Ubisoft had been under increasing pressure to address some of the common criticisms regarding the well-trodden formula of the Assassins Creed series. So after taking an additional year out to address some of these concerns, we now travel to Ancient Egypt. Here we go much further back in time than ever before and to the origins of the Assassins themselves: hence the title. Let us see if this shake-up breaths new life into the established conventions of Assassins Creed.
I just want to note that my review is going to be published a few weeks after the general games media and due to the sheer weight of games in October I had to make a few difficult choices. Now looking back with hindsight I am actually really happy I left Origins until last because this enabled me to take my time and see this enormous game in its entirety.
Winds of Change
If you have read my Syndicate review you will know that I am a huge Assassins Creed fan. It’s a tradition of mine to attain one hundred percent sync in every AC game (when that was a thing), even the ones considered the weakest in the series. The first major difference that jumped out at me is that you are now always running (unless you tap walk), gone is the ‘hold space to sprint’. This was a frustrating change at first because for me Bayek felt slower, even at top speed and for a while, I kept hitting space to get some speed up only to be disappointed with a lurch from my dodge.
My first few hours playing AC Origins were not good and the air in my gaming room was a little blue as a result. The meddlers had gotten their way and some of the very things that made Assassins Creeds game so good (for me at least) had been messed with: this was my initial impression. The game opens with a basic tutorial where you cannot move but must prod the button flashing on the screen. You are led into a tomb via some atrociously animated Scarab beetles where you spend the next twenty minutes looting containers, which seems a bizarre activity to launch the game into. After killing a few guards you are released into the game proper. Maybe I was just unlucky but almost immediately ran into some horrific glitches such as a cart that was half sunken into the floor with the physics engine freaking out in the most spectacular fashion. While on the obligatory ‘look at our pretty game’ camel journey I could just walk through my friends beast with no resistance. A few minutes later I ran into some awful clipping issues when climbing the rocks near where you begin the game. This was not the start I was hoping for with the new Assassins Creed game but bear with me.
If there was ever an element of Assassins Creed (AC) that received consistent criticism it was the combat. Over series history, we’ve seen many small changes that have tried to make that particular time period feel unique and I think Ubisoft have had a great deal of success in that regard. I remember the awesome mechanism in Assassins Creed 3 where you could use enemies as human shields and then rush the shooters while they reloaded their musket rifles. In all previous games, an attack would always ‘lock’ you onto your target so the attack animation could play out. Here for the first time we see actual dynamic combat and I’ll tell you at first I hated it.
Anyone who has played the modern Zelda games or Dark Souls will know the score here, you lock onto the enemy you wish to engage and circle them while performing dodges and attacks. Now if you swing your weapon and it doesn’t actually connect; you miss. Or if you dodge but the enemy weapon has a greater reach you might still get hit. This forces you to see combat as less of series of set moves and more of a free-flowing engagement. In addition to normal attacks and dodges, there are thankfully many other elements to combat. Within the ability tree, you can unlock new combat options like parry, charge and various finishing moves. You can fight without locking onto one enemy and indeed you must when fighting a group. The big surprise for me is that after a small adjustment period I am now loving the combat, it does feel faster and more fleshed out that all the previous games. I really like the ability tree and there are some very interesting skills to pick up, such as adding contagious rot to corpses or being able to slow time while performing arrow shots mid-leap. I also think the ability release speed is perfect, even at level thirty I still felt like there was plenty of good skills to aim for. As you get past level ten your levelling pace slows down and the best source of ability points is actually tomb raiding. These can be either conventional Pyramids or other more unique ruins. Creeping down into these often pitch black tombs is epic and feels so atmospheric with your torchlight flickering off the walls.
Along with new moves you now have many new weapons to try out and each feels unique. Some weapons like the Khopesh make you fast and agile while others like the spear give you range and power. Bayek also carries a shield which becomes an invaluable defensive tool, even for deflecting ranged attacks and twating people in the teeth. Every weapon has its own animations and moves which makes trying each one fun. Ranged combat is also a big deal now and instead of throwing knives, Bayek utilises bows. Like the melee weapons, there are many types covering precision, power and speed. There’s even a bow that fires five arrows at once, think the bow equivalent of a shotgun. The shooting mechanics all feel great and I found it really satisfying to snag headshots from range and watch the guards quietly slump to the ground. My only big complaint is one of the skills you unlock which lets you guide arrows after they have left your bow: this just seems unnecessarily powerful and out of place.
As you would expect, Bayek can climb faster than a caffeinated monkey but in previous games, this ability to scale everything often lead to some of the more spectacular glitches. I’m thrilled to report the climbing is the best we’ve seen so far. It’s not so much the standard climbing that is better but more the transition between various objects is effortless. This includes climbing onto moving boats, slinking around enemy camps and also a dizzying around of landmarks. There are some nice touches as well such as the fabric of flags and banners moving as you scurry past them. Previous protagonists felt almost like they were on rails but now the game is far more open to you leaping off a cliff to your death: so look before you leap.
So we have new combat system and new weapons but what else has changed? The entire game has also been infused with an RPG flavour. For example, you now gain experience and level up. This was touched on in previous games but it’s never been as fleshed out as this. All quests are now level based, as are the various areas, so you need to be aware of this when taking on new tasks. Weapons also have levels but if you have a particular favourite you can always pay to have it reforged to your current level. What I love about this system is that you now get XP for everything and so instead of chasing icons you are now encouraged to just explore.
In recent years I think I have played most, if not all Ubisoft games and after a while, you start to notice features bleeding from one game, into another. Your eagle is used to spot targets from up high and this is very reminiscent of the drones in Wildlands and the bird in Farcry Primal. There is also a crafting system, in which you gather animal resources to improve your equipment and ultimately your effectiveness in combat: of course this is also very Farcry esque. In fact, it is plain to see that there are many other influences from outside the Ubisoft stable: Horizon Zero Dawn and The Witcher 3 spring to mind for sure. I also think elements like being able to alter the time of day in real time and the overall cleverness of the world systems remind me of Metal Gear Solid 5. Not that this is a bad thing of course and what Ubisoft have accomplished with Origins shouldn’t be taken away.
The main campaign for Origins is ultimately a revenge story, Bayek is tricked into killing his own son and so now seeks to destroy those responsible. Bayek is actually a Medjay ( a bit like an Egyptian Sheriff) and so it is in his nature to help the people in need. I have seen a few reviews that critique Bayek for being boring but I would challenge that notion as I personally found him to be a very interesting and passionate character, who shows a great deal of humanity in his actions. Your wife does work alongside you at various sections of the story and this is made all more interesting by the inclusion of Cleopatra no less. There is a modern day element here but it is largely throw away and certainly one of the weakest parts of this game. One of the strengths of the Witcher 3 was how the side quests were often better than the main story. It seems the developers at Ubisoft have been paying attention because I’ve found the side quest in Origins to be mostly great and not just the kill/fetch quests I was expecting. In fact, one quest hit an emotional nerve and left me genuinely seeking revenge on those responsible. One small downside to the levelling system was that I often found I was arriving in a new area five or so levels too high. In fact, by the time I had finished the main Campaign, there were still many zones I'd never set foot in. This will always happen with this type of world design, but if I’m honest it wasn’t a huge problem.
Jewel of the Nile
Often what makes a game special isn’t individual features but the glue that holds them all together: world building as I call it. These are the little details which show thought and consideration. Many players may never even notice that one subtle animation or the clever bit of AI: but it gets worked on and implemented regardless. It is also the way all the systems bounce off each other, which can lead to unexpected and surprising outcomes: this is often referred to as emergent gameplay. AC Origins is by far one of the most grounded and beautiful games I have ever played and that is just on the surface. Once you pop the hood and spend some time looking at the things that make AC Origins tick there are some surprising gems to find.
While exploring tombs I was pleasantly surprised that Bayek will reach over and light torches/braziers with his own flame. Just pitch some fire into a passing cart and watch the nearby people rush to throw sand on it. Fire feels like a living thing in Origins, you can light arrows from any flame and use them to set things ablaze from afar, including enemies. You can smash jars which coats everything around them in flammable oil, this even applies to water allowing you to create fiery oil slicks for hostile boats and creatures. I was blown away to discover that the water in this game also has its own current which moves blood, oil or any floating object. I actually got caught out by this system when a dead body I had produced floated down river and alerted the guard in the camp I was infiltrating. One very cool trick was being able to drop your own torch and use that as an alternative flame source. My only small criticism of the fire mechanics is that I wish things burned for a little longer because it looks glorious. In another situation I had been slowly taking the guards down in an enemy fort and had taken a five minute break. When I came back the remaining guards had discovered my handy work and were actually moving the bodies to the swamp at the back of the fort. I have even come across some tactics by accident, like when I was trying to rescue a prisoner being towed by a guard in his chariot. I had been attempting to hit the driver with a sleep dart but missed and hit one of his horses. Amazingly the cart slowed down with the added strain on the one horse. I quickly darted the other and while the guard was cursing his animals for not moving I liberated my friend and quietly snuck away.
If you are walking through corn, grass or flowers Bayek will hold is hand out like the Elysium scenes in Gladiator and when stood near campfires he will warm his hands. People passing you in the street will look at you as they pass and conversations you can hear reflect actions you have taken: all these details ground you into the world by showing a connection between you and it. The infamous mini-map has now been replaced by a wide compass at the top of the HUD, but those who are lacking in spatial awareness fear not because we now have Sinu, a highly trained eagle. You can flip to your eagles viewpoint at any time and highlight items on the ground. You can even use her to distract guards which makes others look in that direction, very useful indeed. Just be aware that once you have secured local synchronisation points Sinu will be more effective. If you miss a target with your bow Sinu will often fly down and attack, giving you precious time to deal with the situation. One lovely detail is that she will fly down when you are not moving and can even give her treats. You can also explore with her while Bayek is autorunning which is a really cool feature.
When walking across the desert your feet leave prints and kick up sand. Sandstorms can also rear up from the desert which looks so menacing as they roll over you and limit visibility: a good time to attack an enemy camp. In fact, I think this is why the game really reminds me of The Phantom Pain because you can use time of day, weather conditions and even crowd sizes to your advantage. All the people you see have their own routine and place in the world. On one mission, for example, I was helping a group of young boys defeat a mounted bandit captain. I had the choice of taking him on in the day while he roamed the ruins or wait until nightfall and attack him at his camp in the mountains. I actually figured out that he was most vulnerable while making his way to the cave at dusk and this kind of ‘what if’ gameplay is so rare these days. You will see this cleverness everywhere, for example when you attack a target and fail: the next time you return they may have more guards or he may even not be there at all.
Wish you were here
Ancient Egypt is well known for its Pyramids but there is so much more to this setting than that. Seeing the Sphinx and being amazed at how small it actually is was great (I promise I left his nose intact). Sliding down the Pyramids as the morning sun warms their surface was incredible as was entering their dark depths looking for treasure. Walking across the desert, seeing the shimmer of the heat and even the occasional mirage was also very impressive. All these experiences are wrapped in full day and night cycle which includes various weather and effects.
However, it’s not just the incredible environmental effects that make this game feel so alive: there is an intricate ecosystem that goes far beyond what I would normally expect in a game. As I have mentioned, Metal Gear Solid 5 was filled to the brim with astounding details but one area it was lacking was the spaces between the enemy camps as they were almost devoid of life and interaction. As you approach a body of water in Origins you will see a mass of life, from crocodiles and hippos to flocks of birds feeding. The magic here that these creatures all follow the circle of life. So, for example, you will see crocodiles sleeping in the morning sun, maybe a lion feeding on guard you killed five minutes previous or two hippos going at it in the reeds. I remember the first time I went galloping through a river opening and seeing the flocks of flamingoes and Herron all taking off around me, this was a real wow moment and totally unscripted. There is even the ability to tame certain animals so they might assist you taking on those pesky bandits. I love how nesting birds will dive bomb Bayek when you’re near their nests and cats will often bother him for attention. I am also pretty sure that Vultures start to appear over dead bodies which can signal trouble ahead. I can’t honestly list all the details I have seen but trust me when I tell you there are many.
As you might imagine there is a season pass and new content planned for Origins but one piece, in particular, has my attention. Next year Ubisoft will release an educational mode for Origins which lets players explore the rich and detailed environments of Egypt without any of the violence. I have often said that the amount of effort the art teams at Ubisoft put into recreating these historical settings is breathtaking. My son is actually studying Egypt at school next year and while he is too young to play the actual game I will now be giving him a unique tour of Egypt for his school project. So a personal thank you to the Ubisoft team from me and I really hope they do more of this in the future.
Is it PC?
Assassins Creed Origins is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. There are so many stunning locations I have lost count but often these views are made even more dazzling by the lighting. When you have a true twenty four hour day/night cycle with true dynamic shadows you will get a constantly shifting colour pallet. I just love seeing the way morning sun starts creeping in through doorways and windows. When it was first confirmed Egypt was the new setting many including myself lamented the loss of verticality. While this isn’t London the team at Ubisoft have still given us a wonderful sense of depth within the many areas you visit. The first way they have done this is by making each place unique and memorable: I can honestly remember every village and location I have travelled to with Bayek. There are also countless hidden tunnels, cave systems and tombs that lie under your feet which will often give you alternative routes into enemy camps. This provides players that depth we have had from previous games but in a way that fits with the setting. If you have the time I would really recommend you walk around and just watch the world tick over. You can see so much going on from workers making bricks out of clay, carpenters sawing wood and even soldiers urinating off boats as they pass. The sound work in AC Origins is like the rest of the game, excellent as standard but also excels in so many ways.
The water in Origins is also a stunning achievement, not only does it look realistic but the way it reacts to moving objects is jaw-dropping. Everything creates waves and ripples, blood pools from dead animals/people and the way light penetrates through it is sublime. When on a boat moving at speed you can see that wonderful deep green as the sun shines through the wake. You can also dive under the surface to explore hidden caves, sunken wrecks and of course treasure. You can ‘acquire’ boats at any time and even board bigger boats in order to acquire their cargo. These vessels all move around the waterways to their own schedule and it all works very well. Sadly there is no naval combat in the open world but a few small sections do a good job of reminding us why we loved Black Flag so much.
I have been able to run Origins on the highest settings while using a GTX 980 and an i7 at 4.2GHZ. Overall the game runs very well for me with very fast load times on my SSD. There were reports that the games double DRM was causing sizeable performance drops at launch but this seems to have been addressed with various patches. The menu is well packed with options for graphics and controls, there is also a very interesting section on eye tracking. This lets you focus on enemies just by looking at them as well as other cool features. One even dazzles you when you look at the sun. I can't really justify £130 for the hardware but I might have a dabble if I see a unit in the new year sales.
I must mention that this game does have micro-transactions and unfortunately, these are the only way to acquire some of the best skins. I would love to have the unicorn mount and the Nightmare pack looks amazing. I have always maintained that after a game has been released, micro-transaction can keep a game alive. Predictably the cost of these skins is ridiculous and I would have to spend around £15 for just one skin pack. There is also a season pass (of course there is) which offers two more story packs: given how good value the base game is I am planning on covering these as well. There are various skins for Bayak and his horse in the game but given these cosmetic items had their own dedicated vendors the choices did feel a little sparse.
Change is inevitable and is often not in the direction we would like. I have actually been on a jaunt of self-discovery with Bayek, in the sense that I was first quite opposed to the series moving away from its set formula. I now see that these changes had to happen and I applaud Ubisoft for being brave enough to make them. This new Assassins Creed has completely invigorated my enthusiasm for where we could in the next game. Feudal Japan would have been fantastic in the previous design but with this new, more open world template we could see a game that could even rival the venerable Witcher 3.
The bottom line is that Ubisoft has created a stunningly beautiful and intricately detailed world with Assassins Creed Origins. There is so much more I haven’t mentioned like finding star signs, treasure hunting and taking on the specialised hunters who will track you across Egypt. I will always have a soft spot for Syndicate because gadding around London in the Industrial Age was a place I had always hoped they would visit. However I have no hesitation in saying this is the best Assassins Creed game to date and I cannot recommend it enough.
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