Assassin's Creed Origins Review
Going back to where it all began
Some fans would contend that the long running Assassin's Creed franchise found its high points during the last console generation. Both Assassin's Creed II and IV are considered to be among the best games in the series that, apart from last year, has managed to produce annual entries. Despite varied historical settings and grand gameplay ambition, the dawn of the current consoles hasn't yet allowed the series to create a title that has wowed fans and brought in new audiences. As such, Ubisoft had decided the series needed a break, and so it has been two years since the last game. Assassin's Creed Origins now enters the arena, taking players to the earliest days of the Assassin Brotherhood and also the earliest time period of the human civilization that the series had depicted. With the promise of revamped and a longer development cycle, this supposed soft reboot of the franchise manages to produce some engaging gameplay, but comes short of offering anything truly revolutionary.
Origins takes place in Egypt, 49 BCE. Players take on the role of Bayek, a member of the elite force of Medjay that are sworn to protect the Pharaoh, the land and its people. However, shortly after Bayek's home village of Siwa is visited by the Pharaoh himself, a group of unknown men lure him into a trap and attempt to make him and his son perform a ritual. Bayek manages to escape, but his son meets his demise. Haunted by grief, Bayek and his wife Aya soon discover that the men were part of the shadowy organization known as Order of the Ancients. They vow to avenge the death of their son, but even after doing so, they realize that there are more of these men all across the nation. The pair become dedicated to the cause of eradicating this Order and putting an end to their various misdeeds. They also become embroiled in the ongoing conflict between the Pharaoh and his sister Cleopatra, who also seeks the help of Julius Caesar.
For most of the game you'll be solely involved with the local politics and taking out members of the Order, and only in the later stages do we get into the birth of the Creed. The best parts of the narrative involve Bayek, his struggle with the death of his son, and his great dynamic with his also-assassin wife Aya who makes for a great character. Meanwhile, the rest of the plot struggles to be engaging, perhaps not because of its contents but rather the way it is told. From the somewhat confusing and poorly paced opening hour, to the major events that unfold in a cutscene which doesn't line up with the actions you've taken in the game (trying to avoid spoilers here, but think of performing an air assassination but the cutscene playing out as a struggle on the ground), events just aren't always very interesting. You've seen it all before - a series of bad guys that harass the people and need to be eliminated. Betrayals, the hero's realization that he cannot trust those who wish to wield power, and so on.
Speaking of the assassinations, these quests typically feel underwhelming. Whereas in the past you'd be expected to perform grand feats of stealth or combat, most of the targets in Origins are easily reached and dispatched; there are side quests more intricately designed than the main assassinations. Having said that, this is also where the game features its most unique content. Further, the post assassination cutscenes are interesting and well made, as we've come a long way from holding some old dying man in your arms. The lengthy story of Assassin's Creed Origins is decent enough to see it through to the end, but it could have been handled better.
Then of course there's a matter of the modern-day storyline. After all, everything we're witnessing is still a simulation inside the Animus Project. After a steady decline and outright dismissal of the modern-day story, Ubisoft seems to be trying to slowly bring that into relevance again. Players will briefly play as Layla Hassan, a rogue Abstergo employee who does things her own way. She is the one exploring Bayek's memories, in hopes of finding out something incredible and delivering it for great praise and promotion. Things eventually don't go according to plan, as expected. The modern day plot is very minimal and adds little to the experience, and gives a sense that the franchise is struggling to just let go of the present and not bother with this stuff anymore. It also features the worst dialog in the game.
But back in the Animus, one of the standout features of AC Origins is its game world. This is definitely the largest setting that Ubisoft has ever created for the franchise, featuring a vast landscape that fully realizes its historical setting. The map can be somewhat compared to that of Ghost Recon Wildlands, as it's split into a number of sections, each with its own level tier, ensuring that players know what they are going up against in terms of difficulty. The land is populated by Greeks and Egyptians, which leads to a variety of architecture and peoples that you will come across. From the wondrous Great Pyramids of Memphis to the Nile Delta, and from the dry and isolated desert to the grand halls in Library of Alexandria, the developers at Ubisoft have poured an enormous amount of effort into this historical setting. It is as authentic and as immersive as can be, with high attention to detail across the entire map.
From a gameplay perspective, this is a very different world as well. While Bayek still has a forward momentum and parkour functions, there isn't really a sprint button. Given the setting, Origins is a much more grounded game, meaning you'll spend most of your time on foot rather than on top of buildings. You can climb almost everything, including rock formations and walls that have cracks - it essentially matches the platforming freedom of the grappling hook from AC: Syndicate, but without entirely bypassing the actual climbing. There are still occasional structures to climb to perform synchronizations that enable fast travel, but these are not required as the map is revealed just by exploring. Bayek is also an adept swimmer, so as large as the map is already, it's also got plenty of depth to explore by diving under the various lakes. The bodies of water themselves present an opportunity to sail, and perhaps attack the large enemy barges or explore islands. You have a mount, be it a camel or horse, that can be called forth from almost anywhere, and though you're forced to travel slower through populated areas, there is an option to let it follow the road/custom marker on its own.
Egypt feels fairly dynamic, with NPCs filling the towns and villages, but as you venture further out the only thing you'll find are potentially dangerous animals. As in the newest Far Cry entries, you'll be bound to witness some random events, animals hunting each other or attacking humans, and you can intervene to save a life for a bit of XP. There is also a full day/night cycle that not only affects the aesthetics but also the NPCs. Certain quests need you to visit locations at night; you can fast forward time between night and day with a press of a button. Guards will change up their patrols and go to sleep at night, providing for new infiltration opportunities and helping you avoid all-out combat.
Stealth remains an integral part of the game, even though Bayek is a Medjey and not bound by the typical shadowy assassin rules that will come centuries later. Sneaking into outposts remains a fun experience and it's largely similar to what you've seen in previous games. Quietly taking out guards with the hidden blade remains a classic move, and you can move bodies as well to avoid any alarms. If you're about to get spotted, time will slow for a moment giving you a chance to take out the foe, similar to MGS V. Enemies have a useful health meter that lets you see if you're able to eliminate them with one arrow/stab, saving you from unplanned combat. You'll need these mechanics because aside from hiding in grass there is no cover system, despite there being animations for takedowns from around the corner/behind objects, so you'll have to be careful, and hope for the button prompt to be in your favor.
Although the classic radar is gone, with your trusted eagle Sinu at your side, no stealth outing is too challenging. Using a similar system to the owl in Far Cry Primal or the drone in Ghost Recon Wildlands, you get an aerial view as Sinu soars across the sky. You can look around and tag enemies, which Bayek will then see through walls. Sinu also has the ability to tag items such as quest objectives and treasures if you simply hone-in on the spot, indicated by visual aids. This makes things even more trivial as you don't need to explore the entire area. While Sinu is incredibly useful though perhaps a bit overpowered, the game insists you use him. Players are constantly nagged by an indicator to use Sinu when reaching their objective area so that you can find exactly where your target is, without stepping foot inside the hostile zone. This is an overly aggressive way to push the mechanic that players would probably use anyway.
While over the years the franchise dabbled in modifying its relatively simplistic combat mechanics, Origins definitely shakes things up more than ever. It now plays more as a more traditional third person action RPG, in that you have two attacks – heavy and light – a dodge button, and a shield block button. Keeping your shield up at all times is important, as the enemies do the same and this blocks most of the light strikes from head-on. To get through the defenses, you can timely dodge around attacks that leave foes exposed, unlock a skill that lets you time a counter-strike after a timed deflection, or use a charged-up heavy attack. It becomes a deadly dance of trying to get around your opponents while dodging or at least blocking their blows, and trying to get combos of hits in. During encounters with hulking boss or high-level enemies, you’ll need to be patient and strategic, and apply all the tools at your disposal to succeed. Of course, you’re rarely facing off one on one, so you can use the lock-on system to keep focused or switch targets as needed. Combat builds an adrenaline meter, and upon filling it you can unleash an Overpower attack which can boost damage temporary or let you deliver a very powerful strike. Landing hits does feel satisfying, as do brutal executions of the last man standing. The new combat systems are overall a big change for the franchise, and the mechanics are executed fairly well - though controls may take a bit to get used to.
You’ll need to utilize a variety of weapons depending on the enemy – using something big and slow such as hammers will help you break through the defense of armored enemies, but something lighter like short blades or a Khopesh work best for the quicker foes. There is plenty of variety to be had with your melee weapons that come with quality and attack stats; but further to that, weapons feature a rarity system. The rarer items feature special buffs, such as building your adrenaline faster or even recovering some health with hits. The amount of weapons you'll come across during your Egypt adventures is sizable, so swapping out gear is a frequent occurrence and you rarely have to buy or even upgrade them; anything you don't need can be sold to merchants, who also sell their own, and can even upgrade your existing weapons.
You can also dismantle unwanted weapons for materials. You hunt for materials from animals (or purchase them in shops later on), in order to craft upgrades for yourself. Bayek can upgrade six aspects of his gear that are permanent, which include Bracers, Armor, Pouches, and so on. These upgrades add to your arrow capacity and damage, melee damage boosts and increased health, hidden blade damage and tool capacity. There aren't many materials types so the crafting doesn't go as in-depth as in the Far Cry franchise, but it still adds another layer of gameplay to consider. You can also visually customize Bayek by unlocking new outfits via quests or buying them from merchants; the same goes for your mount. The game's economy seems well balanced and you should never be short on cash.
Assassin's Creed: Origins certainly features the most RPG elements of any game before it in the series, and it begins with populating the game world with quests and markers. Much like in AC IV: Black Flag, there is a real sense of exploration and a desire to uncover more of the map and investigate every question mark point of interest. The game has a compass at the top of the screen with the icons and their respective distances, if you'd prefer to remain immersed and not use the separate overhead map. Rather than feature character-driven markers as in the earlier games, the game simply rebrands everything into a traditional quest system. There are primary and secondary quests, each with their own recommended level, and they are marked on the world map with that key information so you don't have to trek to pick them up if they are way above your abilities at the moment. The quests themselves are often multi-stage, but are fairly typical for the franchise. Main quests follow largely the same structure as those from previous games and feature the most variety and interesting content. Side quests are typically where you'll find the wackier and varied adventures, though most still boil down to having to talk to NPCs and fetching/killing/escorting something for them, and it can get rather repetitive and boring as you go through the motions of helping random NPCs with their troubles.
The progression system is well balanced, as you earn XP for everything you do, from combat to quest completion, to simply exploring. With each level up your strength and health increases, though getting better gear and crafting upgrades is still important. The game isn't afraid to punish you - trying to go toe to toe with an elite enemy just two or three levels above you will result in an extremely swift end for Bayek. If you still somehow find things too easy, the game has an adjustable difficulty setting for the first time in the franchise. With each level you earn a skill point. Having a skills tree is not new to the franchise, but the mechanic has been expanded in light of the more RPG-focused approach for the game. The multi-branching unlock paths offer a variety of abilities to unlock, ranging from double assassinations, parries, sleep darts, smoke screens and the ability to control your arrow in-flight. It's standard fare and works well within the game.
Outside of quests, combat and exploration you'll come across some side activities, with include coliseum racing and combat arenas. Stone Circles is a minigame that tells you tiny bit more of the story, while Papyrus Puzzles require you to find treasures by hints and with no map indicator. Tombs offer brief exploration/puzzle sequences. Some dynamic content comes via the way of a merchant that gives you new quests daily in exchange for nice gear, and by avenger quests. These allow you to occasionally see where other players have died in the game world, and you can kill their attackers for some extra XP. Lastly, there's a photo mode for those interested in taking in the sights. The downside is that photos that others take will clutter your map, which is already busy enough with icons.
Speaking of problems, Assassin's Creed Origins has its share of minor technical issues. AI behavior is chief among them - though the series was never known for particularly clever foes, the enemies in Origins feature odd behaviors throughout. They spot you at odd angles, and then lose you quickly and don't search for long, which makes stealth less realistic. Their pathfinding is awkward at best. Mounted combat can be rather glitchy, but at least it's simplistic. Even riding at leisure, your mount sometimes has trouble following the road automatically, and you'll often see AI ride by at incredible speeds. There are a fair share of physics and animation issues as well. At times, the game would freeze outright for a few moments, but thankfully it never crashed entirely. Some cutscenes at times miss sound effects or lines of dialog.
On the base Xbox One, the quality of presentation is decent. The voice acting is serviceable, and the music mostly sticks to the background and there aren't any memorable tracks. The sights and sounds of Egypt are well recreated and detailed, as mentioned, from scorpions scurrying across the sand to the sounds of distant hyena howls. From exploring the pitch black insides of a pyramid to observing the world from atop it, Origins can be immersive and impressive. However, Origins can also be rather inconsistent in its presentation. The quality of the effects and textures ranges wildly, from character models looking like they were meant for last-generation of consoles. There are framerate dips throughout, though mostly in cutscenes. It is worth pointing out that the game is one of the Xbox One X enhanced titles, so perhaps it would look better on that newer console, but that's not the version this review is based on.
Assassin's Creed Origins may not be the breakthrough that the series is looking for, but it certainly isn't for lack of trying. As this lengthy review demonstrates, there are tons of mechanics and content to be found, and you're certainly getting your money's worth. The brand new large open world of Egypt is a highlight, and so is the revamped combat system, though it may take a bit to get used to. Still, Origins retains much of the series' gameplay DNA, even if it's now wrapped into different mechanics like XP, skill trees, and quest systems. The rebranding of some of the systems makes the experience feel different, but not necessarily a major improvement. If you've been following the franchise casually, Origins is worth checking out because it might just reinvigorate your passion for its mix of climbing, action, stealth and exploration. But for those who have largely only enjoyed the best couple of entries, there's probably not enough polish and unique gameplay experiences here to change your mind.