There’s no such thing as a perfect video game. It’s impossible to make something every single person will love. If you need evidence, Assassin’s Creed Origins — the latest in Ubisoft’s 10-year-old historically minded sci-fantasy saga — is strong proof. By retooling the series’ stealth centric open-world action mechanics to accommodate more combat and an emphasis on simple but pervasive loot, developer Ubisoft has worn the series’ mechanical signature too thin. The new mechanics don’t work as well as they should, and the stealth gameplay lacks refinement, since the game wasn’t designed with those mechanics in mind.
At the same time, the game does a couple of things incredibly well. A prequel to the entire series set in ancient Egypt, Origins’ vast world is one of prettiest you’ll see in a game this year, both on an aesthetic and technical level. The story, which clearly serves as a sort of jumping off point for a new era for the series, also has strong character moments, and more than clears the lowered bar we’ve set for the series after its last few forgettable chapters.
Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t the radical paradigm shift fans hoped to see from the game, which comes after the annual franchise “took a year off” in 2016, but it is also definitely a departure from the series’ stealthy roots. We can’t say whether that departure went too far or didn’t go far enough in our review, but Assassin’s Creed Origins lacks a clear sense of self, mechanically. The result is a game that’s often beautiful to behold, but a struggle to play.
Once upon a time in the land of Egypt…
In Origins, players turn back the clock to 49 B.C.E. and jump into the shoes of Bayek of Siwa, a “Medjay,” which in the game is a sort of regional Sheriff. Following a personal tragedy, Bayek swears revenge against a shadowy cabal called the Order of the Ancients, whose tactics, political connections, and rhetoric all bear a strong resemblance to the series primary villains, the Knights Templar. From there, Bayek and his equally capable wife Aya become elite spies for Cleopatra, eliminating members of the Order and turning the tide of an Egyptian civil war.
The plot of Assassin’s Creed Origins is the rote retread of a quintessential AC story that you’d expect, and suffers many of the problems commonly seen in prequels. There are winks and nods to various details of AC lore seeking “oh wow” responses from fans who played the game every year for a decade. A few of these anecdotes, like the story of why every assassin cut off one finger to wear the hidden blade, are fascinating in an almost historical sense. You’d been told a story before, but now you’ve seen the real reason. More of them feel forced and unearned, however. Neither Bayek nor Aya ever say the words “Assassin’s Creed” together, but they use the words multiple times with a cringe-inducing level of reverence.
And yet the game’s story is one of its stronger elements, because well-defined characters like Bayek and Aya keep things interesting. Many video game protagonists are heroic, doing good for goodness’ sake, but Bayek is among the few you would describe as genuinely kind. Origins goes out of its way to portray Bayek as friendly and invested in the fates of others.
Progression is a jerky, grind-intensive affair that you can’t ignore.
Even outside of the core story, Bayek’s wandering around Egypt is littered with small quest-chains that introduce characters, many of whom he knows from his years as a Medjay. Picking up these relationships in the middle, by and large, opens the door for a level of personality and nuanced affectation that you don’t often see in interactions with minor characters.
Aya, who you also control in some sections and is present for many of the game’s core story moments, is equally well-defined, and perhaps more interesting. She’s more of the traditional self-serious badass, but she shows enough emotional range to suggest that she’s reacting in a human way, which makes you feel for her. This is especially clear when Bayak and Aya are together. They clearly love each other, but they’re also angry, grieving, and have trouble being together. She’s taken to the role of political advisor far more willingly than Bayek, and their differing perspectives make for some genuinely interesting conversations.
As with every Assassin’s Creed, we’re experiencing Bayek’s story through the lens of another character, who’s using a device called an Animus to see the life of an historical figure using their DNA. Enter Layla Hassan: A boisterous Abstergo employee using DNA from Bayek’s mummy to see his life.
Though you’re only with her for a short time, Layla successfully rekindles the series’ modern storyline, which has been relegated to nameless first-person office drones since Assassin’s Creed III. Brash, bold, and interesting, she brings a strong jolt of personality that has been missing in the franchise’s past few modern story sections. You have to read a series of emails to really understand the character, but the added depth it brings makes that story feel like the start of something new and exciting, long-term. For Assassin’s Creed fans, who are used to playing a new game every year, that carries a lot of weight.
Exploring the not-so-open world
That story, while interesting, plays out primarily in exposition-heavy “walking” scenes and cutscenes. The meat of the game — combat, stealth, gear management, crafting, exploration — does not feature the same level of nuance. The game has been in development for four years and clearly took cues from recent open-world RPGs such as The Witcher 3, adding a much stronger emphasis on combat, as well as character progression features like finding new, more powerful weapons. Some of these were present in past games, like a leveling system and skill tree with upgradable abilities, but have been expanded and play a more central role.
The problem is that the progression restricts your ability to move around the world or advance the story, and the game’s combat mechanics do not necessarily make fighting more precise (or fun).
While the Egypt you explore in Assassin’s Creed Origins is an open world, and technically accessible from the beginning, the game fences you in using its leveling system. Each of the game’s 20+ regions feature a suggested level range. The ranges show a pretty clear path of where you’re supposed to go to find missions your character is ready for.
While that path is clear on paper, the reality is that Bayek’s climb from level 1 to level 40, the highest suggested level on the world map, is a jerky, grind-intensive affair that you cannot ignore. It turns out that the level suggestions for levels and missions are actually de facto requirements. Like Destiny, your ability to both dish and take out damage is directly and inexorably tied to Bayek’s level. Attempting to square off against even a single standard enemy who has a few levels on you is virtually impossible.
Any abandoned tomb can reveal a new, interesting piece of lore.
To keep your level in line with the game’s expectations, players MUST complete most of the game’s “optional” sidequests. Many of them are interesting, especially when they’re buoyed with a good story hook, but others boil down to “investigation” missions similar to what we’ve seen in games like The Witcher III and the Batman: Arkham series, where players scavenge an area for a series of button prompted clues, which lead you to a guarded objective, often with an enemy to kill or a prisoner to rescue.
While Bayek does receive experience for exploring new areas, fighting enemies, and other tasks, the paltry experience you earn from these activities will not allow you to ignore sidequests. Worse, even after completing many of these sidequests, you may not quite have enough experience to get Bayek to the appropriate level.
This is an issue, not only because it forces you to play an ostensibly open game in a very specific way, but because it obscures the game’s best quality, its setting. Assassin’s Creed Origins is one of the best looking games we’ve played all year, and the ancient Egypt it depicts is visually arresting. There’s mystery around every corner: Any abandoned tomb can reveal a new, interesting piece of lore. Even wandering the desert can lead to adventure, if you’re willing to take a chance and follow that mirage into a hot sea of sand. Unfortunately, many of the aforementioned mechanics actively kill your incentive to explore outside of a certain zone at any given time.
A dulled Assassin’s Blade
Now you might be thinking to yourself, ‘If I just avoid combat and kill everyone stealthily, won’t I be able to go anywhere and complete any mission?’ The short answer is no.
In some cases, the stat-driven combat mechanics have directly impacted what we’d consider to be intuitive gameplay elements. In past games, if you sneak up on an enemy, you could generally assassinate them, killing them instantly and maintaining your cover — there were exceptions, but they were always clear. In Origins, your ability to assassinate an enemy with a stealth attack is dictated by your level relative to the target’s, and how many times you’ve upgraded your assassin’s blade.
It’s completely possible — we’d argue it’s likely — that at some point you will move to assassinate an enemy and find the button prompt that normally says “assassinate” reading “stealth attack” and showing a health meter to indicate that the attack will not kill them. If an enemy is two levels higher than you or more, you will have to fight them and trigger an alarm to take them out.
Then, of course, there are the boss battles. Assassin’s Creed Origins includes a number of missions that force you into intense combat situations, including named characters with giant health bars. These fights cannot be won with stealth, and if you aren’t ready for them, they can be a real struggle.
Generally speaking, you have to suspend your disbelief when playing games with math-based system instead of actions; ask anyone who’s missed a point-blank shot in a Fallout game or XCOM 2. But the shift means that a perfectly good stealth mission can be ruined at any time, and that renders much of the game’s stealth toothless.
Forced to fight
With stealth not being a 100-percent viable option in every mission, we turn our gaze to the area where the game has made its biggest changes: combat. Unlike past Assassin’s Creed games, which focused heavily on parries, Origins quickly expands your options to a small set of attacks, including a light attack, a heavy, shield-breaking attack, a push, and a shield bash, which can be used as a parry. You also have a powerful “overpower” attack, which you charge by dealing and taking damage.
The game’s “loot” system quickly starts to feel superficial
The exact attacks, and how effective they are, are determined by weapon choice. Bayek constantly finds new ones, including swords, axes, clubs, and spears. You also have access to four different bows, which range from close-combat-worthy Warrior bows that fire many arrows at once to “predator” bows that let you pick off targets at long range.
Statistically, the differences among them come to down strength versus speed, but the exact attacks vary even within each weapon class. Once you earn the abilities that allow you to carry two weapons and two bows, you are afforded some freedom in how you want to approach a fight.
While the increased variety is nice, the pivot to a “loot” style equipment system, where enemies and chests frequently deliver new versions of weapons with better “stats,” feels inconsequential and noisy. Changing weapons purely based on stats rarely makes a tangible difference, and the correlation between the numbers on the weapons menu and the damage you do in game rarely becomes clear.
It’s obfuscated, in part, because your health, melee attack, ranged attack, and other basic stats are also affected by your armor, which Bayek upgrades, rather than replacing with new parts. Since it’s hard to see exactly what kind of impact your equipment tinkering has done, the game’s “loot” system quickly starts to feel superficial, because none of those changes make enough of a difference to compensate for even a single level differential between you and your opponent.
Finally, a glaring technical issue ultimately holds the combat back. When fighting, you can click down on the right analog stick to target an opponent, focusing the camera on them. When fighting multiple opponents, you can flick the right stick to switch between the enemies engaging you. It’s a standard system that’s been in action games for years.
In Assassin’s Creed Origins, we found the targeting system unresponsive: It often did not move between enemies quickly, and did not always focus Bayek’s stance towards the intended opponent, which can affect his ability to parry, use certain overpower attacks, and even his archery if you have aim assist turned on. The tension in a close fight can often deflate when you lunge at the wrong enemy, opening Bayek up to a flurry of attacks. As a result, combat against many opponents, which is very common, can devolve into a frustrating mess.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is what happens when you make a game without a vision for how players are supposed to engage with it. So many of the changes made to the game feel as if they were made in a vacuum, without a question as to whether they make sense together in the context of a long-running series. Not all games need loot. Not all games need RPG mechanics.
As this franchise turns the corner into a new chapter of its never-ending tale, its developers would be wise to keep in mind (and pay a certain reverence) to what made the series special in the first place. While Origins keeps alive its narrative, the series’ most important component, there are certain mechanical elements of the series that deserve the same unequivocal respect.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes. The open-world action game is a wide-reaching genre, and 2017 has been a banner year for video games. Most recently, we’d recommend Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, which has a similar action/stealth dynamic as Origins but with more compelling combat mechanics. For PS4 owners, we’d also recommend Horizon: Zero Dawn, which has better stealth segments, more original gameplay mechanics, and a fantastic story.
How long will it last?
We completed the Assassin’s Creed Origins campaign, including many but not all of the sidequests at our level range, in 30 hours, 34 minutes. In that time we left many regions of the world largely untouched, and many quests unfinished. To see and do everything in the game would easily take 100 hours.
Should you buy it?
Probably not. Hardcore Assassin’s Creed fans will get a kick out of the story, and that may be worth the prices of admission. Similarly, players who own a PS4 Pro or pre-ordered an Xbox One X may want the game as a visual showcase. Most players would be better off playing something else.