Assassin’s Creed Origins is a triumphant return for a franchise that was tottering about with fatigue just two years ago.
Prior to playing Assassin’s Creed Origins, I believed the series needed drastic change – a full rethink, a reboot, and ruthless surgery of the many Frankenstein features sewn on there over the years. This has not happened, but that’s okay: turns out what Assassin’s Creed and the people who make it really needed was a rest.
In the three years between Assassin’s Creed Unity and Origins, Ubisoft Montreal has doubled down on the two things that make Assassin’s Creed great: an interesting, quasi-systemic open world and a busy and varied player toolbox. It has also foregrounded progression, eliminated frustrations, squashed technical issues, tightened up its storytelling and taken a good long look at the bar set by rival titles this generation. I'm not finished with it yet, because it's sodding ginormous, but it's already clear the results are fantastic.
One of the reasons Assassin’s Creed Origins is great is that Ptolemaic Egypt is just wild. The clash of Egyptian cultures with Greek occupiers grants us diverse aesthetics, a huge cast of interesting characters, the buzz of multiple languages and loads of interesting history and mythology to gawk at and learn from. Historical tourism, one of the franchise’s first pillars, is at its best here (mileage will vary for Egyptian players).
Ubisoft has filled the dauntingly enormous world up with impressive architectural sites; dramatic landscapes; and busy hubs. The environment is much more varied than you might expect, and is peppered with tombs, monuments, temples, shrines, caves, oases and verticality. Also, the weather does some amazing things.
Ubisoft has sensibly included a photo mode, and you can opt in to automatically share and receive photos taken by others. This is a great way to highlight the work, but also to point players at locations they might otherwise overlook. Very clever.
The real joy is in what goes on out there, though; Assassin’s Creed Origins is a real water cooler game. Matt and I have been exchanging little notes, but even so, it’s been really hard not to throw the embargo to the wind and tweet wildly about my adventures, as I am eaten by a new and terrible kind of animal or stumble across fascinating little gems out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t want to spoil these, but I urge you to read any notes you find. They’re all very short, showing an unusual respect for your time, and some of them will lead you to good times as well as having their own interest.
Unscripted good times emerge as you unlock new skills and play around with the many tools at your disposal – or just when the game’s systems do their thing. As in Far Cry, animals are a frequent cause of hilarious upset, and fans of the shooter series may be pleased to know you can do some interesting things with fire in Assassin’s Creed Origins, too. Tools and abilities like sleep darts, corpse traps, and turning enemies or animals to your side combine with the bow and Hidden Blade to make stealth less about patiently ghosting and more about what you can get away with in the generous gaps in the AI’s perception. The chaos you can unleash while chortling undetected in the bushes makes up for the way the series has leaned away from the challenging but repetitive stealth mechanics of the early games.
When stealth fails, there’s always fighting. Combat has been retooled a little, but holds on to an essential formula of positioning to avoid pincer attacks, dodging or blocking until you see an opening, and then switching between guard-breaking heavy blows and quick attacks to bring down foes. You can use tools to secure an edge, and two of the categories of bow are designed for use between melee attacks, but that one-on-one duelling core remains. Get a good sword.
The weapon loot cycle and your level play a very important role in gating, since enemies do not scale. The good news is that XP rains down on you with the slightest step off the main quest path, and while the loot is RNG-based there’s enough of it scattered about in crates in mission locations that there’s really no need to shop or go treasure hunting as long as you’re levelling up and remembering to swap in more powerful weapons. A very simple vendor-based upgrade system means any rare blades you find can be easily boosted to be relevant at higher levels, and it’s pretty easy to track down materials for crafting upgrades for your other gear. I’m only at level 20 at time of writing, but I’m yet to hit a grind and can’t see any reason to visit the microtransaction store – or even the in-game vendors.
The gating is strict, as high-level enemies will humble you, but mainly seems to exist to stop you exhausting yourself trying to fill out everything on the map. On that note, completing main quest and major side missions on your path will generally guide you around a region or group of regions in a way that avoids backtracking or long periods of empty travel, and allows you to fill out the majority of points of interest as you pass them. It makes it all feel less like a chore.
Traversal is also less of a slog thanks to improved climbing. Bayek can scamper up nearly any surface, making exploration even of towering cliffs fast, fluid and fun. He also has fewer moments of confusion, and while I can’t say it’s been perfect, there’s less screeching “go through the window you shithead, no not that ledge, the other ledge, why are you leaping into space” than with previous Assassin’s Creed protagonists. Technical issues and glitches in general, I am pleased to report, seem to be few and far between. Nobody’s face has come off, that’s for sure.
This is an extra pleasant change because the cutscenes and dialogue are quite good, once you get over everyone saying “By Sekhmet” and other ancient exclamations and get down to learning new swear words from the (excellent, full-featured) subtitles. The story is easy to follow but not uninteresting, and what I really like is that Bayek generally has a good motivation for doing everything, including side missions. As a sort of community cop with friends everywhere and deep respect for religious traditions, it makes perfect sense for him to drop his non time-critical main quest to right an injustice or retrieve someone’s fallen pal. It feels a lot less like the master assassin, running off to do murderous errands for whatever rando stops him in the street.
Finally, the whole thing is beautifully polished and does not feel dated, as Unity and Syndicate did. Assassin’s Creed Origins is clearly the product of a generation that has given us open world rivals like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Horizon: Zero Dawn and even Destiny (love that menu cursor!) and has risen to meet and sometimes even exceed the standards set by these competitors while staying faithful to the franchise’s core strengths.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is not a dramatic departure from the formula as we last saw it, but manages to be much more fun and feel way more fresh than any entry since Brotherhood and Black Flag. It plays to the strengths of a genre Ubisoft helped bring into the mainstream, respects the player and their freedom, and allows them to beat up crocodiles. I’m into it.
Tested on the PlayStation 4. Review copy provided by Ubisoft.