in sports games like FIFA and MLB The Show. Indeed, there have been more than a few instances in which I've been inclined to go to performance mode just so I can enjoy a smoother experience.
I don't think that'll be a problem with Assassin's Creed: Origins. This is the second time I've been really, legitimately impressed with how a game looks and feels in 4K, and it's all the more impressive given that I wasn't even looking at it in HDR, which is usually where the difference is really noticeable.
This may or may not be thanks to the power of the Xbox One X and all those teraflops. But if Assassin's Creed: Origins is meant to showcase its power, then mission accompished. I was duly blown away.
Assassin's Creed: Origins' Art Direction Also Helps
Of course, it's not all just tech.
I mentioned earlier that I tend to put more stock in art direction than raw graphical output; and as it happens, Assassin's Creed: Origins is an example of a game that manages to be the best of both worlds.
Assassin's Creed: Origins is of course set in Ancient Egypt, which is one of the first instances I can recall of a modern open-world game using that setting. Assassin's Creed games always do a good job of realizing the period in which they're set—Assassin's Creed II still stands out in my mind—but it really seems like Origins goes the extra mile.
I mentioned the Nile, where you can just sit and watch as a veritable army of merchant ships go about their business. You can even hop on a ship and take a seat while riding down the river. As in Skyrim, every NPC in Assassin's Creed: Origins has their own routine, which they'll carry out through the day and into the evening.
Lavishly rendered animals are everywhere—indeed, they are a major part of the strategy. If you ever get into trouble, there's almost always a cage with a Lion in it somewhere that you can open to distract your foes (while hopefully avoiding being eaten yourself). Hippos lounge down by the river; and as in real life, they're complete bastards. So are gators, who always seem to pop up at exactly the wrong moment.
Clearly, a lot of thought and attention has gone into the depiction of Ancient Egypt, which is reflected in the introduction of Discovery Mode—a non-violent tour of Egypt that looks almost like a historical holodeck.
All of these little details shine all the greater in 4K, where you start to notice little things like the way a hippo's skin will glisten in the sun as it roars out of the water to murder you. The differences are getting pretty granular now; but when you add them all together, the improvement from the beginning of the PS4/Xbox One era to now is startling.
I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this is the best-looking game I've seen so far this generation, and that it's exactly the sort of game you would want for your high-end gaming PC or new Xbox One X.
We'll see how it ends up playing, and whether the polish holds up throughout the entire game (it is a Ubisoft game, after all). But in the early going at least, Assassin's Creed: Origins sets the graphical bar incredibly high.