A shadow in the sand: Assassin’s Creed Origins preview

This year marks the 10th anniversary for the Assassin’s Creed franchise, so it’s only fitting that Ubisoft has taken a step back to re-evaluate the series and explore its origins. Thousands of years of templars and assassins and brotherhoods and hidden blades all began somewhere–Ancient Egypt. More specifically, Ptolemaic Egypt in the year 49 B.C.E. The pyramids have been standing for 3,000 years, Cleopatra is alive and well, and the assassin order isn’t really even an order yet. You might say they’re more of a deadly parkour troupe that eagle-dives off of Ancient Egyptian monuments and stabs people from hay bales. You notice this devil-may-care naivety in Assassin’s Creed Origins’ protagonist, Bayek. He’s young, brash, and thirsty for life. He enjoys good wine, bountiful feasts, and the company of his beloved wife Aya. So how does a young Egyptian assassin, full on life, transform into a founding member of an assassin brotherhood that spans the globe over millennia? That’s the narrative the team at Ubisoft Montreal is trying to tell. It is the intimate story of one man with personal dreams and goals. He may need to push his own desires aside in order to play a role in something much bigger than himself.

Bayek and Aya share their love for each other.

During my preview, I got my hands on a portion of the open world of Ancient Egypt. I spent a few hours exploring the environment, completing sidequests, fighting crocodiles, and looking for loot. Assassin’s Creed Origins has replaced the traditional mission structure with quest lines. You still climb towers, synchronize, open up new sections of the map, and dive off. It is Assassin’s Creed, after all. But you can have multiple quests open at once and finish them in any order you see fit. Can’t find such-and-such for so-and-so? Just go do something else and come back to it later. This structure isn’t anything new for video games, but it is refreshing to see here.
Going from quest to quest, you’ll notice there is no mini map – a departure for the series. Instead, you will call upon the efforts of your eagle-in-crime, Senu. One button press sends him soaring into the air for an eagle-eye view (enjoy the pun) of the surroundings. You have full control of Senu. There’s even a boost, so you can cover more ground . . . air quicker. Your feathered friend is not only a new way to view the world, but also a tool at your assassin-y disposal. He can mark resources, enemies, stun them (the enemies, not the resources), and locate targets during specific quests. Bayek and Senu’s “eagle”itarian way of life–working together, in equal parts–makes them a formidable and effective team.

During my first quest I’m speaking with a local merchant who tasks me with retrieving a letter from the pigeon tower. To my complete and utter dismay, the pigeons are in a ruckus. (I swear to god they say “pigeons are in a ruckus”). I climb to the top of the tower to see what all of the fuss is about and find nothing nothing but a bunch of pigeons flapping around in a tizzy. I dive off into a bale of hay, jump out, and come across a pool of blood. My simple fetch quest is now the investigation of a crime scene. Whose blood is that, and where is the body? (Queue X-files music . . .)

Bayek investigates a mysterious pool of blood.

On the fly, I shoot Senu soaring toward the heavens for a better view of the surrounding area. For a few minutes I fly around in circles, occasionally stopping in hover mode to focus the reticle on different objects in hopes of finding a clue. There’s nothing. The development team told me about their emphasis on discovery, and I’m beginning to see what they meant. There is no indicator, no arrow, no hot/cold meter–just Bayek, his bird and my brain.

I’m starting to get a little impatient, when I notice a second hay bale right next to the one I landed in after my dive. To a normal person that seems logical, but to an Assassin’s Creed veteran that’s just ludicrous. You only need one bale of hay next to a tower to dive into. The other one must be there for a different reason. I switch control back to Bayek and, sure enough, there is a body in there. I carry her back to the merchant who is beside himself in finding out that his daughter has been murdered. A short cutscene plays out as we discover a badge in her possession that belongs to Dymnos the Master of Arms. I must have words with this Dymnos – the stabby kind.

A new step in the quest opens up and I’m on my way to the training grounds. I confront the fiend, and he confesses to having thrown the girl from the pigeon tower. Now it’s on! I put up my sword and shield, and he immediately caves my head in with a few mighty swings of his heavy mace. Let’s try again. This time I climb to the top of the courtyard and jump off, stabbing him in the neck with my hidden blade. He survives, gets up without missing a beat, and slaughters me with a brutal finisher. He knocks me off my feet and brings his great mace down onto my chest with such force I’m reminded of when Gallagher smashes a watermelon with a hammer at one of his shows. The third time, I take to the roof again, but I keep my distance and fire arrows at him. He’s defenseless against my ranged attack and goes down in three shots. I missed one between his legs, but I did that on purpose to scare him. I return to the merchant to give him closure regarding his daughter’s death–quest completed.

Bayek takes a brutal blow to the head.

I learned the hard way that combat has changed a lot in Origins. There is no more repetitive counter, mash attack, multiplier flow where you’re locked into one-on-one animations. Many aspects of the new combat can be summed up as Bloodborne-lite. There are hitboxes, weapon types with various reaches and swing mechanics, light and heavy attacks, lock-on targeting, complete with strafing and dodging. The combat is more complex than anything we’ve seen in a previous Assassin’s Creed title.

Engagement with enemies has a cat-and-mouse feel to it. Strafing around a group, waiting for an opening, lunging in for a few quick strikes, and dodging or parrying opposing attacks is different than what we’ve played before. The weapon types change up your tactics. I used a regular sword and shield for most of my playthrough, but did find the need to switch up my melee weapon for specific encounters. When I found myself in a crocodile nest, I changed to a spear and was able jab at them while keeping a safe distance from their deadly, tooth-filled chompers.

The ultimate weapon for distance though is the bow, easily the biggest change to the combat arsenal and my preferred method of fighting. Enemy archers, infantry, cavalrymen, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and even cranes fell victim to the onslaught of my arrow fire. It proves to be the most effective tactic during my favorite side quest from the demo.

Bayek is asked to look for a body near the river. The distraught couple fears their son, Meketre, was killed by a gang of hippopotamuses. In the dead of night, I sneak my way through tall grass along the riverbank. There are four victims the hippos have claimed, and I don’t know which one is Meketre. I collect the first two with ease. They are far enough away that I don’t alert the ferocious beasts. Neither of them are Meketre. I return for the third, am immediately attacked, and barely escape with my life. For the final body, I decide to take a different path which brings me within mere feet of the body and a sleeping hippo. I inch closer, but am now out of the cover of the tall grass.

How many arrows does it take to kill a hippo?

As soon as I pick up the body, the hippo is enraged and chases me down. I’m defenseless and slow, so I drop the body and create some space. I begin firing arrows and dodging to avoid its massive jaws. It takes a few shots, and I don’t make it out unscathed, but I finally get the last body back to the couple. It’s not Meketre. Come to find out, he’s been taken captive and is being held prisoner in an enemy stronghold. A new step in the quest line unlocks.  I jump on a horse and gallop off into the desert moonlight.

There’s a small canyon with multiple plateaus adorned with wood plank bridges. Before I make a move, I dispatch Senu, marking enemies and locating the prisoner. He’s in a cage at the bottom of the canyon. I sneak my way across the top level and quietly climb down to the cage. I free him and, almost immediately, we’re spotted. The alarm is raised and now I must defend Meketre. That goes horribly, I die, and I give it another shot, this time using my surroundings to pick soldiers off around the perimeter. I take out as many enemies before even attempting to set him free, which makes escaping a lot easier. After another scuffle ridding a village of more enemies, I return Meketre to his parents. Quest completed, but this time I level up–gaining XP, ability points to spend in the skill tree, and damage and health increases.

Night or day, Ancient Egypt is beautiful. There’s an incredible amount of detail. The sandy landscape of the desert coastline is brought to life with the vivid colors of the citizens’ clothing, black and gold-painted buildings, and the cool blue of the river and soothing purple hue of lavender fields. I didn’t get to see the city of Alexandria in my demo, so a lot of the landscape I explored was open land, smaller villages, coastal fishing huts, etc. But it was brilliant. Traversing these more-open regions was fun. The player movement was fluid and easy-to-use. You’re always in run mode, so just hold one button to climb up and another to climb down. It’s straightforward and got rid of any unnecessary complexity that marred previous titles. It could be because of the less crowded map design, but I feel like the parkour is more intuitive and less-inclined to the Assassin’s Creed jank fans are used to.

Bayek rides through the night towards an enemy stronghold

But the openness of the terrain means there is a lot of ground to cover. Horses, chariots and feluccas (small, oar-driven boats) are some of the ways of getting around these open spaces. They control better than vehicles in past Assassin’s Creed games, with a satisfying speed and responsiveness. Boats, especially, play a big part in Origins. I didn’t see full-on naval combat like in Black Flag, but that’s to be expected given the time period and technical limitations of Ancient Egypt. That doesn’t mean there aren’t larger vessels. Another, more traditional, quest had me infiltrate a bigger boat to assassinate a target. I took a felucca out to the middle of the river, dove off, climbed up the side and stealthily ganked the four enemies onboard, including my target. The quest felt like a warm blanket comforting me among all the newness in Origins.

It’s an interesting balance of old and new coming together to create an engaging take on the Assassin’s Creed formula. I’ve always looking badass in a hood while parkouring around new, interesting, and robust locations and stealthily assassinating unexpecting targets with a hidden blade. Assassin’s Creed Origins has that. Things like the stale combat system and repetitive mission structure are being replaced with RPG progression, a multi-layered quest line structure, and a revamped combat system that has more nuance and complexity than we’ve seen in any other Assassin’s Creed before. I’m excited to see if these changes are enough to breathe some life back into franchise that has gone somewhat cold in recent years.

Assassin’s Creed Origins ships on October 26th, 2017 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 / Pro, and PC, with Xbox One X support at that console’s launch on November 7th, 2017. Stay tuned for our full review as we near those dates.

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