Birth of an Order - Assassin's Creed Origins (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Ubisoft takes a big leap back, opting for telling the origin story of the Assassin Brotherhood rather than jumping ahead to the next major time period. Assassin's Creed Origins follows Bayek of Siwa, an Egyptian Medjay set on a path of revenge after the murder of his young son at the hands of a group of mysterious masked individuals.
Since Bayek's journey starts not as an assassin but rather a man seeking revenge, a good chunk of the game is spent leading up to becoming like the assassins of past AC titles. In fact, I was already several hours in to the game before I was even given my hidden blade. Set around 86 BCE, Bayek's quest takes him across Ancient Egypt, during Ptolemy's regime. In his quest to appease his rage and cast judgment on those responsible for his son's death, the mysterious Order of Ancients (precursors to the Templars) is revealed to be responsible and plotting a far more sinister plan that threatens not just Bayek but the whole of Egypt.
Telling an origin story is always tricky after the fact, for a franchise as storied as Assassin's Creed it can be difficult for a developer to tell a story this far in the past despite how the series has continued to improve the assassin's tech in previous iterations. Despite Assassin's Creed Origins taking place during the birth of the Assassin Brotherhood, this does not hinder combat. Bayek can use all manner of melee and ranged weaponry, from different types of bows to bladed or bludgeoning death-dealers. It seems like the Assassin's Creed series revamps their combat system in every title, but never going too far to be original. Assassin's Creed Syndicate borrowed heavily from its contemporaries, employing a combat system similar to the Batman Arkham series, while Origins incorporates a combat system very similar to the Dark Souls series.
Bayek has two attacks; light attacks are fast but can easily be blocked by shields while slower heavy attacks allow you to break defenses or viciously attack a foe. Ranged weapons function similar to what you'd expect, Bayek can use a variety of bows which all feature a different function, While the combat does work well, it doesn't feel as tight as the game that inspires it. There are some battles where Bayek is easily overwhelmed, making me feel less like the badass Medjay I should be.
When I finally learned the rhythm of combat, dispatching foes became less of a chore and more enjoyable. Unlike previous titles where combat proved repetitive, the same was rarely felt here. It felt like the skill ceiling of Assassin's Creed combat was dialed up dramatically. Despite some gripes with inconsistent polish during combat, these ended up melting away once I hit the 5-hour mark. Smart positioning and knowing when to attack or defend made up much of the rhythm of a combat system that ended up being a good mix between powerful and challenging.
Ranged weapons ended up being my favorite weapons in the game, set in four varying classes. Hunter bows are your standard bow, decent range and high damage, the trade-off is accuracy drops when aiming for targets far in the distance. Light bows have a shorter range and output less damage per shot but fire at a dramatically increased rate. Predator bows are like sniper rifles, super long range and super high damage... just fewer available arrows. Finally, the Warrior bows have very low accuracy as Bayek draws three arrows to cover a wider area but damage is quite high in close combat... think shotguns. When attempting to clear out areas as stealthily as possible, I found myself using bows more often than the traditional sneak and blade.
Speaking of stealth, my favorite part of the Assassin's Creed games are the stealth elements... and while I had some criticism of the core combat... the stealth combat is where Assassin's Creed Origins shines. Sneaking around, Origins further improves on stealth gameplay. Bayek can hide in tall grass and bushes as well as the many carts of hay that seem to come with every AC title. Bayek can now hide in carts of hay and pop out when aiming his bow, giving him a convenient hiding spot after popping off an arrow or two. When a guard discovers you, the game slows down briefly allowing you to react quickly or if you are close enough, assassinate a target.
One of the biggest changes to gameplay was the way Origins handled the Eagle Vision mechanic. Courtesy of your trusty pet eagle Senu, Bayek has literal Eagle Vision. While holding the button allows you to scan your surroundings, activating Eagle Visions switches perspective from Bayek to Senu. Senu functions similarly to the drone from Watch Dogs 2, you can survey your surroundings and mark key points Bayek can focus on. This changes the gameplay considerably and while eagles have been thematically important to the Assassin's Creed franchise since day one, this is the first time the eagle is a fully fleshed out character.
As one would expect, missions are laid out as mains or sidequests. Main missions advance the story while sidequests flesh out the world more. You can rush right through the main missions but unless you prefer a run that keeps you severely under-leveled by the end you're going to want to do some sidequests. The progression system can be a slog at times. Feeling like you're forced to balance out a decent amount of side missions just to survive the main game. While this wouldn't be too much of a problem in previous titles, the increased skill ceiling of combat would make a speedrun a bit more difficult than you'd expect. What I did love about sidequests was how the game told the individual stories within it. While the core mission has you chasing down a mysterious order, optional quests feel no more out of place when played during the main campaign or during post-game. This gives the world itself a unique character that can keep you playing long after the final scene. Limited time missions that pop up from time to time and missions where you have to avenge other players (say, if you die on the map another player can find your body and avenge you) make up the diverse nature of the gameplay. There's also a wide range of side activities that Bayek can participate in, from mortal combat in various arenas to chariot racing. I did play quite a bit of the arena battles but found myself rarely doing chariot racing. I just didn't have much of an interest in chariot racing and the controls did not feel intuitive. If driving horse drawn carriages was so snappy in Assassin's Creed Syndicate, I'm baffled that they couldn't get it together for the chariot racing in Origins.
Character progression is tied to three paramount points; overall level, weapon grade, and gear. The hunting mechanic is incredibly dialed up, feeling more like the hunting in Assassin's Creed III and IV. When you find enough resources Bayek can upgrade various pieces of his armor to increase defense, ranged damage, quiver size etc. Weapons are tied to levels but if you find a particularly awesome legendary sword or bow you can upgrade them from a low level to your current level for a nominal fee. This proves to be something that requires some planning since the cost of upgrading a weapon is the same whether you rise 2 levels or 10. Your core level determines not just base stats but also awards ability points that augment your gameplay style, much like previous titles Bayek can unlock several abilities on the skill tree. Character progression felt quite slow, in my first playthrough I just barely hit level 35 by the end game. My biggest complaint was how money was so hard to come by, I was constantly broke in Assassin's Creed Origins and unlike previous games where I can establish a steady flow of income courtesy of a chest at my homebase, I relied on good ol fashioned hunting to attempt to raise my financial status. With the importance of upgraded weapons I fall in love with, the need for coin is great and unfortunately Assassin's Creed Origins makes amassing a fortune hard to come by.
In a surprising twist, naval battles return but in a dramatically scaled down scope. Rather than allowing you to freely explore the Mediterranean, these naval battles are all tied to specific story points and while exciting, fail to live up to what made naval combat so great in Assassin's Creed IV. These points shift the game from Bayek to Aya. Aside from the naval combat, Aya does play an important role come end game. It's just a shame that the dual-assassin mechanic that made running around Industrial London as Jacob or Evie Frye was not applied here. I wished I could have spent more time as Aya and further developing her character.
Visually, Assassin's Creed Origins is the most beautiful AC title yet. Egypt is wonderfully rendered and whether you play in 4k via a super-powered PC or PS4 Pro/XBox One X or standard 1080p HD, the game still looks gorgeous. On console (I reviewed the game on a standard PS4) the game is incredibly optimized and everything from cutscenes to in-game looks gorgeous. I found myself lost in the world, allowing myself to really take in Egypt's splendor. One puzzling bit of UX that bugged me was the colors used to signify a main mission point on the map. With Egypt being full of sand, it's incredibly short sighted to make the icon for main missions also yellow. It blends in to the background of the map way too easily and ended up as a source of frustration more times than I would have liked it to be.
If 2007's Assassin's Creed is a proof in concept, Assassin's Creed Origins is fitting entry to fall on the franchise's ten year anniversary. Given the fact that Origins is the birth of the Assassin's Brotherhood and with it the rise of the Templars, much of the game returns to its roots. The modern day setting once again features a playable character, Layla Hassan is a disgruntled Abstergo employee who goes off the grid to establish her own Animus project when she discovers the mummies of ancient assassins Bayek and Aya. Like Desmond Miles before, you can pop out of the Animus anytime to explore the world as Layla. Much like how limited the modern day world was while Desmond Miles was in Abstergo captivity, Layla's world is a tiny slice of modern day Egypt.
Introducing Layla is a welcome change for a series that began to push out the modern day elements dramatically since Assassin's Creed IV. Rather than a nameless individual the player imprints on, we get a real character again. While there was some criticism of the modern day/Desmond Miles gameplay in the past, I never understood why the community was so against it. I prefer a more fleshed out character like Layla or Desmond over the nameless/first person perspective from the games since ACIV.
Personally, I'm glad that the series is finding its footing once again, after how arguably the series faced fatigue during the yearly releases this new bi-yearly release calendar feels like it'll be better for the franchise and a welcome change for one of my favorite series of games. The games combat does eventually hit its stride by around level 10 and while Assassin's Creed Origins is a far cry from the games it is meant to be inspired by, the end product is still an enjoyable romp through yet another often ignored slice of history. Origins isn't a total game changer but it is a nudge in the right direction. I just hope that the movies can get better... will we ever get a good video game movie? Then again, that's a discussion for another time.
3.75 out of 5
Step in the right direction despite some slight hiccups
+ Engaging new cast
+ Visually stunning
+ Diversity of Weapons
+ The world in general
- Yellow icon for main missions on a predominately yellow map
- Slow progression system
- Hard to make money