As­sas­sin’s Creed Ori­gins

De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Ubisoft (Mon­treal) For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now

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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

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