Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017 PS4) – Ubisoft

Assassins Creed Origins  Review (PS4 2017)

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Origins takes you back to Ancient Egypt, with some (already pretty ancient) pyramids as part of your playground

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.

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You are given a range of weapons to choose and customise. Obviously double swords (sometimes on fire) are the way to go

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.

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It genuinely isn’t all desert

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.

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Senu not only shows the world off, but is invaluable at locating mission and material markers. (See, told you it wasn’t all desert).

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!

 

 

 

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