Some travel, and find themselves; others lose themselves. Some go back-packing; others take up Buddhism (or Taoism, or some other fashionable ‘ism’) and come back affecting ‘enlightenment’ at parties. But not Ubisoft. No, Ubisoft spent its gap year like a roving hedge fund activist on a corporate adventure – looking to invest and disrupt.
The result is Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and while it hasn’t the innovative streak once synonymous with the series, it has recharged and re-tooled its decade-old formula, transporting us to the most magnificent setting the series has ever had. That’s lofty praise indeed considering where the Animus has spirited us over the course of the series, but when you first load up Origins and behold the sheer size of it, you will understand.
The great river splays out like an opened artery into the Nile delta, and everywhere you look is life. River boats creak by carrying baskets of produce for the market stalls. Hippos yawn by banks of brown, lapping water as herons slit the surface swooping low. The scales of patrolling crocodiles rise up like black icebergs as they slalom toward grazing oxen.
It’s incredibly diverse as well: you’ll trek from leafy villages, across deserts of caked and cracked silt, over enormous green lakes, and into utopic cities. Beginning in 49BC, the setting affords a diverse confluence of cultures in its metropolitan areas, each captivating in its own way.
Alexandria is political and scholarly: home of the great library, wherein knowledge is deified as much as the city’s founder. To the North is Cyrene: the Roman citadel, intellectual and artistic, vineyards and temples fight for space around the coliseum, and below a colossal aqueduct. In the East, Herakleion: where classical Greece lives in the Doric columns of its pantheons, its whitewashed houses dotting the hillsides.
The diverse architecture and politics of the cities is a reflection of Ubisoft’s approach to design, its many studios coming into chorus. Watch Dogs 2’s drone is here repurposed as an eagle, scouting ahead and marking enemy camps; those camps have made their way over from Far Cry, replete with caged animals to set free and commanders to kill; and your skill tree, comprised of Seer, Warrior, and Hunter branches, is now Ubisoft ubiquity.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins also sees Ubisoft looking outside its own stable too, stretching and flexing, working out the atrophy of games gone by. A Witcher-esque RPG stripe now irrigates the flow of action, with quests and regions of the map carrying recommended level warnings. Combat has been completely overhauled, with a lean toward not just CD Projekt’s work, but to Nintendo and Breath of the Wild. Fights feel more rigid and controlled, leaning on lock-on, circle-strafing, blocking (if you don’t, you die), parrying (pleasingly difficult), and light/heavy mix-ups.
With a shuddering crunch and a rewarding challenge, it’s a huge boon that what drives the entire game is a fun combat system that makes you feel versatile and powerful, without feeling overpowered. You can’t counter-spam anymore, felling entire armies by fanning the hammer on a single button. As you take down your foes, you’ll notice numbers popping off them, raising your XP; it’s immaterial to your hacking-and-slashing, and in no way clutters the action with RPG pomp.
There’s a multifarious armoury to compliment this new system as well: spears, sickles, swords, shields, axes, and war hammers all shown off with brutal animations and finishing blows. This bloodthirsty theatre evinces Ubisoft’s softening attitude to stealth. It’s been steadily watered down these last few games, feeling now like an afterthought. It’s all a matter of sneaking behind guards for clean kills. Gone are the days of picking off only your target; now avoidance just isn’t practical – especially given how swiftly death arrives if you’re outnumbered, and you almost always are.
This is no crying shame: Ubisoft are hardly depriving us of a great stealth experience. Even at its height, with crowd-blending, pick-pocketing, and eavesdropping, the series has always fumbled its stealth with airy controls and imprecise movements. But this combat focus does lessen variety: all you’re doing mission-to-mission is going somewhere and killing someone.
You can devote yourself to yourself, of course: opportunities abound to improve your gear through hunting, crafting, buying, and forging. Using your eagle Senu you can scout for animals that yield your ingredients – leather, fur etc. – mark them, and then snipe at them with your bow. While it’s a distraction, it’s not what you want to do; you want to explore that world, but outside of some pleasant – if a little bald – tombs to uncover, there isn’t much tangible reward for doing so.
The tangible rewards aren’t the best ones here, though. One of my favourite things to do was to set a waypoint, anywhere, and have my camel (I named mine Philip; you may or may not wish to do the same) take me there on autopilot. Just watching the world go by as Philip did the leg work was a joy, waving the camera wherever I wanted.
The fastest route to levelling up and learning new skills is to help your fellow citizens. There are many in need offering side-missions aplenty, and owing to the fact that our hero, Bayek, is a ‘Medjay’ – a sheriff of sorts for the ancient world – it’s your lot in life to lend a hand.
Bayek himself is a likeable but puzzling fellow. After the murder of his son at the hands of masked zealots, he roams Egypt looking for vengeance, one lacerated throat at a time. At the same time, he seems to live in an immutable honeymoon period with his wife Aya, canoodling every time they share screen space.
He’s also the sort to enjoy warm-humoured boozing with friends and playing with children in the streets. It’s as if Ubisoft got the memo that Ezio was a fan-favourite, with his predilection for joviality in the face of the po-faced, but they didn’t manage to square it away with Bayek’s Gladiator-esque underpinnings. It feels like lopsided writing, with none of his violence or his mission weighing on his mind.
While on the subject of missions: it isn’t awfully clear. The villains of the series have always worn the same mask: evildoer. That they now literally wear masks seems almost a wry admission, a holding up of the hands. Needless to say, they’re all in an order of some description, and that order is bad. I never really knew what was going on. It didn’t really matter. Twas ever thus.
The sci-fi leanings of the plot tread softly indeed: brief interludes few and far between, which you can make more brief if you so choose. You may not always wish to, though; with an intriguing premise, and an enigmatic protagonist, it’s perhaps damning with faint praise to say these sequences are nowhere near as dull as they have been in the past.
That isn’t where your attention belongs; Egypt is. It’s almost too pretty to bear, golden light gilding the stoss slopes of sand dunes, their brinks winding like rivers away to vanishing point on the horizon.
There’s something ineffably pleasing about sprigs of vegetation poking up in rows; about triremes lined up at port, their mizzens and vang peeping between buildings; and of course, about the desert. The whole world is in those entropic dunes, a mirage of trees and horses and buildings shimmering into view as if rendered from the sand.
Assassin's Creed: Origins
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: Out now
With Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Ubisoft has found an oasis in the desert. It’s refreshing, blending sensible new mechanics with an established formula; moreover, it feels as though it was designed by a team with their eyes and ears open. The rulebook was far from thrown out, but it’s been burnished to an impressive sheen, and this is the best the series has been since Ezio’s heyday.