All my memories of the Assassin's Creed series over the years have been the same. Me as some hooded figure, running across rooftops. Sometimes I'd dive off to slide a blade into some dude's neck or leap into a bail of hay. Rooftops are integral to assassinhood, apparently, because they give you a higher vantage point, an all-seeing eye. That's prime for assassinating people, is basically what the design philosophy boils down to.
Ubisoft's emphasis on rooftops is clearly what once set Assassin's Creed apart from other open world games, besides all of its historical settings. Where open worlds are commonly traversed on the ground with the people, Assassin's Creed put you up high—and you were more powerful for it. We see this in our daily lives too to an intimidating degree, gazing at penthouse suites in ritzy hotels to hillside mansions in Los Angeles. We see this in other video games, with the rich living in luxury above the poor in the literal tiered city of Jirga Para Lhao in Gravity Rush 2. In Assassin's Creed, rooftops were your power above others, even if you were a vigilante effectively fighting against the establishment, no matter the time period you trotted across.
Rooftops were your passages through towns and cities, not alleyways and streets. Effectively, the roofs were your ground; your routes to new areas. The roofs were where you belonged, and this detail communicated that you were decidedly not common folk—you were an assassin, bearing blades in your sleeves and a big hood. Until Assassin's Creed Origins came along.
Assassin's Creed Origins, veering on the promised path of redefining the franchise after a one-year break, changes focus. Instead of being on rooftops above the average person, you're often down below with them. You're riding camels across vast, mostly empty deserts. You're helping local residents of towns find lost books and other things in tucked away shops and residential alleys. You feel like one of the people as you're playing as an accessible hero ready to bend to the needs of others. This is the territory that comes with being a Medjay, a dutiful errand runner for the common folk; or, Egypt's own version of a Witcher, seemingly.
We learn the occupation of Medjays though are something of a relic of a lost time, once from the old Nubian order (not of the current Ptolemaic rule), and Origins' hero Bayek is the last in a long line of them. Bayek is basically a Medjay for all of Egypt now, formerly resigned to only the city of Siwa. As per the job description and widened catch-all scope, he's an errand-running fiend who never gets a break. His wife Aya even jokes about it sometimes. Poor guy must be very sleepy at this rate.
Origins wouldn't feel as fresh as it does if it still relegated Bayek to mostly rooftops though. By keeping his feet on the ground alongside the general public, Bayek isn't some high and mighty, uppity assassin. And it fills everything else about his characterization too: he doesn't speak in sarcasm, like past Assassin's Creed protagonists. He doesn't speak entirely dourly either. He conveys a mixture of attitudes; annoyance, wiseness, joy, snarkiness, but above all else he's fair, as his role as a Medjay for all Egypt should be. Bayek's humanistic approach to being a Medjay feels real. He's not doing this because it's his job; he's doing it because he wants to help people.
Contrary to past Assassin's Creed protagonists, he's more so like one of the common folk than ever before, or at least, he cares about the average neighbor. He plays with local children with a solemn smile, as if the memory of his dead son is always at the forefront of his mind. He helps out locals—Egyptians, Romans, whoever else—without question to any of them. He wants everyone to feel at peace across all of Egypt, and he'll do his utmost to aid where he's needed, even if it distracts from his long and exhausting race for revenge for his son's death.
If Bayek were always on rooftops, this richness would be led astray. Bayek would feel separated from the common people. He'd feel superhuman, even pompous. As the lone Medjay, he's already something of the former. Yet by relegating Bayek's feet back to the ground, the latter is narrowly avoided. In waltzing across a fastly-changing Egypt that's steeped in conflict, Origins paints the most intricate world the series has had to offer. To get there, rooftop traversal necessity was the right route to rethink.
As someone who's bounced off nearly Assassin's Creed game I've ever played, Origins has held my attention for dozens of hours. It still suffers from all the problems the series has always had, ranging from Animus nonsense to Assassin lore drudgery. The game forces in a new Destiny-like loot system that's tedious above all else. You still climb up the biggest towers around to do grand Leaps of Faith into piles of hay or leaves. While I may be alone in wishing for an Assassin's Creed game without all the Assassin's Creed bullshit, Origins still feels like the closest the series has come to that ideal. It's the series' first true attempt to shed its old image, even if it's still held back in many ways by it too.
It's the more human, not purely heroic, perspective that makes Bayek shine through. He's truly a man of the people with a good heart, and a conflicted relationship with his wife as her political awakening drives a wedge into their relationship throughout the game. The game gives us an Assassin's Creed that dares to not make a historical time period just a playground; instead, Origins' envisioning of Egypt in turmoil gives us more to care earnestly about if nothing else. It's decidedly not a playground—if you hurt a citizen by purpose or accident a warning flashes on screen about how a Medjay's job is to protect the people—which is a risky change for the series.
In our freelance contributor Reid McCarter's own write-up about the historical context of Egypt at the start of its once-constant bouts of colonization, he writes, "The existence of a great kingdom so culturally, economically, and politically rich fading away is a solid choice of background for a game about the nature of authoritarian power—always the series' favorite theme." There are many eras Ubisoft could have turned to in their story based in Egypt, and yet, they turned their sights to one of the saddest: an Egypt that was losing itself.
Bayek knows this, and he vows to put an end to it as best he can. Or at the very least, he hopes to keep it in check for the short time he walks the Earth. It all accounts to how in Origins, Assassin's Creed at last teaches players that power doesn't have to come from high places like villainous rulers who live in luxury or in battling against them from the tops of buildings. Sometimes power comes from the people weathering the worst of it all; the people that hold out hope for a better future, even if it's for a lifetime.
And it all started with taking the dude off rooftops for a change.