After years of annual releases with little innovation, and two large blunders, it wasn’t much of a surprise that both the community and Ubisoft wanted to put Assassin’s Creed on a hiatus, regardless of Syndicate’s success. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is the fruit of this short break, and it’s immediately apparent how beneficial taking a step back and putting more time into development was. Origins doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it’s absolutely Assassin’s Creed, but it manages to take the franchise forward while solving some of its longest standing issues.
Many of the familiar motions of Assassin’s Creed we’ve come to know are there, but at the same time some major elements of the gameplay has changed. The very first thing you’ll notice is the combat, because the game drops you into a combat scenario right off the bat. For the first time since 2007’s Assassin’s Creed, combat is challenging, not in small part due to Origins being an RPG. For almost a decade, the franchise relied on the same combat system, but Origins is shaking things up completely.
There is a wider variety among enemies, for one. Instead of the same 3 or 5 archetypes, the weapon and shield loadouts of enemies affect their fighting style and what approach you’ll need to take. Shields particularly mix things up, as the different varieties require different moves to get through. Tower shields, for example, require a charged heavy attack to knock out of the way, however pulling that off with multiple enemies around you isn’t easy, not to mention it is an unlockable ability not available by default. Do you finish off the weaker, faster opponents first, look for an opening, or dodge to flank the enemy? Another thing to consider is levels – once you’ve reached the early mid-game, the game becomes particularly cruel if you try going after enemies even just one or two levels above you. It’s generally a good idea to purposefully over-level for whatever task you want to complete, because as opposed to other RPGs, this doesn’t make things easy, it makes things fair. Enemies one or two levels above you will be really tough, and anything with a red skull icon will absolutely destroy you – except for the elite Phylakes. You’ll need to be severely overleveled to deal with Phylakes, for one of these guys on your level will mop the floor with your face and laugh while doing so (literally).
The chain-kill system used by previous titles, which allowed you to mow down large crowds in visually impressive ways, is also severely limited. Firstly, chain kill abilities are pretty high up the skill tree so you won’t be doing them for a while, and even then they are capped at 2 kills. Origins also makes weapon choice more important. Where previously your character was laden will all sorts of pointy and sharp things, they didn’t really make much difference in combat. This time around you can only have two melee weapons equipped at any time (though your inventory is accessible during combat) and the hidden blade can no longer be used in combat. The nature of these weapons alter the protagonist’s, Bayek’s, fighting style greatly. When wielding dual swords, your attack speed is extremely high, however you cannot use your shield, whereas heavy blunt weapons take ages to swing, but can knock smaller shields out of the way with even regular attacks. Every weapon type has some kind of effect on the variables of combat, and then come in the extra attributes that the epic and legendary weapons carry, such as poisoning enemies on hit.
You’ll be coming across a lot of weapons in your travels, and will be switching them in and out often. You can do three things with those items that are no longer useful – break them down into crafting materials, sell them, or hold onto them and upgrade them at a blacksmith later. The last option is mostly only worth it for epic and legendary weapons due to their modifiers. If you’ve been using the same weapon for a few levels, chances are a common weapon with better damage will drop along the way. If you upgrade the legendaries, their other properties will be up to snuff with the newer blades while still bringing their special abilities to battle.
Since we’re speaking of loot, it’s time to address the elephant in the room – yes, Assassin’s Creed: Origins has microtransactions and lootboxes. However, the two are unrelated, as you can only buy lootboxes with in-game currency, they’re fairly cheap, and only get you random weapons from the same pool used as drops, so buying them is unnecessary. As for the microtransactions, everything you can buy with real money – outfits, mounts, weapons and crafting materials - also drops in the game save for a map pack which reveals some icons on the world map, however when you complete the game’s tutorial you’re awarded with a one-time helping of “helix credits”, the premium currency, and that is enough to buy the maps. Even if you do not spend a single cent on microtransactions, you still have access to 100% of the content.
Beyond radically altering the combat system, Origins also took Eagle Vision, a staple of the franchise, and rebuilt it completely, taking a more literal approach. Bayek has an eagle companion, Senu, who follows him around everywhere (and even perches on his arm when idle). “Eagle vision” this time around is literally what Senu sees, meaning you can control the eagle to scout ahead, mark targets, locate treasure and more. As you gain levels and ability points, you can expand Senu’s functionality too, allowing you to predict the paths of marked targets and sending Senu to harass enemies, temporarily stunning them. This feels like one of the biggest improvements over the old formula, as the whole “important things glow in a ghost-world LSD trip” felt a tad lazy as far as game mechanics go, and while a psychic link with a bird isn’t any more realistic, it is more fun.
Senu is also tied into how the iconic screenshot-wallpaper-fodder viewpoints work. In Origins, simply crossing the border of one of the absolutely massive open-world’s regions will de-fog the area on the map, and none of the markers are revealed until you physically walk up to them. Viewpoints instead offer fast travel markers, while also increasing Senu’s perception range – the more viewpoints you’ve synched, the longer the eagle’s marking range is.
In terms of the open world itself, and the side-activities that populate it, Assassin’s Creed: Origins took a few pointers from The Witcher 3. Undiscovered points of interest appear as nondescript white question marks on the map. These activities include some familiar from previous titles in the series, like ancient tombs, while some like animal dens feel like they’d fit right in with The Wild Hunt. The game world is, as mentioned above, massive, and even though deserts are kinda meant to be empty, it’s well populated with activities that are suitably varied. The Witcher wasn’t the only source of inspiration, as the game’s menu and inventory system feel almost directly lifted from Destiny in terms of visuals.
You’ll be navigating the open world a bit differently too. The vast dunes and plains of Egypt would be egregious to travel by foot all the time, so beyond fast traveling you can call your mount at any time, who will then materialize a few meters off camera. You’re given a default camel mount in the prologue, however other mounts can be purchased at stables. There isn’t any difference between them beyond the visual, save for horses being faster than camels. More importantly, the minimap is gone and replaced by an ever more prevalent compass. You’ll no longer see blips for enemies or their elevation and exact locations like before, which adds another layer of challenge.
Another gameplay addition which is entirely optional, but the players are all over, is the photo mode. Photo mode allows you to reposition the camera while freezing the game world at any time, and apply filters. This doesn’t replace screenshots since instead of being saved on your PC, the images are uploaded to the game servers and appear as visible to all players. On your world map, little picture frames indicate the exact location where someone took a photo, and that photo can be viewed too. While players have used to capture images of cats and bare chested women, because of course, they have also used this to give others hints as to the locations of hidden treasures and the like.
The game’s visuals are absolutely stunning. Sheer graphical fidelity is top notch, but what’s truly breath-taking is the rendition of Egypt. Sure, the character models are realistic and well animated, the weapons glisten like real metal and so on, but the environments is where Origins shines. The rolling dunes of the desert regions, the watery plains of the Nile’s banks and the lush, garden-like area around Lake Mareotis are all rendered in great detail, and the game has a lush color palette. What few issues I had with the visuals are nitpicky – the game has breakable pots, however when smashed, the unbroken pot model despawns and the shards spawn and “ragdollize” with a short delay, not to mention that the shards do not fall from a default position of an assembled pot making the effect look extremely artificial.
The game’s story still uses the animus as the driving device, and the real-world element makes a return. The person reliving Bayek’s memories is Layla Hassan, an Abstergo employee who took wardrobe advice from Nathan Drake a la Uncharted and what just may be the most stereotypical personality ever to appear in a Ubisoft title. I enjoyed the real-world sections of previous Assassin’s Creed games where many others haven’t, but Origins take is a bit bland even for my tastes. The animus is set up in a desert cave, on-location in Egypt, and after the bleeding effect gives Layla Bayek’s climbing abilities, you get to explore it a bit with a few papers scattered around to collect, but these don’t add much to the backstory, unlike the various documents on Layla’s laptop. A lot of these reference the events of the movie, such as explaining why the movie animus is a massive six-axis mechanical arm. Ubisoft also tightens the link between Watch_Dogs and Assassin’s Creed, but this shared universe isn’t explored in any depth.
As for the proper storyline, namely the one concerning Bayek and the birth of the Assassin Brotherhood, is one of the best storylines in the franchise. Almost every story in the franchise so far was a variation on the standard revenge story archetype, and Origins starts off just like it. Tragic event in the past concerning protagonist’s family causes him to set out to kill those responsible. Thing is, a few missions after the prologue, all of your targets are dead and the plot is barely getting started. It’s after this point that things get both interesting and complicated. Origins doesn’t have a handy mini-history book in the form of the codexes from previous games, which is an odd thing to leave out considering history is most important to the plot of this game. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed: Rogue where you’re doing your thing and oh, by the way, the Seven Years’ War is also sorta happening in the background. In Origins you’re taking an active part in some of the formative events of the Ptolemaic period. There’s a lot of history, backstory and foreign names to keep track of, and while the narrative can be enjoyed even if you don’t get every reference and connection, it does make much more sense if you do. Each game snuck in major historical figures as secondary characters, and Origins is no different, with Cleopatra being the most important member in this roster. I was surprised by the quality and quantity – you won’t breeze through the story in a few hours, as it takes at least one to reach the title spread – of the narrative following one of Ubisoft’s statements during the franchise’s hiatus-year saying they’ll move away from narratively driven experiences into more of a themepark direction. The surprise, naturally, was a pleasant one.
This is something I feel definitely worth its own heading – Assassin’s Creed: Origins is Ubisoft’s strongest PC port to date. For years and years the company had a infamous reputation for delivering sub-par PC ports while shackling their games to Uplay. Uplay remains, but Origins is one of the most fleshed out PC ports I’ve seen in a long time. The game has a built-in benchmarking tool which suggests graphics settings; when fiddling with graphics settings, a small bar indicates how much of a load your GPU will bare, which also reflects the changes in performance based on the options you alter; there is a full suite of options allowing for finetuning and all with more than three settings; you can toggle an in-game performance monitor giving you real-time FPS feedback (default key is F1) and performance analysis; and finally if you do happen to play with options less than optimal, the game suggests what to change. Controls are 100% customizable, even if you are using a controller (!). I tried the game with both KB/M and an Xbox layout controller, which I prefer for this type of game, and the default controller layout was, in my opinion, horrible – but instead of giving me 2-3 presets to choose from, every button could be rebound. Origins is a letter of apology for all those botched ports of old.
In terms of hardware demand, the game requires quite a meaty rig, though in my experience it isn’t as demanding as most benchmarks have shown. With a GTX 980 and almost maxed-out settings (adaptive options were turned off) I was holding a solid 60 FPS outside of Alexandria, and 45-50 in the city.
TOP GAME MOMENT
After completing the prologue and re-entering the Animus after the first obligatory real-world section, Bayek is on his way towards Alexandria. The game drops you two regions away in a deserted area, and places a waypoint just behind a particularly high dune. As you crest it, the lush, green and verdant Lake Mareotis region fills the screen with the vast city’s white walls glistening behind it. It’s an epic moment worth of a painting.
ASSASSIN'S CREED: ORIGINS VERDICT
Origins absolutely achieves Ubisoft’s goal of bringing back their flagship franchise with a bang. The game has very few flaws and issues, and all of these are dwarfed by the strides it has achieved on the gameplay front. Origins marries the parts of the familiar AC formula that work with a host of improvements that result in an extremely entertaining and satisfying gaming experience, backed up with a great story to boot. Assassin’s Creed is back, and it’s better than ever. Oh, and you can pet cats! GOTY 2017.
Vast, and yet hardly empty, world
Stunning environmental detail
A whole host of gameplay refinements over previous titles