Alright let’s just cut to the chase here: Assassin’s Creed Origins is excellent. It is, without a shadow of doubt, the best game in the series to be released in years, and sits quite happily alongside Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as the top three games in the franchise. If you’re a fan of Ubisoft’s biggest brand, or if you’ve skipped the last three or four entries, then I can wholeheartedly recommend you pick this up. It turns out that Ubisoft’s decision to scrap their annual Assassin’s Creed release schedule was an excellent one, because the extended development time for Origins has paid off.
There are a number of reasons that Origins is an excellent game, but I do wonder how it would fare if it were critiqued in a vacuum. It’s inevitable that sequels are judged by the titles that came before, and for the last three years or so the Assassin’s Creed franchise has had more lows than highs. With that in mind, it seems that any step forward in Origins would be exemplified by the fact that the last few games have been rubbish. Well, almost rubbish; Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was pretty good, but that was entirely thanks to lead protagonist Evie Frye who I still might be a little bit in love with. Origin’s Bayek is, however, refreshing and oddly believable in terms of his motivations and honesty.
Bayek is a Medjay – a warrior tasked with protecting the pharaohs and people of Egypt; historically they were a kind of paramilitary police force, but they’re painted as being far more noble in Origins. Unfortunately for Bayek he’s the last Medjay in Egypt, as the Ptolemy dynasty had begun phasing them out. What’s important, however, is that Bayek is not an Assassin; but hey the game’s subtitle is “Origins” so that should tell you all you need to know – nudge-nudge-wink-wink. What starts out as your clichéd, revenge-fuelled plotline soon becomes far more interesting as back-story elaborates (the opening sequences of the game play with the timeline) and more characters are introduced. Joining Bayek on his revenge mission is his wife, Aya. She’s awesome. They’re both awesome actually, and their relationship is wildly passionate and entertaining to watch unfurl as the game progresses.
Assassin’s Creed Origins feels quite different to previous titles, and this palpable sense of deliberately breaking with franchise traditions pervades most of the experience. There are still Assassin’s Creed staple mechanics in Origins: you’ll still climb viewpoints and Leap of Faith off them; you’ll still have a familiar set of weapons and tools at your disposal; and you’ll still be performing a number of targeted murders to progress the story. What’s more interesting, however, are the mechanics Ubisoft has allowed to overflow from other games in their stable. There is quite a lot of Far Cry to be seen peeking out from underneath sand dunes and camel humps. For a start, you get a pet eagle who you can take control of to scout locations and tag enemies; it functions much like the owl in the excellent Far Cry Primal. Another Primal element that’s borrowed is that you can tame wild animals in Origins to take into enemy encounters with you. Collecting wood, pelts, and other odds and ends is how you upgrade your equipment, so much like in Far Cry you’ll spend quite a bit of time hunting animals in order to improve items. Skill unlocks based on three different disciplines? Yep, that’s in Origins as well. Basically, a lot of what made Far Cry 3 et al’s open worlds so much fun, has now spilled across into Assassin’s Creed Origins, and I’m quite happy about that. The other thing worth acknowledging is that this isn’t a simple copy-paste development tactic; some of the Far Cry mechanics that make it across are improved upon and actually fit a lot better with Origins. For example: there is no mini map on the HUD in Origins, so if you want a quick means of checking if you’re heading in the right direction, you need to use your eagle to survey your surroundings. It sort of reminded me of the physical map mechanic in Far Cry 2, in that you’re utilising an in-game element (you eagle in this case) to fulfil a role that’s ordinarily taken by a dull old HUD overlay.
Ubisoft Montreal has doubled-down on their open world approach to Origins. Emergent gameplay happens quite frequently, and there are lots of little hidden details and opportunities to keep yourself well and truly side-tracked for hours. At one point I started a gameplay session and promised myself I’d stick to the main quests, but ended up killing about three hours mucking around the Great Pyramid of Giza doing all sorts or activities and side quests. It is so easy to get distracted in Origins, and for me that’s one of the most important aspects of a good open world experience. The extra gameplay content outside of the main story missions is (even by Assassin’s Creed standards) enormous. There is so much to do in Origins, and what’s even better is that most of this extra content is actually fun and coaxes you to explore the colossal game world. And I mean colossal; Origins must have the largest open world to explore out of all the games in the franchise.
Structured side quests are a little hit and miss. On occasion they can be brief affairs that are altogether forgotten moments after completion; but they can also be detailed, meandering moments of gameplay that are genuinely gripping. What might start out as a simple side quest to aid a Greek geographer in finding his stolen notes, soon turns into an elaborate experience with varied gameplay mechanics, multiple locations and numerous characters. The paint-by-numbers side distractions of previous Assassin’s Creed entries are considerably toned down in Origins, only to be replaced by mostly meaty side quests that offer much more in terms of world detailing and character development. It’s a welcome change and one that the franchise should’ve embraced four or five years ago.
One of the biggest issues with earlier Assassin’s Creed titles was the combat system. Combat never got unanimous praise in any of the previous releases; it was either too easy, too monotonous, or a combination of both. Origins’ combat is a step in the right direction for the franchise and has eschewed the Batman Arkham style of lock-on-block-counter combat system for something that’s more akin to a third-person action brawler. It’s less sticky, and more fluid in its approach. It’s also a lot harder than any other Assassin’s Creed title, and I found myself having to actually do some planning before running headlong into enemy encounters. You can (and will) underestimate even the most basic of enemy types.
A whole host of weapon types, including four different types of bows, round off the combat mechanics rather nicely. Weapons and shields have different rarity levels, and the rarer Legendary items include bonus abilities like “health on kill” or “poison on hit”. It’s pretty standard RPG stuff, but it’s also something that’s not often associated with Assassin’s Creed. The result is that I actually looked forward to looting a treasure chest in a tomb in case I found a new Legendary weapon.
On a technical level Assassin’s Creed Origins has some shortcomings. NPC and animal animations are incredibly stiff and wooden; Bayek’s horse is particularly bad as are the birds that flap around the skies like animatronic monstrosities. On one occasion I found a flamingo flying around underwater as I explored a sunken ship, but a lot of this can be forgiven by the fact that there are cats to be found all over. Some neat programming ensures that kitties want to hang out with you, which can result in some hilarious situations, as I had three cats rush to be loved just as I was impaling an enemy with a spear.
Sadly, the present-day rubbish makes a return, which means you’re periodically pulled out of the well-crafted open world fun times and forced to play through a meta-narrative that’s just so dull by now that for the life of me I cannot understand why Ubisoft insists on shoe-horning it in. Luckily these present-day distractions aren’t particularly long so you’re back in Bayek’s shoes rather quickly.