Disclosure ‐ Courtesy to my friend, Liem, who took these images using the game's fleshed out photo mode.
It has been a long wait, guys.
As a huge fan of Assassin’s Creed, it has been hard watching the series decline over the last decade. More and more, the cyclical release of new entries stretched the traditional open-world formula to its limits; a strong narrative, engaging cast of characters and worthwhile content was washed away by repetitive and over-saturated world design. The series lost any semblance of progress that had me so enamoured by the jump from the first title to Assassin’s Creed II. Year after year I convinced myself that ‘maybe this time it’ll be better’, but year after year I was let down. After the unfettered disaster of Assassin’s Creed Unity, I lost all hope. Even though Syndicate by all accounts was regarded fairly well, it still represented the same tried formula I had grown so tired of.
I often felt as though my desire for the trajectory of the series had departed sharply from its new fan base. I wanted combat to change in a meaningful way; I wanted better character development and the sci-fi meta-narrative to return. Above all, I wanted to feel the excitement I felt when I watched the trailers for Assassin’s Creed II, or witnessed its endgame twist. I loved the first Assassin’s Creed, though, in retrospect, despite the unique story it was more of a tech-demo than anything else. But Ubisoft expanded on its success, they took the tech, the story, the setting, and made it something more. They responded to criticism, and in turn, created one of my most treasured games of all time. However, there must have been a bigger audience that wasn’t like me. Perhaps they were happy receiving consistently similar games year after year. Or perhaps Ubisoft just got stuck.
Luckily, it’s clear that eventually, some form of this opinion took root in the decision-making apparatus of Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed was taking a year off, and they were coming back in 2017 with Origins. Maybe the fresh focus in Ancient Egypt, set to explore the foundation of the Assassins would instill some creativity, reset the clock and give me hope for the future of the franchise. And it did, oh boy it did! I have sunk 40 hours into Assassin’s Creed Origins, and it has been a challenge to pull myself away from it to play other games. Despite a weak introductory segment, Origins emulates an enormous and immersive world, full of substantive content and character intrigue. It is a little rough around the edges, but it signals a tremendous return to form for this dear, and decaying franchise.
Set in Ptolemaic Egypt around 49 BCE, Assassin’s Creed Origins explores the social and political turmoil of a declining Egyptian society. Gone are the heydays of the mighty pharaohs, which have instead been replaced by the power juggling elites of Rome, Greece and Egypt in an intensely fragile community. Whilst the two main characters of the story, Bayek and Aya, engage in a quest to avenge their son’s murder, they become ensconced in a conspiracy which threatens all of Egypt. Overall, the narrative emits a simplistic arc which falls short in quite a few respects, but the focus on the characters’ struggle mixed with the world’s focussed side-stories and activities kept me engaged for a tremendous period of time.
Finally, we were given a character I can see something in. Bayek seeks revenge, but often this unflinching desire conflicts with his moral compass, and his desire to return to what little happiness he can find. He doesn’t want to get bogged down in a conspiracy, but it’s clear to him that the people are in need, and his duty as a protector of Egypt must take precedent. Indeed, the evolving relationship between Bayek and his wife, Aya, meets its own challenges as the two are increasingly unable to turn away from chaos. It’s a satisfying reveal of the Assassins’ origins, one rooted in personal loss and the desire to help others, and not some overly secret conspiratorial plot.
The characters are given meaning through the world, one rife with tragedy and individual stories that present the turmoil of the time. The societal divide between different cultures, and the human impact that this ‘secret order’ inflicts on the populace through varying means is given life through smaller narratives. But it isn’t just the side-quests, the scale of the world is immense. Every region has a unique beauty, from the decrepit swampy city of Memphis, to the sprawling oases surrounding Alexandria. I’ve completed 84% of the game and I still haven’t discovered six regions on the map. What’s more, is that the side content filling in this map inspires exploration. Each discovery feels lived in, be it a secret underground tomb, or a bandit camp built into the mountainside. Animals feed and rest, roaming convoys get ambushed by rebels or mauled by a pack of lions, and cultist murder scenes litter religious sites. I was perpetually in awe.
Additionally, the redesign of combat and loot has been long overdue. Admittedly, perks on weapons and a rarity hierarchy seems a bit out of place, but it quickly settles in, and finding new pieces of rare or legendary loot is exciting… For a time. Eventually, the loot takes a back seat as you find your preferred high-tier armaments, and consistently upgrade them throughout the game; it needs refinement. Similarly, whilst pulling off quick combos and parries to flaunt your slick skills can be extremely satisfying, the lack of canned animations and more in-depth combo mechanics leave a bit to be desired. I’m sick of seeing the same three death animations over and over. Even simple things, like not having a ground attack would have gone a long way. Instead, when an enemy is on the floor, you have to swing at the air in front of you to hit them.
On the other hand, whilst I enjoyed Origins immensely, it wasn’t merely itself that reinvigorated my hope for the series. Throughout my playtime, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the potential of the original game. It didn’t get everything right, far from it, but it provided a stepping stone to iterate. The loot system works, but it needs to have more impact; the combat works and presents moments of utter satisfaction, but it needs expansion; the story was serviceable, but the revenge tale is tired and forcing players to play a character they don’t equip themselves (Aya), for important final acts of the game is frustrating. For the first time in a long time, Assassin’s Creed has potential. It has a new direction that if expanded and iterated on correctly, could foster a truly exceptional game in the future. Ubisoft, please stick to a two-year release cycle, it has worked pretty well here.