When Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate launched in 2015, it came on the tail of six consecutive years of Assassin’s Creed titles. At that point, critics and fans began to express fatigue. Not enough time between game launches meant that each new entry struggled to differentiate itself from its predecessors. So it made perfect sense when Ubisoft announced — to a sigh of relief from players — that the next entry wouldn’t launch for two years.
Well, the wait paid off. In Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Ubisoft revamps the series’ infamous combat systems, reimagines its open world structure and character progression, and delivers one of the most evocative, diverse settings in the series to date.
Egypt, 49 BCE
In Assassin’s Creed: Origins, you play as Bayek, an Egyptian and the last of an ancient order called the Medjay (think Secret Service… but thousands of years ago). The opening scenes of the game are a little clunky as they try to explain why Bayek is the last of his order but this allows players to jump right into the action.
Origins’ plot is standard fare Assassin’s Creed material — you play as a
man character on a revenge quest that involves assassinating a string of historical conspirators. Really, it’s the characters and their relationships to one another that steal the show, particularly Bayek and his wife Aya. Both characters are delivered with such quality performances that, for the first time since the Ezio trilogy, I’d enjoying playing as either of them again in potential sequels. Origins also features prominent historical figures, such as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, but these are just two names on an impressive roster of interesting, memorable characters that ultimately drive you through the game.
Unlike its predecessors, Origins takes a unique approach to its open world structure. The entire map is available to you from the start, but the inclusion of a leveling and progression system discourages you from hopping on a camel and traveling wherever you want. (In other words, I survived my foolish trek into a high-level area for about sixty seconds before I was shot down by a single arrow.) Instead, the game guides you to new areas as you naturally level up, and I never felt like I was stuck in one place for too long, or that I was forced to be in an area that was too easy for me. Origins’ guided exploration also rewards you for your progress in the game by gifting you with new cities and environments. I was delighted when a late-game mission took me to a city with an entirely new architecture I hadn’t seen in my first forty hours playing.
Side missions offer the same caliber of variety throughout the game. While you’ll have to sift through a handful of flagrant fetch quests — there are a number of quests that end with you sneaking (or stabbing) your way through a guard-ridden fort — the vast majority of side missions introduce developed, nuanced characters and take advantage of the series’ numerous mechanics. In one mission, a young boy drives you around a city to watch you perform your signature leap of faith off different landmarks. In another, you participate in a fight club with a boisterous old man as your ally and training partner. You’ll have to trudge through a few samey missions to find these gems, but Origins is pretty consistent in presenting interesting side missions that you’ll remember long after you’ve beaten the game.
All of this occurs in Ubisoft’s stunning interpretation of ancient Egypt. I reviewed Origins on the Xbox One X, and while HDR was disabled during my playthrough, I was constantly amazed by the game’s nuanced environments. (You can watch the skin bend on corpses as priests sift through their innards during the mummification process. It’s that detailed.) The game ran pretty consistently at 30 FPS, however there was a noticeable dip during in-game cutscenes that occasionally made these moments hard to watch, and I also noticed a fair amount of pop-in as I traveled through the Egyptian countryside. These technical hiccups were few, but still managed to pull me out of Origins’ insanely beautiful world
There is so much more content to experience in Origins’ world than can fit in this review, but suffice it to say, all of these activities — from completing side missions to hunting and crafting to, yes, exploring the pyramids — feel fun and meaningful.
Swords and Shadows
Perhaps the most noticeable improvement over previous Assassin’s Creed games is the combat system. Gone are the days of waiting for enemies to “take their turn”, only to be dispatched by a measly counter attack. (Sorry, if that’s what you were into.) What takes its place is a combat system likened to games such as Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Enemies now display health bars, and to get them down to zero, you’ll need to pay attention to things like positioning, dodging and parrying. Even after leveling up my skills and equipment (more on that in a bit) and putting more than forty hours of playtime under my belt, combat encounters retained their difficulty — and by extension, joyous challenge — throughout. I’ve never had as much fun getting violent in an Assassin’s Creed game as I have in Origins.
This improvement also shows in the game’s weapons. You can switch between a variety of classes that each pack a different playstyle. Spears, for example, are great for quickly sweeping multiple enemies at once, whereas slower, heavy weapons demand you wait patiently for an opening in your enemy’s guard before smashing them into the sand. (I defaulted to the sword and shield combo to defend against pesky arrows during larger group encounters.) The fact that each weapon type plays so differently from one another meant that I rarely got bored in combat; when the sword and shield got repetitive, switching to the spear felt blessedly refreshing.
Despite these exciting changes, Origins’ new combat system isn’t perfect. Success in combat is contingent on using a target locking mechanic. Unfortunately, this mechanic is tied to the right analog stick. Even after forty hours of play, I found that by the time I could activate the target locking, an enemy had already landed their first hit on me. Additionally, chaining strikes with your weapons often felt cumbersome. At least once or twice a battle, I felt as if the game completely ignored my input on the controller to deliver a follow-up strike which ultimately stripped away some of the fun in the game’s new combat system.
The number of guards patrolling the roads took another stab at the fun of Origins’. These enemies accost you if they see you getting up to no good (which is, like, always), and while they aren’t difficult to dispatch, they always feel like an interruption into your gameplay. It’s a small gripe on a long, long list of things Origins does right, but one that numbed me to the game’s impressive combat.
Fans need not worry, as stealth hasn’t disappeared from the series. In fact, nearly all enemy encounters — including major assassination contracts — allow you to be stealthy instead of murdering everyone in sight. Pressing a button lets you seamlessly switch to the perspective of Bayek’s eagle companion, Senu, and mark enemies Bayek can’t see on the map. This mechanic eliminates a lot of the frustration of ghosting through an area, only to be seen by an enemy you didn’t realize was there. (Although, that can still happen if you aren’t patient with Senu’s… ehem… eagle vision.)
It’s like Assassin’s Creed. But with loot.
Origins shows its commitment to becoming a full-fledged RPG by its inclusion of addictive loot and progression systems. Enemies drop weapons based on your level which can either be sold for profit (so you can buy new weapons), broken down to parts (so you can upgrade your gear) or upgraded to your current level (so you never have to give up a weapon you’ve grown attached to). What’s more, different weapons have different perks — like critical hit rate or stealth damage. Armoring Bayek with the perfect gear and strutting into a new, higher level zone is a powerful reward mechanic that made me obsessed with upgrading my loadout as often as possible.
This loot system gives purpose to hunting in Origins’ crocodile-infested countryside. There’s an ecosystem of animals for you to track down — cobras, vultures, hippos and hyenas, to name a few — and each yield important resources you’ll then use to upgrade your gear. Taken by itself, hunting is a soothing respite from the game’s bustling cities and political drama, and the inclusion of the loot system gives you plenty of incentive to head out on a crocodile hunt.
Origins also features a simple skill tree for you to spend your ability points on (which you get when you level up). There are three different trees — ostensibly the bow and arrow tree, the combat tree and the stealth tree — but by the time you reach the level cap, you’ll have earned enough ability points that most players’ trees will look the same. Regardless, each upgrade yields meaningful gameplay advantages, like the ability to slow down time in free fall to loose some arrows on unsuspecting guards, or an ability that lets you chain together stealth assassination kills. There were one or two skills that should have been outside the skill tree, including the ability to have more weapon slots, but these are the exception to an otherwise exciting upgrade mechanic.
When Origins ended, I’d hoped its endgame would offer exciting new content, but unfortunately, it comes off as “clean up time”, allowing you to complete side missions you might have neglected or explore regions of the map you may only have lightly explored. (I’d recommend saving the final story mission as your final activity for the game.) The content that’s left is still fun and challenging, but a lot of the side missions don’t make as much narrative sense if played after you’ve assassinated your final target.
There’s a point to make about the ending, too: The final mission abandons the go-there-on-your-own nature of the rest of the game, instead forcing you to play through a series of scenes that, while hitting all the right emotional beats and delivering some anticipated character moments, feel jarring compared to all the other story missions. Start to finish, Origins tells an excellent story detailing the birth of the assassins, but its ending didn’t feel structurally cohesive with the rest of the game.
Assassin's Creed: Origins
Assassin's Creed: Origins is as much a departure as it is a homecoming. Revamped combat mechanics defibrillate the series with much-needed challenge. The guided open-world design encourages and rewards exploration unlike any Assassin's Creed game before it, and takes place in one of the series’ most memorable settings. But at the end of the day, and despite some growing pains, Origins is a culmination of the best aspects of the series. And for that, some hiccups in the transition to full-fledged RPG are a fair trade.