Assassin’s Creed is a series I love more than it deserves, I feel. Sure, some of them are excellent, but Ubisoft pushes what love those instalments generate and stretches it thin with yearly releases hampered by little innovation or even change, and peppered with glitches. II, Black Flag and Rogue were revolutionary for the series as a whole. Everything else was a holding pattern with varied results; a pair of Frye Twins here, a cool old man Ezio there keeping me invested. Syndicate was the peak of that run of AC games; glitchy, largely uninspired gameplay, historical figures crammed with largely embarrassing results, and a futile insistence that the future part of the story line will eventually be worth paying attention to. I enjoyed it for the most part, but even I knew it was time for a change; for the series to take some time off, regroup and come back strong. So here we are with the fruit borne from exactly that: Assassin’s Creed’s Origins, the best the series has been in years.
As the name implies, this is chronologically the first game in the series, taking events all the way back to 48BCE, Egypt. Cleopatra’s brother is doing a pretty awful job of running the country, she’s in exile and looking for a chance to take the throne, and the Greeks are in charge, to the detriment of Egyptians. Caesar’s Rome is at the door, and things are in turmoil. In the middle of all this is Bayek of Siwa, a Medjay who has sworn to hunt down and murder every member of The Order of Ancients, a masked and highly malevolent group who are responsible for the death of his Son Khemu. As a Medjay Bayek is a sort of Detective trained in hand-to-hand combat, archery and freerunning. He does a lot of killing soldiers and rescuing kidnapped civilians, but there’s also a fair bit of looking for clues, fighting off rogue animals and just generally being helpful. Helping him in his endeavour is his equally lethal wife Aya, who is currently in the Cleopatra’s service, and whom the player controls a few times for weirdly out of place ship combat. The game’s plot never really gets any more complex than that setup: Bayek travels from town to town in a frankly enormous open world, then towards the end the story gets more involved and the whole “origin of the Assassin Brotherhood” thing takes the forefront. This part of the story is a lot weaker than everything that came before it; its political intrigue and reveals fall flat, and having ended on a bittersweet but touching note, the game keeps going for another half an hour or so and then ends again in inferior fashion. The plot is strongest when it follows Bayek cutting a murderous but noble path through a beautiful, well-crafted Ancient Egypt. This is the first Assassin’s Creed game to actually inspire me to do further reading and research into the era it depicts. Rather than use its time period and culture as a backdrop and excuse to dump a load of historical characters in Bayek’s path, it ingrains those things into the story. The Duat, the Field of Reeds, the Ka, Sobek, Anubis, Sekhmet and Osiris; these things are not merely paid lip service, they are key parts of Bayek’s story. They weave a different spin on the traditional revenge narrative; yes, Bayek is on a hunt for those responsible for Khemu’s death, but not merely to take an eye for an eye. His journey is motivated by a burning desire to help his Son’s soul move on to the Egyptian afterlife, something he feels cannot happen with Khemu’s killer drawing breath. Bayek is a true believer in the Egyptian Pantheon, and it factors into his role of Medjay; he is as man steeped in the culture and belief of Ancient Egypt, and willing to shed blood and risk his own life in the aid of his country and its people. It was this, alongside their general level of quality, that made it so easy to pick up and complete side missions. Role into a town to inquire about the next Target, find five or six people in trouble, offer help. Sidequests are short and snacky, and usually involve finding and killing people and/or rescuing a prisoner. Mini versions of the base infiltration and assassination stuff you get up to hunting The Order of Ancients.
Gameplay wise, this is the new benchmark for the series, although it does have issues. Freerunning and stealth haven’t really changed, which is fine; they got those both sorted in Unity, with just a few niggles that have been ironed out. Being spotted by an enemy doesn’t alert anyone else, there’s a clear threat indicator, and the freerunning is now controlled with one button press and the left stick. The biggest change is to the combat, and equipment. It’s a “Division”-style RPG now, in which the player and enemies have levels, attacking them makes numbers fly out of their heads and if an enemy is more than two levels higher than you the game recommends giving them a wide berth. Combat places no emphasis on parries (though they are present, but only offer a slight advantage), instead Bayek’s combat style is looking for/creating an opening and then battering enemies into submission. Bows play a large part in both stealth and combat, with different types available: a regular bow that can be charged, a sniper bow aimed in first person, a rapid-fire light bow and a sort of shotgun bow which fires several arrows at once. Giving Bayek the edge is his Eagle Senu, whose eyes Bayek can see through for reconnaissance purposes. Basically, she’s the way you mark enemies in traditional Ubisoft style, and finds objectives once you’re within a certain range. All of this works really well, for the most part; stealth bolstered by Bayek’s ranged options and dealing with any raised alarms with an upgradeable, scaling range of melee weapons is a good mix that deals with most situations. Issues arise primarily if you venture into missions beyond that two level range; they’re possible, but difficult. The problem is that while normally fine, the checkpoints can sometimes place you back at the start of a huge, gruelling battle you barely managed to scrape through, only to be cut down by a random goon who just so happened to be passing on horseback. Also the hidden blade can only be used on unaware enemies, and if the enemy is too high level it doesn’t kill them. Now, this makes sense if taken purely in the context of an RPG, but it is rather stupid to stab and only wound someone with a blade that will outright kill the man standing right next to him. That’s it for my issues though; for the most part it’s an enjoyable open world game with good stealth and combat.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is the best the series has been in years. Having slowly degraded into a factory assembly line open world title with a new coat of paint each year, the time off did it the world of good. Rather than just have a big city populated by people to stab and historical figures embarrassingly crammed in regardless of whether or not they fit, Origins presents a beautifully designed, excellently crafted Ancient Egypt, a very human, character based story steeped in the culture and trappings of the time and a very noble, likeable protagonist. This is what Assassin’s Creed needs to be going forward; a series where each game is given the care, attention and time it needs to just be an all-round enjoyable experience. Plus you can climb a Pyramid and slide back down the other side. It’s ace.
By James Lambert