When Assassin’s Creed Origins launched in late 2017, it promised to be a departure from the series we knew and (some people) loved. While the core notion of being a sneaky assassin would remain, Origins would integrate greater choice and RPG elements throughout. Bayek, the proto-assassin protagonist you spend the majority of the game with, would be customisable and combat would be completely re-built. Equally, this game would be a prequel. While it would lay the foundation of the Assassin’s vs. Templar war found in the other games, it wouldn’t necessarily be bogged down in all the law, because it was taking place before any of those orders began. As someone who had barely a passing interest in the series, this sounded like very good news. My main issues with the previous games had been that, while the Assassin parts were fun, missions soon got repetitive and combat was completely one note. Equally, I had found the story tiresome and distracting – and getting pulled out of your adventure to the modern world ridiculous as you replaced a quite good action game with a dull walking sim.
I am pleased to say that the changes promised were largely delivered, and for me at least Origins is the high point in the series. Bayek is customisable in several ways, and all these adjustments provide incentive to explore the engrossing setting of Ancient Egypt. With experience you can unlock skills and guide yourself down one of three distinct paths. The warrior path focusses more on straight up hand to hand combat, the hunter path makes you adept with a bow while if you choose to specialise on the seer abilities you focus on more stealth orientated gameplay. Of course, you can choose to select upgrades from each one (and it’s wise to start off with the basics from all of them) and become a jack of all trades. Providing the player with the option to play to their strengths, or compensate for their weaknesses, is a smart move as it offers multiple options for any given mission. Now, going in all guns (or swords) blazing is just as much of an option as going for the more traditional assassin route.
There are other progression systems given you a wide range of customisation options. Your weapons, armour and other utensils can be upgraded using materials – which can be gathered either through hunting the varied and deadly wildlife of Egypt or assassinating the equally deadly Roman patrols. Stopping between missions to go on hunting trips was a great pace-breaker for the main game, and as certain animals reside in only specific areas, gave a great reason to explore the world. In a similar way individual weapons, shields and armour can be levelled up through traders – though it is often easier (and more beneficial) to replace older weapons with newer ones you discover.
Another RPG aspect that rears its head in Origins is grinding, but for me this game pulls it off about as well as I’ve seen it done in recent years. On a few occasions I would beat a story mission to then be shown that I was several levels off being ready for the next one, but due to the varied nature of the side missions I never found it a chore to go off and mop up any I’d missed. The level jumps never felt unattainable, and they usually happened when you opened-up a new area – so moving away from the story and exploring the local’s troubles felt like a natural expansion of the game.
The other most noticeable difference from the previous Assassin’s games is that the combat has been completely overhauled. You have a much wider variety of weapons, and modifications, at your disposal and thus you are a much more formidable threat in an open fight. The combat is more interesting but I did find it a bit one-note. Certain attacks are overpowered, especially taking on enemies at your level or below you, and I found myself reverting to them whenever the going got a little tough. The option to sneak around, either using your assassins’ blade or bow, were much more rewarding– even as someone who focussed on combat skills I still found myself preferring the sneaky alternative. Still, progress has certainly been made in combat and hopefully this continues in future games.
One continuation from the previous games is the selection of a famous historic backdrop for your story and I found the setting of Ancient Egypt one of the most engrossing historical (or even fictional) open worlds I’ve played through. The specific time chosen, the end of the Ptolemaic era, brought the Egyptian, Greeks and Romans together and played them off against each other. The politics of this time, both from the highest office to disagreements between neighbours, is used as settings for story and side missions and makes the game and world feel very much entwined. Yes, at the heart of it many of the missions are standard infiltration, or fetch and seek, but lending them this historical focus makes them feel unique. Whether it’s finding out who is poisoning a sacred bull or getting in the middle of a dispute between Greek land owners and their Egyptian tenants, the missions feel like they are anchored in a living, breathing world and could only take place in this game. The higher profile story missions, involving such historical celebrities as Pompei, Cleopatra and Caesar, may take obviously necessary liberties with history but having Bayek seemingly play a key role in these events adds a certain extra importance to your own personal mission.
It is not just the setting that dragged me into this world, but just how stunning and varied it was visually. If you’re expecting copy paste desert backgrounds then expect again; you get to explore bustling cities, swamp towns, gorgeous oases and literal wonders of the ancient world. Whatever else this game offers, sliding down a great pyramid is never not fun. Filling in your map can feel a little contrived, you need to climb to a specified way point in each area to “synchronise” with your surroundings, but the views are rarely less than incredible.
Helping to simultaneously highlight the scope of this world, and make it manageable, if your trusty eagle pal Senu. With the tap of a button you get an eagle-eyed view of your surroundings, and you can tag targets and see mission points as well as different materials/animals to hunt or gather. If you set Bayek a way point, you can jump into eagle mode and he follow him as he rides there himself. Well, this is how it works in theory – most of the time he simply stopped in his tracks or wandered into a lake.
In fact, bugs pervade this game through. Smaller, but still annoying, problems such as repeated dialogue lines or looping animations are a continuing chore from the beginning and went from funny to frustrating quickly. Worse still are the bigger bugs I encountered a few times; I got stuck in a wall and died at the end-point of a particularly tricky mission, and once I even skipped an entire mission a few seconds after starting it – the ending cutscene playing just as I was about to enter the first fight. Making games is super hard, making big games is even harder, but with Ubisoft’s resources things like this really should have been ironed out.
There are also a few, less engrossing, game segments which punctuate your main story. Though it is limited, you are still dragged to the present day on a few occasions in monotonous and pointless side pieces which just made me want to get back to Ancient Egypt. I understand the concept of pacing, and how important they are to the story, but there are so many other ways to slow the play style down for a while and a cutscene would have sufficed from the story angle. Naval conflict also takes up a small portion of the game, and while more fun than the modern pieces, I still found these very shallow. There wasn’t the richness you found in the open world, and while they were usually over quite quickly I didn’t feel they added anything to the experience as whole. It was a good idea, but perhaps needed more fleshing out to stand toe-to-toe with the other missions.
These naval segments force you to play as a separate character, which in itself is fine and gives said character more depth. However, where this is less forgivable is that you are forced to play as this character for the final mission. After spending 35 hours with Bayek, and grinding away for new weapons and improved stats, it feels like a strange decision to take all this away for the final fight. It felt like a very unsatisfying ending and took away from the otherwise high stakes you were involved in during the stories climax.
What we have here then is a game caught between two worlds, but thankfully moving at speed in the right direction. On the one hand there are so many improvements from previous games in the series that is becomes an immediate high point. You are given options, combat choices, and gameplay that is both tactical and enjoyable. Missions can be carried out in numerous ways, and while they often take similar forms, these different approaches keep things fresh. You also have a gorgeous world to explore and missions and systems that take full advantage of this. While bugs let it down throughout, there is an immersive, occasionally whacky and downright exciting time to be had here. However, you still have to look beyond the echoes of dated systems to get there. Frustrating modern segments, occasionally clunky and skin-deep combat, and strange narrative choices get in the way of this truly being the great game that it clearly had the potential to be. Hopefully 2018’s Odyssey (which I am yet to play but have heard excellent things about) continues this series on the path that Origins sets out.
Footnote: There is a “Discovery Tour” which allows you to explore the world combat free and treats Ancient Egypt like a giant museum. You can do tours of places like the library at Alexandria or learn about mummification. I didn’t get a chance to try this out, but it sounds thoroughly ace and I hope it’s something that is continued. Games don’t have to just be about scrapping!
Red Dead Redemption 2 set out its stall clearly in the run up to release. Here you were going to find the most beautiful, immersive, lived in open-world seen in gaming and a new bar would be set for not only how you interacted with virtual worlds but also how these worlds interacted with you. Sweeping vistas dominated promotional materials as details of all the activities you could do were drip fed. Fancy camping? No problem. What about good old-fashioned hunting? Well, there were hundreds of animals to track down for trophies. Everything from shaving to alchemy was considered, and each adventure would be unique and bespoke. The fact Rockstar has exceeded expectations with this world is something to be celebrated, as here truly is the most remarkable (and visually stunning) gaming world created. What’s not cause for celebration is that, as your time with it wears on, this bright world fades to become background to a tiring, repetitive and cumbersome cover shooter.
But let’s start with that world. The scale is breathtaking – true there have probably been larger open worlds before – but none that have simply felt this huge and real. As you transition down from the mountains into more temperate zones, and then onto deserts before finally reaching cities and swamps the world feels like as if it breathes and moves around you. You can imagine, after you switch off your console, that life here continues. This isn’t a world built for you, or a world for your adventure, this is a world that just so happens to be the setting for your story as well as the story for the hundreds of other characters you encounter. It is a feat that I have never encountered in a game before.
What helps give it this sense of scale is the sheer number of systems at play, and the options to the player at any given moment. While you are hand-held along an opening few missions, after descending from the mountains you could wander off for tens of hours before continuing with the story. The world feels truly alive as you know around the next corner could be a cougar waiting to pounce, an ambush from a rival gang, or simply someone in need of a helping hand. There will be sheep to hustle, buffalo to hunt or a bounty to collect.
At the centre of your world, and at so many of these systems, is your camp. You are a senior figure in a gang of outlaws trying to get back on its feet after a job gone wrong – and as such you have certain responsibilities. Along with the more generic side missions the camp offers, it also expects things from you. There is stew to eat, to replenish health, but only if the camp cook gets fresh meat. There are places to get ammo and tonics, but only if you pay to upgrade the camp. You start feeling a responsibility for the place, and the more time you invest in the camp the greater the rewards you reap. Most telling perhaps is in a game of this size, the only way to fast travel anywhere is to make a serious investment in your camp to unlock a map. Otherwise, get used to your horse.
But beyond your camp, over each hill there is something new to explore. A trip to the doctor to pick up medical supplies quickly turned into an inadvertent heist as I noticed a locked door at the back of the shop. A quick stop at a saloon started a game-long mission of tracking down (and helping) numerous ex-gunslingers and opened-up hours of completely optional (and incredibly polished) missions and stories. When you are in the fictional south-west, tracking down a zebra to return to a circus master, you know that you’re in a unique world.
For this reason, if you are setting out on this game, I would advise against the fast travel option. Red Dead Redemption 2 almost prides itself in its slow pace, and (for the most part) this pays off. Everything requires a button push from the player – shaving, tying up your horse, holstering your weapon – very little comes for free. While sometimes this is frustrating, forcing the player to travel over large areas really shows off the world at its finest. With fast travel, this merely becomes another gaming world, but by taking your time (and bonding with your horse) you will run into the numerous side activities and see the many sights that this incredible world has to offer.
And for the first half of this game, as it introduces you to the world, the game is at its breathtaking best. The world very much is the game, and vice versa. Story and side missions are tied to showing off systems and areas – essentially dozens of mini-tutorials that teach you everything from horse-bonding to poker. It is when you move away from there, and carry on with the story missions, that things quickly fall apart. The story takes you across the world, introducing new towns and areas to you (though theoretically everything is accessible from the start) as your gang and camp are forced to flee from one fictional state to the next. While this offers up fresh settings, and shows off the world beautifully, the same cannot be said for the gameplay. Unique missions are soon replaced by second-rate shootouts that feel almost arcade like at points and follow a near identical pattern. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told to ride to an area, watch a cutscene which contains an argument, take part in a shootout and then flee fending off enemies before getting to a safe place. Different skins are placed on this mission type, sometimes it’s a canoe, sometimes it’s a jail break, but they feel and play identically. This is shown in sharp light as one story-beat takes you out of the world for 1-2 hours of gameplay. Without the open world to distract you, to freshen things up between missions, the game becomes a slog of repeat cover-shooter style missions. When ,finally, back in the real-world things don’t get much better, as further story-events effectively close off a lot of exploring and encourage you to see the story to the end.
This reliance on cover-shooting missions also highlights another weakness of the game – the awkward controls. In a game so reliant on immersion, any small fault can snap you out of the world and unfortunately these occur regularly during shootouts. The miss-time of a button is the difference between pulling out your weapon or getting out of cover – and the site of your character calmly standing up and walking forward (without your apparent instruction) during an intense fight is a real atmosphere destroyer.
The one saving grace of carrying on with the story is the narrative itself. While the missions become tiring, the arc of your characters (as well as Dutch, the leader of the gang) almost make it worth the slog. As Dutch descends into madness, falling from your surrogate father to a paranoid mad man, your own character is coming to term with himself, events in his life, and the changing nature of the world around you. If not exactly original, it is still enthralling and supported by a cast of likeable, diverse and engaging characters. The performances are also pitch perfect, bringing out genuine empathy as events unfold and I found myself actively invested in the well being of my character, my horse and some of my fellow camp-members (but mainly my horse). The story also provides the games most memorable moments as visuals, atmosphere and an insanely good soundtrack regularly come together to provide jaw dropping scenes. Technically I was controlling them I suppose, but it says a lot about the strengths and weakness of this game that I often preferred watching the game to playing it.
The story is only let down by a confusing pair of epilogues, that you are forced to play through to “finish” the game. Without spoiling too much these epilogues aren’t directly linked with the main story and feel deflating after the highs of the main adventure. At 60 hours it’s not like the game isn’t long enough without them, and I found their addition confusing – adding pretty much nothing to the experience.
Overall Red Dead Redemption 2 is very much a tale of two games. On the one hand you have the most immersive and lived in open world that gaming has ever presented. You could spend hundreds of hours here, doing whatever you chose. Becoming a master fisher or hunter, chasing down bounties or simply exploring the stunning landscape are experiences like few others I’ve had in games. The story is compelling, beautifully acted and chock full of so much atmosphere and emotion it is almost unfair – it has characters and performances that will live with me for a long time. This world, these characters and this story deserved a game fitting of the setting – but unfortunately in this aspect Rockstar didn’t deliver. Clunky controls, and boring copy-paste missions make getting to the end a slog. It’s a real shame as I am struggling to recommend one of the most beautiful and unique games of the year – but ultimately for me it wasn’t worth it.
Marvel’s Spider-Man feels like the ultimate fan-service game. If you are a fan of the comics or films (I count myself pretty much only in the latter camp) then everything you are after is here. A multitude of favourite villains make an appearance, the story could be ripped straight out of a comic due to its over-the-top dastardly plans and – most importantly – when you’re playing as Spider-Man the game really feels like it’s in full swing. The combat and traversal are intuitive, addictive and fully customisable as you move seamlessly between cinematic boss battles to toying with street level criminals. However, it’s the moments that you step-outside the suit that let the game down – it truly is an amazing Spider-Man game mixed with a so-so stealth and puzzle game. These moments along with some repetitive open-world clichés, drag the game back from the precipices of greatness.
That being said, for the majority of this 15 – 20-hour adventure you are playing as the webbed wonder and it feels fantastic. You literally start the game swinging, and the controls are balanced perfectly giving you the feeling of control while rarely getting frustrating. It takes about 30 seconds to get the hang of traversal, and after that it never gets old. More than once I would climb to the top of the Empire State building, launch myself off, and see how close I could get to the floor before swinging away. The fact that there is a fast travel system that I only used once (when the story forces you too) says it all. Even when needing to get to the other side of the map, I didn’t consider the subway – the journey was just as much fun as the missions that awaited me.
The controls, of course, are only a part of this. New York itself is beautifully realised, and completely open from the very beginning. Aside from the story there is tons to do; collecting backpacks, taking photos of model cats (seriously), stopping numerous crimes of varying types and completing challenges set by a masked sadist. These feel mixed and varied at first, and give you a good excuse to go exploring or try out your latest weapon on a bunch of thugs.
While you are free to explore the world as you want, the story guides you through specific areas and it is as gripping a video-game story as I’ve played in recent years. Nailing the tone, sometimes funny sometimes serious, and with a host of iconic bad guys to fight the twists and turns kept me entertained until the end. The key staples are here, including allies Aunt May, M.J. and Miles Morales. These supporting characters have their own arcs too, and sometimes cut-scenes were so entertaining and the voice acting so spot on I genuinely felt like I was watching a film. Throughout the story you play certain missions as both Miles and M.J. which give their stories more weight and help you as a player bond with the characters – as well as create a change of pace from your frantic time as Spider-Man.
However, it is with these missions that we hit upon one of the major flaws of this game. Early on their sporadic nature does feel refreshing, but as the adventure goes on they feel longer and more frequent. Combined with science-based puzzle mission of Peter Parker, which are also fun-enough in bursts, and for some of my 2-hour play sessions I was barely wearing the suit at all. Making matters worse, the M.J./Miles missions are essentially identical. They are all stealth based, and involve moving between cover and pushing things over or using distraction tools to sneak past guards. They don’t offer any real challenge (thankfully they are check-pointed generously) and become frustrating and boring quite quickly. The same can be said of Peter Parker’s science puzzles; there are a handful of types that don’t present any real challenge and get old well before the halfway point of the game.
Which is a real shame as playing as Spider-Man can be so exhilarating and rewarding, helped by just how customisable the character actually is. There are RPG-lite elements, as you progress through levels you unlock skill points which you can use to activate moves depending on your play style. Different tokens, earned through myriad side tasks, unlock and upgrade new weapons and suits which become available as you work your way through the story. These side missions start off as great practice; feel under-powered in a fight? Well go off and fight some thugs, you’ll get better at the combat controls and it will help you unlock a weapon that could help you in the main story. Equally, seeing a new suit you like the look of (and there are lots of very cool suits) is motivation to go and find all the backpacks Peter has inexplicably left hanging around New York or take on the Taskmaster in some of his challenges. However, when you have unlocked the suits you want or upgraded the weapons to your desired level, there is little motivation to carry on unless you’re a completionist (I am not). While early on side-missions are varied and fun, they quickly become repetitive due to their sheer quantity. Enemy types do evolve as story events create changes in your environment, but stopping your first mugging is so much more exciting than going through the motions during your 50th. As soon as I’d finished the story, and unlocked one late game suit I had my eye on, I had absolutely no desire to fight my way through another wave of bad guys that had become more a chore than a thrill as the hours wore on.
Looking back I enjoyed the majority of my time with this adventure, thanks largely to a combination of a gripping story, pitch-perfect traversal and tight combat controls. Solving crimes, completing story and side missions, and just having fun in the playground they have created in New York was an absolute blast. Unlocking suits and weapons, allowing me to customise Spider-Man to my play-style, provided the motivation to find backpacks and complete challenges, but when these were gone so was my desire to go back to the game. Combined with a series of dud-stealth missions and samey puzzles these hiccups stop this being the Amazing Spider-Man and more the simply-very-good Spider-Man.