When it was announced that Assassin’s Creed was taking 2016 off to combat “franchise fatigue”, I didn’t really see the point. I consider AC Syndicate up there as one of my favourite games of all time, and the Assassin’s Creed series as my favourite gaming property. I didn’t think it needed a year off, when Syndicate was such a strong comeback after the less-than-brilliant Unity.
But here we are, two years later, with Assassin’s Creed Origins. The product of an extra year off, I’m happily eating my words. This is a fantastically expansive, detailed comeback for the series, even if it could’ve done with celebrating its own past a little bit more.
Origins follows Bayek of Siwa, an Egyptian Medjay (basically proto-Police) in 49 BCE on a revenge rampage following the murder of his son. Along the way he becomes embroiled in conspiracies and power plays much bigger than him, causing him to question his traditional way of life. As far as Assassin’s Creed stories go, this is certainly up there as one of the better ones. By going right back to the birth of the Brotherhood, it tells a story that doesn’t immediately follow the usual template of “young guy is wronged and is adopted by a family of Assassins”.
Bayek is a fascinating lead – a man caught between his Egyptian heritage and doing the right thing by the newly-arrived Greek and Roman peoples. He’s an intense, but also immensely likable figure that can easily stand alongside the likes of Ezio Auditore and Edward Kenway. That becomes especially true when paired up with his equally-stabby wife Aya – who, let’s be honest, could’ve easily been the main player character. It’s not very often you see genuinely loving couples as the leads of a game, and every time they’re together it is a delight.
It’s not very often you see genuinely loving couples as the leads of a game.
A combination of high-quality graphics and a huge world full of stunning vistas make it one of the most visually arresting games I’ve ever played. Watching the sun set over the pyramids, exploring the rivers of Memphis, or sailing down the Nile on a raft, Origins is a buffet of gorgeous sights that, even dozens of hours in, never fails to impress. I’m sure there are other games that have higher levels of technical fidelity, with DirectX 16 and AA x256 or whatever, but I am absolutely confident in saying this is one of the best-looking games available at the moment regardless.
Origins does away with the single-city structure of Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate, and instead gives us an entire country. This is by far the single biggest map in the series, and can easily compare with the worlds of current open-world frontrunners The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto V. The settlements themselves are, barring the sprawl of Alexandria, less dense, seeing as this is set 1000 years before even the very first game. But that’s made up for by the vast rural landscapes on offer, complete with forests, caves, farmlands, shipwrecks, deserts, and mountains all ripe for exploring. In a lot of ways it feels like a return to Assassin’s Creed 3’s mix of smaller colonial settlements and a vast frontier environment, except Origins does all of it an order of magnitude bigger.
It even does away with the crowd-stealth mechanic
Even if the result is the impossibly huge natural landscapes we got in return, I don’t know if I’m entirely onboard with the shift away from a single, complex city. I thought both Unity and Syndicate’s dedication to the hustle and bustle of crowds was the most memorable thing about them, and Origins has gone the opposite direction. The biggest of cities are nowhere near as populated, to the extent that even the crowd-stealth mechanic that’s been part of the series since Assassin’s Creed 2 has been ditched. It’s a difficult change to get used to, as social stealth was one of the core tenants of the series, and one that I’ve still not quite come to grips with. It makes Origins feel a bit less Assassin’s Creedy in a bizarre way.
To accommodate this huge world, the colour-coded ‘eagle vision’ has been replaced with uh… literal Eagle vision. An actual eagle companion called Senu. Anybody familiar with Far Cry Primal’s owl ally mechanic will be immediately at home with Senu: she soars over the environment, calling out enemies, items and undiscovered locations for Bayek, as well as providing support by harassing enemies. As there is no limit other than map restrictions for how far she can stray from Bayek, Senu is a godsend for getting to grips with the vast world. However, she is overused in missions to the extent of being repetitive; almost every single one prompts you to use eagle vision to find a target at one point or another. A better compromise would’ve been a mixture of the colour-coding of previous games for scouting out missions, and relegating Senu to an exploratory and support role instead.
Another system that’s been gutted out after years of being the main event is the parkour. It’s still there, sort of – you can scale buildings and mountains with ease, for example. But the fluidity of hopping through a busy street, or through a forest, have taken a major backseat to horses and vehicles. The quality-of-life improvements made since Black Flag, such as vaulting straight over low fences, and the “parkour down” descending system from Unity onwards, are also weirdly absent. The result is that Bayek feels a lot less refined in his movement, even compared to the likes of Connor, who was specifically animated to feel more brutal in his movement than aristocratic Ezio. Bayek has a habit of not climbing up things that should be climable, and scaling down walls has become overly difficult and fiddly once again. While every other significant change Origins makes can be justified in one way or another, the parkour’s streamlining feels like a major stumble.
Combat has been transformed into a system focused on one-on-one fights that require environmental awareness and observation of the enemy’s behaviour in a much more nuanced way than the Arkham-style counter-fest Assassins have used previously. Experimentation and personalisation are at the heart of Origins’ combat. Bayek’s arsenal is magnitudes bigger than any other lead, with Swords, sickles, polearms, staves, hammers, axes, dual-swords and bare-knuckles are all fair game. Each significantly changes his moveset, offering differences in hitting power, speed, status effects, and finishing moves.
At first glance it’s easy to say Assassin’s Creed has gone Dark Souls, but in practice that’s not true. The combat is harder than before, certainly, but Bayek still almost always feels like the strongest person in the fight, dealing status effects and taking down most enemies with ease. The new system really comes into its own against stronger enemies, as having to learn their moves and weaknesses makes them an actual threat, as opposed to another mindless grunt that needs a slightly different approach to the rest, such as the armoured enemies in Assassin’s Creed 2.
The new system really comes into its own against stronger enemies, as having to learn their moves and weaknesses makes them an actual threat
The combat isn’t the only thing that has been RPG-ified. The series has been slowly progressing into more stat-based roleplaying for years now, starting way back with Brotherhood, but Origins feels like the process is complete. Gear, crafting, levelling, skill points, and side-quests are all significant parts of the game, and have a much bigger impact on Baytek’s progression through Egypt than any of the series’ previous flirtations with them. Areas even a couple of levels higher than you are serious challenges, while returning to previous haunts hammers home how far you’ve come. I’d never really appreciated how much I wanted Assassin’s Creed to be an RPG before, but now that we’re finally here, it’d feel weird for it not to be.
You always know the journey it sends you on will be worthwhile
Another RPG mainstay, side-quests, were in Unity and Syndicate, and they were great – full of character, memorable, but maybe slightly janky mechanically at times. Origins goes one step further with these by making freaking hundreds of them spread throughout Egypt, each fully-voiced, multi-staged and promising lucrative rewards. It’s almost overwhelming how often the game throws another needy citizen to your feet, begging for help, but you always know the journey it sends you on will be worthwhile.
Origins by no means perfect, particularly in its iffy movement systems and overreliance on the new Eagle companion. But by taking a year off a brutal annual release schedule, Ubisoft has given us a huge, polished, well-written game that successfully reworks and pushes Assassin’s Creed forward in ways I didn’t even realise were necessary. Assassin’s Creed Origins is the best the series has ever been by a long shot, and I sincerely hope it’s only onwards and upwards from here.
A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Platform: PC [Reviewed]/Xbox One/PlayStation 4
Developer/Publisher: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft
Release date: October 27, 2017
- The open world is mindbogglingly big.
- Combat is complex.
- RPG elements fit nicely into more traditional AC mechanics.
- The parkour system is a step back from Unity and Syndicate.
- The new eagle vision is repetitive.
- Urban areas feel slightly sparse.
The most radical departure the Assassin’s Creed series has ever had, it’s Pharaoh to say Origins is also by far the best one to date. If you’re after a ludicrously big, detailed, gorgeous world, look no further.