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Last year, unthinkable news was delivered: after an annual release schedule stretching back to 2009, Assassin's Creed would not be seeing an entry in 2016. Ubisoft stated that it was "stepping back and re-examining the Assassin's Creed franchise". They promised to evolve the game mechanics after listening to fan feedback. The publisher wanted to deliver "more quality, more polish" for every entry, and even stated that the game could skip 2017 if it wasn't ready.
It's 2017 and we're on the eve of the next Assassin's Creed, the result of that additional year in development. The result of listening to that fan feedback, trying to evolve the formula, and attempting to hit certain quality targets. Assassin's Creed Origins stands as sort of a soft reboot of the franchise, a shot at a transition like the one from the first Assassin's Creed to the second.
The Story of Brotherhood
In Origins, you step into distinctive hood of Bayek of Siwa. Bayek is a Medjay, an Egyptian version of a local Sheriff or Constable. He was living the good life, hunting and helping people with his family. Then the Order of the Ancients came to town, a masked band of power brokers in control of the boy-king Ptolemy, searching under Siwa's temple for Ancient artifacts of immense power. Their actions turn Bayek from an officer of the law into a force of vengeance, and send him on the road to becoming the very first member of the Assassin Brotherhood.
The story begins en media res, throwing you hip deep into Bayek's revenge without much explanation. Once you finally catch up to Bayek's spot in the plot, his early and intense anger makes a lot of sense. Despite that, he's not the grim dark avenger that other similar gaming leads are. (Looking at you, Talion.) In his interactions with others, Bayek smiles. He laughs and jokes. He's straightforward at times, angry at the targets of his revenge and those who would harm the little guy, and kind to the citizens of Egypt.
Which is to say, Bayek has layers. Sure, he's lost things, but that loss has not consumed him. Nor has it consumed his wife, Aya. Aya is only a supporting cast member for most of the game, but when they're in each other's orbit, it feels like a mature relationship. They miss each other and show genuine excitement when their paths intersect. They argue, but they trust one another. Having an established married couple in a game is rare and the fact that Ubisoft went in this direction is a commendable choice. It's one that works too. Bayek isn't a charismatic rogue like Ezio or Edward Kenway, but he's still enjoyable and by time you cross the finish line, his journey has been a satisfying one.
There's also something to be said for Bayek's adversaries. Of the full list of targets requiring assassinating, Origins makes the odd choice of not engaging the player in all of their deaths. Some are already dead by time the game proper starts and Aya kills others. Given the full scope of the game, this actually works out: Origins is a big, big game and if you had to kill every target on your own, it would dive headfirst into tedium. As it stands, the ones you are shown are sympathetic and memorable in their own ways. Sure, some are comically outright evil, but at least three of them have understandable motivations for seeking the power of the Ancients.
I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on the modern day aspect of Assassin's Creed Origins. After dispensing with any modern day action in Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Ubisoft revisits the near future in Origins. Once again, there is a nominal lead character for these sequences, though they're only briefly glimpsed over the course of the entire game. It's not their story, it's Bayek's, but it is clear that they will be key moving forward.
Ubisoft also gets rid of one of the more difficult aspects of the framing story, having to have an actual ancestor present and living in order to revisit a person's past. If you're a classic Animus fan—I didn't even know this was a thing that existed—you might have a frown. I think everyone else will be fine with the changes.
Did The Gameplay Evolve? Is It Still Assassin's Creed?
Speaking of changes, let's talk about the gameplay. This is the part that saw Ubisoft give its development team another year, the new core of the entire franchise. So how different is it and what has changed?
To tell the truth, part of Assassin's Creed Origins is that old familiar ragtime. Running around, hiding in waist high shrubbery, climbing buildings, and synchronizing with towers; all that is the same. This isn't a top-to-bottom rethink of the whole franchise. Instead, it's a subtle evolution of certain aspects.
The primary one is combat, where the attack-and-counter gameplay of previous games has been replaced with something a bit more robust. Instead of a single attack button with an additional parry, combat now features light and heavy attacks (bound to the right bumper and trigger), alongside block (left bumper) and dodge (Circle on PS4, B on Xbox One) buttons. Clicking your left analog stick acts as a lock-on for a single target, similar to 3D Zelda titles.
The idea is to poke at your enemy's defenses, maximizing damage when you see openings. In practice this means that you wail away on the light attack for most weaker enemies, using your slower heavy attack to stun targets and break through enemy shield blocks. If you see a heavy attack coming from an enemy, you dodge and then punish them. (You can dodge up to three times, with the third being slightly slower, but there's no stamina to watch out for here.) Blocking is good for absorbing lighter attacks and arrows, and you can eventually unlock a timed parry, which will open up your foes for further attacks.
Holding the left trigger brings up your ranged attacks, either your chosen bow and arrow, or various thrown tools like fire bombs and sleep darts. Bows have a bit of aim tracking for pitched firefights, though you'll have to manually adjust for headshots.
It's not a bad system, and on a one-on-one basis, combat feels pretty good. It's not perfect though and still feels a bit fuzzy and cumbersome. When you're facing a ton of enemies—say a few shieldbearers and archers—things can break down rather quickly, making it feel like you don't have the precision to take on all targets. It doesn't help that even with melee weapons that have a longer range, Bayek's dodge sometimes puts him just out of reach for the punish. Assassin's Creed's melee combat has never been as good as say the Arkham games; this is an improvement over previous games, but still a bit muddy.
What's muddier than before is the assassination mechanic itself. In the last few entries, you made due with a single attack button. In stealth mode, that button was assassinate; in high-alert mode, it used your primary weapon. If you weren't seen by an enemy, you could switch into stealth mode at the press of a button.
In Origins, those high-alert attacks are always available because they have dedicated buttons. The issue is those dedicated buttons are taking up space; so now assassinate shares a button with your primary contextual interaction. This means that occasionally, you'll be near a thing that you can interact with and pressing the button will do that instead of stabbing someone in the head. It's not a consistent problem, but it's something Ubisoft needs to think about in the future and it's something you need to be cognizant of.
Role-Playing An Assassin
What does work is a shift towards a progression system that's more like a roleplaying game. Bayek gains levels as you take down targets and complete missions. When he levels up, you get a small boost in health/damage and an ability point. Ability points can be spent in one of three trees: Warrior, Hunter, and Seer.
Warrior talents beef up your direct combat abilities, letting you parry, shield charge, or hijack enemies from their mounts. Hunter talents are all about ranged combat, offering the ability to use your eagle to harass targets, control an arrow in midair, or slow time after a jump to take a precision shot. Finally, Seer is the deception tree, unlocking the use of tools like fire bombs, poisons, and the ability to tame animals. Which direction you go is largely up to you. Some of the abilities, like Parry or the ability to equip two melee weapons or two bows, feel like they should be built in options for Bayek, but for the most part it works.
Loot is dropped from many of the enemies you kill or is found in treasure chests around the world. The variety of loot available is wide, so it's going to take a moment to explain. On the melee weapons side, there are Regular Swords, Sickle Swords, Dual Swords, Heavy Blunts, Heavy Blades, Sceptres. Each has their own use, like Dual Swords being faster and combo heavy, Heavy Blunts being good for punishing targets with slow, heavy damage, and Sceptres offering speed with range.
Which one you choose also determines what your Adrenaline is used for. This is a new system that rewards you for successful attacks, parries, and dodges. When your Adrenaline bar is full, some weapons offer Overpower, a single attack that negates blocks and does massive damage. The other types offer Fury, which slows down time, allowing you to throw in a ton of attacks within a short span. I myself tended to stick with Overpower melee weapons, as the attack is really useful for shredding blocks and quickly dispatching a certain target.
Bows also fall into different categories. Hunter bows are your standard pull back and release affairs, good for... you know, hunting. Light bows can shoot a number of arrows in succession before reloading. Warrior bows are the shotgun of Origins' world, shooting multiple arrows in a single shot. Finally, Predator Bows work like sniper rifles, giving you very few arrows, but doing a ton of damage at long range. You'll want to unlock those abilities to equip two melee weapons and two bows fairly quickly, as it behooves you to be able to switch between weapon types to deal with certain situations. You'll also need to keep your shield up to date with new inventory.
Some items are rather special, but most gear syncs to your current level, so you're always taking in an influx of stuff that you can use. Weapons also have rarity—Common, Rare, and Legendary—with higher tiers offering more perks like better critical hits or poisoning. If you get attached to any weapons, you can upgrade them to your current level simply by going to any blacksmith and paying a fee. Legendaries are a bit pricey to upgrade, but sometimes it's worth the Drachmas. It's a nice system that prevents you from having a ton of currency like other Assassin's Creed games.
Another part of your progression outside of leveling and equipment is crafting. You will have to hunt around the world for various resources like leather, bronze, and wood. Once you have enough you can craft upgrades that increase Bayek's health, his ranged, melee, and hidden blade damage, and his ability to carry more tools or arrow. Extra weapons can be sold for Drachmas, or dismantled to get resources for crafting, it's just a matter of which direction you want to go. I do wish it was easier to hunt for ore and wood; while you can find animals for leather everywhere, ore and wood have to be taken from enemy convoys or dismantled items. It's just slightly annoying.
He's Not The Witcher, But Kinda Is
Ubisoft has also changed up how Origins spins its adventure. The main quests are largely the same, but this time, the side quests are much beefier. Every side quest has fully voiced dialog and a unique tale, giving you context for your actions. They're all mostly the same in execution—go to the place and kill the person, steal the thing, or rescue someone—but the cutscenes offer a bit of fun and meaning.
With the full quest tracker, fully-voiced unique side quests, loot, RPG progression, and a summon horse, Assassin's Creed Origins feels like it was heavily inspired by CD Projekt RED's The Witcher 3. The writing isn't entirely up to task to make that comparison work, but it breathes a bit more life into the world and you'll find yourself in some memorable situations. Outside of the combat, it's here that Assassin's Creed Origins diverges the most from previous games.
Ubisoft was also kind to allow players to pre-finish quests, instead of forcing you to do them again. In one quest, I needed to get a blacksmith's tools back for him, but since I had already cleared out the camp and killed its Captain, I instead got dialog acknowledging that I already had what I needed. Similarly, in one section, upon finding one quest giver's burned down village, I was supposed to kill the soldiers looting the ruins. Thing is, I had already done it. Once again, the game acknowledged my efforts.
Given the open-world, Ubisoft has also restrained itself from offering up too much in terms of things to collect and do in the world. There are usually two sync towers in region, which offer fast travel points. These regions usually offer a few locations to find treasure, outposts to take down, animal hotspots, and tombs to explore. (TOMBS!) Otherwise, there are no feathers or pages, or anything else to really scour the map for.
Papyrus Puzzles offer a bit more agency; these scrolls you'll in specific places offer riddles. Figure out the spot in the world that the riddle is referring to and you'll find a special treasure chest there. I like these and feel these are the kind of additions Assassin's Creed should offer more of in the future. (As compared to the Investigations, which just have you noticing multiple spots in a single areas rather than some inductive reasoning.)
The Sun Sets On The Egyptian Empire
This is what a number of people came for. Assassin's Creed as a franchise lives and dies on its settings. (I covered a lot of that this week already.) So how does Egypt stack up? Is it all deserts and oases, as far as the eye can see?
I'm glad to say it stacks up pretty well.
In my earlier article on the best Assassin's Creed settings, I stated that a great setting comes down to novelty and variety. Give the player interesting things to see and make sure that your setting isn't completely one note.
For the first hours of Assassin's Creed Origins, the game will ease you in with what you expect when you think of "Egypt": roving desert dunes and the oasis-bound town of Siwa. That extends to the small town of Yamu in the Lake Mareotis region. And that's where Origins begins to open up. To the north is the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great and standing as the strong hallmark of Greek civilization. To the east of the great city it opens up into the estates and stables of Kanopos Nome, where horses roam and crowds gather at the Hippodrome for chariot races. Farther east, the land gives way to swamps and marshes, with the waterbound city of Heraklion.
Down south, the waterways give way to desert as you wander in the looming shadow of the Great Pyramids of Giza. The water returns to the southwest, as the Egyptian city of Memphis sits on the Nile, reeds flowing softly in its canals and the gladiators fighting in the arena. The Black Desert is all dark, foreboding mountains, while the Green Mountains are lush and full of life. To the far Northwest sits Alexandria's opposite number Cyrene, a city controlled by Roman forces amidst some of the region's greenest, rolling landscapes. Hell, if you take a look in the alleys and slums of each city, you find areas given over to logical pursuits, like tanning in Memphis or the creation of dyes in Herakleion. Yes, there's a lot of desert, but Ubisoft offers a ton of variety and many of the areas feel unique and distinct. The geographical contrast is amazing.
Origins carries forward some of Black Flag's issues, in that there aren't always big bustling cities to traverse, but it one ups that game by offering more memorable cities. It's less vertical than entries like Syndicate or Unity, but it has greater heights and stronger historical landmarks than Black Flag did. The Pyramids, the Great Sphinx, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, The Tomb of Alexander, The Royal Library, The Temple of Zeus, and more. There's two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in here and you can climb them!
It's an amazing world to explore and there's a ton of it. There are 34 regions in total across the entire map of Assassin's Creed Origins. You will directly cross 21 regions during the main campaign (which took me around 30 hours), though the last four of those I sprinted across to finish the game. Now, of those 34 regions, two of them are featureless oceans and five are mostly empty flavors of desert, leaving you with a total of 27 populated regions to wander about. Don't ever say Ubisoft didn't give you something to do.
And all of this is rendered in loving quality. I played through the entire game on the Xbox One X and it looks stunning, with amazing vistas spreading out in front of Bayek. I'm currently playing through the game again on PlayStation 4 Pro and it's still a winner. (Yes, it's good enough to play again.) Textures are crisp and the image quality is superb. The draw distance could be a bit better at times, as the game hazes on far distances. (Sooner on the Pro than the Xbox One X in my estimation.) There's also noticeable pop-in on the more lush regions of the game, probably because Ubisoft prized flowing grass and shrubs over everything else. Framerate feels solid most of the time, thought you'll have to wait for Digital Foundry's take on the matter. If you're picking this up on PC and you have the rig to support it, you'll be treated to 4K resolution support and 60 fps.
The game feels pretty polished too. I ran into some physics bugs here and there—one time I hit a guy so hard he went flying—but nothing too egregious on either Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro.
Assassin's Creed Origins is continued improvement for the series. Unity was a misstep, but Syndicate recovered from that and Origins stands as an improvement. There are still a few issues here and there: combat is better, but could stand for some tightening and assassination needs a dedicated, consistent button. But overall, this is a very good game and stands near the top of the series. Bayek's story is an excellent one and as a soft reboot for the franchise, Origins does its job. I'm looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
Assassin's Creed returns with an entry that moves the series forward, but also goes back to the beginning of the Brotherhood. This new entry is a bit more of an action RPG, telling the story of how Bayek of Siwa becomes the first Assassin alongside a number of intriguing side quests. Combat is overhauled, but it's still a bit muddy when fighting multiple enemies. What absolutely does work is the world itself; Egypt is beautiful and the diversity in the environments is impressive. I'm unsure if Assassin's Creed Origins will convert anyone who isn't already a fan of the series, but it does what it does well enough to join the top of the franchise.