My, what a difference not being on a yearly schedule makes.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is the return of a franchise that just stepped off the conveyor belt. In production for four years, it’s the end of Ubisoft’s grand experiment in leveraging global staff towards annual releases.
It was a highly specialised operation producing games in which you could practically feel the reexamining of life choices, as a Shanghai artist endlessly made virtual chairs to match the virtual tables made in Montreal.
Logistics aside, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a bold step for the franchise in almost all areas. The Assassin’s Creed combat system has been completely overhauled. Senu, the pet eagle, is a fantastic addition. And its subject matter of ancient Egypt offers a vastly different landscape and tone from previous installments.
These are all good things. Origins might not look or play like any Assassin’s Creed that came before it, but this will be the new favourite game in the franchise for many.
Us Against The World
Set in the time of Cleopatra’s rise, main characters Bayek and Aya are a righteously violent husband and wife team. Bayek is a Medjay, an old protector of the people, dragged into conflict with the Order of the Ancients. Typical of the franchise, these factions are inserted (much like the Assassins and Templars) into the intrigues of their day — this time, it’s Cleopatra’s power struggle with her brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Bayek is the protagonist, with only a small slice of playtime being dedicated to Aya. But they can almost be thought of as dual protagonists, such is the strength of their relationship. They approach challenges as a team, and even when they set their sights on murderous vengeance it’s cute as heck.
It’s also a tortured romance (for semi-spoilery reasons). While their goals have a lot of overlap, strain is put on the relationship when Aya leans more towards serving her Pharaoh, while Bayek leans more into protecting the people.
There’s a healthy degree of respect between the two, and this comes across in the writing. Issues arise but they deal with it as a healthy couple, whereas lesser writing might’ve conjured a hollow rift. Before level 10, Bayek and Aya were my favourite assassins, and part of that is because of how they deal with each other.
Some of what is thrown at them is formulaic. It’s not Bayek’s fault that there’s always a nearby bandit hideout or priest working for the Order of the Ancients behind a town’s misfortune. But it’s precisely his vulnerability — both in story and gameplay terms — that makes him more real.
Egypt’s Land and People
Egypt is massive. It opens up, and then it opens up even more, and then it will change to make old areas work differently. The layout of towns and waterways is a history lesson in itself, even if everything is smushed together to keep things interesting for the player. And in a time when Moses is played by Michael Fassbender, it was great to see a lack of whitewashing in Origins.
Egypt is also full of mystery. The temples and pyramids are as ancient to them as Cleopatra is to us, leaving plenty of room for wonder and antiquity. The best storytelling is reserved for the main questline, but my favourite time in Origins was spent with nothing on the quest tracker. Allow yourself to wander and you’ll come across tombs to explore, riddles to solve and even some desert hallucinations.
The dedication to historical accuracy is admirable, though it does sometimes mean your parkour flow while traversing the landscape is interrupted. Something might seem 100 metres away, but streams, rocks and walls might slow you down. Often you’ll do small stretches on your horse, followed by a boat, followed by on foot. My advice would be to use synchronisation points to enable fast travel.
There’s decidedly less rooftop running than in previous Assassin’s Creed games. Large layouts of tiled rooftops are rare. Hilly landscapes mean houses are mostly at different elevations, and their characteristic parapets are bad for parkour but great for stealth.
There certainly hasn’t been a landscape like this in an Assassin’s Creed before, and despite the stutter-stepping nature of ground travel, it’s good to be unique. We can’t have every city be Roma.
Origins also has some of the best designed fortresses and bandit hideouts in any Assassin’s Creed game. These areas are big. Seeing the quest marker in the middle of a massive compound is almost intimidating: “How the hell am I going to get out?”
At times I’d switch to using Senu just to admire the level. Even in the odd case of recycled level design, the guards and patrol routes will be different. Ubisoft has clearly taken special care here to design for the new combat system. Which is good, because combat just got a whole lot tougher.
Combat and Stealth
Out of the several things Assassin’s Creed Origins does better, its combat is the best.
Let’s be honest: Combat in Assassin’s Creed was never great. It was cinematic. Exciting, even. The animations were superb. But with an all-powerful counter button, and with an extremely wide window to press it, spamming one button allowed you to take down whole garrisons.
That’s something that never really sat well with the game’s premise. Assassin’s Creed has always been inherently conflicted in that it’s a game about stealth where there’s no reason to stealth.
Players will always take the path of least resistance — and when combat is this easy, the path of least resistance is resistance.
So what’s different? The big change here is moving from “choreography” combat to a hitbox system. Previously, pressing the attack button would “lock” you and your target into an animation. The outcome was already decided, and you’d watch the action play out.
Now, pressing attack will only affect your side of the equation. Your attack animation starts, and the game will track frame-by-frame if you make contact with the enemy, who is dodging, parrying and attacking according to their own AI.
All of a sudden this means you have to worry about distance, and learning enemy attack patterns. You may have to master the much more unforgiving parry window. You may have real reasons to use the assassin tools like smoke bombs and sleep darts.
Most of all, there’s a necessity now to actually plan your attack. Now that killing guards isn’t trivial, you might want to avoid some. Analysing patrol patterns becomes a priority, as does considering a ghost-like entry and exit leaving your mark dead. All of which is what Assassin’s Creed games have been aiming for since day one.
This is an amazing thing for the franchise. It’s what Assassin’s Creed has always needed. The combat system itself is good, but the real gift here is consequence. Conflict has consequence, which makes you think before you walk up to the front gate and start slaughtering.
Stepping Towards RPG
Combat is also affected by the levelling up system, and you’ll find that two or three levels makes a big difference in this game. It’s very much the Final Fantasy style of massively decreased damage when your target is above you. By contrast, they’ll sometimes end you in one hit.
There’s always the stealth option, but infiltrating and assassinating is considerably harder when your hidden blade doesn’t instantly kill. Perhaps you’ll try getting in and out with the objective without being seen at all, or perhaps your reaction to tougher combat is to “git gud.”
Either way, the new levelling system works as a sort of unofficial difficulty mode. If things are grim, you can grind out some XP, which isn’t too bad since it’s quest grinding. I found that quests two or three levels above me were my sweet spot.
These side quests will eventually be 100 percent necessary though. Later in the game when the basic troops are a few levels above you, the toughest captains, commanders and bounty hunters are scaled to be a few levels above them. Being surrounded by them will make even the most stubbornly proud gamer change tactics from “harden up” to “level up”.
If you know you’ll be targeting missions several levels above you, prioritising the hidden blade during crafting is an option. Depending on how much you like grinding, you might just want to do quests instead. Though hunting materials for crafting is a lot easier now with your trusty psychic eagle, Senu.
Not If I Senu First
Senu makes anything she touches become better, and she touches just about everything in Origins. At any time you can press a button and be taken up to your eye in the sky to help out with crafting, combat, exploration and stealth. It’s almost like a real-time minimap.
Senu sees things that you can’t. When you’re looking for a particular crafting material, she will show you the icons from her birds-eye view. If you’re sneaking into a fort, she will help you tag all the guards so you never lose track. She will even let you know where the treasure is, and other points of interest.
She’s also just fun to use. I found myself switching to autopilot on horseback while watching from above with Senu. Perhaps I was on the lookout for a particular metal, and if a delivery came along I could go rob it.
In combat, Senu is more of a distraction than a damage dealer, but that can prove the difference. As she engages and disengages she can build up your adrenaline bar too, giving you a free super attack.
Is ‘Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Good?
There are some big, important steps forward for the franchise here. Ubisoft clearly hasn’t been sitting on its thumbs for four years.
Is it perfect? No. There were some of the bugs you’d usually expect with an open world game of this size, and some of the side quests were a bit samey. The “investigation” mission type, in which you press X on a number of items in a crime scene, was leaned on too heavily. And different people will have different feelings about the landscape being harder to traverse.
But all up, this is a big win for Assassin’s Creed. Just about every aspect of the game is better from combat, to hunting (thanks to Senu), to stealth play with a sense of consequence. Top it off with the memorable yet vulnerable duo of Aya and Bayek, and this sequel managed to go back in time while taking several steps forward.