With the Assassin’s Creed series only truly absent in 2016 (both 2014’s Unity and 2015’s Syndicate were variations on a familiar formula produced by different development teams), it’s easy to forget that Assassin’s Creed: Origins has been in development for four years. Even by the standards of modern AAA games, that’s a long time, enough to fundamentally reinvent the series, enough to iterate and iterate, enough to make something really special. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Ubisoft Montreal have done, Origins is superb; the series’ classic gameplay has been blended with new systems and mechanics to produce an engrossing, satisfying and deep action-RPG whose world lives, breathes and reacts in ways never before seen in an Assassin’s Creed game.
The traditional touchstones of the franchise are still there – you’ll still be clambering up walls, hiding in bushes and dispatching foes with your hidden blade – but the whole framework is more reminiscent of an orthodox RPG, with levelling, skill trees, onscreen damage pop ups, and, most importantly, a quest system. Yes, at long last, that whole ‘stray from this area and you’ll fail the mission’ thing has been consigned to the dustbin of outdated game design and you can now, shock horror, take on multiple quests at once. Of course, other games realised this years ago, but it’s still one of the most striking things about this new Assassin’s Creed and vital to the sense of freedom that defines Origins. Personally, it brought to mind The Witcher 3, with your quest log dotted with various invitations/pleas from friends, family and pretty much anyone who’s found themselves in a bit of a bind, along with a suggested level for that quest. Just like in CD Projekt Red’s sprawling epic, you find yourself cast in the role of unofficial protector of the citizenry with Bayek, the hero of Origins, one of the few surviving Medjay, an early Egyptian informal police force that protected the Pharaoh’s lands. Your mission to exact revenge on the shadowy forces that were responsible for the murder of your son is therefore interrupted by dealing with bandits, retrieving stolen horses, rescuing kidnapped farmers etc., all of which gives you XP for that all important skill tree.
That skill tree is now divided into three branches, allowing you to truly customise your playstyle (another first for an Assassin’s Creed game). The Hunter path focuses on your bow and your hidden blade, with highlights including controlling arrows in mid-air and aiming while you are airborne, triggering a few seconds of slow motion for Robin Hood-style death from above. The Seer path, on the other hand, is all about being cunning and unpredictable, you’ll get sleep darts, poison and, eventually, the ability to tame wild animals and have them fight alongside you. And finally, there’s the warrior path, for those who’ve fallen in love with the all-new combat system.
Yes, that’s right, Assassin’s Creed finally has a new combat system, sending the QTE-like ‘hold block and then press attack’ rubbish from previous games in the series to the scrapheap. The new system is seemingly inspired by Dark Souls, with R1 triggering light attacks and R2 being used for heavy attacks. Blocking is done by holding L1, while square will dodge incoming attacks. Once you’ve unlocked the ability, a tap of circle will allow you to parry attacks, although this is a tricky move to master, and you may end up just relying on dodges (I certainly did). Fighting well builds up adrenaline for a special move called an Overpower attack; pressing R1 and R2 together will produce a lunging blow that’s a one-hit kill on most enemies. In practice, this system works beautifully, it captures both the dynamism and brutality of ancient combat, and there’s a real heft to your blows. The blood is also a highlight, the sight of Bayek drenched in the red stuff from head to toe is striking and really brings home the true nature of the violent wilderness. The combat system becomes even more satisfying if you unlock the Warrior path upgrades, with your efforts enabling aerial attacks, the ability to carry multiple weapons and, my favourite, a Far Cry-esque addition to your Overpower attack that lets you take out another enemy by throwing the weapon from the guy you just killed.
While we’re talking about weapons, it should be noted that for the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game, different weapon classes actually make a difference to the game. The series has had different weapon classes for a long time, but it always felt like a surface level change; the animations would be different, but there was no real distinction between playing with an axe or a dagger. Here, there is, twin daggers will allow you quickly make mincemeat out of anyone who comes near you but struggle against armoured opponents, who are much more troubled by the slow but powerful swings of a brutal battle axe. There are also great big clubs, a variety of swords and spears, all of which have their own advantages and weaknesses against different types of enemies. In another first for the series, these weapons now have levels, and you can upgrade your weapon to your current level at the local blacksmiths (for a fee, of course). These upgrades are massively useful but don’t seem to have any narrative justification, you simply pay your money and ‘hey, presto’, your sword is better, complete with a magical sound effect. It’s a minor quibble, but some attempt to root this process in the game world would have been nice.
All these mechanical improvements are vital, but the reason that Origins really works is because its open world nails the elusive holy grail for videogame sandboxes: It feels alive. In urban areas like Alexandria, the streets are thronged with people going about their daily lives, with mounted soldiers regularly patrolling to keep everything in order. In the swamps, deserts, mountains and cliffs that make up the rest of the massive game world, the animal kingdom takes over, with crocodiles, snakes, lions, leopards, hyenas, vultures, flamingos, deer and hippos all featuring. Moreover, these animals are not mere window dressings but formidable threats in their own right that will challenge you if you stray into their areas. They also have lives independent of Bayek and, thrillingly, I once stumbled across a pack of lions fighting a bunch of crocodiles for territorial supremacy. Killing animals feeds into the game’s crafting system, with the hunting mechanics even allowing you to shoot birds out of the sky.
Speaking of birds, you now have your own feathered friend, with Bayek constantly accompanied by his eagle, Senu (stay still and he’ll even fly to Bayek and perch on his arm). His primary role is aerial reconnaissance, with cynics suggesting that he’s basically just an avian version of the drone from Watch Dogs 2. Mechanically, that may be true, but he’s nevertheless a fantastic addition to Origins; flying up high really shows off the scope and scale of the game world, and tagging enemies to reveal their level and have their outlines show up back on the ground is invaluable for stealth. Get the relevant upgrade and you can also assign Senu to harass enemies, perfect if you need to creep past enemies unannounced. This is also a passive ability, so if you get in a fight with a bunch of bandits, Senu will swoop down and automatically give you a hand.
Visually, Origins impresses, the world is large and meticulously detailed, although it does sometimes feel like a little bit of the polish has been taken off as a result of the increased scope. Every so often though, there will be a stunning moment begging to be captured in the new photo mode: The way Bayek’s torch lights up the inside of a pyramid, the afternoon sun casting low shadows on the outskirts of Alexandria, or the way a boat cuts through the water and the sunlight casts gentle reflections on the rolling waves. Going underwater is also beautiful, shoals of fish swim around in the murky depths, and panning the camera around shows rays of sunlight piercing the water, a truly stunning sight. The game also features a proper day/night cycle which, as well as changing the look of Origins (warm yellows and greens giving way to dark blues and greys softly illuminated in the moonlight) has a real impact on gameplay; some characters only appear at night, and infiltrating a camp after the sun has set may well give you an easier path to victory with only a few guards on duty and the rest slumbering, waiting for your hidden blade to effortlessly make their sleep eternal.
The story will be a familiar one to fans of the franchise (it’s hard to remember the last Assassin’s Creed game that wasn’t about revenge and didn’t feature some variation of the line ‘there is so much you are yet to understand’), with Bayek’s search for the people who murdered his son leading him to uncover a vast conspiracy involving a secret cabal called the Order of the Ancients, the members of which effectively rule Egypt and are called things like The Snake and The Jackal. Importantly, Bayek himself is a likeable character, his lighter side showed off in cutscenes that explore his loving relationship with his wife Aya and an early quest that has you play hide and seek with a friend’s children. Aya is an important character in her own right, you often work alongside her and, through the Animus, the game delves into her memories to fill in blanks in the story. Gradually, more fantasy elements are introduced, with the game playing on Egyptian mythology to produce supernatural foes, and while Origins doesn’t seem as stuffed with historical figures as previous Assassin’s Creed games, Cleopatra does play a pivotal role. Generally, the game is well written and well acted, even if the actual narrative feels like a continuation rather than a revolution.
Like all the best open world games though, there’s plenty to distract you from that main quest, with the XP system ensuring that none of it feels pointless. As well as orthodox side quests (which span everything from investigating ritual murders to finding missing loved ones), the map is peppered with alluring question marks, whose purposes you’ll only discover once you arrive. Many will be enemy camps and you’ll need to slip in, kill everyone and find the treasure hidden within (this treasure generally consisting of a high-level weapon or shield), activity that sounds mundane but which is actually tremendous fun, especially given the variety of combat options at your disposal. There are also special locations that feature elite animal opponents that can be killed for extra XP, stone circles where Bayek aligns constellations in the night sky in order to fulfil a long ago promise to his dead son, viewpoints that increase Senu’s range, underwater wrecks, and opportunities to avenge the deaths of other players. Oh, and as you’re in Alexandria, you might as well have a bash at this whole chariot racing thing in order to live out those dormant Ben-Hur fantasies.
The best diversion though is tomb raiding, Bayek pulling out his trusty wooden torch and venturing into caves and inside pyramids, negotiating caverns and hidden passages in search of ancient stone tablets that give you extra ability points. These locations drip with atmosphere, the soft glow of the torch lighting your way as you venture further and further in, scanning your surroundings for a hidden doorway or ledge. Gradually, claustrophobia starts to creep in, and it’s a genuine relief once you find your way out back into the open air.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins does have some niggles that prevent it from reaching truly elite status: Not all quests are preceded by proper cutscenes, and some of the quest design can feel a bit formulaic, for example. Nevertheless, it’s a truly special game, a bold reinvention of a previously stagnant series that combines an intriguing narrative with finely engineered mechanics that remain satisfying after hours of play, and a dynamic, detailed game world that you won’t want to leave. Most importantly, it lives up to the hype, with Ubisoft Montreal managing to both preserve the soul of classic Assassin’s Creed games and produce something new and exciting, giving Ubisoft’s flagship franchise the shot in the arm it desperately needed.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 27th October 2017