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Assassin's Creed Origins - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Vast, well-realized world
  • No trash collectibles every few steps
  • Running is separate from the jump and climb button
  • More difficult combat encourages careful, deliberate stealth
  • Combat is actually engaging when stealth fails
  • Allows for some emergent interactions with environment
  • Gear is easily upgraded

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Combat feels floaty and lacks a sense of weight
  • Lots of fetch and errand quests
  • Identifying targets with bird becomes dull and tedious
  • Imprecise controls
  • UI: mouse cursor and tiny fonts
  • Does not feel like an origin story
  • Online integrations feel out-of-place
  • Stops dead in tracks to advertise DLC and micro-transactions

Overall Impression : C+
If the gameplay were as refined as the setting,
this would be something truly special

Assassin's Creed Origins - cover

Developer:
Ubisoft Montreal

Publisher:
Ubisoft

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
27 October, 2017

Genre:
stealth action

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence,
Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
assassinscreed.ubisoft.com/game/en-us/home/

Hey, I actually managed to play and review all of this past holiday season's big, Triple-A releases! Hooray for me! I mean, sure it's the end of February, and I'm just now reviewing a game that came out last October, but at least I did play it.

Since the refreshing exceptionalism of Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed franchise has been scarred by mediocrity and controversy. As such, I opted to buy the game used off of eBay so as not to support Ubisoft. This is after I had enjoyed Black Flag so much that I happily bought a retail gift copy for a friend and recommended the game to yet another friend. Heck, if the save file could have been transferred over, I would have gladly traded in my PS3 copy of Black Flag for a PS4 retail copy.

Even Ubisoft realized that the series was growing stale, and stopped their cycle of releasing two or three games per year. It's been two full years since the last full release (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate in 2015). The extra time certainly helped elevate Assassin's Creed: Origins above the chaff of the rest of the franchise, but not quite enough to propel it to true greatness.

I played Origins on PS4, which means that I avoided the frustrations that many gamers reported involving Origins' multiple layers of DRM slowing down their computers. Wait, isn't Ubisoft the company that, years ago, publicly stated that DRM doesn't work, and that they "don't want to punish a paying player for what a pirate can easily work around"? This same company is now putting not one ... not two ... but three separate DRM applications on a single game? One of which is their own proprietary distribution service, U-Play? Is the company lying, or are they just scatterbrained and can't make up their mind? Or is the management just incompetent?

Would exploring tombs and temples by torchlight become a common mechanic?

Well, when I started up the actual game, I was pleasantly surprised that it starts off pretty damn strong. Even Black Flag was mired by an opening act that stranded players in a tedious, bog-standard Assassin's Creed sandbox city for a couple hours before opening up the seas by giving us our own pirate ships. Origins, however, has a very strong, distinctive opening chapter that eventually gives way to a more bog-standard gameplay experience.

After an admittedly-silly and confusing opening cutscene that utterly fails to establish the setting or characters, Origins throws the player into a one-on-one duel to highlight the new combat mechanics, then hands main character Bayek a torch and asks the player to explore and escape from a derelict Egyptian temple. Then we head off across an intimidating swath of Saharan desert to the oasis that is Bayek's home town. Here, we have some open-ended exploration, hunting, rescue, and assassination missions. During this, we are introduced to the game's shining star: its setting and environment.

Classical Egypt is magnificently brought to life in this game. The map is vast and spread out, with large swaths of barren desert and sand dunes separating some of the game's regions. Small farming settlements and market hubs dot the environment, and each feels like a necessary part of a functional society. Best of all, Bayek isn't stopping every ten steps to pick up some random, meaningless collectible, and our map isn't cluttered with icons representing all this meaningless garbage.

Egypt feels vast, is beautiful, and is brimming with life and energy.

Not only does the map work well with its sense of physical scale, but it also excels at representing the temporal scale of Egypt. Even though we are playing in antiquity, the game world is still dotted with tombs and abandoned settlements, some of which are thousands of years old. Remember, ancient Egypt is one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world, having been a world superpower for over three thousand years! The time span between the building of the Great Pyramids in Giza, and the life of Cleopatra is longer than the time span between Cleopatra and our lives today. Assassin's Creed: Origins completely nails that sense of living in this ancient kingdom.

The Dark Souls of Assassin's Creed games?

At a broad level, Origins has been restructured to play more like an RPG. Bayek earns experience from completing quests and other in-world activities, and that experience unlocks ability points that can be used to buy abilities from a skill tree (as well as automatically increasing his health and damage). Sadly, many of the side quests come down to being annoying and tedious fetch and errand quests. It's like they were pulled straight out of a JRPG. This is the same nonsense that killed Final Fantasy XV for me. There's a few "investigation" quests thrown in too, but none of them come close to matching the grandeur of The Witcher III's fantastic, genre-redefining side quests. There is no "Bloody Baron" in Assassin's Creed: Origins, or if there is, I've yet to find it. Put simply, there's never any interesting stories or characters within these side quests, and most still feel like time-wasting filler content.

At a more granular level, Origins also completely overhauls its combat system. One of the consistent complaints with the earlier Assassin's Creed games is the ease of combat. The games used a melee system that came off like a dumber, simpler version of the Batman: Arkham games, in which you can press a counter button to parry virtually any enemy blow. That system quickly got stale and dull, and so Ubisoft has redesigned the combat for this game. Their primary inspiration this time around seems to be Dark Souls. I love Dark Souls, so this should be a welcome change, right? Unfortunately, one of the most important elements of Dark Souls combat has been ignored: stamina.

Combat feels very floaty, and the lack of stamina allows spamming dodges and attacks.

I guess Ubisoft wanted to maintain the sense of speed and agility that their previous characters exhibited, and so combat in Assassin's Creed feels floaty and lacks a sense of weight. Movement feels exceedingly fast, and the lack of stamina allows spamming the dodge button and holding "block" the entire fight, or getting an enemy stuck in a stun lock and mashing the attack button till they're dead. In order to prevent every fight from being decided by whichever character gets stun-locked first, all weapons have combos that just end at arbitrary points. At this point, there's a slight cool-down that allows the opponent to dodge away, block, or counter-attack. It's a poor substitute for actually having to manage stamina.

This design feels very uncomfortable to me, and I just never really got a good feel for it. The camera doesn't help. It seems zoomed too far out to get a clear look at your opponent in a one-on-one scenario, but it's too close to have a clear picture of what's going on around you. Further, Bayek's position on screen often seems to block my view of my opponent's weapon-hand, making it even harder for me to see when he starts a wind-up. The awkward placement of the camera also gave me a lot of trouble judging distances, and I whiffed on a lot more attacks than I'm comfortable admitting to.

Because of all this, getting stuck in a fight (on Hard mode) often meant death for me. I thought that being experienced with Dark Souls would enable me to play the game on Hard without much trouble, but it just feels so different that any proficiency that I might have in Souls just doesn't transfer over to Origins. The Hard mode doesn't really seem to be worth it. It doesn't seem to make enemies smarter or harder to sneak up on. You can still run right in front of their line of sight, and even if they notice you, they'll forget you ever existed as soon as you jump into a bush or hide behind a wall. Grunt enemies are pathetically easy on Normal difficulty, and I can easily get away with the same thoughtless button-mashing that got me through earlier Assassin's Creed games. The heavier enemies can kill Bayek in two hits on Hard mode. Neither setting provides me with a sense of competitive fairness.

The high risk associated with combat lead me to lean heavily on stealth.

Perhaps this is the point though. Being so thoroughly punished in the Hard mode's combat meant that I focused much more on trying to be successful in the stealth. I spent much more time surveying an area, scouting out the location of all the enemies, trying to get in close to the target without alerting (or killing) any guards, and making the kill at a location where I had an easy escape route. This was a welcome change from the previous games, which allowed me to just jump into a horde of enemies and mash buttons until they were all dead. Not very subtle...

Best laid plans...

Or at least, I would be more cautious and stealthy if the game would reliably let me be. Imprecision in controls and poor quest designs can lead to lots of unnecessary combat, and lots of cheap deaths. Bayek will still overleap on many jumps, jump the wrong way off of walls, get stuck on scenery, or trapped in a cycle of climbing and letting go of something. I had always assumed that the trivially easy combat of the Assassin's Creed games was Ubisoft's way of trying to make up for the imprecise controls. If the game forced you into a bad jump that you didn't intend to make, or made you climb when you didn't want to, then being stuck in difficult combat would make the game exceedingly frustrating. That's kind of exactly what happens in Origins.

Too many stealth segments are trivially dealt with by hiding in bushes.

The stealth also falls far short of the immersion and depth offered by better stealth and infiltration games like Metal Gear Solid V or Hitman. There just aren't very many tools available for creative play. Yeah, you can get sleeping darts and other cop-out tools like that, but you can't really set traps or create clever distractions or diversions to draw the attention of guards. Far too many stealth segments are trivially dealt with by simply hiding in a bush, waiting for a guard to walk by, and whistling to draw him to his death. The patrol paths of the guards will even routinely bring multiple guards past the same clump of bushes, one at a time so that you can just sit in one place and practically clear out an entire area. The difficulty setting doesn't seem to change this.

Assassination missions also fall into the same dull, cookie-cutter style of all previous games. Your target wanders around an arena, and you take down enough guards to get close enough to do an insta-kill attack. This triggers a cutscene of the victim giving an out-of-body soliloquy, and completes the mission. You can do these attacks out in the open, even when the target is still surrounded by bodyguards. Assuming that the conclusion of the cutscene dumps you back into gameplay where you left off (which it does not consistently do), then you can run away from the guards without much trouble.

No need to deal with bodyguards. Once you assassinate the target, the mission ends, and you're scott-free.

You don't have to worry about clearing an escape route the way that you have to in many missions of MGSV. You don't have to stalk your prey over a long period of time to discovery weaknesses or patterns. You don't have to separate them from their bodyguards or catch them when they're most vulnerable. You just jump up on top of a building, or into a clump of bushes, wait for the target to walk past, and press the insta-kill button. Don't get me wrong, it's a much more engaging and player-driven experience than the lackluster, set-piece assassination missions of Assassin's Creed III, but it's still mostly boring.

Animals can be baited into attacking enemies.

The game isn't completely devoid of player freedom though. It does allow for some emergent and organic interactions. You can unleash caged animals or bait wild predators into an enemy camp to get them fighting. You can hold an arrow over a brazier to light the tip on fire before shooting it. You can wait till nighttime for most of the guards to go to sleep before infiltrating a camp or fort. And so on. The game just rarely encourages or incentivizes such behavior, and I just rarely found much opportunity (or necessity) to use such methods.

On the upside, there is no "run" button anymore. You simply move the analog stick slightly to walk, and move it all the way in a direction to run. This means that the "run", "jump", and "climb" commands are no longer all tied to the same damned button! This was one of my biggest frustrations with earlier Assassin's Creed games, along with similar games like Shadow of War. You can still hold the X button while running, and Bayek's animation changes slightly, but he doesn't seem to go any faster, so I'm not sure if this is doing anything other than to act as an indication that he's in "parkour mode". As tiny as it seems, this one change restores a lot of the player's control, as I'm no longer accidentally hopping up onto a wall because I grazed a building while trying to sprint through an alley.

One quest in particular really annoyed me to the point that I almost didn't want to play the game anymore. This was especially notable because it was the quest in which the player is introduced to Cleopatra. You would think that such a milestone quest would be pretty well thought-out, robust, and polished. Not so. It required me to rescue a prisoner from a military-controlled dockyard. I parked a small raft next to a galley and climbed on board, then proceeded up into the mast and onto some rafters in the docks. I cleared out the enemies near the prisoner, and then freed him with the intent of guiding him [undetected] to the boat to make our escape.

Instead of following me to the escape boat that I had parked nearby,
this rescued NPC pulled out a sword and went "Leeroy Jenkins" on the remaining guards.

Instead, he pulled a sword out of nowhere (did the soldiers not disarm him when they locked him in a cage?) and proceeded to charge the remaining enemies instead of following me back to the boat. "Best laid plans," I guess... I got stuck in combat, with a message flashing on the screen that my ally was low on health. Had I still been on the Hard difficulty, he probably would have died, I would have failed the mission, and I would have turned off the game in annoyance, and might never have turned it back on. Instead, however, I just stood there watching as he somehow managed to clear out the rest of the enemies by himself.

If the game was going to be this stupid, then I sure as hell wasn't going to risk playing any more of it in Hard mode. Seriously, though, who designs a rescue mission in a stealth-oriented game in which the person you rescue goes all "Leeroy Jenkins" on the remaining guards? Was this supposed to be somebody's very bad idea of a joke? Or are they trying to reinforce the idea that this isn't a stealth game anymore?

Identifying targets with Senu the hawk becomes a tedious chore before every quest.

My desire to stealth through most levels also meant that I spent a lot of time using the spotting feature of the Senu the hawk, which kind of makes the stealth too easy. Every now and then, I'd get surprised by an enemy that I missed, but that became increasingly rare, since the bird can detect enemies through walls. As long as you thoroughly sweep the area, you should catch everybody -- even from a single vantage point. You can basically highlight the position of every enemy (and most loot) from a safe distance without any risk at all. Senu is introduced as a way of locating hunting targets and spotting for enemies, but before long, virtually every quest requires you to use the bird to locate your target (whether it makes sense to do so, or not). Senu becomes a tedious chore at the start of every quest instead of a useful tool for scouting, hunting, or tracking.

Head shots from under-leveled bows are not fatal.

Looting tombs

Because the game plays so much more like an RPG, loot is a much more important part of the game. Having an under-leveled weapon can make battles nigh impossible, and having an over-leveled weapon can turn many quests into cake-walks. For example, headshots with under-leveled bows are not fatal. You can put an arrow right through your target's eye socket, but if that bow is too low a level, you'll only take a third or a half of his health bar. Every enemy in the area will probably also immediately be alerted.

Of course, Ubisoft is more than happy to sell high-level gear to you via the in-game micro-transactions. Despite having micro-transactions and DLC frequently advertised to me while in-game, I never got the impression that Origins is designed around selling loot boxes (in the way that Shadow of War was). The story missions aren't enough to keep you properly leveled, but I generally found that the one or two side quests available in any given town was more than enough to keep me leveled with the story missions, so grinding never felt like a necessity. You can spend the in-game money at a blacksmith to upgrade any piece of your gear to match Bayek's level (no credit card number required). This allows you to keep your favorite pieces of equipment (including Bayek's starting equipment, if you feel so inclined) at a competitive level throughout the entire game. The game is also very generous about providing Bayek with money. Money can be looted directly from within most quests, or you can sell crafting components or the useless trinkets that you collect.

Gear can be upgraded to be
used throughout the game.

Around level 20, I did notice that the cost of gear upgrades started to scale up pretty steeply. At this point, you may start to feel pressured to have to spend real money. This really depends on how diverse an armory you want to keep. If you pick a small handful of weapons to focus on, then the cost remains manageable. If you're trying to keep every weapon you acquire, then you'll probably have to resort to a lot of grinding for in-game money, or pay Ubisoft to speed things along. I was able to get by without it, and no amount of advertising DLC in the menus was going to get me to shell out any more money.

Do we need an Assassin's Creed: Origins: Origins?

I also don't understand why Ubisoft thinks this is an "origins" game. Bayek already has all the skills to be an assassin. The assassin blade is a weapon that is just given to him by Cleopatra (by way of Aya). The organization that becomes the Templars is stated as already being an "ancient order", and they're already dabbling with MacGuffin artifacts. All of the staples of Assassin's Creed are already in place, so there's no sense of growing into the familiar Assassin's Creed skin. There's no real mystery or intrigue. Not only that, but the present-day storyline takes place chronologically following the events of the previous games, and makes numerous references to them (and I think also to the lame movie as well). So the game doesn't really explain where any of this stuff comes from.

All the staples of Assassin's Creed are already in place, so this isn't much of an "origin" story.

The game also features some psuedo-online, asynchronous multiplayer mechanics that seem inspired by Dark Souls. These mechanics have been popping up in new games for a while now (such as in Nioh and Shadow of War), and it's becoming increasingly frustrating that the developers don't even seem to bother attempting to justify them. I mean, geez, the Souls games offer little more than a flimsy, hand-waving excuse for this feature, but at least they cared enough about their world's consistency to bother trying. The analogous features in these other games not only seem pointless and contrived, but every one of them so far has actively contradicted the game's own narrative. These features are a strength of the Souls games (despite their flimsy justification), but they are actively hurting the other copy-cat games.

While wandering around the world, Bayek can come across the body of slain players and can undertake a quest to "avenge" them. This is in addition to ambient events where you can assist NPC rebels in small skirmishes against occupying Roman soldiers. That second ambient event makes at least some sense, even though the early game utterly fails at establishing any of the history or politics of the situation. I guess Ubisoft just expects us to have done the historic research in advance now, even though the frequent creative liberties they take often make such research and foreknowledge moot.

I get the ambient skirmishes [LEFT], but why should I care about avenging [RIGHT] fallen online players?

In any case, if the Assassins (as an organization) doesn't exist yet, then who the heck are these other players supposed to represent? And more importantly, why should Bayek give a damn about them?

Good effort, but still falls a little flat

I appreciate that Ubisoft recognized that Assassin's Creed has long-since gone stale, and that they needed to re-invent the formula. I do feel that this game could have used another six months or a year of re-invention and refinement (particularly in the combat and quest / assassination design) to become something truly exceptional. If it's individual quests could have told engaging and well-written stories (like Witcher III), then I'd be far more forgiving. If the game could have iterated and expanded on the ideas of something like Shadow of Mordor, then it could have been something genuinely innovative. If it could have done both, then it would be truly revolutionary.

As far as I'm concerned, Assassin's Creed: Origins is only barely competent as a stealth game, barely competent as an action game, and barely competent as a last-gen (pre Witcher III) action-RPG. But it fails as an assassination game, and effectively fails as an origin story. It's still far better than any of the recent main-line Assassin's Creed games (except for Black Flag), but pretty much only on the strength of its world and setting. This version of Egypt feels vast, brimming with life and energy and beauty, and is very well-realized. It's just too bad that it wasn't attached to a more well-realized game.

Bayek murders his way through hundreds of people.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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