Assassinate Like an Egyptian!
“Getting Back to Basics” is a ethos that you see more and more AAA franchises applying recently. With Battlefield eschewing a futuristic setting in favour of Word War I, the direction of travel seems to be stripping the franchise down to focus on the fundamentals. After a two year absence, Assassin’s Creed Origins goes nearly two millennia back from its Victorian predecessor to ancient Egypt circa 48BC. The title itself suggests returning the franchise to its roots, and so does revisiting to the Middle East to focus on the founding principles of stealth and swordplay. Not only does Origins narratively explore deep into the prehistory of the Assassins, it truly is a homecoming for the franchise as a piece of interactive entertainment.
The story of Assassin’s Creed Origins revolves around Bayek, a Medjay – protector of the people – on a quest to avenge his murdered son and unravel a conspiracy to bring tyranny to ancient Egypt. Bayek is an immediately likable protagonist, and you can see this in his staggered flashbacks with his son where he’s teaching his boy to hunt and see the constellations in the sky. He also strives for justice alongside his beautiful and capable wife Aya, and the two of them have a refreshingly passionate spousal relationship (turns out diving off towers and killing people keeps a marriage exciting).
In classic Creed tradition though, Bayek is having his memories examined by someone from the modern day via the fantastic Animus device: a hard-headed career woman named Layla. Unlike in many previous Creed games where the modern day parallel story could sometimes be intrusive or distracting from the main story, Layla’s interjections are fairly few and far between. There’s plenty of emails, audio logs and other expository tidbits you can find on her phone if you’re interested in her pleasingly unique tale of coming from a Middle Eastern family in Philadelphia, but you can delve into her backstory at your own pace.
Creatively Chaotic Combat
Since the early days of Assassin’s Creed, the combat system has changed only incrementally, still dealing in the same basic currency of timed parries and button bashing. With Origins, fighting has been completely overhauled – very much for the better. Now dodging and managing your distance from opponents is much more important. When using dual blades your attacks are much more rapid, but also shorter range, exposing you to greater risk and requiring better timed dodges. Spears are slower and have a lower DPS potential, but they allow you to better control the engagement. This isn’t to say parrying isn’t an option. With a tap of the shield bash option, you can knock an attacking enemy off balance and leave them open to devastating strikes.
While previously multiple opponents could be managed much more easily with simple parries, now they frequently mix up their attacks with devastating guard breaks. Enemies are also more likely to use group tactics, surrounding you and switching to bows to pepper you with arrows as you try and fight in melee. If you’re in an enemy encampment they’ll also dash to light a brazier to call for reinforcements. In the chaos, it’s quite common to smash the door of an animal cage open and suddenly it’s a three way fight between you, a group of guards and a rampaging lion. Every engagement feels much more unpredictable and exciting – battles evolve organically. Overall, combat has significantly more depth and variety to it while still being as fast and fluid as ever.
Matching the upgraded combat system is the cleverly designed economy of weapons and loot. Every weapon has a level, which effects their damage output. Even the gear leveling system promotes the variety and richness of the gameplay. Gear needs to be upgraded to a higher level at the blackmsith, which can be quite expensive, so it’s often a good bet to try out new weapons while you’re saving up some cash to upgrade your beloved legendary sickle sword. Much as I loved Syndicate, melee weapons were mostly interchangeable, and once you’d acquired better gear, your old gear just gathered dust on the proverbial shelf. In Origins it’s a good idea to juggle different sorts of gear around and become accustomed to all the fun combat styles on offer.
It’s not just your weapons that can be upgraded, but also various parts of your gear, such as the breastplate, which increases hitpoints. To upgrade your gear, you’ll need to hunt animals and ambush convoys around Egypt. Ambushing convoys will usually result in a thrilling horseback chase, where you’ll be firing off arrows at pursuers as you gallops along. You can even handily set your horse, cart or chariot to autopilot at anytime, so they’ll keep speeding down the road as you aim firebombs and poison darts.
Likewise, you might have to hop on a raft and take to the open seas, diving off to clamber onto Phoenician triremes drifting down the Nile to steal their stores of wood, iron and bronze. You might have to assasinate a commander of an fortress to get what you’re looking for. Hunting requires a broad set of skills too. To acquire the soft leather from antelopes, you’ll have to sneak up and let loose a perfectly placed arrow before they skitter away. Hippos and crocodiles will give you a tough fight with their giant stacks of hitpoints, meaning you’ll have to learn a whole new body language than when fighting humans as they gore and bite. Every time you take control of your hawk Senu and soar above the scenery, there’s no end of opportunities around. I’d struggle to name another game where upgrading your stats felt like less of a grind and more like an part of an epic adventure.
As you level up, a wide variety of tools become available. You can poison the corpses of downed foes so opponents get a nasty surprise when checking on them. Firebombs can create rapid destruction, especially if you throw them at an enemy raft, turning the wooden ship into a floating tinderbox of savagely beautiful fire and screams. Sleep darts help you sneak through areas undetected and the ever reliable smoke bombs can get you out of tight spots.
None of the new toys you have to play with unbalance the game or distract from the fundamentals of stealth and sword however – merely enhancing them. What’s great about leveling in Origins is that you don’t even need to worry about being capped once you’ve unlocked all the abilities, as you keep upping your stats. The drive to make Bayek the greatest warrior of all never has to end.
Assassin’s Creed has long been looking to find a stealth system that works just right, and Origins has found one. Stealth has been stripped down to its most vital, intuitive essentials. If line of sight is broken, or you’re crouched in a bush, you can’t be seen; if you’re in the open, you can. There’s no more statistical quantification or grey areas (as there particularly was in the awful Assassin’s Creed: Unity), and it’s refreshingly straightforward. Immediately I slipped into the good old routine of shanking unsuspecting enemies with a hidden blade and flinging them off very high ledges.
A truly ingenious mechanic comes with the use of Bayek’s hawk Senu. With a tap of the up button, you’ll be swooping and hovering around as the majestic hawk, able to scan around for objectives, tag enemies and other important intractable items. This lets you rapidly scout an area while still getting the satisfaction of feeling you’ve done the surveying yourself. There’s even later upgrades which allows Senu to mark patrol routes. You’re really able to plan and execute your stealthy kills, watching patrol routes, following your mark, leaping atop treetops, battlements and cables. You can lay traps on braziers so reinforcements can’t be called, pick off guards with well-aimed arrow headshots (the healthbar indicator handily telling you which shots are kill shots). Then there’s finally that wonderful moment when it comes together perfectly as you swoop down from on high and introduce your hidden blade to your target’s jugular. It’s the perfect distillation of classic Creed.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is truly awesome – not in the overused modern sense of the word, but as in “inspiring of awe”. When venturing out into the desert for the first time, you truly become aware of how vast its world is as the rolling sand dunes stretch on for miles around. I was borderline daunted the first time I zoomed the map out to see just how small the opening area of Siwa was in comparison of to the full game world. It was a feeling of excitement and wonder akin to seeing the size and scope of the Skyrim world the first time.
Not only is this world vast, it is diverse. There’s Alexandria with its Grecian marble statues standing proudly over the streets. There’s Giza with its towering gold-capped Pyramids (the greatest ever in-game rendering of the OG of world wonders). There’s the Great Lighthouse towering above the glittering blue oceans. There’s algae-covered swamps, sun-blasted deserts, heiroglyph-laden temples and tombs that positively beckon you to explore them. I couldn’t resist visiting every new question mark that appeared on the HUD.
Open World Masterpiece
This is a world unprecedentedly epic and vast, but also minutely detailed to the point I just wanted to slow down and walk to appreciate every lovingly designed building. At the risk of sounding like I’m hawking Mediterranean cruises: Egypt truly is a captivatingly beautiful place to explore.
There’s plenty of mini-games scattered about this world as well. There’s the hippodrome where you can compete in some Ben Hur chariot racing, ramming and trampling other racer’s chariots into an explosion of twisted splinters. There’s a Colosseum to test your fighting mettle. You can sit down at stone formations to look to the stars and find constellations. There’s even a little Black Flag style ship combat where flaming arrows and triremes take the place of galleons and cannons. Origins never starts feeling stale, never gets boring. Ubisoft have shown they’re quickly becoming master craftsmen at creating open world games to rival the GTA series, just as they did with Watch Dogs 2.
Assassin’s Creed Origins came out after a rare two year absence for the franchise, showing Ubisoft have taken the time to rediscover the primal essence of Assassin’s Creed. It’s definitely in the upper echelons of the Creed pantheon, alongside Assassin’s Creed 2 and Black Flag. It’s a stunning and diverse world to explore that entreats you to uncover its countless secrets. It’s also the most mechanically polished and effortlessly intuitive of all the Creed games. It’s the sort of game that the most cynical reviewer would desperately try to find fault with, but would be dodged and parried at every turn like Bayek’s artful swordplay. Don’t just walk like an Egyptian, but run like an Olympian to your local games store to pick it up!
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One ; Publisher: Microsoft Studios ; Developer: Remedy Entertainment ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 27th, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail Playstation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.