The OG Assassin:
For the longest time – seven years to be exact – Assassin’s Creed was an annual thing. Launching a mainline entry, sometimes two, every year will tax any series, but Assassin’s Creed continued to deliver classic after occasionally buggy classic despite it all – so I was especially eager to see what the team could do with two years and twice the development time.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is the result of all that hard work, and what a result it is.
Origins is, appropriately, the genesis of everything, telling the story of the start of the Assassin’s themselves. In a refreshing narrative turn, however, the game opens in the middle, with our Egyptian protagonist Bayek already dagger-deep in his first kill.
Bayek is a Medjay – an elite protector of the people and something of a local hero in Siwa, where the game begins – but soon realizes Egypt is being poisoned from the inside by corruption. After an early tragedy that we’re shown via some smart flashbacks (meaning we’re allowed to be vengeful and stabby right from the get-go) Bayek writes a list and starts killing his way down it. It’s as good a reason to play as any, but Origins offers plenty of great story threads – anchored by excellent writing and characters – to make sure you’re hooked throughout.
As always, Origins is full of Assassin’s Creed-styled caricatures of history’s most famous faces of the time, including a baller Cleopatra that I fell in love with pretty quickly. It’s the original characters that steal the show, however, with Bayek instantly becoming one of my favourite assassins to date thanks to his winning smile and good natured demeanour, despite all his hardships. His wife, Aya, might be Creed’s best female character yet, who is ruthless and loveable in equal measure, and a true badass.
Despite taking some serious liberties with the whos, wheres and whens of ancient Egypt, Origins paints a comprehensive and compelling world that I desperately wanted to explore and discover. Ubisoft’s passion for worldbuilding is on display here in full force and their rendition of Egypt is one of their best yet – though many of the side quests and the NPCs they’re peopled with are a little lame compared to the stuff you’ll find on the critical path.
Assassin’s Creed storylines have always been strong, jumping from one interesting historic period to another and set in diverse locales. What hasn’t remained so fresh as the series has progressed has been its gameplay, and indeed it’s in the climbing and stabbing loop that I really began to feel the Creed fatigue set in during past instalments. Thankfully, Origins has used its two year dev cycle not only to give us all some extra time away from these staples but to really shake them up in constantly surprising ways, and it’s where the game wildly sets itself apart from everything that has come before.
At first blush Origins presents itself as any other Creed game, but once you peek beneath the hood you’ll realize it’s anything but. Gone is the Batman-styled combat that defined (and, in my opinion, plagued) the series since inception, the stealth mechanics have evolved to something a lot more fluid and forgiving, and you may go hours without ever feeling the need to climb to an arbitrary peak and synchronize with the map to discover side activities. In my playthrough discovering content, progressing the story and exploring the ridiculously vast map was a particularly freeform and organic experience, and I never ran into invisible walls or had my exploration stunted because I hadn’t completed a certain amount of missions.
Almost all of these paradigm shifts are tied intrinsically to one core mechanic that Origin introduces: a level-up system. It could have easily been the title’s Achilles heel and potentially ruined all the great work that’s been achieved elsewhere, but a deeper commitment to what were previously RPG-lite mechanics is a rousing success. Gaining experience for kills, exploration and successful espionage drives the ‘one-more-mission’ addiction that quickly sets in when starting your journey, married beautifully with Ubisoft’s classic overabundance of map markers. Short, succinct side-missions, bandit camps to overthrow or new zones to discover boast generous EXP gains that might just be enough to hit that tantalizing level up.
Levelling up allows for new abilities to be unlocked in an instantly satisfying skill tree and an arbitrary power bump that means activities that may have felt impossible an hour ago are now itching to be overcome – especially if your fancy new level allows you to use a legendary loot drop you weren’t able to equip previously. Yes, loot drops – ordered by rarity and level, of course – are also a new inclusion in Origins, and the effect this has on the gameplay loop is nothing short of revolutionary in getting you to keep playing in the hopes of a gold axe or rare shield haemorrhaging out of your latest assassination. Ubisoft haven’t just doubled-down on number-driven progression, they’ve bet the farm on it and come up winners.
None of these systems are new to gaming – though they’re all new to Creed – but Origins has meshed them together in such a way that I constantly found myself at 3AM this week working through another enemy camp in the hopes of a level so that I could equip a new drop to make me powerful enough to tackle a tough mission that would, in turn, beget more epic loot. It’s a dangerous combination and in Origins it’s a finely tuned beast – and that’s got to be applauded.
These new elements also mean that Assassin’s Creed is free to drop the aging Arkham combat in favour of Souls-like sword-and-board mob combat, dictated largely by how big your numbers are in comparison to your enemy’s numbers. This might seem reductive, but it’s also a little more reliant on skill and less on the reflexes of attacks and counters that anchored previous titles and dragged each fight into a boring rhythm game. In previous titles, if I borked a stealth section I’d either have to suffer through an entire camp taking patient turns trying to kill me or die on purpose to restart the checkpoint. Now, each fumbled espionage section breeds tense moments of damage mitigation, killing off the witnesses in fast, fun combat before returning to the shadows (or, in Egypt’s case, convenient and ever present waist-high foliage) Even camp-wide alerts were fun, as long as I was appropriately levelled. Numbers funnel you from appropriate area to appropriate area, shaping your gameplay without ever physically barring you from content. You can try and sneak into a camp made up of enemies so high-levelled and expertly geared that they simply appear as skulls, but you’d be a fool to. Still, it’s nice to know the option is there.
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