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Creeping Through Egypt: Previewing Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Assassin’s Creed: Origins makes Assassin’s Creed feel like a completely new series for the first time in 10 years.

Creeping Through Egypt: Assassin's Creed: Origins Hands-On Preview
Photo: Ubisoft

For the first time since 2007, I had to learn how to play Assassin’s Creed. Sure, each game in the series since the premiere of the first title has brought its own tweaks, changes, and the occasional new control scheme. Black Flag’s ship-to-ship combat injected some fresh blood into the world. Assassin’s Creed: Origins, on the other hand, makes Assassin’s Creed feel like a completely new series for the first time in 10 years.

Ezio Auditore, Assassin’s Creed’s best, most charismatic protagonist to this day, carried this series on his shoulders through sheer force of charisma for three games. Afterward, even when the series was at its best (Black Flag, Rogue, Syndicate), there was always a hint of stagnation at its heart. The locales changed, and characters were fresh and exciting, but you still mostly traversed every world, made every kill, and played every side mission exactly the same. Origins, on the other hand, feels like an entirely different game.

And that game is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. But Origins isn’t a copy-and-paste job. If one wanted to completely imitate the kind of experience CD Projekt Red created with The Witcher 3, just slathering wristshank kills on top of all the medieval political intrigue and revenge tales would be nowhere near enough to achieve that game’s quality. Origins appears to be the first game to learn from The Witcher 3 and apply that knowledge at the same level.

Like The Witcher 3, the guiding principle here is one of freedom. Assassin’s Creed games typically have a bad habit of stifling the player’s own shrewdness on how to approach the dirty work at hand, a habit Origins appears to have broken. Swordfights aren’t just a matter of waiting for counters to happen, but careful, calculated affairs where players can use their own cunning in a fight instead of figuring out how to best spam the series’s trademark flashy pre-scripted movements. Managing one’s weapon and armor sets isn’t just a matter of preference anymore, but selecting the best tool for the job on the fly, and a new leveling system means it’s possible to run across enemies that require more forethought, possibly even the decision on whether to take them down at all. Assassinations can be carried out as they always have: slinking up behind enemies from the shadows, or trouncing them from above. However, enemies are much smarter. If a guard comes across a dead comrade, he’ll actively start hunting for you using squad tactics instead of aimlessly wandering around the general area in a heighted state.

Where other assassins could rely on Eagle Vision to sort out enemy positions through walls, Origins’s Medjai protagonist, Bayek, uses an actual eagle who needs to be deployed so he can mark his enemies from the sky, confirming that Ubisoft’s slick little Eagle Flight VR game is to Origins what Rockstar’s Table Tennis was to Grand Theft Auto IV. A greater measure of player vigilance is now needed since it’s now possible to totally miss an enemy hiding in a corner you forgot to check. Even more than that, mastering the eagle effectively becomes a necessity. One task late in the Origins demo has Bayek combing the desert for a specific landmark deep in the desert, west of a city, with a set of cat statues guarding the entrance, a landmark impossible to see and find in the glaring mirages and keep dunes, except from far above. No map icon shows up to help you until you mark it yourself.

Missions are unshackled, where the task before the player doesn’t put blinders on everything else going on in the world. One of the coolest little interactions I had during the five hours I spent with the game was following a group of shady merchants to their secret meetup, getting spotted by one of the archers I’d been scouring the area for in an unrelated mission, sniping him with my own bow and arrow before he could raise an alarm, thus completing that task, and immediately picking up the merchants’ trail.

The greatest freedom is granted by the world itself. Origins takes place in a glorious, sunbathed recreation of ancient Egypt. The architecture and layout of each city feels right, but even more than in Assassin’s Creed games past, life around any given city feels breathtakingly real. I’ve watched NPCs carry water from the Nile River back to their homes, then sit down with their family to discuss the local gossip. Farmers will bring their wares to market and haggle with merchants. Hang out by the river long enough and you’ll inevitably run into crocodiles looking for their next meal, or hippos just wandering around with their herd. The world is now fully and truly open, without a load time in sight if one rides their way from one end of the map to the other. The entirety of the map wasn’t open during the demo—and to my consternation, since my first instinct once I figured out how to summon a horse was to make a beeline for the blocked-off Pyramids of Giza—but even what was explained as being “a small portion of the map” for this demo feels like an area that could host an entire game if Ubisoft wanted to.

According to series producer Julien Laferriere, however, the game’s sights are set much higher than that. “Ancient Egypt was in our sights for a long time. It’s also a top setting mentioned by fans for an Assassin’s Creed game. So we wanted to take our time and do it justice. We knew we wanted to do the whole country, showcasing the variety of biomes and landmarks: from the luscious vegetation on the banks of the Nile to the grandeur of Alexandria, Egypt has so much to offer and we felt all this diversity was needed for the experience. The scale of the game is therefore pretty massive.”

The full breadth of that scale is apparent in the one major assassination available during the demo. Bayek and his fellow Medjai get their marching orders from Cleopatra, detailing the four areas of Egypt most in need of their attentions, one of which, the sandblasted city of Letopolis, is where a congregation is being bled dry by a man known as the Scarab. What would in previous games be a straightforward hunt, mark, and kill procedural is a full-fledged story in itself. Rescue missions, insane environmental hazards, mid-mission betrayals—the road to the big kill is a delightfully crooked one that goes completely unexpected places, and success doesn’t mean moving on from the city, but discovering its problems run much deeper.

From those first minutes in Egypt, it’s abundantly clear that Ubisoft has spent the two years since the release of Syndicate not just crafting the next Assassin’s Creed, but bringing the series into the future. The name Origins feels apt, because this is truly the start of something brand new.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins will be released on October 27.

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