It is perhaps ironic that the game which seeks to elaborate on the origins of the Assassin’s Creed is also the largest departure from the franchise to date – and a much needed one. Ten years have passed since we saw the first game in the series, and fell in love with its take on stealth mixed with a truly amusing use of parkour to traverse historical, urban environments. While the formula was a breath of fresh air back in 2007, it has clearly become stale,e and Origins is Ubisoft’s attempt at remedying the problem.

Origins turns the franchise on its head, creating a game that truly embraces the RPG genre to reinvigorate the gameplay, and features perhaps the most captivating setting in a series filled with virtual escapades during some of the most illustrious periods in human history.

Story, setting, and open world

Origins offers a thrilling adventure in Ancient Egypt near the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Like with older games, Origins’ narrative stitches together its own mythology of the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. This is centered around the major political upheaval of the time, the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII as they struggle to wrest control of the throne of Egypt.

This period presents one of the most complex and multifaceted political and cultural settings in the series to date, as we see a land with a history and civilisation stretching back thousands of years now being ruled by a Greek dynasty, and under increasing foreign pressure from the Roman empire. That melding of cultures is portrayed impeccably in the game and is precisely what allows the world of Origins to come to life.

Strolling through the streets of Alexandria and seeing the Greek and Egyptian denizens of the city living together, taking in the religious fervour that envelops the marshy plains of Memphis, the shouts of the patrons as you fight to the death in the Roman arena in Cyrene, sliding off the side of the Great Pyramids of Giza, finding a tomb of the Ancients hidden in the underbelly of the Sphinx, all of these are portentous and cinematic moments that you’re likely not going to forget soon.

More than the story or the gameplay, these are also the things you will likely remember most about the game, as the true star of Origins is its world, thanks in large part to the team of historians and fact checkers hired by Ubisoft to make sure that its recreation of this fantastical land is as accurate as possible. As a token of their confidence in the historical merit of their work, the developers have even announced an entirely combat-free mode whose sole purpose is to act as a ‘living museum’ that lets you explore the ancient world of Egypt with your own eyes.

All of this is possible due to the exquisite attention to detail that has been paid by the developers in creating this lifelike model of Egypt, as you’ll soon start to notice small things that help in cementing the realism of the world. For example, the Egyptian NPCs speak in a variety of thick African accents which are in stark contrast to their Greek and Roman counterparts (something previous games in the series have had trouble with). The franchise is known for its detailed renditions of historical monuments, like the Notre-Dame, in previous games but the combination of the almost mythical perception of Ancient Egypt in popular culture and the sheer size of Origins’ world makes it the most memorable to date.

From a technical standpoint, the game’s visuals are some of the best among modern games and are a large factor in bringing the game’s world to life. Playing on the PC at high settings will likely bring all but the most powerful of computers to their knees, but it’s more than worth it for the stunning sights alone.

A photo mode that lets you pause the world around you to take in the scene you’re witnessing in its full glory and share it with the rest of the world is a welcome addition. Moreover, as you scroll the map, you’ll also be able to glimpse the favourite moments of the community at large. Origins isn’t the first game to include such a feature. However, it is the only one that actually tempted me to document my journey through its world, as I quickly racked up a collection of hundreds of pictures journaling the myriad picturesque scenes scattered across it.

That combination of stunning visuals and a realistic world makes you feel like you’re actually walking in the shoes of a man living in Ancient Egypt. That man is Bayek of Siwa, as you follow him and his wife in a tale of political upheaval, revolution, espionage, treachery, and heartbreak, as they seek vengeance for the death of their son at the hands of the Order of Ancients – the precursors to the Templars.

Bayek is charismatic, but also brutal and driven following the loss of his son. This combination is immediately endearing and makes you feel invested in his fate, though the game does seem to have a hard time reconciling the obvious disparity between these two sides of him. One instance that particularly stands out is when Bayek, in a blind rage, just murdered the man he believed to be directly responsible for his son’s death. After that, he returns to his wife and they proceed to make a love. The whole purpose of the latter seems to be sensationalism, with our protagonists shifting between their shared grief and rage to romance on a whim.

These minor quirks aside, Origins’ story is definitely among the better ones out there in the RPG genre, providing a neat arc and a relatable protagonist. It also does a good job of humanising its villains. The seemingly out-of-body conversations Bayek has with his assassination targets – trippy as they may be – often do a good job of portraying the antagonists' reasons, beyond just the classic 'world domination'. This in turn presents a more sympathetic side of many of them.

Bayek’s status as a Medjay - protectors of the Egyptian people from the days of the Old Kingdom - also ties in well to the many side quests you’ll see littered around the game's’ world. Like is the case with most RPGs, Origins’ side quests do suffer from some repetitive mechanics, but as far as narrative goes, they are written rather well. Some were particularly memorable, touching on profound topics like the human spirit or the loss of a child.

Gameplay

Origins is the first game in the series to fully embrace the RPG formula in its game mechanics, and it’s a mostly welcome change. The world is divided into different provinces, and the enemies populating each of them are leveled statically, regardless of your own progression in the game. This can be both good and bad, as it is feels realistic for enemies to not suddenly become more powerful as a result of your own progression. On the other hand, it also means players who tread too far off the beaten path in their zest for exploration will often find themselves ill-equipped to handle the dangers they may face.

This leveling system does feel a little arbitrary as a result, given enemies can often one- or two-shot you as long as they are 3-4 levels above you, which is a far cry from the increase in your own health and damage in the natural progression of things. If like me, you’re a completionist and tend to do as many side quests as you can find, you’ll often find yourself significantly ahead in levels when you return to the main story. The result is that the game will seem a little too easy, even on harder difficulties. Case in point, one of the penultimate boss fights in the game is a war elephant that I was able to dispatch with ease simply because I was almost ten levels ahead when I finally got around to the mission in question. Even a blow from his massive, armoured trunk - something that would kill any man in real life - barely chunked away at my health, much to my displeasure.

A subsequent consequence of such a system is that you’re not going to be able to just quickly zip through the story and will need to grind through side quests in order to gain more experience and level up. Most of these quests are not particularly original and tend to be more of the fetch and kill quests that we’ve now become accustomed to in RPGs. As stated before, they are however written well from a narrative standpoint, which does help mitigate some of the monotony.

The combination of this static leveling system and the open world presents a troubling dichotomy. Origins' world is begging to be explored but explore too much or do too many side quests and you'll ultimately find yourself returning to a less rewarding experience.

As you traverse the Egyptian motherland, you’ll soon notice that the parkour that was the hallmark of the series is no longer so. Given the larger, less urban nature of the world, you’ll soon become accustomed to traveling on the back of your horse. Even in urban areas, parkour feels like something that was given little attention. You’ll often find yourself missing jumps between buildings that would have felt natural in earlier games. Playing Origins really makes you appreciate the number of hours the developers of previous games must have spent ensuring buildings were just the right distance from each other or that there was always a large heap of hay for you to conveniently dive into wherever you were. With time, you’ll grow accustomed to this rather large change to how movement is handled in the game, and learn to rely on parkour as more of a tactical tool when sneaking around an outpost and trying to position yourself just right for the perfect assassination.

The stealth mechanics in the game also take a rather apparent backseat due to the nature of the open world, and feel more like the experience you’d have in a Far Cry game than in a proper stealth-focused game. Things like the double assassinations, and the many other fancy moves that were found in all the previous games have simply disappeared.

All of this brings us to the new combat system, which you’ll come to rely on more and more as you either get a little too bored of the dumbed-down stealth systems or just get caught as a result. Here, I feel Ubisoft had the right idea coupled with a terrible execution. The combat system borrows heavily from animation-heavy games like Dark Souls – though is, of course, not as punishing as those games – with an emphasis on blocking, parrying, dodging. There's also a variety of different weapon classes which all have their own attack types and animations. This makess for a refreshing diversity in terms of open combat, which was often rather clunky and unfeasible in previous games.

Unfortunately, a system which relies so much on timing and animation requires positioning and camera angles to be spot-on. That’s where Origins really lets down players, since the lock-on system in the game is utterly terrible and simply doesn’t work as advertised on the PC. This meant that I was often unable to properly change targets in the heat of battle and would, as a result, often take quite a bit of damage. The new direction the developer is taking with the combat is something I like, but the relatively lackluster execution makes it feel just a little too exasperating for my liking. This will hopefully be fixed in subsequent iterations of the game.

Other points of note

Continuing a concerning trend among modern games, Origins also includes a microtransaction system in its single player campaign. Thankfully, it doesn’t affect the game too much, due to it comprising mostly of additional costumes and mounts (largely cosmetic) and a few legendary weapons. Most of these can’t be found in the base game, but you will be generously awarded with other rare and legendary weapons as you play. These weapons are also not significantly more powerful than their regular counterparts so having a pay wall doesn't necessarily affect the difficulty of your playthrough.

Alongside future DLC, Ubisoft has also opted to provide a steady stream of post-release content for Origins, a lot of which will be free. For example, the game is currently holding a special Trials of the Gods event which pits the player against the Egyptian pantheon in special boss battles, only available for a week.

The inclusion of this content for free is greatly appreciated, but I don’t see the point of treating a single-player game as a service. Yes, it’s a nifty inclusion that will likely tempt players to return to the game even after finishing it. That said, the charm of an open world RPG like this one is in the joy of exploring and coming across new and wondrous things you didn’t expect as you go along. If this content was available for consumption a week after launch, it was obviously ready before said launch. I would have preferred the inclusion of it all in the base game, allowing me to explore and consume as much of it as I liked - at my own pace. Instead, I was forced me to have a 40GB game installed on my PC weeks after finishing it, just so I could fight one special boss a week.

Conclusion

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is not only one of the best games of the year, but also the best game in the series. It’s a rare example of a developer revitalising a stale franchise in just the right way and beyond just that, it’s also one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played.

Though the experience is slightly let down by a sub-par combat system and some technical troubles, the sheer beauty of Origins' world is enough to overshadow any of its few blemishes. The only other game whose open world captured my imagination to this degree and made me this giddy at exploring its every inch was Skyrim, a comparison which I consider to be the highest praise that can be allotted to an open world RPG.


You can buy the game on your platform of choice here:

The review of Assassin's Creed: Origins was conducted via a review copy provided to us by Ubisoft on a custom PC with the following specifications:

  • Display: 34" 21:9 IPS UQHD (3440x1440) non-touch
  • OS: Windows 10, 64-bit
  • RAM: 16GB
  • Processor: Intel Core i5-6600HQ
  • GPU: NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 980Ti with 6GB GDDR5 VRAM

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