The latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise is one of making amends for the past mistakes and setting straight a loose gameplay by redefining it as a sum of all its good elements. This is a bold move that broke the yearly release cycle and brought us one of the better games in the series.
The story of Assassin’s Creed: Origins takes place in Egypt during the last days of the Ptolemaic Dynasty at the conquering hands of the Roman Empire. Bayek of Siwa, a medjay, and through extension his wife, Aya, seek vengeance for the death of their son, Khemu. But in their quest to cut off the head of the snake responsible for their loss, the two find themselves in the middle of a much more sinister plot borderline on the supernatural. The snake they sought turned out to be a hydra and Bayek has to travel Egypt long and wide removing one head after another, fighting the Order of the Ancients whose firm grip holds the power from within the shadows.
As with all the Assassin’s Creed games I played, the narrative alternates between past and present, with the latter being pretty insignificant and serving more as a tool if not an unnecessary distraction. The two protagonists share the same initial goals, but not the same amount of screen time. While Aya has her own story arcs and plenty of interventions, Bayek stands at the center of the game with his duty-fueled quest that’s setting up the foundation for the Creed.
The story is a blend of history and fiction following a path of retribution through a land ravaged by corruption and on the brink of war. The events mirror reality with the civil struggle between Cleopatra and her brother or the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. The outcomes however play into the game’s alternate history with the rising of the Creed being the defining variable. The game takes inspiration from what should be one of the narrative golden standards in recent times, The Witcher 3. And because of that, unlike most Ubisoft games, Origins’ narrative is extensive, reaching outside the main plot to create a setting that’s reflecting of the game’s story. Side quests pave the way for the storytelling, depicting the state of Egypt through the eyes of the people inhabiting it. However, the writing isn’t exactly at the level of a good RPG and while the story did exceed my expectations, Origins often falls short in its attempt to be something more. The biggest issues stem from a discrepancy between action and narrative, the former often moving at a higher speed while the latter lags behind. This constant haste takes the focus away from most characters creating a medium where only the two protagonists matter, which in return leads to narrative sequences that have little meaning from the player’s perspective. These issues culminate in an ending that feels forced down the story’s throat just to lead to the point everyone was anticipating.
I have my grief with Origins’ story, mostly because there was so much unexploited potential. But I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed the time spent as Bayek of Siwa, a character which is surprisingly likeable despite being so simplistic. While Origins’ storytelling has some very tangible problems, I think it is a big step in the right direction showcasing the raw narrative potential of this series.
Ancient Egypt is a perfect setting for a game of this caliber, a world long gone full of unresolved mysteries and wonders. The overreaching yellow vastness of the desert makes you look for the horizon where fata morgana deceitfully awaits. World wonders stand tall against the test of time, chasing the horizons with their grandeur, signaling humanity’s victory over the desert. Cities and settlements raise their shadows as an escape from the scorching nothingness. Inside, the architectural work is constantly shifting, mirroring a cultural unrest that’s been the cause of conflict for centuries. The cities of Egypt are a focal point, cradles of civilization where countless NPCs move in a synchronized manner to the world, mimicking life itself.
The world is vibrant and never runs out of marvels to show. The Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and the Lighthouse of Alexandria being just a few edifices that make this game feel like a trip back in time. The effort put into world design and the attention to details are just stunning and were striking to me after just a few minutes into the game. This setting serves as a platform for an improved gameplay that’s still suffering from the unresolved problems of an open world design.
Egypt is plagued with activities that take away much of the incentive for exploration when knowing that the valuable items are encased within marked areas on the map. The activities are as trivial as expected, content meant to fill the map with something to do. Killing garrison commanders, looting all the chests in an area, finding scrolls, etc. are some of the repetitive tasks found in most provinces. However, in contrast to Ubisoft’s lineup of singleplayer games, Origins does try to even things out. There are plenty of meaningful quests which follow a set story chaining through multiple objectives and sometimes even following up with new objectives. The gameplay elements required are limited, but the way these quests engage the player with the world and the narrative is what sets Origins apart from its predecessors. I think we have to be thankful again for The Witcher 3’s success which made it such an influential game within the AAA scene. It’s such a shame that so much visual attention has been put into designing these quests to lead the players into solving them just to be ruined by a constant handholding.
While somewhat optional, the guiding systems lure players into using them through a constant textual harassment which often repeats the beginner’s guidelines as well as forcing the usage of Senu. Senu is Bayek’s eagle, a drone of ancient times providing vision through his eyes, spotting points of interest and of course, marking targets. I felt that all these guidance elements are out of place, creating a conflict between the world’s remarkable design and how some of the gameplay components fit into it.
However, even with all these questionable mechanics in place, Origins can be a pretty damn entertaining action game, just not exactly a standard Assassin’s Creed. Long gone are the days when the assassins had to run and hide from alarmed guards. Bayek of Siwa can go head on against his enemies be it armored soldiers, overweight hippos and even war elephants, as long as these enemies don’t outlevel him. The combat system has been revamped for the better, taking inspiration from Dark Souls, but with a streamlined approach that doesn’t require stamina management or an understanding of complex move sets. The combat is focused on timing with dodges and parries working in synchronization with the enemy’s attacks, while finishers add a sense of satisfaction. The melee weapons provide options for multiple play styles. Each weapon type behaves differently and requires a slightly different combat approach. For those bold enough, there is a high risk high reward system provided by cursed weapons which grant extra bonuses at the price of reduced health.
However, Bayek doesn’t have to engage his enemies in close combat. Multiple types of bows designed to fit the role of a modern gun grant a combat superiority hard to match. The limited amount of arrows tempers down Bayek’s sniping capabilities to a degree. But there are plenty of ways to resupply which makes wiping enemy camps rather easy.
If ever in need of more options, a series of tools can be unlocked which can combo for some devastating effects. Explosive bombs, sleeping or poisonous darts are just a few examples of how to take enemies out in a more exotic fashion. If all fails, the mounts or the war chariots can prove quite helpful in combat, pushing, stunning and even trampling enemies to death as Bayek swings or shoots left and right
The combat is versatile and provides many options to push back the monotony of fighting a small variety of enemies over a gigantic map. The few boss battles do manage to shake things up a bit, however, their excessive design uncovers the limitations within the control scheme or the combat system. But fighting in a game about assassins shouldn’t be required and for the most part that’s true as the game provides all the means necessary to stick to the shadows.
Stealth is a matter of tactics and patience. It all starts with picking the right time to be sneaky. Operating at night makes it slightly easier as the number of guards is lower and their visibility is reduced. But a successful stealth operation is easily obtained by combining Senu’s droning capabilities with Bayek’s physical prowess and some of his useful tools. Making good use of the terrain is important, windows can serve as fast getaways while haystacks and cabins provide an absolute concealment. Bayek’s ability to climb on almost every vertical surface means he never has to use a gate. This helps gaining vantage points for quiet approaches while still maintaining a line of sight with the target.
With the ability to keep a constant tap on the enemy through Senu or markers, stealth can turn the game into a trivial experience. Be it sniping from afar or sliding the hidden blade through the enemy’s windpipe, stealth is usually the easier approach. Therefore, I wouldn’t say Origins has a traditional stealth experience. Those looking for a challenge have to take the matters in their own hands and avoid the spoon feeding altogether (a hard thing to do). But don’t despair, the level design is intricate while the tools season the gameplay with their multipurpose uses resulting in a rather satisfying stealth experience within the limits of the AI.
However different Assassin’s Creed Origins tries to be, it still bears some of Ubisoft’s stigmas. I’ve already talked about activities, droning and markers, now it’s time to talk about the progression system.
Origins has its own leveling system meant to enhance Bayek’s combat capabilities as well as provide some gameplay variety. The skills unlocked come in handy, making the life easier in certain situation, sometimes a bit too much. But they often feel like a means of breaking the immersion. A lot of work has been put into making Egypt a marvel of visual and world design just to have it ruined by the existence of guided arrows and on demand slow motion.
With the outfits only playing a visual role, the wild life of Egypt will pay the ultimate price in a monotonous system of upgrading pouches, bracers and quivers. Changing weapons is as trivial an endeavor as any, having the drop intensity of a looting game, diminishing if not entirely killing the whole sense of loot discovery.
I can’t say I was impressed or too hassled by Origins’ progression system. It was there and I made use of it, ignoring what felt to me like unnecessary additions to the game. I fired a guided arrow once for the purpose of this review, so I managed to maintain a better sense of immersion. However, I would have appreciated a better alignment between world and gameplay design, maybe next time (it seems I have some higher hopes for this series now).
The last piece of the gameplay puzzle is probably Origins’ most uninspired design. Despite having a combat with a Souls-like feeling, Origins’ doesn’t even come close to the inspirational material. In order to compensate for a lack of challenge stemming from a low variety of enemies and an underdeveloped AI, the game uses a gating system based on levels. This is a common practice, however, one that has to be applied carefully to an open world environment, something Origins failed to do. The result is a broken gameplay balance by the heavy reliance on levels limiting the freedom. There is no upside for the players, forcing them on predefined paths of progression or risking ruining their own experience through overleveling.
I have to admit that Assassin’s Creed Origins kept surprising me hours into its loopy gameplay riddled with MMO elements. There is an unexpected amount of details that are gradually revealing themselves the more you play. The list is long but I was particularly impressed by Bayek’s limping after taking fall damage, the horse getting stunned when hitting an object or the fact that animals who caught fire run for the water. It’s almost like there are two very different sides to the design of this game, one meant for a wider audience and a more secluded one for those seeking a different experience.
It’s also worth noting that Origins has received a good deal of free content, including a few boss fights and quests. However, Ubisoft’s good PR didn’t make me oblivious to all the microtransactions that plagued this game from day one. But, in all fairness, I wasn’t expecting a miracle and the current business model is better than how I envisioned it.
Origins’ graphics are a blend of fantastic artistic direction and technology to give life to a historical location that we haven’t seen much in video games. From a technical perspective, Origins commits very few sins. The lip sync is poorly executed and visual glitches and muddy looking textures will pop up here and there. However, these problems tend to get lost within the game’s beautiful world.
There is a lot to praise here, starting with an environment capable of turning even the most desolated places into mesmerizing vistas. The desert has this visually induced mythical vibe suitable for the era, hiding between the sand lost memories of an even older time. From within the sea of sand or following the lifeline of the Nile, cities rise, filled with life and architectural beauty, detailed to the smallest wall paintings. There is a focus on visual complexity that expands to everything, hitting a peak with the culturally varied cities of Egypt.
The aquatic sections are no less important than any other segment of this world. The lighting joyfully playing over the waves’ ripple effects transforms every body of water into a visual spectacle. Piercing through the water veil, the light guides the players through an underwater world of breathtaking beauty.
The visual immersion of Origins was second to none in 2017. An exploratory experience enhanced through a focus on world interaction that’s complemented by physics and high quality animations carefully designed for a considerable number of player induced actions.
The Egypt of Assassin’s Creed Origins truly feels like a living world and the developers were aware of their creation. A Photo Mode has been implemented allowing players to immortalize the beauty of this virtual place without the ugly memory of performance problems
The audio design of Origins is a thing of beauty. There is naturalness in every sound that gives the audio component the power to transport the player into the game’s world. You almost feel like running through the hot sands or stepping on the cobble stones of the ancient Egypt. Every slash of the sword, every climbing of ladders, every animal roar, it has all been excellently mastered to provide a quality realistic audio worthy of an AAA. But the trick isn’t only on the quality of the recordings but how they are put into use. The sound in Origins is in a constant change that’s hardly noticeable due to a seamless transitioning that makes the ambient feel simultaneously different and the same. However, where the sound design truly shines is the details. It was an incredibly nice touch to see that covering Bayek’s face with a helmet has an actual impact on his voice.
While the audio design is excellent, the soundtrack is by no means inferior. The music sets the perfect tone for this ancient world; it’s compelling for the setting and all the more immersive. The voice acting however falls behind, not in terms of acting, but rather in pronunciation. Egypt is at the crossroads between three different cultures with as many languages and apparently many more accents. The enunciation feels all over the place and it’s quite amusing to hear the NPCs blubbing out something in Latin. I can’t say I found this issue very annoying, but every now and then a character will sound completely out of place.
Assassin’s Creed Origins game goes slightly out of its comfort zone to deliver a far richer experience that’s taking place in one of the most beautiful open worlds to date. However, old habits die hard. Unnecessary elements expand the gameplay’s life far beyond its prime time mirroring a narrative that’s consistently losing strength. The strong beginning is undone by a weak ending and the journey from one to the other is what each player can make of the game’s elements, good or bad.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is many things. Within the context of its own series is a new path towards a better looking future. Within Ubisoft’s lineup, it is a ray of hope for open world games that aren’t completely devoid of character and content. And within the large world of video games it’s a AAA taking a step into the right direction.
+ A good enough story about the beginnings of the Creed
+ An immense and well designed world
+ Splendid graphics
+ Excellent sound design
+ A keen attention to details
+ Higher quality side content
+ Some aspects of the gameplay have been improved
+ Free content
– The handholding and repetitive activities ruin the sense of exploration
– A linear and not very satisfying progression system
– Poorly executed level gating
– Optimization issues
– Many arcade elements that feel out of place
– Bad lip sync and visual glitches
– The ending is forced and cringy