Among those of my friends that play games, many are exhausted with Assassin’s Creed. It’s hard not to blame them. We had a new entry in the series – sometimes two! – almost every year for the past decade. The original Assassin’s Creed hit exactly 10 years ago, almost down to the day, and we have at somewhere between eight and 11 mainline entries in the series, depending on how hard you squint when you count. The number climbs as you include smaller sidescrollers and mobile games.
After Syndicate, Ubisoft’s team had a big task ahead of them: make a decade-old formula feel fresh again. For 2016, the team took a year off the release cycle, letting a movie and a compilation do the work of keeping the series in our minds. This year, though, Assassin’s Creed is back with Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that takes the series back further than it’s ever been and makes it feel fresh in the process.
While Assassin’s Creed has mostly moved forward from its beginnings in the late 12th century, Origins takes things back. Way back. Origins lands us around the year 43BC when the Pharaoh Ptolemy XIV was a figurehead for control of Egypt by the Greek empire, just a couple decades before conquest by the Roman empire. It’s a world ancient to us, but filled with things ancient even to those that live in it. Hieroglyphs found in tombs haven’t been seen with human eyes for centuries, and are mostly unreadable to modern people, including our protagonist.
I like this guy
That brings me to one of the first things that makes Origins such a standout from recent entries in the series.
Our protagonist, Bayek, certainly grows as we move through the story of Origins, but we begin his story as an adult. He’s a married man, a father, and has a career as a Medjay – serving something like the purpose of U.S. Marshalls in America’s expansion period. A sort of roaming lawman, if you will. He’s not without tragedy, though, and that drives him and the story forward.
As he meets the game’s many characters, though, he becomes multidimensional in ways that few others have. He’s a serious man, but he’s capable of humor, too. He loves kids, and responds to even strangers’ kids as if they were family. He’s driven by a need for revenge, but he isn’t unable to love, and he’s not without feeling.
I was eager to learn more about him almost from the beginning, and never felt like I was in a spot where I wasn’t having fun playing as him. It’s a nice change from the snoozefest that was Unity‘s Arno or the frustrating jerk I remember Black Flag‘s Edward Kenway being.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bayek’s wife, Aya, a woman as badass and dangerous as her husband. Where he’s a protector, she’s more of a political character, but I have no doubt she’d be equally dangerous in a fight. I can’t wait for the inevitable Aya-centric DLC that lets us explore the world as her. In conjunction with Bayek, the two make one of gaming’s best married couples in a long time. They’ve been through a lot together, but both feel strong, together or separate. The love between them is convincing and entertaining. When I would see Aya, I felt the same kind of excitement as Bayek.
The best part of Origins, though, is its open world. It’s not just Assassin’s Creed‘s best open world, but one of my favorites in recent years, standing well alongside games like Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn.
The world of ACO is, simply put, stunning. Ancient Egypt gives Assassin’s Creed its most colorful world in a long time, and one of the most varied. There are massive bodies of water and wide, murky rivers, as well as cities far too big to explore completely and huge, impressive deserts. There murky swamps, and high-topped rocky cliffs to climb. All of this is rendered in the best possible light, especially on the Xbox One X where I spent the majority of my time with the game.
While I’ve enjoyed the combat, characters, and quests in the game, exploring and existing in the world of Assassin’s Creed has been the best part. Those quests are simply a guided tour of the semi-fictional world of the game, a way to get you to see as many parts of the world as possible.
While exploring, I’ll often see a cliff face and think, I’d love to see what the land looks like from up there. Or I’ll see what looks like the entrance to a tomb and find myself curious about what’s inside. The reward, in that sense, has been worth the time investment every time. Each tomb feels a bit different, and is filled with artifacts of ages past. That I’m a huge nerd for ancient Egyptian stuff doesn’t hurt – everywhere I go in Origins, I feel like I’m simultaneously a tourist and a part of history, even if just a fictional one. Simply watching this exhaustively researched, meticulously designed representation of an ancient civilization was a blast.
Even up against excellent games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed Origins stands up well, offering more exploration than any other game can really muster.
What am I doing here?
The quests in Origins, especially the side quests, are better this time around, too. At the base level, they’re still pretty in-line with the general Assassin’s Creed formula, often having you go from place to place and stabbing ancient jerks, but it seems like the team took a page from CD Projekt Red and the Witcher 3. Quests feel like they have a purpose.
Even if they don’t touch the main story, the characters involved in the main story often have touched the lives of these minor characters. You might meet someone who is being harassed by the villain you’re currently after, or who has lost something to them. It keeps them from feeling random, and ensures they stay somewhat meaningful.
Further, a lot of the more annoying elements of Assassin’s Creed have been dropped here. When there is a chase, it’s often simple and won’t have you accidentally parkour-ing up buildings you mean to run past or getting stuck on NPCs and having to restart. I haven’t once had to follow people in stealth mode and listen into their conversations in Origins – that’s something that I liked the concept of in past Assassin’s Creed titles, but never enjoyed the execution of.
The recent trend toward investigative quests is present, too, but it’s less about actually investigating and more about finding the hovering Eye of Horus symbol that indicates there’s a clue. These elements are pretty primitive, and something I’d like to see Ubisoft delve deeper into. They help establish Bayek as the Medjay he is in terms of story, but don’t bring much to the table mechanically.
In a way, Assassin’s Creed Origins reminds me somewhat of 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V. The whole game world is dotted with all these small opportunities to engage with the game mechanics, in a way you see fit. There are often a few different ways to approach a one of the Synchronization Points.
The countless military outposts throughout the world can be tackled directly, or through some alternate entrance, and you can hit them with stealth, a head-on attack, or use things like caged animals and oil jars placed precariously near open flames to your advantage. These are all optional, with small rewards for taking them down. They often take just a minute to get to, and a few minutes to take down, resulting in some experience and a new weapon that might be better than what you already have.
Perhaps the most obvious changes to the Creed formula have come to the combat and movement mechanics.
Navigating the world of Assassin’s Creed Origins is less formulaic and prescribed than ever, and that’s mostly to its benefit. Bayek is easily the most mobile assassin yet. He can climb walls and swim underwater with equal proficiency, and there’s no limit to the opportunities to do both. Unlike Black Flag, you can swim anywhere you please. And the opportunities to climb aren’t limited to the many monolithic structures of Memphis, Alexandria, and other cities. The cliffs are equally scalable, much as with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And in all this, Bayek’s movement has been massively simplified. Holding down the left thumbstick will get you running, and adding the climb button to that will get you clambering
Ubisoft saw fit to add mounts as a game feature this time around, too. While this isn’t technically the first time an assassin has hopped onto horseback, you can ride your horse or camel just about anywhere, including through narrow alleyways if for some reason that’s a thing you want to do.
The combat, too, has changed significantly. Enough so that it might put some Assassin’s Creed die-hards off the game, even. Where combat in the previous Assassin’s Creed games felt like a rhythm game with each enemy waiting in their square for you to match their rhythm and dance with them, Origins feels more like traditional video game combat.
The heavy and light attacks have been relocated to the right shoulder and trigger buttons, while dodging and parrying are on the face buttons, suggesting a bit of inspiration from Dark Souls. When you engage in combat with multiple enemies, placement starts to matter. If you’re in range of archers, they’ll take aim at you and lodge a couple arrows in your back while you wait patiently for your close-range opponent to strike. If you rage your way into a battle, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Going in with guard up, though, shows a somewhat deeper fighting system that lets you fight both with and against melee and ranged attacks in tandem.
This is definitely still an Assassn’s Creed game, though. Sometimes you’ll end up running up a building you didn’t mean to or dropping into an enemy camp without warning. If you land hard next to some people, someone might gasp and suggest you have the soul of a baboon. You’ll still jump off one or two Synch Points wrong and end up flattened on the rocks below instead of landing into a fluffy bed of palm fronds.
The story, though, is perhaps the most Assassin’s Creed element of the game. The game retains its legacy as a historical stabbing simulator, letting you jut in and out of historical events and situations, interacting with mostly-believable figures like Cleopatra VII. The story is one of revenge and gets complex pretty quickly blurring the line between mystery and chaos. It’s clean enough to keep the game moving. Without an excellent character like Bayek keeping the story moored to earth, though, I could see the story going off the rails.
I played Origins primarily on the Xbox One X. Based on analysis from outfits like Digital Foundry, the One X seems to be the best place to play the game. My experience is limited to the One and One X, so I can’t speak to PlayStation 4 performance, but I can say that it looks significantly better and feels smoother on Xbox One X. And, unlike so many other recent games, it keeps its installation size pretty svelte at less than 45GB. That’s in comparison to Gears of War 4‘s 105GB. In comparison to Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which wasn’t built to play at nearly as high resolutions, it’s only a few gigs bigger. Kudos to Ubisoft for trying to avoid destroying our monthly bandwidth caps. I’m looking at you, Forza 7, Gears 4, and Quantum Break.
Let’s stop for a second and talk about microtransactions.
They’re in there. If the simple presence is enough to put you off, then you’ve been warned. But in truth, Ubisoft did a much better job with them than many other games I’ve played lately. They’re in a separate menu that, while easy to pull up accidentally early on, isn’t something you’re going to go to on purpose for the most part. All the in-game credits are in-game credits, and never once did I feel like the game was suggesting that I might have 20 percent more fun if only I’d just spend $3.99. It’s there if you want it, but it’s not invasive, and it doesn’t feel like the game was built around trying to cash me out.
The Assassin is Back
Indeed, the extra year between Syndicate and Origins did a world of good. I feel refreshed from my break from the series, and the series feels itself refreshed. The open world is more open than ever, and packed with stuff to explore. The new photo mode makes me feel like a time-traveling tourist, and I’m sure to end up using some of these gorgeous, 4K images as desktop wallpaper. I still have world left to cover, and I’m looking forward to hopping back into the game.
Even if you’ve been away from the series for years, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a great jumping-on point. Much of what made the game frustrating before – annoying missions, packed cities with unrealistic and invasive gating, clunky combat, and annoying characters – are nowhere to be found. In their place we have the most explorable, most dynamic world yet in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Disclaimer: We reviewed the game with a code provided by the publisher and played through the campaign as well as a large portion of side quests and side activities before reviewing the game. The game was played primarily on an Xbox One X connected to a Samsung KS8000 4K display.