Like so many big-budget extravaganzas, Assassin’s Creed Origins is an attempt to perfectly triangulate the three corners of open-world game design: environment simulation, storytelling and gameplay.
The problem for developers like Ubisoft Montreal, which cleave closely to the ideals of open-worldness, is that those three things are in a constant state of tension and opposition. The trick when making these games is to diminish the necessary compromises for each of the three, so that world, story and game come through together, relatively unspoiled.
A paradox sits at the center of such an endeavor. If one corner makes a sudden reach toward genuine excellence, it stretches and perverts the triangle.
So it is with Assassin’s Creed Origins, a vibrating world of color and life tied to a serviceable story and an altogether familiar set of gameplay chores. This is a good game, but it is an acute triangle, unequal in its proportions.
I climb to the top of a Great Pyramid. It’s not easy. If I miss a handhold, I skitter downward, yelling blue murder at my own failure. But once atop the structure, I’m rewarded with a view of ancient Egypt, its trees, mountains, monuments, rivers, ruins and villages.
There is red and green and gold here, turquoise, amaranth and pearl shimmering in digital sunlight. Wind skitters over dunes, flamingoes startle over shimmering streams. Trees sway, roads bend, oxen drudge.
This is a space of loveliness, a work of art. If you ever wanted to step into the distant past, into a simulation of ancient life, here it is. From marble palaces to mud-hut hovels, from dead carcasses to soaring aqueducts, this Assassin’s Creed overachieves on looks. If aesthetics alone were the reason for a full year’s delay on the game, it’s been worth the wait. This is, by far, the best-looking Assassin’s Creed ever made. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.
I enjoy being a part of this world, and my enjoyment is no fad. Even after 50 hours of play, I’m still finding things that please my senses. I spend a lot of time just trotting around between quests, and I’m perfectly happy to do so.
Previous Assassin’s Creed games took place in the late medieval or post-Renaissance world. That makes sense for a series so heavily geared toward climbing buildings. Ancient structures were rarely more than four stories high. But this ancient Egypt is both monumental and vertical. It is mountainous, dotted with fortifications and grandeur. There is never a shortage of walls to scale, hillsides to scramble across and rooftops to skedaddle along. And they all look bloody marvelous.
There’s also a complex and mostly fulfilling story at play. This tale begins at a time when Cleopatra is seeking to gain the throne from her younger brother, a kid called Ptolemy who doesn’t know his arse from his obelisk. The people are in need of a strong leader. Cleopatra has the necessary charisma. She turns to the people for support.
The protagonist, Bayek of Siwa, is a Medjay, a kind of ancient cop / social enforcer. He despises Ptolemy and his handlers. He has personal reasons for his hatred, a mission of revenge that I won’t spoil here. The story does well to explore this aspect of his rage, which helps to explain his incredible capacity for violence.
Through cutscenes and quests, we get a sense of the intersection between Bayek’s private woes and the greater political conflict. Time and again, he helps people who have been wronged by the state, and so edges closer to his own desire to complete himself through revenge.
Sometimes he meets characters who are genuinely funny and human. I especially love the orphan boy trader who can’t stop telling tall tales about the many gruesome ways in which his parents were killed. I also laughed out loud at the playwright working on his new masterpiece: My Pharaoh Lady.
But this game also offers that rare quality of emotion. It includes storylines with real sadness. I played one mission in a state of genuine rage at the things Bayek’s enemies had done. If I didn’t weep at their cruelty, I came pretty close.
Bayek’s wife, Aya, is a big part of this story. She’s a true believer in the Cleopatra project, and just as fierce a warrior as her husband. She is playable for parts of the game, and although she lacks some of Bayek’s specific powers, she offers a satisfying alternative.
These two are deeply entwined and very sexy. They spend a lot of time making love in exotic locations. They’re the kind of couple you want to have as friends, but who only really have time for one another.
I like them both for their sense of nobility and morality. Bayek is kind, devout and certain about how the world ought to be ordered. Aya is a passionate and clever political operative. They both serve as excellent role models, with none of the cheesy posturing we often see in gaming leads.
It’s worth mentioning that they are both dark-skinned, as you’d expect from north Africans. This game doesn’t whitewash history, even if some of the accents sound a bit wobbly, at least to my ear. Post-release I’d like to hear the views of people more intimately knowledgeable about the region and its peoples.
In the way of fictional warrior characters of the past, Bayek has a habit of humorless, overly noble declarations. But he’s also capable of cracking jokes, very occasionally, which make him even more adorable. Upon seeing the Sphinx for the first time, he echoes a million tourists to come, noting that it’s “not as big as I expected.”
As the game progresses, Bayek and Aya are involved in some of the most iconic moments in ancient history. I won’t spoil them here, but a full range of Cleopatra’s big scenes are explored with our heroes usually in attendance, sometimes startlingly so. I have a soft spot for the ancient world, and thoroughly enjoyed being a part of these famous tableaux, although I suspect Cleopatra’s portrayal owes more to Elizabeth Taylor than to historical truth.
But if these moments stand out in memory, it’s because they have entertained and intrigued large chunks of humanity for more than two millennia. The main body of Assassin’s Creed Origin’s story is videogamey and transient.
The bosses are interesting, in that they all have semi-reasonable objectives behind their evil. But most of the narrative is looped around quests in which Bayek has to go and do a thing on behalf of a person who has been misfortuned by wicked power.
The writers have obviously made a vigorous attempt to disguise the sameness of these little tales, and Bayek’s strength as a character pulls a lot of weight. But eventually, the narrative underpinning these missions becomes a kind of desert, rolling into the distance. It’s a nice view, at first, but wearying after a while.
As the side quests roll on, it becomes clear that the gameplay isn’t nearly as astounding as the game’s setting. While the world is superb, and the story offers plenty to admire, the game itself is much as you’d expect, if you’ve spent any time playing entries in the Assassin’s Creed series.
Time is spent in a rigamarole of to-ing and fro-ing between quest givers who generally want me to go to a place and rescue something or someone from a bunch of guards who are standing around, waiting for me to figure out the best way to either kill them, incapacitate them or sneak past them. Some scenes ask me to investigate a room or a house, but this is just a matter of following visual leads and resolving some light puzzles, like smashing pottery to reveal a secret entrance to another room, where some basic tomb raiding might occur.
There are a few set-pieces that serve as nice diversions, including grand Ben-Hur-style trireme battles that offer a lot more in sensory thrills than real challenges. It really does come down to “row well, and live.”
Missions are usually about establishing ownership of garrisoned physical spaces. I climb walls, or I sneak under them. I hide in bushes, and I dart into tents. I make use of an eagle above to watch and learn the movements of my enemies, so I can plan a path forward.
As a stealth and combat game, Assassin’s Creed Origins is entirely competent. If I’m careless, nearby guards will spot me. They will kill me if I allow myself to be outnumbered, or if I go into a mission without the necessary leveling up, or if I hang around long enough for them to call in reinforcements.
Some concessions to the formula have been added. There are always plenty of different ways to complete an infiltration mission. I can move time forward from day to night, so that my enemies are resting or even sleeping. If I come back at another time, some of the guard patterns will have changed slightly. I can release wild animals from cages in order to aid my cause, or I can make use of fire.
I move through my missions, leveling up, improving my combat abilities, taking on enemies who are also stronger and stronger. I feel guided through an experience, rather than let loose in a world.
In theory, I can trot through the entire map, almost from the start of the game. But each area is marked according to levels. I really don’t want to travel great distances just to be mauled to death by a mangy dog with a level 10 times higher than mine. The game takes care to make sure I only really play those quests that are appropriate to my level.
It’s this construction that belies the openness of this world. I suspect that many players will follow a broadly similar path, choosing much the same side quests in order to earn the power to complete the main story.
There are opportunities to just go off and do my own thing. I can hunt animals for resources that can then be used to upgrade my gear. Or I can fight trade caravans and steal their gear. I can just stroll around and enjoy the world. But the game itself makes a lot of compromises with its alleged openness, in order to guide the player through a coherent experience.
In essence, Assassin’s Creed Origins is much the same game as the original Assassin’s Creed, which came out a decade ago. It’s a formula that people like to play, and it’s certainly been honed and improved over the years. Origins is, then, undoubtedly the best iteration of this formula yet. But I yearn for a fresh approach and new ideas, something that astounds the senses as much as the wondrous world this game inhabits.
Assassin’s Creed Origins was reviewed on an Xbox One X over the course of a week at an event hosted by Ubisoft in San Francisco. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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