Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Format Played: PS4
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Released: October 27, 2017
Copy supplied by publisher
It’s hard to believe that 2016 came and went without a full-fledged new entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Ubisoft’s historical action series effectively became an annualized franchise following the release of the critically-acclaimed Assassin’s Creed II in 2009 but in just five short years, the technical flaws and uninspired design of Assassin’s Creed Unity contributed to a perfect storm of series fatigue; so much so that the surprisingly good Assassin’s Creed Syndicate shipped the next year with little fanfare. Now, after a two-year hiatus of soul searching (and a pretty terrible film adaptation starring Michael Fassbender), Assassin’s Creed has returned with Origins, which sets the action in Ancient Egypt in the time of Cleopatra. Unlike past series entries, Origins largely does away with the assassins vs. templars backstory and science-fiction mumbo jumbo in favor of a more focused story of revenge, adding up to game that is very much a return to form for the beleaguered franchise, but one that I fear may end up being overlooked given how crowded 2017 has been with expansive, top quality open-world games.
It certainly doesn’t help that Assassin’s Creed Origins gets off to a pretty poor start. Whereas previous AC games spent too many hours introducing players to the main character and building up their transition into becoming an assassin, Origins takes the opposite approach and thrusts you right into the action with little in the way of explanation. The story follows Bayek of Siwa, a member of an ancient warrior order called the Medjay, picking up one year after Bayek suffers a personal tragedy at the hands of “The Order,” a mysterious group of powerful men (and women) who have taken control of Egypt and essentially turned it into a country ruled by fear and intimidation. The problem is it takes quite a few hours of playing through the game’s extensive prologue to find out (through flashbacks of course) why Bayek is seeking revenge against The Order in the first place. Bayek’s wife, Aya, also plays a prominent role in the game and is a very interesting character in her own right, but the game doesn’t introduce her until you’re already multiple hours deep into the experience, which I can’t help but feel is a missed opportunity. Still, once the story actually brings you up to speed and gets moving along, things begin to click but this may be one of the worst introduction sequences I’ve seen in a game like this in quite some time.
On the bright side, all that downtime trying to make sense of Origin’s confusing first act leaves plenty of room for getting acquainted with the many gameplay changes Ubisoft Montreal has made. The biggest change — and the one most likely to divide longtime fans of the series — is that this Assassin’s Creed is now a full-fledged RPG. Previous installments always had some light role-playing elements, in that you could acquire new, more powerful weapons as you went along, but it never felt like any of it really mattered all that much. In contrast, Origins now has an honest-to-goodness loot system, complete with different weapon classifications and all sorts of different stat boosts and numbers to keep track of. You’ll want to take the time to familiarize yourself with these systems too, as Origins is easily the most difficult game in the series to date and you’ll find yourself getting stomped by regular enemies if you’re not prepared. As such, story missions now have a recommended level attached to them, meaning that you’ll actually have to grind out experience points from other activities in order to progress.
It’s a good thing then that the side activities in Origins are surprisingly varied. Ubisoft open-world games always feature large maps with plenty of points of interest littered throughout and in this regard, Origins feels like one of the biggest games the company has ever built. The sheer size of Origins’ recreation of Ancient Egypt is staggering, but it’s not just filled with copy-and-paste desert landscapes. This is one of the most impressively-varied open-worlds I’ve yet encountered, with multiple unique cities to explore and sights to see. Smartly, Ubisoft seems to have borrowed quite heavily from CD Projekt Red’s open-world masterpiece The Witcher 3 in filling its world with side quests and points of interest that actually feel worth your time. The side quests, in particular, are often just as compelling as main story quests, complete with their own interesting characters and objectives. Origins also copies The Witcher 3’s question mark system to indicate points of interest, which range from strongholds to take over, to hidden treasure vaults begging to be explored. And because the game is now loot-based, there’s almost always a reason to do these activities, as you never know which one will reward you with a particularly useful new weapon.
The combat system has also received a dramatic overhaul and while it improves on the simplistic, counter-heavy combat of previous Assassin’s Creed games, it still has its fair share of problems. Admittedly, it’s nice to see Ubisoft Montreal didn’t just try and copy the Arkham Asylum-brand of freeflow combat like so many other franchises but at the same time, that combat system is popular for a reason. With Origins, Ubisoft has landed on a system that actually feels quite unique, focusing heavily on blocking, dodges and melee attacks; think a more brutal version of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (or a tamer version of Dark Souls). The problem is that while the combat feels perfectly tuned for one-on-one battles (there’s even a lock-on button), you’ll rarely be able to engage with enemies in this way. In my experience, enemies would routinely swarm Bayek and attack him from all angles and since Bayek can’t actually take very many hits from enemies close to his level, I’d end up dying far more often than I would in previous Assassin’s Creed games. Even after dozens of hours of learning the combat system, it never quite felt intuitive and I ended up trying to avoid combat as much as possible by taking enemies out with stealth so as to avoid another game over screen. Overall, I think Ubisoft Montreal is on the right track with this new combat system, but it could use some tweaks to better handle crowd control.
Assassin’s Creed Origins stands as proof that, with the right focus, stale franchises can turn things around and recapture their former glory. I firmly believe Origins stands alongside Assassin’s Creeds II and Black Flag as one of the series’ best installments and should go a long way in reinvigorating those who burnt out on Assassin’s Creed games years ago. That being said, this is still an Assassin’s Creed game underneath the new coat of paint, for better and worse, so if you didn’t like past entries, it’s hard to see this one doing much to change that opinion. There’s also the competition to take into consideration, as even though Origins lifts plenty of ideas from games like The Witcher 3, Dark Souls, and Horizon Zero Dawn, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those titles. Still (and this sure feels weird to say), single player-only games with high production values and unobtrusive microtransactions are becoming increasingly rare and if a game like Assassin’s Creed Origins can’t garner commercial and critical success, it’s only going to get worse. I doubt this is the beginning of the end for Assassin’s Creed or anything like that but as far as mega-franchise rebuilds go, Ubisoft’s efforts here are impressive indeed and more than worth your time and dollars.