Assassin’s Creed Origins
Developer/publisher Ubisoft (Montreal) Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
PC, PS4, Xbox One
See those pyramids? You can climb them. The view from the top of Giza’s wondrous monuments makes the ascent worthwhile – indeed, the setting is one thing Assassin’s Creed Origins gets wonderfully right. Weathered by age, they’re looking a little rough on the outside, though handily the cracks in the stone are arranged in such a way as to let you scamper up without much effort. Still, despite the superficial damage, it’s clear the foundations are still pretty solid. If only the same could be said for the game itself.
Which isn’t to say that Ubisoft hasn’t tried to shake things up a bit. The last time this series took a gap year we got Assassin’s Creed II, a game which rewrote the rules and established a formula to which the publisher would closely adhere until 2015’s Syndicate. By which time – and despite the efforts of Evie Frye, the most likeable assassin since a certain charismatic Italian got three games to himself – returns were undeniably diminishing. A change was required, then, but given an extra year it seems Ubisoft hasn’t so much tried to establish a whole new identity for Assassin’s Creed as to create a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, pulling ideas from a range of popular games and attempting to stitch them together. The results are, predictably, patchy.
In a way, that’s oddly appropriate, since these are tumultuous times for a declining nation. We’re at the fag end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and Egypt is steadily being pulled apart from within. The pyramids are just one sign that the edifice is crumbling. We witness the power battles of the era: the sibling squabbles between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, and the rivalry of Caesar and Pompey. It’s a world in which the divide between the haves and have-nots could hardly be more stark, where the rich and the opportunistic exploit the poor to improve their personal standing, and where a secretive order is using the turmoil to further its own ambitions.
It’s the perfect time, in other words, for another hero to rise up against these corrupt elites. Enter Bayek Of Siwa. Before Origins’ protagonist is drawn into any political chicanery, he’s motivated by something far simpler: revenge. After a clumsy introduction, tragedy strikes, and he’s set on a path that takes him from his humble village home towards Alexandria and Memphis – sporadically accompanied by his wife, Aya. The trajectory is immediately apparent from the menu screen, which makes it clear we’re at the base of a pyramid of targets and we’ll steadily be working our way up, but Ubisoft contextualises the villains rather better than before. That they’re each nicknamed after animals helps: tracking The Snake and The Crocodile is naturally more exciting than being given a name you’ll likely have forgotten within moments. For each of the main story missions, you’re introduced to the often devastating impact these figures have had on the local community, providing all the motivation you need to carry out the hit. One particularly disturbing underwater discovery will have you ready to draw your blade before you’ve even identified your target’s whereabouts.
But you’ll have to be patient, and not only because sneaking around is the preferred option for most of the game’s assassinations. This series has always featured light RPG elements, but they’re much more prominent here than before. Tellingly, the default setting on a fully customisable HUD shows exactly how much damage you’re giving or taking, with each blow you land or absorb accompanied by a numerical value. And you’re given a suggested level for each quest, with entire regions – albeit mostly on the outskirts of the map – essentially out of bounds, since you’ll be woefully unprepared to deal with any of the threats within. If the Creed’s maxim suggests that ‘everything is permitted’, it’s clear Ubisoft has little desire to pay much attention to it, and that this supposedly open world has clearly established boundaries from the start. That in itself is nothing new, of course. We’ve played plenty of RPGs where it’s possible to wander into dangers beyond your current abilities. But even along the Origins story path, your choices are limited. Supposedly optional side quests are all but mandatory, since you’re warned that tackling a mission two levels below the game’s recommendation is a bad idea. That is, unless you’ve spent time harvesting resources to increase the damage Bayek can deal or withstand: the hides of slaughtered animals, and materials either looted or gained by junking unneeded weapons, can boost the power of his arrows, his bracers and his armour. Yet none of these incremental stat increases have quite the same impact as simply levelling up. Visiting new places gives you a small amount of XP, but since venturing outside your comfort zone is rarely advised, exploration alone isn’t going to get you far.
Most missions, critical or otherwise, settle into a predictable rhythm. There’s sometimes an investigation phase where Bayek plays detective, wandering around a local area in search of some conveniently highlighted evidence. Then, in a very literal interpretation of Eagle Vision, Bayek’s pet Senu can be called upon to fly above bandit camps and guarded strongholds when you’re within the vicinity of your objective. Somehow, she’s capable of highlighting guards – and, via a later upgrade, their patrol routes – as well as pinpointing the position of the key personnel you’ve been asked to rescue, and more substantial loot caches, too. Though it’s unusual (not to mention completely preposterous) to be doing all this as a bird, functionally she’s no more than a feathered version of Watch Dogs 2’ s quadcopter: a living, screeching recon drone.
With enemies now clearly outlined, and not only predictable in their movements but dim-witted to boot,
The series has always featured light RPG elements, but they’re much more prominent here
stealth is obviously the path of least resistance. Then again, even this approach is dependent on your level, since normally fatal hidden attacks won’t result in an instant kill. Otherwise, only clumsiness will lead to combat, whether you’ve missed an enemy during your flyover, or whistled at the wrong time and alerted two guards to your hiding place. At which point, Origins attempts to mimic Dark Souls, with a shield on the left bumper, a light attack on the right, and a stronger one on the trigger. It’s clear Ubisoft is aiming for a mix of responsiveness and weight, but these loose, jerky encounters fall uncomfortably between the two. Still, once you’ve landed enough blows you can launch a devastating single attack or trigger a rage mode of sorts. An ability that lets you start battles with this already activated proves sufficient to deal with most mobs, though if you’ve alerted any archers or troops on horseback, beating a retreat is the best tactic – few pursuers are especially persistent.
You quickly sense that Ubisoft doesn’t really want you to play the whole game as a silent assassin; otherwise, why would it offer you rare and legendary weapons as rewards? Besides, investing your hard-won skill points into stealth leaves you ill-equipped to deal with missions with forced combat. And stealth abilities often seem designed to compensate for messing up. Poisoning corpses damages nearby enemies, but that only comes in useful if you’ve been spotted – at which point, you’ll be wishing you’d spent those points on combat skills. Any RPG is a numbers game, and the most obvious evidence that Origins hasn’t balanced its books comes during escort or protection missions. An ‘ally health low’ alert will pop up if your colleague is in trouble, but if they die, they’ll simply get back up again after a short while: surely a tacit acknowledgement that the figures don’t quite add up.
The story and the setting are Origins’ saving grace. While sporadic performance issues blight the base-level console versions, Ubisoft’s environment designers have surpassed themselves. Many of the villagers in Egypt’s pocket communities eke out a grim old existence, but there’s a widescreen grandeur to the bigger picture – and the ability to let your horse or camel automatically follow the road to your destination lets you take it all in as you ride along. It’s hard not to capture a beautiful image in the game’s photo mode, but even without pausing the action there are moments to make you gasp, such as when you find yourself lazily steering a felucca down the Nile beneath the blazing sun, sending flocks of herons and flamingos scattering. Meanwhile, as Bayek, the excellent Abubakar Salim finds light and shade in what could easily have been a one-note avenger. His relationship with Alix Wilton Regan’s equally engaging Aya hits some strikingly unconventional notes, this loving couple slowly yet amicably drifting apart as events push them down separate paths.
Origins seems similarly conflicted. Its world may be memorable, but otherwise this is a series falling back on borrowed ideas, as if unsure quite how to properly reinvent itself. There are enough signs of improvement to suggest the next entry could yet be the fresh start Ubisoft promised this time around. But as a new beginning for Assassin’s Creed, Origins is more of a stumbling step than a bold leap forward.
Oddly, smaller boats take more effort to turn than large ships, which you’ll control in a handful of sea battles. You’ll command archers to shoot volleys of fire arrows, with weak points of enemy craft handily highlighted in red