On this, the tenth anniversary of Assassin’s Creed, it’s time to shake it up. After giving the franchise a short rest after Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Ubisoft Montreal brings players back into the world of assassins in a game that doesn’t rewrite the fiction but rather change how the game is played.
Origins wastes no time in getting into the thick of things. King Ptolemy XIII reigns as the pharaoh of Egypt after deposing his sister, Cleopatra. As the country braces for civil war, a single man is set events in motion that will have far-reaching consequences. Bayek is a Medjay, a sort of paramilitary peacekeeper whose idyllic life is turned upside down. A fateful encounter with a shadowy cabal ends in tragedy (as it often does with these games), causing he and his wife Aya to launch a clandestine killing spree in the name of revenge. Bayek’s campaign in Egypt is closely monitored by Layla Hassan, an Abstergo Industries employee and present day descendant of Bayek. Bayek and Aya’s quest eventually leads them to uncover a plot greater than themselves, setting the stage for the creation of the Assassin Brotherhood. Assassin’s Creed Origins is rooted in fan service, and those who have been following the series for the past ten years will nod appreciatively as concepts and practices seen in the 2007 game are introduced here in neat and clever ways.
Ubisoft Montreal’s two year break from the franchise created a game that’s altogether different from the Assassin’s Creed “norm.” Origins has less in common with entries like Black Flag, Syndicate, and the Ezio trilogy, and instead bears a strong resemblance to The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn where the player has free reign over a massive open world environment filled with quests, equipment crafting, loot, and people (and animals) to kill. The chapter-based narrative of old is replaced with a quest log that tracks missions offered to you by hapless citizens, esteemed politicians, and famous figures from the history books. In a further departure from previous games, the missions you’ll complete do not involve eavesdropping, following people around, or researching assassination targets before taking them out. Like the games Origins emulates, missions fall within the scope of talking to an NPC, going to a specified area, defeat enemies, collect an item or person of interest, resolve the conflict, and then return to the quest giver for a reward.
Performing assassinations is one thing the game is still really good at doing only this time, the player has to put a little more work into stalking their prey. Because there is no minimap that tracks enemy movement and placement, Bayek must rely on Senu, his eye in the sky. His pet hawk offers a literal bird’s eye view of the area, allowing you to tag enemies and items of interest (such as treasure and crafting materials). Senu proves himself useful in other ways, such as swooping down to stun enemies and take out small animals. Only by tagging people through your boon companion (or your bow and arrow if you’ve got a clear view) will enemies be easier to spot because of a white outline that can be seen through walls. All that’s left to do at this point is to sneak up behind people and kill them with a silent hidden blade takedown. It’s important to know that Senu does have his limitations. He can only spot targets out in the open and while he can help scan for the location of treasure chests from the outside of a building, he is unable to tag people he can’t see. This makes sneaking around indoor structures a little tense because, unless you’re careful, it’s easy to turn a corner and walk directly in front of a soldier.
If you are detected, there’s a brief moment of time to take them out before they’ll attack or run off to call for reinforcements. If you can kill them before they cause a ruckus, then no one will be the wiser. If you fail to do so, running away to hide is an option and so is standing your ground. Combat has never been Assassin’s Creed strongest suit and Origins is no different. Each game has tried to do something different yet none of them really managed to make the practice of swinging a sword around particularly fun. Origins streamlines it a little but not enough to change the world. Bayek uses a light and strong attack and can block some hits with a shield or dodge out of the way to safety. Holding down either attack button launches Overpower which nearly doubles the strength of the hit and can cause a shield break. Every successful hit adds Adrenaline which can be used to unleash a devastating, weapon-specific power move. All in all, combat feels is functional though I feel it lacks nuance and isn’t particularly engaging.
When it comes to fighting, I honestly feel as if the odds are stacked mostly in your favor. Bayek has access to an astounding number of weapons and weapon types that can be purchased from vendors, crafted from raw materials, or looted off corpses. Many weapons come with passive perks that increase the rate of critical hits or improve range accuracy and inflict negative effects such as bleeding and poison. In one of the oddest design implementations in Origins is the wholesale copy of Destiny’s loot and equipment mechanics (right down to the stupid mouse cursor and “hold down the button for three seconds to confirm your selection”). Bayek has slots for swords, costumes, mounts, shields, and bows and knowing what to equip at any given time is largely a numbers game. Gear is based on numerical and color-coded values (blue is common, gold is uncommon, purple is some variant on rare or legendary). Loot drops at a pretty fast clip so, just like Destiny, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’ll never use most of the equipment you get because it’s either not better than what’s currently equipped or you like using a particular set of swords, bows, and shields.
Killing enemies rewards experience points, as does discovering map locations, completing quests, and exploring tombs. Basically, if you can interact with something chances are you’ll get experience points for doing so. These points play into a level based progression system that affects which quests you can safely complete, what equipment you can use, and how easy or difficult enemies are in a fight. The levels prescribed to missions and targets aren’t particularly strict. As long as you’re a level or two away from the recommended number, you’ll be fine. When Bayek earns enough experience to level up, he gets an Ability point to spend on a skill tree that’s divided into three major disciplines. Only by investing in Bayek’s abilities will he learn passive and active combat techniques, acquire helpful tools like smoke bombs and sleeping darts, advance bow and arrow tricks, vendor boons, and methods to boost a number of experience points earned.
When not imparting brutal vengeance against those who wronged you, Egypt offers a considerable number of diversions to wile away the time. There are enemy camps to raid, Ptolemy statues to destroy, chariot races to compete in (either in tournaments or against friends), animals to hunt, treasure to find, and so much more. At one point in the game, you’ll be able to play as Aya who runs naval missions in and around the Aegean Sea. Ship combat plays pretty much the same as it did in Black Flag, in which you steer a vessel over rocky waters attacking enemy ships or protecting allies. Ship-to-ship combat was one of my favorite things to do in Black Flag, so I’m thrilled to see it come back. All in all, Origins is certainly not wanting for content.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a really beautiful game. I’m playing on a regular PlayStation 4 and while I can imagine how gorgeous it would look on a Pro, rest assured that it’s a stunner no matter what console you own. The bright hot sun causes bodies of water to glitter like gold as merchant ships pass through lakes and along the Nile River. Egypt, though a desert climate, is covered in beautiful pockets of lush green vegetation and palm trees. Famous landmarks, such as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza, are great to experience. As a librarian, getting a chance to walk through the hallowed halls of the Great Library of Alexandria, a monument to human knowledge that was destroyed in 48 BC, was something that I got really excited about. Origins is brimming with history that, surprisingly, doesn’t get called out with as much frequency as the other games did. Layla does have an unseen handler that speaks to her over a radio and there’s a ton of email to read on her computer that provides backstory (and, believe it or not, makes the Assassin’s Creed movie canon), but there’s no in-game encyclopedia that details the historical significance of notable notables. Knowing the rich history of ancient Egypt isn’t necessary to play the game (though it helps) however, I really miss Sean’s sarcastic musings on famous people and places.
Pretty though the game is, it’s not immune from classic open world jank. NPCs, though often discreet as they mill about the streets bartering with vendors or carrying on conversations, are not immune to jarring animations, breaking through textures, and stuttering as they try to reach their mark. This happened a few times during missions which made my heart jump into my throat out of fear of replaying the entire quest all over again (thankfully such problems always resolved themselves). If you don’t stop and smell the flowers while Bayek or mission critical figures speak inwardly or to each other, the audio will abruptly cut out in favor of the next piece of dialog or audio cue. Although I experienced and witnessed these issues several times, they were few and far between and, to be completely honest, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before with other Assassin’s Creed games. The quest system works well enough even if it’s non-linear nature makes it really easy to break narratives, especially for those quests with multiple threads.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is representative of Ubisoft Montreal taking a good, long look at the franchise and mixing things up. By moving the game away from its unique structure and into something within Grand Theft Auto and Horizon’s sphere of influence, it succeeds in upsetting the apple cart. The thing is, though, I found myself missing all the weird quirks that were indicative of an Assassin’s Creed adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that I don’t have to wear out my controller’s R2 button anytime I wanted to run or climb (which is, like, 95% of the game). I suppose when you’ve stuck with something for so long, it is going to take some time to adjust. Assassin’s Creed Origins loses out on what made the series oddly charming however, I applaud the studio for trying something different and building an incredibly meaty and gorgeous action adventure title that’ll keep me busy through the rest of the year.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.