Assassin’s Creed Origins (PlayStation 4 Review)
Ubisoft were well aware of the fatigue caused by their flagship series, resulting in an extra year for the publisher/developer to reflect and redefine Assassin’s Creed. We’ve had our break, and now it’s time for the series to return. Does it manage to break from the shackles of its rather formulaic predecessors, or will it continue to conform to the franchise’s flaws?
Taking a step away from the war between Assassins and Templars, Origins drops players into the Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt. To put that period in perspective, Rome’s Coliseum—previously appearing in ruin during Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s campaign—hasn’t even been built yet. Meanwhile, the famous Great Pyramid of Giza has already been standing for over two thousand years. Ancient Egypt is already as old to Origins’ denizens as the Roman Empire is to us. This quality adds a pretty fascinating layer of depth to Ubisoft’s depiction of the era. These ruins from the Old Kingdom have existed for generations—their maker remembered but their function lost to the sands of time. Frequent nested Google searches suggest a surprising degree of accuracy for a time period that predates our current calendar. It’s refreshing to explore an absolutely massive region filled with mystery and wonder.
An unfortunate consequence of historical settings in an open world game usually means the world is treated as little more than a painting to be viewed. There’s usually some wonderful architecture on display to climb and tour, but rarely do we glimpse inside. Recreations of historical cities often tend to blur when traversing their rooftops. Assassin’s Creed Origins does a fantastic job of sparking the curiosity to explore. There’s a synergy between the historical theme and game mechanics that’s been missing in the franchise so far. The cacophony of collectble feathers or flags and arbitrary side content has been replaced; Origins treats fictional and historical landmarks as a form of collectable instead. Each location has its own set of objectives, ultimately leading players to acquire experience points and loot. It’s incredibly easy to be side-tracked, with players lured by a question mark in their compass less than five hundred metres away. How has such a simple solution to engage players with the setting eluded Ubisoft for so long?
In a region filled with relics, it’s appropriate that the protagonist is Bayek of Siwa—a Medjay. In real life, the last known record of the Medjay was dated to a period roughly three thousand years ago—a millennium before Origins begins. Like most players, Bayek isn’t interested in the Assassins versus Not-Templar Order plotline. Serving as a refreshing change from the rational—almost clinical—nature of the franchise, Bayek’s quest is visceral in nature. The Order may conveniently be involved in the murder of his son, but at least our protagonist now has a strong and personal motivation for the ensuing slaughter. Other protagonists may have had their own personal connection to the plot, but unlike Bayek, this was often discarded for “the creed”. That titular creed is instead relegated to our infrequent co-protagonist, Bayek’s wife Aya, who gets the player involved in naval battles or trips abroad. It’s also important to note that Bayek’s status as a father is wonderful and good. There’s many great moments in which he interacts with children and his positive and friendly attitude contrasts with his mission in a way that just broadens his character.
Assassin’s Creed Origins does, however, manage to tie into the overarching Assassin’s Creed storyline. Players will visit Layla Hassan’s perspective a handful of times in the present, and many Assassin traditions are hamfistedly introduced throughout the main story. Fortunately, these moments are often brief, throwaway moments. Ultimately, Bayek’s quest for revenge takes the forefront and Origins benefits from it.
What Origins doesn’t benefit from is the title’s equivalency to the micro-managing game elements found in the series since Assassin’s Creed II. While some of the MMO features Origins introduces aren’t a detriment—the sheer variety of admittedly repetitive level-locked quests also build the world and its culture very well—a single-player action game probably shouldn’t expect players to grind like this title does.
Targets about three levels above Bayek can often kill in two-shots, and assassinations eventually stop working altogether unless players murder enough animals or ransack enough cargo transports to upgrade their tools. Players can forgo the tedium by simply spending money on microtransactions—something this reviewer has finally caved on utilizing out of frustration. Failure to be baited by the variety of side-quests or landmarks on offer may also result in players hitting momentum-killing walls in the story. There’s nothing more discouraging than emotional climaxes that lead to… well, abandoning the story to train. Perhaps your tools and level were fine, but you’re still struggling? It’s probably your equipment, which is usually obtained as a random drop and also has its own leveling system. Much has been done to engage players more than the title’s predecessors, but the MMO-like nature sometimes fails to succeed at this. Though the combat, at least, is successful.
What may surprise players the most about Origins is the brand new combat system. It’s more involved—more engaging—than it’s ever been. Now more similar to a typical action game, players can swing their weapon around lightly or heavily. On the other shoulder button, players can use their shield or bow. Dodging relies more heavily on the player’s reaction, as it’s a little less passive than before. There’s an array of weapon types and tools, but Bayek doesn’t feel like a human terminator. He’s fallible, and you best learn how to use his skills well. Leveling up will also grant ability points that can be consumed on abilities during battle. They can be passive (exp gained on an assassination) to granting access to a new tool (unlocking smoke bombs, etc.).
Assassin’s Creed Origins has a soundtrack, maybe? There’s often an ambience with some occasional scores during combat, but little of it stands out. Regarding audiovisual elements, it’s the graphics that stand out more. Egypt is incredibly detailed and even despite the repetitive architecture that plagues the country, there’s enough variance to produce settlements that feel distinct. The animations are fairly smooth considering the range of motion Bayek needs to display when climbing practically any terrain, and the water effects are just wonderful.
As a soft-reboot, Origins establishes what this reviewer hopes to be a precedent for the series. A stronger focus on the historical settings impact on gameplay is a definite step in the right direction, but Ubisoft still continue to bog their title down with unnecessary elements intended to provide longevity to their game. There’s still a need to break away from the remaining restraints of the franchise. Without the resource grinding and MMO level progression, Assassin’s Creed Origins could have been the best in the series yet.