It’s typical. You wait a couple of years for a decent stab-n-stealth game, then two creep up on us at once.
After 2014’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor out-parkour’d Assassin’s Creed, the AC team took a year out to refresh. Meanwhile, Mordor developers Monolith Studios spent that time refining what made the first game great: The personal journey-defining Nemesis System (and absolute necessary and completely uncontroversial loot crates).
Now, two skilled assassins are going head to head – but which killer gets the drop on the other?
A Hero’s Quest
Clambering over walls. Hiding in thigh-high bushes. Revenge. This is how both our heroes get their kicks.
In Shadow of War, you once again don the cloak of the ranger Talion who, in the latest instalment, rocks a ‘Heavily Botoxed Viggo Mortensen’ look. Over in Origins, you take on the role of Ancient Egyptian sheriff Bayek. Neither have much personality outside of ‘Loved ones have been murdered.’
Still, that’s enough to push both into their Charles Bronson-in-Death-Wish vendetta, which drives them towards their ultimate goals: Talion must save Middle-Earth from Sauron and Bayek will fulfil his destiny of becoming the first true assassin of the Brotherhood.
Assassin’s Creed Origins’ story can be summed up in two words: Hit list. You’re given a list of targets. You hit them. With pin-sharp objects. In the neck. The soon-to-be-slaughtered are the twisted guys and gals who form the Order of the Ancients before they rebranded themselves as The Templar Order [see: Absolutely every other AC game], dedicated to creating a Utopia through force.
Operating a quest structure, players can ‘play the stories they want,’ says creative director Jean Guedson. That more or less pays off, with multi-stage quests that you can pick up and put down at will. Even side-quests feature more than just a single kill or fetch quest (although, to be fair, it’s usually a combination of both), with all them narratively tied to that area’s main villain. It’s a simple premise simplified further by having each main target a hollow face of evil. They all subjugate, torture, and kill – and they’re all as forgettable as the last one you left bleeding in a haystack.
Shadow of War follows the same path, where you target Overlord orcs in charge of fortresses. As Talion, you work alongside the ghostly elven warrior Celebrimbor to build an Orcish army, and that’s where the game’s expanded Nemesis System really comes alive. Every type of mission (main, side, online) plays out like a strategy-lite game, as you work out the best approach to counter a Captain who has real, perceptible features; ordering, say, caragor riders to take on orcs mortally afraid of caragors. Make the wrong choice and those Captains will either kill you, humiliate you or ambush you, giving some vaguely threatening spiel before handing you your ass. It’s what gives the game a sense that this is your unique journey. Sure, you won’t remember most of them by the time the credits roll, but in the sweaty heat of battle, targets at least have defined characterisation.
Shadow of War strikes first – and hard.
A Stab in the Dark
In the assassin’s toolkit, there are still only so many ways to dangle off a ledge, attract the attention of an enemy, then strike when no-one’s looking – so, those smooth, satisfying stealth kills play out the same in both games. And thanks to Assassin’s Creed’s new streamlined control scheme, you’re a whole lot less likely to find yourself curiously climbing walls when all you wanted to do is dart into the bushes.
Both games also feature an uninspiring crafting system to upgrade your plundered loot. Nothing we haven’t seen before – boost damage, boost health, it’s that basic. Just like crafting items in real life, Origins asks you to hunt down the right animals and then hold down a button for three seconds. Shadow of War, though, relies on random gems to drop from the tougher enemies, making the process simple but almost separate to actual gameplay.
Where the two diverge is combat. Shadow of War runs on the ‘not broke, don’t fix’ principle, continuing its shamelessly brilliant spin on Arkham Asylum’s free-flowing fighting style. It’s a fast-paced, intuitive experience leaping over orcs, countering blows, and cutting them down until a) way too many orcs gang up on you at once and b) you’re ambushed by yet another Orc Captain with a penchant for public speaking.
Assassin’s Creed, meanwhile, opts for a Dark Souls-y block-dodge-parry that never feels anywhere near as rewarding as Middle-Earth’s graceful offering. Sure, it’s a step up from the older games, but it’s still clunkier than it needs to be, and, against certain enemies, you’ll find it a whole lot easier to take the extra five minutes and stealth your way through a location rather than face head-on confrontation.
Despite this shortcoming, Assassin’s Creed throws its weight behind a substantial variety of weapons – four types of bow and arrow, heavy and light blades, shields of varying resistance – which’ll appeal to all looters. It may feature an RPG-lite levelling up system, but skill unlocks are nowhere near as inventive as (and in some cases, identical to) Shadow of War. Abilities like chained assassinations and stealthing an orc from across the map using a bow, and arrow and good ol’ fashioned elven magic makes skills feel like an integral part of your character in a way that Origins doesn’t, even when it serves up the same offerings.
Shadow of War dominates its Egyptian rival.
As Far as the Eye Can See
Alex Hutchinson, ACIII’s creative director, once said that along with WWII and feudal Japan, Ancient Egypt is ‘kind of the worst setting for an AC game.’ He was wrong.
There’s a stunning majesty to Origins’ take on a kingdom at the cusp of a fall. Where old and new worlds collide. And, compared to Shadow of War’s enjoyably dark but samey playground, Ancient Egypt has its own character. This is a near-living universe where NPCs possess day-night cycles and where apparently spontaneous events around you occur whether you partake in them or not. The Great Pyramid of Giza teasingly lingers on the horizon, a promise of joys to come (and peaks to climb). It all feeds into the sense of genuine exploration, as you mount your horse, Red Dead Redemption-style, and scout the barren sands.
That’s not so clear in Shadow of War. Densely packed areas are broken down into thematic hubs – the snowy place, the fiery place, the forest, the city – which are fun to bound across, but aren’t as epic as the Tolkienesque undertones would suggest. The game corrals you through the world, and while you might nip off for the odd collectible, you’re never in any doubt what you may find on your journey: Orcs and forts. There’s no irresistible discovery element to Middle-Earth; no reason to leave your cares and quests behind in search of sights and secrets locked beneath the musty depths of the land.
Origins’ dazzling spectacle disorientates the challenger.
Look, let’s just get this out of the way: Shadow of War wasn’t made for die-hard Lord of the Rings fans who demand the genuine, canonical Tolkien experience. Fan service cameos are thrown in before disappearing into the background again, collectible Gondorian artefacts meticulously detail the world’s lore, but the game’s style is more grimdark Game of Thrones, with a hint of the Jackson trilogy thrown in. How else can you explain the giant spider morphing into human form? And by human form, I mean dark, sexy seductress with a hint of the Liv Tyler about her.
On the other hand, Monolith Studios still respects the source material (they need sign-off from Middle-Earth Enterprises, for starters). Just look at their creation of the forest guardian Carnan, a sort of Mother Nature with Attitude, who you’d swear leapt straight out of the pages of The Two Towers. According to the game’s design director, ‘If you think of the nasty, scary version of Tom Bombadil, that was sort of the starting point for us,’ which is perfect for the game’s alt-timeline Mordor. But make no mistake, this is Tolkien Goes to Hollywood.
Assassin’s Creed has always played a bit fast and loose with accuracy in the interests of gameplay, too. Historical tourism, after all, is unconcerned with whether that cool building was built ten years after the game’s setting; it’s all about creating the sense of what life was like back then. And Assassin’s Creed Origins is as close as we’ll get to living through Ancient Egypt until Doc Brown whacks a flux capacitor into his DeLorean.
Despite its real-world setting, Origins works tirelessly to capture the mysticism of the old world, with its devotion to ancient gods like Anubis and Sereket and its obsession with great big fuck-off snakes that hate-hate-hate you. Venturing deep inside the stale bowels of a pyramid sends shivers down the spine as it might’ve a deeply superstitious adventurer of the time (although it’s laughable to think it wouldn’t have been plundered centuries before your free-running arrival). Throw in the forthcoming Discovery Mode, where you can learn about topics including mummification, and the game feels ‘authentic’ – from a 21st century perspective, at least. And, if you’re anything like me, it’ll have you reaching for Wikipedia every ten minutes to discover more about the era.
Origins parries the attack, as a thousand Tolkien fans cheer.
The Final Hit
If you combined Shadow of War’s fluid combat and traversal with Assassin’s Creed Origins’ open-world emphasis, you’d easily have the greatest stealth game on Earth (or Middle-Earth).
Shadow of War’s ditch water-dull story gets in the way of concentrating on what really matters – forging your Orc army, while Origins’ is a forgettable side-show that’s at least better than recent Assassin’s Creed titles.
Mechanically, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is vastly superior to its rival – just as it’s always been. Combat is glorious, and vengeance is swift. But for adventure, excitement and all the other exotic things a Jedi craves not, the immersive Assassin’s Creed Origins delivers an engaging, epic Egyptian experience.
Assassin’s Creed Origins delivers the final killer blow. Until the inevitable sequels.