I’ll be honest, I was a little sceptical when Ubisoft announced that Assassin’s Creed: Origins would be set in Ancient Egypt. I loved the idea of exploring the Ancient world, certainly, and I’m a big fan of the classic myths and legends from that era, but my main sticking point was the seeming lack of verticality. After all, I thought, I’d you tried to do a leap of faith from the top of Cheops’ pyramid, surely you’d just smack into the side halfway down?
There was also a little fear of stagnation. Unity was a shambles and although Syndicate was somewhat enjoyable, Assassin’s Creed is a series that has been spinning its wheels a little in recent times. Would Ubisoft be able to inject some much needed life into a franchise all about death that had slipped into a bit of a torpid funk?
The answer, resoundingly, is yes.
Time-travelling virtual tourism has always been one of the very best aspects of Assassin’s Creed, and Origins delivers one of the very finest game worlds in the series to date. Taking full advantage of the current-gen hardware, Ancient Egypt has been recreated in breathtaking fashion. There is a simple joy in just wandering through this richly detailed, immensely varied landscape. And for all my fears of a lack of things to clamber upon, there are plenty of rooftops to scamper across, monuments to scale, and mountains to navigate. The fertile lands at the edges of the Nile offer up plenty of vegetation to creep through, vast temples and ruins to explore, and there are sunken, forgotten relics beneath the waters themselves waiting to be discovered.
I can fondly recall scampering up minarets in the first game just to check out the view, and Origins has allowed me to rekindle that feeling more so than any game barring Black Flag. It is perhaps telling that, try as I might to scoff a little at it in today’s world of interminable selfies, I found myself taking full advantage of the game’s breadth of photo options, allowing players to take dizzying, dazzling mementos of their journeys. It’s a nice touch as well to be able to scan the enormous world map to see, and vote on, the photographic exploits of others. Given the breadth of opportunity that this land presents, it’s quite nice to be able to see what others are up to, as well as being able to avenge their deaths.
Into this gorgeous world steps Bayek, who is something of an elite sheriff (a Medjay), and his equally capable wife Aya. They suffer a terrible tragedy at the very start of the game that propels them into a journey of violence and vengeance. True to series form, it is a journey that weaves their narrative in with those of historical note, binding them to the stories of characters such as Cleopatra, Apollodorus the Sicilian, Julius Caesar, and Pompey Magnus.
Bayek is pleasant company, which is much more than can be said of most of the protagonists of the Assassin’s Creed series not named Ezio. He’s passionate and caring, he feels genuine empathy for the people around him and their plight, and as he comes to shoulder the burdens of a nation across his broad shoulders rather than just his own tragic past, we can sense his growth and development. The relationship between Aya and Bayek is beautifully drawn – a tale of two souls bonded by love and shared grief, yet often separated by fate and duty.
Elsewhere, it would seem that the developers of Ubisoft Montreal have been taking notes from other games, but pretty much all for the better. Origins borrows heavily from a number of gaming series, both inside and outside of Ubisoft. The outposts of Far Cry have inspired a world peppered with Ptolemaic military camps and bandit hideouts, and working how best to sneak or slice your way through them has yet to get boring after 40 hours of play. Anyone who’s spent time with Ajay Ghale or Jason Brody will appreciate that the wild beasts of Ancient Egypt are just as capable of provoking emergent hilarity as those of Kyrat and Rook Island. The Witcher 3 has also had some influence in terms of fleshing out side quests, and making them feel lived in and a part of the wider world. Combat has been overhauled to usher in diverse weapon types, with a loot system, weapon rarity and a UI cribbed straight from Destiny. There are more opportunities to play the way that you want, in whatever style you choose, as well as options to change up your approach on the fly.
Bayek’s role as a Medjay allows him to engage in all sorts of missions, too. He is a man of the people, and as such is always willing to help. That might mean determining what has whipped a local crocodile population into a feeding frenzy, or recapturing the glory years of a chariot racing team who’ve lost their star, or solving crimes from petty theft to serial killings. Origins‘ diverse range of mission types is truly impressive, even if perhaps a few too many of them do end up at ‘go there, kill them, carry someone back’. I never felt overwhelmed with icons or paralysed with too much inconsequential fluff. Origins is stuffed with plenty to do, and lots to see, but it doesn’t feel bloated.
Before we get too carried away, though, it’s worth noting that this is no grand overhaul for the series at all, but rather a refining recalibration of some of the more stale aspects of Assassin’s Creed‘s well-worn gameplay mechanisms. Perhaps one of the simplest, but best shifts is that Origins takes Eagle Vision to a very literal conclusion – bestowing Bayek with a trusty pet eagle named Senu. At any given moment, Senu can be launched skywards to soar over dangerous territories, tagging enemies and hidden treasures. She can be upgraded to pinpoint patrol paths, and perceive areas of interest at greater distances. If you’re really nice to her, she’ll even swoop in to harass troublesome enemies and buy you a little time. If you lay the controller down for a few seconds, she’ll return to Bayek for a photo op. It sounds a little silly, but Senu is genuinely one of the best things in the game.
I also like that Assassin’s Creed: Origins embraces an RPG-esque progression system. As you clamber your way up to more synch locations, pillage tombs and camps for loot, assassinate guard captains and help your fellow Egyptians, you’ll invariably earn XP and upgrade points that can be spent on improving your skills. Here you can truly start to specialise. If bows and stealthy kills are your thing, you can pour points into increasing your ranged damage output, and unlocking chained assassinations. Warriors can unlock combo moves and heavy-hitting specials that use up Adrenaline. Then there are branches that deal with deployable tools, smoke bombs, poisons and so on.
But for all of its purported openness, Origins feels a little too guided, perhaps even compromised at times. Though the game’s world is expansive, there’s little incentive to go gallivanting off the beaten track in the manner of a true RPG. Sure, you can go hunting for crafting items, and explore the curious question marks dotting the map, but Origins carefully doles out missions and quests, making sure you’re rarely issued with something too far above your current level, mindful that coherence is maintained. Guards deemed to be a level or two too high will simply display skulls atop their heads, and the map of Ancient Egypt is divided into districts emblazoned with recommended levels that means the game unfolds a little like an MMO in some ways. There is a sense that for all of the content here, one playthrough may not vary too much from the next in terms of the path taken through the game – something that also puts a bit of a crimp on the progression and loot systems. For all of Bayek’s levelling, I never really felt like I was becoming all that much more powerful as the game keeps pace with your growth by sending you into areas with guards of similar levels. As vast as it is, Origins dangles a vision of expansive adventure before you, but doesn’t quite deliver on that front.
It doesn’t really spoil things too much, though. Origins is so gorgeous to behold, and so enjoyable to actually play, that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. Even the bugs seem to be more amusing little idiosyncrasies rather than game-breaking howlers, although we’re god-only-knows how many games in now, and Bayek will still occasionally jump to his death or stare blankly at a target ripe for assassination as the context-sensitive button fails.
Even in a game that heralds something of a return to form for the series, some things never change, I guess.
Platform: PC | PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One
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Origins gives us a reason to fall in love with Assassin's Creed again by reminding us of what the series does best, while adding and refining a few things as well. It's not quite as fantastic as II and Brotherhood, nor quite as refreshing as Black Flag, but Assassin's Creed: Origins comes pretty close to hitting the best that this series has had to offer. In its finest moments, Bayek and Aya's journey will take your breath away.