While previous Assassin’s Creed games like Unity and Syndicate focused on thwarting Templar activity in major cities like Versailles and London, Assassin’s Creed Origins takes a different approach. Rather than stick to one central location, the game takes place over the sprawling country of Egypt, from Ginz to Memphis to large swaths of desert with not a tree in sight. And covering nearly all of this uncharted territory are sidequests, smaller adventures that lead you to places on the map you hadn’t thought to visit and teach you facts about the people and places of Egypt that make the world feel more real.
In action adventure games, most of the time I don’t bother too much with sidequests. It’s not that I hate sidequests, but more often than not the reward for completing them — some small amount of money or another collectible — isn’t worth my time. But Assassin’s Creed Origins ties its sidequests into world- and character-building with a quest structure borrowed straight from RPGs. The placement of these quests in both major and minor areas encourages players to explore, which is turn helps them learn about Origins’ version of Egypt more organically.
A (Literal) Sandbox
“If we were going to do Egypt, it wasn’t going to be a city,” Assassin’s Creed Origins director Ashraf Ismail told me during a recent press event. “It would be this massive countryside. And we learned a lot from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the last game this team [Ubisoft Montreal] made. We felt we learned a lot from a technical, sense, the world-building sense, and that we could take that next step to build a countryside where you can enter a city from any which way or whatever peak of a mountain you see you can just get there. So there was a technological hurdle we felt we had been able to surpass.”
It certainly does feel like a hurdle when you compare the seascape of Black Flag to the seemingly endless stretch of sand, river, and stone that is Origins’ Egypt. During my recent hands-on time we were confined to the Ginza and Nile River Delta regions, but even without passing the boundaries of this area, the game still felt impossibly large. It took me minutes to get across the area on horseback, even more if I decided to run on foot. There’s no doubt the game is large, and this feeling of vastness lends a sense of excitement to the overall tone of the game. The player is discovering Egypt along with Bayek — so why not make all of Egypt his oyster?
“When we knew [the game] was going to be ancient Egypt, we had over 3000 years of history to play with and we asked ourselves, do we go to the building of the pyramids?” Ismail continued. “But then we found out there wasn’t much else around that time. Alexandra didn’t exist and Memphis was a lot smaller. We wanted a time period — again, it was for our protagonist Bayek — with a lot of stuff for him to discover, as much as the player is going to discover, by putting him in a time with Cleopatra the final Pharaoh, Caesar is coming, Rome is coming, the clock is ticking, the old world is about to die… It just felt like this epic crucible of history, and that out of this pressure you have [the Assassin Brotherhood] come to be. It felt like an epic setting, an epic time period set in one of the most magnificent eras and locations in the world.”
A Living City
At time the scale felt daunting. There was no way I would complete all of this, I thought. But the game surprised me, and I surprised myself. With each non-main mission Bayek undertakes and each civil dispute with NPCs he involves himself in, Bayek earns experience points and levels up, gains ability points to learn new moves, and sometimes even collects new gear. Even the small things have rewards that affect Bayek in the long run, so when I needed to gain a few more levels before tackling a main story mission, I turned to roaming around the Nile Delta. This turned out to be a great idea, as more than a few people needed help that would reward me with some experience points.
Packing world-building moments into these sidequests is a great way to reward players who want to immerse themselves in the culture of Origins’ Egypt and glean every bit of narrative content they can. Origins does well to give its players stuff to chew on for taking their time on side-missions, but it’s the way these missions are scattered about — actually a cleverly-organized web — that are even smarter design. I lost myself in these sidequests, ignoring the main story quests available to me completely, because these other missions pull you along on a journey of discover so organic you feel like it’s a trick.
I am drawn to RPGs for this kind of organized chaos, this sneaky guidance that builds on world immersion. Assassin’s Creed Origins presents this structure in a way that allows players to organize themselves how they will — either complete all side missions and then go for mains, or just wander around and let the game take them where it will, bouncing from quest to quest without a thought to whether it will advance the story yet or not — and this is good. It allows you to meet many colorful secondary and tertiary characters, and some NPCs, that you may otherwise not meet if you only do main quests. And this design also allows for the story to breathe, letting dramatic moments fester or pick up the pace in the sprint to climax, depending on the player.
In a way this mirrors the franchise’s central struggle between the Assassins and Templars: the struggle between free will and control. The game is always in control, designed to let you go where you will but all the while guiding you through it. But it’s the player’s will that dictates how the journey unfolds, and just how much of this stunning world they take in.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on October 27.
Need A Second Opinion?
While Alexa Ray’s web of side quests left her elated by Origin’s emphasis on exploration, our UK gaming editor came away with a different take on Ubisoft’s latest. Check out his thoughts on the series’ new structure and narrative here.