The Assassin’s Creed franchise has recently celebrated its tenth anniversary and the newest addition to its ranks is certainly a far cry from the game that started it all ten long years ago.
Gone are the pointless in world collectibles and closed off segmented cities with endless loading screens. Instead we have a rich, living and breathing open world that is diverse and is filled with interesting locations for the player to discover.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, there are a few crocodiles hiding in the shallow waters.
Setting, Story, and Character
The latest entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise at last takes us to a location that many fans have been asking for years. Ancient Egypt, or to be more precise the Ptolemaic Egyptian Kingdom of 49-47 BC. Egypt only a few decades before it ceased being a kingdom in its own right and became a Roman Imperial province.
A land in the midst of a civil war between its ruling Pharaoh, Ptolemy XIII and the pretender Cleopatra VII (the royal family wasn’t exactly inventive when it came to naming their kids). The current ruling dynasty was established by one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, Ptolemy of Lagus, and as such the upper and ruling class of the land are mostly Greek.
The Greek and Egyptian cultures clash all through the game and are at a boiling point because along with the animosity brought on by the civil war, there is also a lot of class and ethnic tension between lower class Egyptian and upper class Greek citizens of the Kingdom.
This tense historical period is well portrayed though the game and it is reflected in the worlds building architecture, NPC behaviour and interaction as well story told through main and side missions. Perhaps unsurprisingly the main story which starts off as a quest for personal revenge quickly entwines with the political intrigue of the land.
While some small parts of the main story can feel somewhat lacking and rushed, especially towards the end (something that in my opinion has been a problem of the franchise and Ubisoft in general for a very long time), it does for the most part hold up and is probably one of the more interesting tales told in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Any failings on the part of the main story are undeniably extinguished by a myriad of top quality side quests, which are one of the big new additions to this open world. The writing for the majority of these is excellent, so they provide a pleasant distraction while you are exploring the vast world of Origins.
While some of quests are related to the main classical target assassination missions, many more are completely independent and give the world a lot of character and backstory. There are also repeatable daily missions that tie into the new gear system, about which I will talk below.
And so it is in this world that we meet our new protagonist and soon to be assassin. His name is Bayek of Siwa, and until very recently he lived a quiet life as the protector of his town situated in the Siwa Oasis, home to the famous Oracle of Amun who centuries before proclaimed that Alexander the Great was of divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt (this surprisingly coincides with Alexander marching thousands of armed men through the region).
Bayek’s backstory is a good fit for a would be assassin and adventurer. As a Medjay, a sheriff like role that technically hasn’t existed in Egypt since long before Alexander’s conquest, he has been trained with the sword, spear and bow since childhood. In addition to that he supposedly spent a lot of his childhood climbing in the nearby canyons and cliffs, so all in all he is well suited to be the “founder” of the brotherhood and the creed.
Siwa Oasis is a beautiful a beautiful place. Situated in a desert valley with an impressive old Temple of the Oracle overlooking the oasis with a enormous lake in the middle. Bayek’s home is beautiful and peaceful. That is until the Pharaoh and the secretive Order of the Ancients (precursors to the Templar Order and Abstergo) visit it and change Bayek’s life from that day on.
Vengeance and grief are what drive our newest protagonist. These things are what turn him into an assassin. No other words show this better than the ones he utters in the opening sequence:
“Sleep? I never sleep. I just wait. In the shadows. And I will kill you all. Everyone who sniffed the air that day in Siwa.”
Bayek’s is a tragic tale, and one that I feel Ubisoft managed to tell very well. It is believable and relatable. His anger, passion and drive are understandable. He is a character that was shaped into a deadly killer by the unfortunate circumstances of his life and the Order. And while he is merciless when it comes to the Order and anyone who helps them, he is still very much a kind man. His pent-up anger and grief do not prevent him from helping others who need his help. Through the story you see him meet and help people from all sorts of different walks of life, and his interactions with them feel natural and genuine. Not in small part due to the excellent voice acting of Abubakar Salim. Bayek’s makes for a compelling and likeable protagonist, and in my opinion he is one of the best, if not the best protagonists to date.
Where do you even begin the conversation about how different the gameplay feels in this game? There are so many new elements in this game, but I guess I have to start somewhere. Let’s begin with world itself.
World Exploration and Navigation
Gone are the endless animus loading screens and with the exception of a few “indoor” locations the world is now completely open. Rocky hills and marshlands full of wild animals and vegetation around the Mediterranean and the Nile, vast desert in the soft-west. Greek, Egyptian and Roman cities, anything from the smallest village to to a massive metropolis of Alexandria.
This entire world is open to you after the first act and you can explore it all, albeit carefully because with the introduction of the new RPG elements and leveling system some parts of the world will have enemies that are simply unbeatable at low level. The map is chock full of things for you to do and discover, and yet perhaps due to its size it doesn’t feel as cluttered with stuff as the previous installments did.
While you’re playing it is easy to notice similarities between this game and Witcher 3. Ubisoft have clearly taken a page out of the CD Projekt Red’s book, but not in a bad completely ripping them off way. Rather they saw what a good open world game can be and borrowed some of the Witcher’s mechanics when it comes to exploration, the map and general feel of a world being “alive” without trying to be obnoxiously so. More Witcher 3 and less Watchdogs.
Speaking of world exploration. The world draws you in with its attraction and beauty, so much so that sometimes I just found myself slowly wondering about staring at the environment and taking it all in. But, while the world is vast, it is surprisingly easy to navigate. You have a myriad of options in how you want to traverse this landscape, whether it’s by foot, mount or boat. All of these work almost flawlessly and are a pure joy to use.
The entirety of the map can be scaled by foot. Bayek always runs at full speed so you never have to hold additional buttons just to run. He automatically navigates over and under barriers, jumps up and down onto ledges, trees and ropes, as well as any surface that would not cause fall damage if you jump to it (if it does then you can manually jump there with a press of a button). He has no trouble navigating the highest canyon wall or the tightest caves.
Living in a town next to a massive lake seems to have done wonders for his stamina and swimming ability. Bayek has a tremendous set of lungs on him, which can be further improved with one of the skills, because he has no trouble diving to the lake/sea floor in search of sunken booty or to avoid being spotted by patrolling enemies.
Swimming and sailing has never been easier, the Mediterranean and the Nile are teeming with boats. Not to the absurd levels that the Thames was in the Syndicate, so you can’t actually just run from ship to ship over the Nile. But if you ever find yourself swimming around with no boat in sight, have no fear, there always seems to be a helpful Egyptian fisherman that tries to save you from drowning even if it means ramming into you with his boat at full speed.
And then there are of course mounts. These come in three flavours: horses, camels and chariots. Well, maybe four if you count the unicorn…. There are many different mounts that you can buy, but with the exception of the ability to ram people with your chariot there is no difference between them other than the way they look. All of them have Witcher style auto navigation, so if you can either just make the mount follow the road or go to a point you marked on a map. This feature comes in very handy when you want to give your thumbs a rest or even if you just want to look around while your personal chauffeur horse takes you to your destination.
Interface, Inventory, and Gear
User interfaces can make or break games, there is no denying that. Clunky, unintuitive interface makes people dislike a game or even quit it altogether. After all, the majority of us play games to enjoy ourselves, no one wants to be frustrated and distracted with by a feature in what otherwise might be an perfect experience.
Luckily, Origins has a user interface that puts other games in the series to shame. On screen interface is minimal and no longer holds your hand with pop ups or magical animus sat nav. It is limited to the quest objective (if you are tracking a quest, which can be turned off), a simple compass that only shows directions and points of interest within 400-500 meters, and that is it. Weapon and tools interface only shows up when you are switching between weapons, which is as simple pressing either left or right on the d-pad. Intuitive, elegant and as easy as pie.
The in game menus are also very straight forward. You have a screen for your Targets (members of the Order who you are hunting for), a quest log where you can switch between quests on the fly (there is only one part of the main story in the game where you cannot do any other quests but you can come back to them after you finish it), your Gear screen where you can customize your loadout, as well as a Map and Inventory screens.
The inventory screen is probably one of the best I have seen in modern games. It is made up of grids that are categorized and have a predetermined amount of cells that fit the screen, but if you collect more items than can fit into the grid it simply expands and adds scroll bars to each category individually. It feels extremely polished and simple.
The Gear section allows you to swap and equip weapons, costumes, mounts and tools so you can be ready for whatever Origins throws at you. And if you invest ability points into specific skills, you can equip two bows, two melee weapons and tools such as poison/sleep darts or firebombs. In addition to that you always have a shield equipped when using melee weapons. This is an excellent choice on Ubisoft’s part, you can no longer deflect arrows with your weapon like some sort of superhuman and instead you have to depend on the more realistic protection of a shield. That is as long as the enemies don’t shoot you in the ass or knee.
With the addition of the RPG elements such as levels and skills into the game, all gear now has a level (usually whatever level you got it at) and a rarity. The rarity system works not unlike Destiny, where you have Normal (Blue), Rare (Purple), and Legendary (Gold) items. The rarity doesn’t necessarily mean that the piece of gear is better, but it is a good indicator that it can have additional perks attached to it’s stats. And after all, who doesn’t like flaming swords or bows that poison every arrow you shoot?
All things considered, gear and loadout customization are at an all time high. You can choose between several different weapons types, each with it’s unique combat animation, feel and stats. I’d even go so far as to say that there is a weapon type and style for pretty much every gamer here, whether they are a veteran RPG player or not. And if you don’t believe me, look no further than the predator drone…cough…. I mean bow, that lets you control the arrow mid flight so you can shoot enemies that you don’t even have a direct line of sight on.
Combat and Stealth
It wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game if you couldn’t brutally massacre a city size garrison full of guards with ease or sneak into a restricted location while in full view of everyone around you. Right?
Well, yes of course it wouldn’t. But also not so much anymore. Combat has been completely changed. You can no longer parry and block without taking a beating while waiting for the prompt to one hit kill enemy after enemy. The combat in Origins is more like Dark Souls than any other game in the series before it. It can be smooth and elegant if executed well, but more likely than not you will get your ass handed to you if you are not careful.
You are no longer the king of this jungle. Enemies don’t wait around to strike at you one by one, while you stab their dear friend of twenty years to death. No, sir. Instead they surround you and attack together as a coordinated force, they chase you and they sure as hell shoot you full of arrows if you aren’t careful. All these changes make for an exciting and unique combat experience that can be beautiful but messy at the same time.
You can fight on land, on water and on horseback, but so can your enemies. And since this is the ancient world and bullets or missiles have not been invented yet, fire rules over all. With the right tools anything can burn anything you can think of; ground, grass, tents, water, boats and ships. Even poor Egyptian horses can burn with their riders on them. It’s quite a sight to behold when horses panic and run around an enemy camp completely ablaze. In the words of a ancient world equivalent of Bill Kilgore:
“I love the smell of Greek fire in the morning!”
You can do all that and have a great time while murdering your way through Egypt. Or you you could use the stealth mechanics which have undergone a small revamp from the previous games, but are still very familiar to fans of the franchise. While they aren’t as refined or drastically changed as combat, they are still better than anything we had before.
You can sneak at will and in combination with a somewhat forgiving detection mechanic and enemy AI, you can infiltrate most places with ease. And when I say ease, I really mean it. With the exception of some high level military citadels most camps are really relaxed, with guards going about their daily duties whilst also socializing with other guards, taking naps, eating or following the call of nature.
All NPCs have daily routines (there is a full day night cycle in the game) and behave differently based on the time of day. Since most of the military encampments a situated the next to towns, they have non-hostile NPCs going in and out of the camps bringing in supplies and other services. The NPC routines and habits can be exploited and with a bit of patience and creativity you can find many ways to get into a place you aren’t meant to be in. And even if you do get spotted you still have a decent amount of time to kill the person who discovered you before they alert the enemies nearby.
Both combat and stealth are enjoyable, and once you get the hang of them are very intuitive. You can walk through a group of enemies masterfully execute them one after another, John Wick style, or you could get to your target like Agent 47 and assassinate them without anyone noticing anything wrong until you are long gone.
Ahh, visuals. You keep hearing people say that they are not that important, not as much as story or gameplay. And yet modern games cannot get away with having bad visual, not in a AAA games anyway.
Well, the good new is that Origins definitely delivers on the visuals. It is absolutely stunning. Light, water, vegetation, all of these look amazing. The game world is extremely detailed and yet the textures are of an excellent sharp quality throughout the game. The game has good draw distance and performs well on PS4 Pro, without any noticeable framerate drops even in graphically intense areas.
It is remarkable how beautiful a sandstorm over a desert or an underground tomb can be when great textures, particle mechanics and lighting are combined together. The graphics really make this world come to life. And the excellent addition of a Photo mode allow you to capture the magic of this world and share it with your friends.
The one complaint I do have about the visuals is facial animations, for the most part they are great but they don’t appear to be as well done as they were in Syndicate. NPCs can appear a bit rubbery and unnatural, nothing on the levels of Mass Effect Andromeda, but still noticeable.
I have experienced occasional texture popping after a long game session but other than that visual bug are very minimal.
Perhaps my favourite part of an Assassin’s Creed game or any game for that matter. Voice acting, world sounds and OST are very important to make a game world immersive and engaging.
And Origins certainly does not disappoint. As always the soundtrack in this franchise is top notch, with the music adding to the world immersion rather than distracting you from it. Voice acting is excellent, NPCs and the main character speak with “regional” accents and portray emotions very well. They fit their surroundings and the world at large.
Sound effects everywhere in the world are also a pleasure to listen to. Whether it’s the sound of the sand on the wind, cities noises, birds singing or water running. They fit in well and don’t overwhelm your senses.
As you can probably tell, I loved this game. It is refreshing, interesting and engaging. It is enjoyable to play and doesn’t stress you out. Ubisoft did a great job with the world, characters, gameplay and story. If I had to rate my experience of this game I would rate it at 9/10, a very solid game that is enjoyable from start to finish and after 50 hours still feels fresh.
That is as long as you ignore that which must not be talked about, the modern day Templar and Assassins shenanigans as well as precursor civilization lore. I’m not sure why they still insist on including that part of the world in the game, because it is simply not going anywhere and takes away from an otherwise superb experience.
Hello darkness, my old friend. Microtransactions have come again.
Microtransactions. The scourge of the modern gaming industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly they exist in this game and can help you progress through the game faster or just add additional customization. But luckily they are are not intrusive and are completely unnecessary to complete or enjoy the game.