Assassin’s Creed Origins (PS4)

With Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft has made wholesale changes to its most popular franchise. There’s a new combat system that feels more like For Honor than Arkham Asylum, side quests with meaty stories like those in The Witcher 3, and a loot system ripped straight from Destiny. You can even hide in tall grass like, well, pretty much every other open world game with light stealth mechanics.

However, it’s still an Ubisoft game. Origins has the infamous Ubisoft Towers™, a cluttered world map, a tedious present-day story, and more bugs than a New York mattress. Thankfully, the good far outweighs the bad. Origins is so much fun to play that its problems disappear into the background as you sneak your way into a fort, put a few guards to sleep, poison a dead body, and turn two guards against each other while you sneak off to assassinate the captain. This all takes place in one of the most believable open worlds I’ve ever played in. Origins is a flawed game, but it’s worth your time.

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As the name suggests, Origins takes us back to the creation of the Assassin’s Creed via Egypt in 48 BC. You mainly play as Bayek, a Medjay tasked with maintaining order and looking after the local population like a bad-ass sheriff. Egypt is going through a time of deep unrest. Pharoh Ptolemy XIII has claimed the crown and deposed his sister/wife Cleopatra with the help of the Greeks who now rule Egypt in the young Pharoh’s name. While there’s a lot of political maneuvering in the background, the focus of the story is intensely personal. I won’t give away too much, but the gist is that Bayek has a list of targets he wants to kill which forms the basis of the story.

The people need a savior, and in Bayek, they have one. Bayek isn’t as charismatic as Ezio, however he cares for the locals and drops his guard around children in a way that is deeply touching considering the story’s eventual focus. Bayek’s wife, Aya, steals every scene she’s in, even when on screen with Cleopatra. You get to play as Aya for a couple of missions, but they’re forgettable filler content. Hopefully, she’ll pop up again in the DLC because she’s definitely a match for Bayek and deserves more than what she’s give to work with here.

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With two captivating lead characters and a setting at the end of the Egyptian dynasty, the story has everything it needs to be memorable and yet far too often it wanders aimlessly as the writers cram in all the extra side content that make up Assassin’s Creed games. This meandering focus is felt most severely in the lack of time spent building up Bayek’s assassination targets. You’re told they’re bad people but you rarely see it on screen. When you are treated to a glimpse of the assassination targets in advance, they are nearly always wearing the same mask and are largely indistinguishable from each other. The assassinations themselves are uneventful. Instead of using your skills to figure out inventive ways to kill these important targets, you’re typically forced to kill them in one particular way or enter into traditional boss battles that are jarringly out of place in a game that otherwise offers freedom in how you defeat enemies.

Even when your targets are properly fleshed out, the missions tend to be ruined by Ubisoft’s inability to stop adding unnecessary content. Take “The Crocodile” assassination mission as an example. The Crocodile is a horrible person and you see this first-hand via a gut-wrenching mission that ends in a way I truly didn’t expect. I’m still slightly shocked by it. At this point in the story, you’ll be desperate to go and track down The Crocodile to get revenge. Except before doing that you have to spend nearly an hour doing an arena questline that pits you against waves of foes until you defeat a couple of guys who give you the next lead. This is nothing more than a flimsy excuse to unlock the gladiator combat side quests to then complete at your leisure. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the eventual assassination of The Crocodile is embarrassingly easy and no more interesting than taking down any individual guard.

If you were in any doubt that Ubisoft has no understanding of story pacing then just wait until you get to the end of Origins. The story builds to a crescendo that never happens as if a runner was saving his energy for the final lap only to realize that the race finished two laps early as he jogs over the finish line with energy to spare.

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While the story is lacking, the setting is simply stunning. The map is so big you can complete the game without visiting half of it. Ubisoft resisted the temptation to litter the entire map with things to do, so there are huge expanses of desert that have nothing in them. It’s brave to put that much empty space an a world and it’s strangely hypnotic to just ride through the desert with nothing to see or do for minutes at a time.

The Egypt of Origins is one of the best open worlds I’ve ever played in, with all the locations fitting together as part of one society. There are large cities such as Alexandria, plus nearby farms which focus on different types of crops that merchants then transport to the cities. Each area has its own economy such as Haueris Nme, where the residents have white markings on their arms as a result of working in the limestone quarries. The level of research that must have gone into creating this world is mind-boggling. A secret tomb in Giza’s largest pyramid is already included in the game despite it not being confirmed in real life until after Origins‘ release. I’m honestly in awe of the work that went into this setting. Congratulations to all those involved. They’ve created something special.

Bayek’s role as a Medjay means the side quests fit naturally into the game and make a tangible difference to people’s lives. The exact nature of the side quests depends on where you are. For example, Alexandria is the center of a dispute between two competing chariot racing teams, so many of the side quests there focus on those competing factions. The writing isn’t always great, but I appreciate the effort to tell meaningful stories around the usual fetch quests. It’s a shame these side quests aren’t properly tied together in the quest menu. There’s often no indication that a new quest continues on from the previous one. It’s just another exclamation point on the map which you could easily leave for later in the game, at which point you’ve probably forgotten what came before.

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Assassin’s Creed games nearly always look good (after a few patches), but they’re rarely this fun to play. Moving around this gorgeous environment is smooth and effortless. Bayek can climb nearly every surface, letting you approach encounters from whatever direction you choose. You have a huge range of skills to choose from so each encounter feels different from the last. Most of Origins’ tasks involve assassinating targets or taking over forts (which also involves assassinating targets) however this doesn’t get too repetitive because you have so many options for how you achieve your goals. The bow and melee weapons are fairly self-explanatory, but I prefer my assassins to be neither seen nor heard. Bayek can sneak into camps at night when guards are asleep or use sleep darts to make them snooze regardless of the time of day. He can also poison bodies, turn enemies against each other, and set traps to kill enemies who try to raise the alarm. If you do get yourself in a tight spot, you can use smoke bombs to run away.

Bayek’s pet bird, Senu, can scout out locations in advance to mark enemies, find treasure, and even discover secret entrances to forts. This doesn’t make a blind bit of sense, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying to use. Yes, Senu is basically a drone. No, I don’t care about the lack of realism.

All of this sneaking around would be a lot more satisfying if the enemies weren’t as dumb as the rocks they use to build their forts. They continuously fall for the old “whistle from the tall grass” trick and you have to make a huge commotion for them to even consider setting off the alarm. Guards stumble across the dead bodies of their fallen comrades and just carry them away without thinking to look for the person who killed them. 

As you level up, you earn ability points to spend in the skill tree which is split into three sections; melee, bow, and stealth. The skill trees include a mixture of abilities that should have been included as standard, such as automatically looting enemies you kill, and abilities that change up the way you fight, such as being able to control an arrow after it has left the bow. I’m fine with skills being drip-fed throughout the game because players would likely be overwhelmed by too many options at the start. However, there’s a ridiculous amount of filler content in the skill tree, which you have to unlock before you get the fun toys to play with.

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No matter how stealthy you might be, you won’t be able to avoid combat entirely. Whether it’s boss fights or simply guards deciding to fight you for no reason in the middle the street, you’ll need to pull out your melee weapon and shield and get stuck in. Previous Assassin’s Creed games did their best to rip off the fast-paced Arkham Asylum style of combat and at best they reached a level that could be described as functional. Origins makes huge changes, taking inspiration from For Honor, with Bayek able to parry attacks with his shield and deal out light and heavy attacks with the shoulder buttons. All the weapon types feel genuinely different to use, and switching from, say, dual swords to a heavy axe, requires you to change your fighting style accordingly.

In one vs one combat, the system feels relatively satisfying. Bayek hits hard and you feel like you’re fighting, not dancing. Enemy attacks have a little too much tracking for my liking and there are no invincibility frames attached to the dodge. Worst of all, if you step away from an enemy, Bayek turns his back to the enemy instead of stepping backward while maintaining his guard. You end up working around the limitations and adopting an overly cautious approach, however as a first step into a completely new system it’s a big improvement on what came before. Unfortunately, the lock-on system makes fighting multiple enemies a complete mess. Your lock-on switches between enemies in a seemingly random manner. It’s almost impossible to time a parry in group encounters because Bayek will turn to face another enemy just as a hit is coming in.

Your success in combat isn’t entirely down to skill. Origins’ has an RPG style progression system, complete with enemy levels and a plethora of loot to collect. The loot system is bland and inoffensive. It’s just… there. It doesn’t add anything to the game, but neither does it detract from it. You’ll occasionally switch out weapons to whichever weapon has the biggest number and that’s about it. The only major nuisance is the need to move a cursor around the screen with the analog stick instead of flicking between boxes in a menu.

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Enemy levels can break immersion if they are a higher level than you. There’s nothing more frustrating than a perfect headshot not being a one hit kill just because the enemy number is higher than yours. If you’re engaging with the side quests this shouldn’t be a problem, but it does stop you rushing through the story.

If the RPG system doesn’t add anything, why bother including it in the first place? I don’t have an answer, although I suspect the microtransactions might have something to do with it. With real-world money, you can buy Helix credits which can be spent on frivolous items such as costumes or a unicorn to ride around on or more meaningful purchases such as high-level gear and extra ability points. You’re given a free sample of Helix credits, however you’ll only be able to buy one thing and will have 50 credits left over in an attempt to get you to spend more. There’s nothing new with these tricks, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to overlook them. Ubisoft at least keeps the microtransactions off the main menus, so they aren’t shoved in your face except for their initial introduction just after the prologue.

Despite the huge overhaul of the franchise, Origins suffers from some of the same problems that have plagued these games for years; namely, plenty of bugs and performance issues. Within the first fifteen minutes of starting, the guy I was supposed to be following got stuck against a wall and required five minutes of me pushing into him until he got free. I also encountered enemies stuck in the walls and on one occasion that was a captain I needed to kill to complete the quest.  The dynamic resolution generally keeps the game running smoothly, but it tends to get carried away at times. I’m fine with boats looking a little rough when seen from a long way off, however having enemies become pixelated when close up shouldn’t be happening. This tends to only happen when there are a lot of enemies on screen and is especially prevalent when you set them on fire. 

And of course, there’s the present day story. Yes, it’s still here in all its complicated and boring glory. You wake up outside the animus about four times and spend all of thirty seconds moving around before diving back in. If you want, you can open up an email account full of information on protagonists from the previous games, however it’s all so horrendously presented that I can’t imagine many people will bother. Origins throws us back to the start of the Assassin’s Creed; it’s a shame Ubisoft didn’t take this opportunity to do a reboot of the story and have it make sense this time.

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Despite all these flaws and the incredibly critical nature of this review, I had a lot of fun with Origins. You quickly get into a satisfying loop: approach a new area, scout with Senu, sneak in, kill all the enemies, and collect the treasure. Then it’s up to you to mix things up. For the next location, you could sneak in from a hidden cave entrance or go in at night when half of the guards are asleep. Or you could stick to the roof, dive down for a kill, poison the body, and then sneak back up to the roof without anyone seeing you. Or perhaps you’d rather hide in the back of a hay cart and wait patiently as you’re carried into the fort without guards being any the wiser. If you get bored with being subtle, then you could take control of the crossbow mount and go nuts.

Origins is a game full of flaws. With the exception of the environmental design, nearly everything could have done with an extra year of development time and a little more care and attention. And yet somehow, Origins is more than the sum of its mediocre parts. I enjoyed most of the 40 hours I spent with Origins and I still have the urge to go back and tick off more boxes.

The future of the Assassin’s Creed franchise looks bright if Ubisoft can resist the urge to churn out a sequel next year. Yes, Origins is another “Ubisoft Game” complete with checklists, towers, and bugs, but at the same time, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play. I can’t wait for what comes next.

4/5

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