No story spoilers except for setting/time period.
Assassin’s Creed has often struggled to find its identity as a series in the last few years. The first few games all felt like natural successors to each other, and generally AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations either matched or improved upon their immediate predecessors. Then the series lost its way somewhat, which was a bit predictable, given that Revelations wrote out Ezio and Altair, the two most popular playable characters in the series, and Desmond Miles and Warren Vidic, the last two links to the first game, both exited in AC3.
That’s not to say the intervening games haven’t had their plus points. AC3 started the trend of having more open-world style areas, Black Flag and Freedom Cry gave us a delightful ship combat system, Rogue’s story is often praised as one of the best in the series and Syndicate’s Jacob and Evie were highlighted in reviews as the first memorable main characters since Ezio. But none of those games were perfect – the combat system often felt dated, games became increasingly buggy on release, the modern day story got increasingly hard to care about post-Desmond, and the settings just weren’t as interesting as the Crusades or renaissance Italy or Constantinople (I mean, was anyone crying out for games set in the American or French revolutions? I’ve never spoken to anyone who particularly wanted an Assassin’s Creed game in those eras).
With Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the series may finally have found its groove again.
Ptolemaic Egypt is a setting that deserves the current gen’s graphics, and boy, is the game world absolutely stunning. This is somewhere you will never get tired of exploring, and whether you’re exploring Alexandria, crossing the desert or sailing up the Nile, you’ll always be aware of how beautifully rendered everything is – and you’ll end up using the game’s photo mode a fair bit, let me tell you. It’s day/night cycle really makes a tangible difference to how the world feels, in a way only games like Horizon: Zero Dawn have done previously. Its a completely open world experience too, and while you’ll have an occasional moment where the game pauses to load the next area, its mostly pretty seamless at having you move around the map. Fast travel is available too, which helps a lot, although you have a lot of different transport options available (including horses, camels, ships and chariots).
The game’s playable characters are also a lot more memorable than in previous entries. You’ll spend most of your time playing as Bayek, the last of the Medjay, who’s a protector of the common folk but has a winning personality as well, and whose responses always seem human and believable – his outrage at atrocities, his snide dislike for corrupt officials, his sympathy for downtrodden peasants, it all seems natural and relatable. Bayek’s status as a Egyptian comes in play a lot, as he sees his country and people suffering a lot on account of their inferior status to Greeks, not to mention their vulnerability to the Romans, who are starting to encroach on Egyptian territory. You also get several levels as Bayek’s wife Aya, who’s equally compelling if not quite as likeable, as the two of them are caught between pursuing a revenge quest and trying to free Egypt from the grip of a civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy. The modern day stuff is kept to a minimum, but in Layla, we finally have a modern-day character who seems interesting enough to care about, even though she’s only on screen for 20 or so minutes.
The gameplay has also between heavily revamped to have a more RPG feel to things – there’s still a wide variety of weaponry available (spears, swords, axes, sceptres etc.) as well as four varieties of bows all tailored to different scenarios (hunting, stealth kills, boss fights, rapid fire etc.) which gives you a lot of scope for how you approach combat scenarios. There’s now a levelling system with numerous perks you can use to upgrade Bayek (providing him with poison darts, fire bombs and other tools, increasing his proficiency in combat or improving archery skills) and you can pretty much build his skillset as suits you. You gain XP for kills and completing missions, of which there are a multitude. In additional to the dozen or so main quests, which are fairly long and take you all over the map, there are around a hundred or so side quests, which usually involve you rescuing locals, clearing out bandit camps, dealing with animal attacks, evading Ptolemy’s soldiers or exploring tombs.
There’s a lot to do in this game in general – most tombs and camps have treasure for you to loot or captains to assassinate, and there are loads of them dotted around the map. There’s a fair amount of cities and towns too, most of which have a unique feel and plenty of inhabitants to interact with. You can become a gladiator in the arenas in Cyrene or Krokodilopolis, or a chariot racer in Alexandria. There’s a lot of sunken ships around the Nile for you to scavenge too. In short, you’ll never run out of things to do in this game – there’s almost too much of it to be honest.
Further embracing the RPG side of things, the game has a new game plus mode and an option that will scale lower level enemies to your level, if either of those things interest you. Origins also introduces variable difficulty into the series, with the standard game options of easy, normal, hard and nightmare which seem near universal at this point. Normal still presents a reasonable challenge, though it doesn’t require the precision of God of War on normal and is hardly comparable to RPG’s like Dark Souls. There’s a large variety of enemies: Human enemies are a mix of archers, spearman, standard soldiers, Brutes (heavy weapons), Elites (with shields) and bosses. There are also various animals to contend with, including Crocodiles (who are a much larger threat in water, obviously), Hippos (engage at range), hyenas (troublesome in packs), lions (surprisingly easy) and, rarely, a war elephant (these fuckers are VERY tough). Most annoying are snakes, who tend to lurk in the dark corners of tombs or caves, or worse, inside destroyable pots, and thus you often don’t see them until you run straight into them (which as snakes kill Bayek in 3-4 hits can be very irritating). Ultimately, whether you want a challenge or a stress-free run, there’ll be a difficulty setting that works for you.
The crafting system is crucial but easy to get to grips with, as you gather various metals, leathers, wood and animal skins, which can upgrade Bayek’s health, damage and the amount of equipment and arrows he can carry. Fortunately, gathering these materials is rarely a chore, as there’s only six main varieties of them, some of which can be looted from convoys of soldiers, others you can find from hunting animals or from scrapping weaponry, and if worst comes to worst, you can take a perk which allows you to purchase extra materials at shops. The currency system is more of a challenge than previous games – Bayek won’t be drowning in cash the way Ezio was, and will need to loot tombs and camps and sell old equipment a lot to have enough to buy new outfits and upgrade his weapons.
So all in all, pretty positive? Yeah, there’s one or two downsides: the game’s plot meanders a bit too much at times, not all the side quests are that interesting (some areas are definitely more fun than others) and shield combat isn’t done all that well, but overall, its such an improvement over its predecessors that I have to give it a rating of…
4 out of 5. Not perfect, but getting there.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey seems to be leaning even further into RPG elements (choice of main character, romance options etc.) and refining combat even further to fit ancient Greece. Fingers crossed it will be as compelling as Egypt. But for the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to what the Assassin’s Creed team is working on, and that’s largely thanks to how well they’ve turned things around with origins.