Recent years have not been kind the the Assassin’s Creed series. After the conclusion of Ezio Auditore’s story, the games have struggled to rekindle the fire that had fans so devoted to the franchise which has stretched across more than ten games. Assassin’s Creed Unity caused a particular headache for players when its release didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it (although looking back, Unity is one of my favorite entries in the series), paired with a barrage of technical issues and memorable bugs. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Syndicate have been revered as the high points of the series in recent years, with the former breathing life back into a franchise that was nearly dismissed. All of this is to say that long time fins have been on quite the roller coaster with the series. Assassin’s Creed Origins aims to place the series back on top.
Taking another shot at rebuilding and improving the Assassin’s Creed formula, Assassin’s Creed Origins has undergone the largest overhaul out of any of the games to date. The team at Ubisoft was so committed to improving the game that they ignored their annual release schedule and took an extra year to develop Origins. Early in development, the team at Ubisoft mentioned that Origins has taken a lot of inspiration from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and it’s very apparent! An example of this is that the mount controls feel so similar to The Witcher 3 that I refer to my horse/camel typically as Roach. It does however use a lot of things that Wild Hunt does well as references for improvements, and not just as things to copy. In line with this, the story of Bayak is more focused and integral to his character, main and side quests involve you with characters in the world, and combat has received an incredible overhaul.
Let’s get into the story of Assassin’s Creed Origins. We accompany Bayak, one of the last of the Medjay of Egypt, on his journey to avenge the murder of his son Khemu. As a Medjay, he is tasked by the Pharaoh to fight for and protect the freedom of his fellow Egyptians. This naturally puts him at odds with the the group who you spend the game pursuing, The Order of the Ancients, and the fact that they killed Khemu in pursuit of their goal pushes Bayak and his wife Aya to pursue them even more tenaciously. The Order of the Ancients is a made up of many figures of sociopolitical influence spread across Egypt. Each of the members have a vested interest in Those Who Came Before and the precursor objects (which takes an entire game series to explain). Origins has more interaction with Those Who Came Before than any previous title, which is great because it gives more information about the mysterious race of people and the tools they used to control mankind. Scattered through the world are mysterious constructs, each give a cryptic glimpse of the precursor race. However, it creates more questions in doing this than it answers. So if you are use to (or, perhaps, enjoy) being strung along in the way that the series has been doing since Assassin’s Creed II (so, nearly ten games ago) then this is business as usual. Expect to have those head-scratcher moments and expect to find no answer to them in the game.
One larger issue that arises with the precursor civilization is that the story of the game does nothing to further the modern day conflict with Juno, who has been sitting in the electronic conglomerate of the world readying her attack. Little is done to expand on the happenings of the modern day story, at least that I have found in my nearly 70 hours with the game. Abstergo’s (the corporate face of the Templar organizations) cloning ambitions are not addressed. We don’t learn anything more on sages. We don’t see from Shaun or Rebecca at all, which is unfortunate considering the state we left them in at the end of Syndicate. I’m sure this will be one of the first things that is addressed in the next game, but not having it as much as mentioned in this game feels a little back-handed. We have been watching these two and building a relationship with them since Assassin’s Creed II. Perhaps the lack of Shaun’s role is the reason that Assassin’s Creed Origins does not have the robust database of character information and locations that every other game has had (an exclusion that I am actually rather bummed about considering there is so much that we are never taught about this area of history). Or maybe it was not included to focus on the update coming next year that gives a deeper, guided historical tour of the setting. The entire focus of the modern day portion of Assassin’s Creed Origins is to basically establish a new protagonist character, Layla, and yet they don’t give nearly enough insight into her character for me to be excited about her role in the coming games. Layla has developed a portable animus which doesn’t require the user to have a genetic connection with the person whose memories they are reliving. I worry that if the series is now developing a new lead character that the fact that any ancestor we visit does not have to have any relation to Layla will cause them to feel less significant to the story or whatever conflict Layla will be trying to resolve in future games. One of the most satisfying points in this series to date was the conclusion of Ezio’s story. This stuck with me because the reunion of Ezio and Altïar, and Ezio speaking forward in time to Desmond made the whole story come together tightly feel like a family affair. The significance of this event was literally even strong enough to wake Desmond from a coma. I don’t know how they can achieve story-telling on that level if there is not bond between Layla and the ancestor we are reliving.
I am an avid fan of the modern day story of the Assassin’s Creed series, and I am bummed that Ubisoft chose to push it so far into the background that the events which take place during these sections have very little gravity. Hopefully these game will begin again to have a modern day story akin to those in Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. It’s only fair to recognize that Ubisoft is creating complexity in the modern day story with the events involving Abstergo trying to clone members of the precursor civilization, giving us a wider view of the present day Assassin’s Brotherhood (albeit this view either is not very deep or relies on your understanding of the various other Assassin’s Creed media such as the comics to be informed about certain characters), and increasing the role of Those Who Came Before, but nothing makes the the story personal. When Desmond is taken over and stabs Lucy upon finally finding an Apple of Eden, that was personal. Waking up from a coma to find William Miles (Desmond’s dad who he had not seen in years) then quickly learning how much of a prick he is, that was personal. Being some blank slate Initiate as we were in Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate was simply not a satisfying way to take a part in the modern day story-line. The establishment of Layla seems promising, as long as Ubisoft will give the conflict some personal stakes to Layla and the player – neither of which happen in Origins, but could easily happen in the next entry. I know I’m in the minority here in saying this but give me the modern day story back Ubisoft!
[As a note (or rant), I think the largest problem that Ubisoft has run into with the series is that they are trying to please too wide of an audience. The reason that Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood remain so revered is because they focused on what made the series so unique. Such as the cryptic modern day story that referenced crazy conspiracy theories, which in turn inspired the players to research these grey areas of history, all the while it created personal stakes in the modern day story and its characters – which is why they keep bring Shaun, Rebecca, and another member of the Brotherhood at the end of Origins back into the story; because they are the only people we care about since we’ve spent the time emotionally investing in them. Another great example of something unique the first few games pushed is the puppeteering system that mapped buttons to areas of your assassin’s body and the games’ large emphasis that was placed on high vs. low profile actions. In addition to that there was combat which rewarded a slow approach and precisely timed parries with efficient kills, which is more akin to how an assassin would fight. As the series progressed, we see Ubisoft actively trying to make the Assassin’s Creed titles in the image of other games to appeal to the gamers who play them (such as making the combat more like the Batman Arkham games to focus largely on killing a group of enemies in a cool way instead of concentrating on your timing and taking the fight slowly because you life depended on it). Pretty soon we have a franchise that became action fixated instead of social stealth focused, which makes being a “work in the dark” assassin rather … redundant. I love to see a game that I enjoy reach a larger audience, but that should never come at the cost of essential pieces of the game. I strongly believe that for this series to return to the point of being highly venerated it needs to refocus on the roots of what made it unique and stop catering to those who just want to quickly play through it before the next big thing comes out. These games should be for the players who want to dig insanely deep into the world’s lore and want to spend all the time doing so that comes with it. Simplifying it just so more players are willing to spend money on it doesn’t make the game better for anyone, it just leaves everyone wondering “is that it?” End rant!]
Let’s stray away from Layla and talk more in-depth about Bayak. Opposite to Layla, Bayak is very easy to become invested in and has a superbly fleshed out character. Bayak’s personal creed is to fight for the protection of Egyptians, while at the same time he is being nearly consumed by rage over the murder of his son. These two different personality fluxes play off of each other in very interesting ways. Many main story missions start with Bayak trying to help solve a problem for a person or village, but upon discover of the involvement of The Order of the Ancients he becomes more driven to kill in the name of vengeance. More so than for the sake of justice or the freedom of the world. To me it seems like Aya does more to establish the ideals of The Order of the Hidden Ones, which is one of the earliest forms of the Assassin’s Brotherhood. Aya recognizes that the end results of conflicts have the potential of robbing humanity of its freedom and places herself in the middle of the conflicts to fight for what’s right. It seems Bayak instead focuses primarily on the killers responsible for Khemu’s death and only through Aya’s direction does he contribute to the larger picture. Where Bayak’s the most enjoyable to play as would be through his work as a Medjay – where he works for the safety and benefit of a single person (or a few) instead of for humanity as a whole. These smaller stories give Assassin’s Creed Origins some of the spice of life that side quests in the series’ previous games were missing. Exploring Egypt through taking part in the lives of its everyday citizens is a great way to expose yourself to the state of Egypt and the world at the time. Through these missions you can get an idea of what living during this era of civil war was like, and how this impacted relationships between the different ethnic groups living in Egypt. This is especially insightful because parts of Egypt had such a heavy mix of Greek and Roman culture (as well as several others) that you get to understand the different sides of the conflicts and the views of the people who take part in them. I’d take this type of mission structure over Paris Stories from Unity or the Da Vinci missions in Brotherhood any day. The only time in the series where the side quests were stronger and more personal were the Homestead Missions in Assassin’s Creed 3, and certain quests in Assassin’s Creed Origins come very close.
While I was never fatigued or bored by combat in previous Assassin’s Creed games, the revamp in Origins is a very enjoyable change. Straying away from the counter and insta-kill flow, this time around we are introduced to a hit-box based system that is more in-line with other role-playing games. Every enemy has their own hit-box, so if you swing your weapon and it makes contact with their hit-box then the enemy will take damage. This is equally true for Bayak. Enemies take advantage of how easily damage can be done to the player. Many will attack from multiple angles and without waiting for their turn, so fighting large groups of enemies can become very tense. It’s a great accomplished to make it out of these skirmishes, and if that is not possible then a tactical retreat is always an options. The game even houses a large enough variety of enemies that each instance of combat varies based on what troops oppose you. My largest issue with the combat is simply the button layout. On the Xbox One controller, your main attach is bound to the right bumper, with a heavy attack on the right trigger. To raise you shield you can either hold the left bumper or tap it to toggle your shield. Dodge and parry are assigned to the face buttons. I’m not sure why the choice was made to layout the buttons this way. Maybe to have it similar to Dark Souls? Possibly in an effort to not be too similar to other open world RPGs such as The Witcher (which would be a weird decision since so many other areas of the game borrow obvious influence from The Witcher). Simply, a primary action (your basic attack) is graphed to a secondary button (the right bumper), and bouncing between actions can be a pain. It is nice however to have a thumb free to dodge and parry using the face buttons without having to move your index/middle finger off of the attack buttons. I think the game would have benefited more from a control layout that is closer to the standard, which has become so common thanks to years of refinement. If anything, the ability to alter the control schemes would have been a great middle-ground addition, but alas there is none present. I’m confident though that, given enough time, nearly anyone who picks the game up can become efficient with the controls, but it can be a very steep learning curve.
Assassin’s Creed Origins gives you several types of weapons to be used in combat. Your main weapons, for which you have two equipable slots, can be a single sword, dual swords, heavy blunts/blades, mace, spear, scepter, or (if you want the challenge) unarmed. Most of these will pair nicely with your shield, giving you the ability to block incoming advances, bash your opponents to a prone state, or parry enemy attacks. While it might seem that you are equipped to easily handle any threat, and can just hack and slash your way to victory, the game demands all of your attention during stages of combat. Not dodging (or dodging the incorrect direction of) an enemy attacks can inflict some heavy damage and likely leave you open to follow-up attacks. When you are fighting multiple enemies, getting caught by an attack and be left vulnerable to attacks from each of your foe can be the turning point of the conflict. However you have the tools to turn the fight back in your favor. When you are low on health, switching to a spear to fight further away from your enemy or using your bow to try and pick them off while outside of their range are really handy options. You also have access to tools such as the fire and smoke bombs that effectively halt enemies to give yourself some breathing room.
Fans of the series will know that victory can often come from careful preparation. Utilizing Senu, Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ substitute for Eagle Vision, you can easily scout an area from a birds-eye view to plan your course of action. If you’re having a hard time trying to find an approach because of the enemy’s patrol routine then you can unlock the Dusk and Dawn skill which allows you to change the time to morning or night. At night a lot of the NPCs in the camp will go to sleep, making it easier to sneak in and around if you prefer a stealthier approach. Throughout the world are opportunities to inflict damage on your enemies or insight a little chaos before jumping into conflict, which is typically more fun than just running into the fight. My favorite way to distract enemies is by lighting objects on fire then running in for the kill while they are focused on the blaze. Bayak has an infinite number of torches which can ignite just about anything comprised of hay and dry wood. If you have no ready kindling, jars of oil conveniently placed near sources of fire can either be thrown onto flames or shattered and later ignited. The player now has the ability to ignite the tip of their arrow by placing it in or close to just about any open flame. (Pro Tip: You can use your own torches to light an arrow if you throw it down on the ground in front of you.) This can set oil, hay, or even enemies on fire. Plus, it’s insanely satisfying to see an entire enemy encampment go up in flames. I found myself swayed to the strategy of lighting as much stuff on fire as I can, even when there are sneakier options available.
It’s time we talked about Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ Egypt. First off, it’s massive! You’ll explore the entire environmental range that the country has to offer; from lush oasis and swampland to sand as far as the eye can see. In good form, there are portions of the desert where you will occasionally experience a mirage. A particular favorite region of mine is Faiyaum, which has some Greek and Roman architectural influences mixed with Egyptian designs, and many Greeks and Romans residing there. I like this regions, and by extension Egypt as a whole, because it reveals a much larger melting pot of different cultures than other forms of media portraying Egypt highlight. It seems that missions in Origins are meant to present the rich diversity of the environment and the people who live in it, and the game never opts to make locations just places where Bayak has to run a few errands. There is a very particular way that games can tell enthralling and authentic stories using people and places in tandem, and Assassin’s Creed Origins nails it. While I am typically playing games, I seldom feel compelled to continue playing through side-quests after beating the main campaign because rarely are these missions as fulfilling as the main story. Yet each mission in Origins is so focused on world-building in a setting that is exotic and fascinating that I continually find myself scouring through the world looking for more activities to take part in. I also find it quite a bit easier to get wrapped up in a game world that is based on a real life location, as opposed to a fantasy setting. Both of those aspects make Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ take on Egypt one of the best worlds that I have experienced to date. Developing worlds such as this has always been Ubisoft’s greatest strength, and this is easily their best work so far.
It feels good to be an Assassin’s Creed fan again. Syndicate did a great job of setting the series up for success while Assassin’s Creed Origins really knocks it out of the park. The new direction to a more expansive role playing experience is a welcome change. I wish that the modern day story had been crafted to the same standard that the story of Bayak and Aya had been written. If you prefer to ignore the modern day aspect of the story, however, you might find that it keeps these portions short and sweet. I am beginning to really enjoy the new combat system, even though I have issue with its controls. Thanks to new skills and a range of weapons to experiment with, combat is always evolving close to the same rate as the player is developing their mastery. Really though, the most standout thing about Assassin’s Creed Origins is Egypt itself and the people who inhabit it. This is the primary reason that I would recommend to anyone that they should check out the game, and if you’re looking for a point to jump into the series (without spending time on the handful of other games) Origins is primed to be picked up by new players.