During the time last year when Ubisoft didn’t release a title in its Assassin’s Creed series for the first time since 2007, the developer took the entire formula back to the drawing board, throwing out virtually everything except the idea that you’re a person in a hood who assassinates bad guys. It rebuilt everything from the ground up on a massive scale and, now, have delivered a game that weirdly isn’t as ambitious as 2015’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. That’s not a complaint exactly so much as a fair warning to players to set their expectations accordingly. Assassin’s Creed: Origins represents a gigantic shift in the right direction, one determined to kill what Assassin’s Creed once was in the hopes of the series becoming something greater.
Right off the bat, Ubisoft still hasn’t found the courage to stop foisting a modern-day component on its historical fiction. As in games past, Origins uses the framing device that a person in the present day is experiencing an ancestor’s memories via a souped-up genetic sequencer called the Animus. In this case, it’s a rogue employee of Abstergo—the evil Templar-controlled megacorporation at the heart of the Assassins’ continued struggle around the globe—who runs off with a portable version of the device to a tomb in Egypt. Her side of the story comprises a compulsory 20 minutes of game time, explaining a plot point which could easily have been handled in 10 seconds, and has no real bearing on the tale players will be immersed in throughout the other 40-to-60 hours of gameplay. The modern-day segments feel like the game’s vestigial tail, except even at their best, back when these segments had Kristen Bell verbally sparring with Nolan North, the games felt like they could lose them entirely and be no better or worse for their absence.
That’s especially true with Origins, since the core story is one of the series’s strongest. Set toward the end of the Ptolemeic rule in Egypt, the game tells the story of Bayek, one of the last Medjai, and his badass throat-slitting wife, Aya, stalking around the country to avenge the death of their child at the hands of a secret society of murderers and politicians. Compared to the series’s usual gang of shiv-happy heroes, Bayek isn’t as thirsty for the blood of the unrighteous. He legitimately wants justice for his child. Aya’s vision, on the other hand, is a bit more expansive. Her time away from Bayek magnifies her scope of Egypt’s problems. Indeed, the conspiracy actually does go all the way to the top, and Bayek gets tangled in it further than he ever intended.
That wider view of the world is felt during gameplay. There are individual targets to chase after in every region of Egypt, but unlike previous titles in the Assasin’s Creed series, the big fat kill is rarely the sole focus of a region. Most of Bayek’s time is spent walking through the cities, riding through deserts, keeping his ear out for the problems of his people, and offering to get it resolved. It’s a strange paradigm shift to have an Assassin’s Creed protagonist operating mostly within the limits of the law, but at a time when antiheroes rule the cultural landscape, letting players inhabit the role of a decent man is an almost rebellious creative decision. Bayek himself is a genuinely honorable man with a sense of humor, a playful nature he reveals to children and his wife, and a (nearly) unshakeable belief in the rule of law. Even though he’s often tasked with playing the part of a cunning killer, there’s never any doubt that the man will do the right thing in every circumstance.
The game is determined to kill what Assassin’s Creed once was in the hopes of the series becoming something greater.
The issue here is that you’ll be called to do the right thing, whether you want to or not, by random people, tasks, and icons on the map. Origins largely ditches the old-school intel-stealth-kill mission model in favor of an XP-based system that rewards exploration and taking on side quests more akin to Witcher 3 than anything Assassin’s Creed has ever done, meaning that certain missions are soft-gated off until Bayek has leveled up to a certain point. Try to assassinate a higher-level enemy and Bayek will clumsily tackle said enemy to the ground instead of getting the kill, thus landing you in a man-to-man fight with someone who can snip your health in half with a single hit. Succeeding in a higher-level mission doesn’t really scale with experience to the extent that attempting it is worthwhile. It’s often better to just have a look around, see what else needs doing around the map, than trying to be a superhero.
Like most open-world games, Origins is guilty of a map so rich with icons that it’s hard to know where to start. But it lands on the good side of that problem, as the side quests, hideout infiltrations, and random activities you can mine for XP are mostly well-written. Many give players a nice on-the-ground look at the different social classes in Greek-occupied Ptolemaic Egypt. But making the grind a requirement to level up does divert attention from the main narrative, breaking the game’s flow, sometimes at crucial points. Combat is a similar two-steps-forward-one-step-back situation that ditches the previous games’ system of locking enemies into flashy but repetitive kill animations for something far more responsive. That flash makes later fights with more and bigger enemies less kinetically interesting. With no tried and true way to break enemy defenses with the series’s trademark chain kills, clearing a room of foes is a hassle more than an adrenaline-pumping moment to shine.
The game’s guiding principle appears to be to get some fundamentals right at present and introduce a sense of flair later on when Ubisoft knows for a fact what works. The areas where Origins succeeds are in the places that matter most. Egypt itself is a breathtaking recreation of the real thing; it’s a time and place we’ve never seen done so painstakingly accurate before in a video game, let alone with a cast full of well-drawn, regal people of color. Many of the series’s worst habits up until this point have been broken, as every task on and off Bayek’s main objective has been infused with purpose and meaning. Assassin’s Creed has been reinvented, and while Origins doesn’t necessarily push the envelope, it does set a strong stage upon which future titles are better equipped to do so than its predecessors ever were.