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Assassin’s Creed Origins Retrospect A Recognisable Reinvention

Following the absolute dreadful launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity in 2014, and the lukewarm reception of Syndicate the year after, Ubisoft decided that the Assassin’s Creed series was going to take a long overdue hiatus. This saw the series have its first year without a major title launch since the gap between the ten year old original, in 2007, and the much loved sequel in 2009. Fans were…mostly pleased, confident that when the series returned, it would be the reinvigoration to the series that they were clamouring for. And with the reveal of Assassin’s Creed Origins, released at the end of October last year, people were justifiably excited! A much requested setting of Egypt, a revamped combat system, a storyline that promises to show us the birth of the brotherhood itself, WITH proper, brand new, modern day segments! This was going to be the best bloody Assassin’s Creed yet, laying the foundations for the next decade of the game series. There was a lot to look forward to. Except it’s not so much a step forward for the hugely popular series, as it is a step from one set of familiar mechanics, into a different set of familiar mechanics.

Assassin’s Creed Origins is a good game. But it’s not an exciting one. It trades one well trodden gameplay loop, with a different well trodden gameplay loop we’ve seen in the like of The Witcher 3, or Horizon Zero Dawn. Except it forgets to do anything interesting or different with it. “It’s a good game, but it’s not a good Assassin’s Creed game”. It’s the same argument we heard frequently about the pirate adventure entry Black Flag, back in 2013. So it’s unsurprising to learn that Origins has the same core team behind it, led by its charismatic game director Ashraf Ismail.

Origins takes us back in time to Egypt during Cleopatra’s time.

Predictably then, Origins takes a lot of cues from Black Flag in the way it approaches the player experience, taking that AC feel, but in a setting that has no right to work in an AC game, forming a thoroughly unique, but familiar game. It’s a diacotamy that worked well for Black Flag, allowing the player to live in a pirate fantasy, whilst grounding itself with ancient plots, memorable characters from history, smaller, but still sprawling cities to climb around in, and multiple and varied missions (although who the hell thought ship stealth was a good idea?). It’s a shame then, that Origins takes that AC feel, and takes it further, and then further again, until it’s so far away you can barely feel it anymore. Instead relying so heavily on its open world formula that it forgets what makes Assassin’s Creed so interesting and unique in the first place.

Let’s start with the most notable omission- social stealth. Social stealth has always been a major part of the stealth mechanics of the games: The original game had you blending in with pious monks to enter into the city undetected; 2 allowed you to throw money on the ground in order to attract crowds of beggars to cause disruption to your pursuers and allow your escape; and all of the games until now have encouraged you to be a “knife in the crowd” as you meticulously flow through a sea of people to get within striking distance of your target. But in Origins, you just hide in bushes. Maybe that’s a bit of a disservice to the game, because there are a lot of different bushes you can hide in, but nonetheless you’re going to be spending a lot of time exercising your botany interests. Black Flag and 3 had its fair share of hiding in bushes too, but these were balanced with larger cities in which social stealth, and the parkour mechanics, played a much more important part.

Which is a nice segway into what I feel is Origins biggest sin- a complete lack of consideration as to how parkour fits into the game design. Character movement IS a lot smoother, and the controls are tighter- removing the need to hold a trigger button in order to run. But the traversal system is largely ignored in the game design as a whole. Origins mostly removes the need, or the convenience, of jumping around the rooftops of the cities. Rarely will you find ropes between buildings, pipes, hangings, or carts, to swiftly allow you to move higher and forwards. The quickest route is generally to just run directly to the objective, around the buildings, instead of on them; and if you can’t get across the entire map without touching the ground, is it really an Assassin’s Creed game? I’m being hyperbolic of course, but I did find myself multiple times climbing a building, only having to just jump down the other side as there was no path going ahead. Your eagle mate Senu, the new eagle vision mechanic which lets you almost literally see from the eyes of an eagle, is too useful to the point where it even removes the need to climb a building for a vantage point.

The physical act of climbing has been made easier too, back to a single button, with no thought about handholds, or larger vertical jumps, or backward leaps. I can’t recall any climbing puzzles like in previous titles (Unity’s Eiffel Tower, or Brotherhoods much loved tomb sections for example). The joy of traversal, on which the series has largely focused on in the past, is almost completely absent.

The game has definitely brought about some welcome changes however. Gone are the offensively mundane tailing, or eavesdropping mission, and so too the auto-fail on detection missions with it (although Unity and Syndicate scaled these back, with you only failing optional objectives). We’ve also lost the minimap, allowing more screen real-estate to fill with the beautiful sights of the Egyptian deserts and cities.

And it IS beautiful. The world design in the Assassin’s Creed series has always a step above most games, and Origins certainly continues the tradition with its looming temples and golden vistas. Climbing the pyramids of Giza, and being able to spot the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the distance, is a feat that no other game can claim. But it’s exactly this beautiful landscape, and the gameplay changes it encourages, that lets the game down so much.

The type of gameplay that suits a largely flat and empty map is entirely different from the type of gameplay that a densely populated city encourages. And with these new gameplay changes comes some more RPG elements. The Assassin’s Creed games have always included some form of RPG element to them. Generally that meant being able to upgrade your gear, buy new weapons, and unlock new skills. Origins take this a step further however, with stat based loot drops, leveled enemies and zones, and…boss fights? A tedious inclusion which offers no real challenge other than essentially an enemy having more health, and thus take longer to tap away at using the rather monotonous new combat system. 

Origins has you dodging about big fellas like this a lot.

It’s an entirely serviceable combat system- it’s not exactly bad, but it’s not exactly interesting either. The difficulty for most fights comes from the difference in levels between yourself and the enemy. Which generally makes combat ridiculously easy, even on hard, if you’re at or above the enemy level, or impossibly hard if the enemy outranks you by even a few numbers. And with all enemies generally needing the exact same tactics as everything else, it’s an artificial difficulty offering no meaningful challenge. It’s fundamentally indicative of the progression in the game- just get your numbers higher.

A level 1 sword plays the same as a level 40 sword. Stealth in the first hour, is the same as stealth in the final hour. The progression is as flat as the game world. Even the hidden blade, an iconic series weapon, doesn’t let you do anything you couldn’t do before, you just have a different animation for it now. Should my successful stealth run be punished by not being able to stealth kill an enemy, just because he is an arbitrary amount of levels higher than me?

If you take a look at previous games in the series, a lot of the progression stems from offering the player new items, and ways to play. 2 for example, gives you the second blade which allows for double assassinations, the parachutes, the war machines, the upkeep of Monteriggioni (Origins, where is my Roman Villa?). You get the high jump/leap, which lets you climb up different buildings and helps you get around better. You can find similar examples in the other games- Brotherhood had your assassin mates, Revelations had the hookblade etc. Origins, has a few new additions in its skill tree, like the controllable arrow, but these are essentially the only skills worth getting, with the others largely ignorable other than providing some quality of life improvements (like auto looting enemies after a kill).

Origins has a problem. And it mostly stems from the lack of variety in the core gameplay, which ultimately stems from the world it inhabits. Whereas games like The Witcher 3, and Horizon Zero Dawn, offer a similar gameplay loop, they both take place within a fantastical world which offers the chance to have a larger variety of combat. Horizon has a plethora of robotic enemies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each requiring a different approach to how you attack. One might be weak to a certain arrow type, on a certain place on its body, one might be so large it needs to be pinned down with rope before you could safely approach. It’s a mystery what you might encounter whilst exploring the world, and is constantly challenging the player to consider their approach.

That’s not to say it can’t be done within a historical setting. But Origins, well, it has bandits that fight like Romans, and Romans that fight like bandits. It’s a huge missed opportunity to have created interesting gameplay through dynamic encounters. Bandits could fight you unorganised, and unarmoured, making a simple fight the best option. They could be more cautious, sneaking around you to get cheap shots from behind. Whereas Romans would form up into a shield wall making a frontal approach extremely dangerous. They would be armoured, making bowed headshots unreliable, and thus a more stealthy approach necessary. There are multiple ways to have made the combat, and thus the majority of the gameplay, a much more interesting affair.

One of the many lovely vistas in Origins.

It feels like the game was scared to be something unique or different. Even when the game flirts with offering the player something worth thinking about, it ultimately backs out at the last moment. Occasionally there are missions where you’re tasked to go find a person, but only given a rough estimation of where they are (“sailing down the west coast of the Nile, east of whatever”). So I thought “Fantastic! The game is giving me a chance to use this great world they’ve built to figure out where to go. This sounds fun, and engaging!”. So I follow the map marker to the rough area, only to get the obnoxiously large “PRESS UP TO USE SENU” on my screen. So I do, only to have it push you towards the target, and mark it on your map. Then you’re back to following a map marker again, pushing forward on a horse, instead of climbing over rooftops. It’s as if the developers wanted to make these missions open ended, to have you engage with the landscape and the world, but were too afraid players would get stuck. Too afraid to try something interesting, and made a more generic game instead.

The same can be said for its many, many, too many, side quests, which generally boil down to “go here, kill this”. The only memorable quests have you do something different or unique, like playing with the children in Cyrene, or helping an older fella regain his glory in a fist fighting circuit. They feel very “by the numbers”, adopting much of the same formula as the rest of the game. Even the main plot essentially comes down to having you tick off a checklist of people you have to kill, with most of these assassinations being no different than a side quest killing, so it’s hard to find anything to care about within it. And whilst we are mentioning the main quest, the game is so light of Assassin’s Creed lore, it may as well have been called Assassin’s Creed Origins Origins, as most major plot points pertaining to this are given no more than a minute of screen time- the hidden blade explained away in a single line “Oh this? Yeah somebody gave this to me, you might as well have it”.

We have a new modern day protagonist! But it’s ultimately a token gesture, as the entire segments consist of small 5 minute run arounds whilst offering no real plot or development to the overarching story. Even when you encounter a certain character who promises some exciting plot and gameplay possibilities, you just end up getting back in the animus and nothing comes of it.

It’s not the first time the series has tried to reinvent itself it. Assassin’s Creed Unity was suppose to be the next generation for the series, taking a lot of bold and new design decisions whilst still being firmly planted in the AC series. It’s arguably a lot more successful at it than Origins; pushing you into a drastic Assassin Templar conflict within the midst of revolutionary Paris in the 18th century. It’s an obviously suited setting for the games, with a rich history, and varyingly interesting architecture to play around in. The combat is slow and methodical, a far cry from the fast paced ‘counter-spam’ from previous titles, or the arcade like combat found in Origins. The emphasis is solely on being sneaky; with a dive into combat being generally met with a swift death. It doesn’t treat all play styles as equal, but it doesn’t have to either. It’s feasibly the most ‘Assassin like’ Assassin’s Creed title. Unity was far from a perfect title, but at its core, it at least seemed to know what it was, what it was trying to be, and what made the series unique.

Unity features a beautifully dense revolutionary Paris.

In a way, Origins feels like the latest culmination of the backlash against it. It’s an outright rejection of the ideas put forth in the Parisian romp. Opting to pretend that Bayek is both assassin and warrior. That it’s both an open world action RPG, and a parkour styled stealth game. That it’s an Assassin’s Creed game, and it’s not. Like a child spoilt with toys, Origins fails to commit to any one thing, but decides to hover around them instead. Bayek of all trades, master of none.

Even after all of that however, I still enjoyed the game for what it is. But it’s a frustrating series of missed opportunities. And it’s suffering. It’s suffering from trying to be all things at once, whilst not offering anything new or interesting. It’s difficult to find something in Origins that you can’t find in every open world action adventure game now, and it’s even harder to find something it does better than those other games. In its quest to find a new direction for the series, it has lost a lot of what made the Assassin’s Creed series so interesting to play in the first place, and you have to wonder just what they wanted this game to be. A soft-reboot that wanted to reinvent what it meant to be an Assassin’s Creed game has ended up feeling very familiar, and not in a good way.

Origin screenshots obtained from Ubisoft.

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