Assassin’s Creed Origins Review
[Reviewed on PS4 – games™ 194]
Egypt’s living, breathing world ticks by regardless of how much – or how little – you interact with it. Sit on the shore for a while, and you may see a crocodile chance its luck against a hippo in the shallow waters. Take pause at the precipice of a craggy canyon, and you might catch a wandering villager below get jumped by a passing trio of hyenas. Trot past a farm, and you could find a scattering of animal corpses at your feet, ripe for the (loot) picking, a local bandit – or rogue predator – having already moved on to the next target.
People go about their daily lives here; they shop, talk, argue, hunt, travel, work, cook, live and die. You can get involved if you want – as saint or sinner, it’s your choice – but it’s not obligatory: life, and death, persists with or without your interference.
From the highest mountain to the lowest sunken treasure, every inch of Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Egypt is breathtaking in scope and scale. It’s to Ubisoft’s credit that the sun-bleached stones and lush, vibrant flora have become so par for the course for an Assassin’s Creed game that it’s simply expected now, and we perhaps don’t give Creed’s astonishing environments the acclaim they deserve. You owe it to yourself to get out into that world and explore – it’s what the in-game photo mode was made for. Sure, we all have hot takes on the bugs and glitches of Creed games past; the tropes and mistakes have dominated column inches and Reddit posts in recent years, perhaps prompting Ubisoft to dampen its hitherto fervent release schedule. But sit back and take in the view, Assassin; overlooking Origins’ stunning sets does a disservice to the series in more ways than one.
The real magic lies not in its main story, but in the secrets skilfully scaffolded into the vignettes and shadows around it. Ubisoft has always led from the front with this, with both the Assassin and Far Cry series painting huge digital playgrounds for us to play in, but never has it tried anything with this kind of scale before. Yes, there’s Pyramids, but there’s so much more here; for every rich, opulent town you encounter, there’s a dozen scrublands, swamps, deserts, plantations, tombs and farms to explore, not to mention the bloodshed of the arenas, or the adrenaline-fuelled chariot racing of the Hippodrome.
You might not feel like exploring when you first step into protagonist Bayek’s shoes, though. The map is huge, and as you traipse through Siwa and head to Alexandria, you’ll wonder what the hell you’re doing, taking on a game so huge. As you race through territories guarded by enemies that are level 28 to your novice level 5, it’s all too easy to feel swamped; the odds seem stacked against you.
Stick with it, Assassin. Leading man Bayek’s story is a heartfelt one, a tale of rage and revenge and the endless pursuit of Doing The Right Thing while taking on people who do anything but. If you paid attention to history in school (or watched Horrible Histories, we suppose) there are names you’ll recognise amongst Origins’ cast, and Bayek’s affable charm and easy manner make him one of Creed’s most likable leads, a principled character that believes in retribution, but will nevertheless take time out from all that ass-whooping to perform leaps of faith for awed children.
The series is famed for its seamless parkour, and we’re delighted to report that it’s as robust as ever. Bayek moves effortlessly from pole to wall to whatever (with the exception of windows – for some reason, this freaks him out), and while he’ll occasionally do something you didn’t plan (like plummeting from the top of a tower instead of commencing the careful descent you’d hoped), for the most part his exploration is as effortless as the world painted around you.
Is it perfect? Alas, no. NPCs will recycle the same old phrases – an irritant, when you’re 40-hours deep and have heard the same line literally dozens of times before – and you’ll see the same faces pop up again and again. There’s looping NPC speech, occasional dialogue issues (once, an entire side mission was delivered completely devoid of speech, not even subtitles), not-so-occasional mechanical glitches in which Bayek loops an animation over and over, and popping assets, with trees and shrubs magically shooting up in front of you. But given you can canvas the entire map without a single loading screen, this is forgivable. The three times we experienced a hard crash, on the other hand? That’s less so.
It’s a long quest, though, and you’ll be prevented from speed-running, as main quests come with a recommended level sometimes several ranks above your current one. Trying to take them on when you’re under-level isn’t impossible, but it’s not advisable; get caught, and you’ll get killed. End of. Part of us wants to say that though long, it’s an enjoyable journey, but we suspect the campaign is maybe half a dozen hours longer than it needed to be, a single playthrough clocking in at a substantial 50-60 hours.
There are endless side missions, too. And while many fall into similar patterns of go here, do this, get him, return there, they’re varied enough keep the stain of repetition at bay… just (and there’s no longer any tailing missions – yay!). Origins also isn’t ashamed to short-cut some of the more tedious parts of open-world play, so while riding through Egypt might be interesting for the first 1,000 metres or so, you can expedite the process by instructing your mount to Follow Road and automatically ride along; a neat touch, right? Oh, and if you’re ever wondering where the hell you last parked your camel (or unicorn – yep, really) it will magically appear wherever you are with a summoning whistle.
Combat remains one of the weakest aspects of the game, regrettably. Though Bayek’s equipped with a huge assortment of weapons, both close-range and long, the mechanics of fighting – remapped since previous iterations – remains adequate at best, and clumsy at worst, particularly in boss fights or when you’re beset by swarms of guards. Thankfully, it’s not impossible to side-step a lot of this, especially if you favour life as a ‘lover not a fighter’ kind of assassin. Build up your abilities – neatly divided into Hunter, Warrior and Seer, all with essential passive and active abilities – and you’ll be able to boost your chances of slipping in and out of a restricted area unseen.
There’s also extra challenges by way of Assassin’s now staple investigations, which task you to survey a small area in search of clues to uncover a mystery. They get less interesting the more you do them (especially when you learn you can use your highlighter to instantly reveal all) but hey, we all need a break from ball-busting, even Bayek, apparently (although if ball-busting’s your favourite way to pass the time, feel free to head to the Krokodilopolis Arena).
Crafting isn’t as intuitive as it could have been, either. Some icons are peculiarly similar, which means differentiating between soft or hard leather is cumbersome, and we were dozens of hours into the game before we realised the brown acorn thing we needed to upgrade our hidden blade was actually bronze. Yes, we’re stupid, granted, but a little explanation would have helped, too.
That said, if you’ve spent any time with RPG-esque games like Diablo or Destiny, the loot system colour-coding of blue, purple and gold should help you determine what’s good. There’s a variety for myriad combat styles, so experimentation is key; try everything that falls in your hands to determine what weapon suits your playstyle best.
Creeping up an outer wall, tampering with the braziers, silently moving from cover to cover, smoothly taking out enemies as we go, concealing the bodies; it’s something you have to do a lot, but it’s still Origins at its best, and we never tire of it. Especially when you level up a bit, go back and kick the arse of the bastard that cheerfully stabbed you a few hours ago…
As the Assassin’s Creed series celebrates ten years, Origins feels paradoxically both new and familiar, and more than once, we’re reminded of Far Cry. Many times, the lines between the series blur thanks to the abundance of forts (camps), viewpoints (towers) and civilian rescues (the same in both games – they’re denoted by similar icons).
Oh, there’s Animus stuff too, of course. Yes, it jars the flow of the game (we forgot it was missing until we were yanked out of Bayek’s story and introduced to Layla), and yes, it still feels as clumsily tacked on as ever. It’s a nod to the game’s roots, but more than ever, it feels unnecessary. If you didn’t know the lore behind it beforehand, this glimpse in Origins does nothing to aid this, and if you knew about it before, it doesn’t bring much added valued. Take a good long look through the files on the laptop, though. Just sayin’.
At the core of Origins is its people; Bayek, Aya, their allies, their enemies, their townsfolk. Every side mission is another strand in the rich tapestry of their lives, another brief glimpse into the loves and losses of those around you. For all its opulence and excess, life in Egypt at this time is not an easy one, and danger lies everywhere. It’s a world awash with grief as much as grandiosity, with constant reminders of the Egyptians’ unflinching belief in higher powers, your map littered with temples to the Gods, and many side missions dedicated to helping others reconcile, or avenge, an untimely familial abduction or death.
Not all mechanical choices work – whoever decided that the waypoint icons on a predominantly yellow map should be white and, er, a slightly darker yellow, needs a stern talking to – and some irritating glitches persist, but the good here way outweighs the bad, and it’s been some time since we’ve been able to say that so readily – so happily – about an Assassin’s Creed game. Enjoy exploring Bayek’s world – we certainly did.