Assassin’s Creed: Origins

This is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Yes, an Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed game. It turns out if you let your team have a year off without releasing a title, they’ll take that extra time to develop new features, mechanics and world building, whilst tightening up what already works. Your main campaign and side mission writers are able to craft deeper and more memorable characters. The sound design will be more layered and the sound track will be more considered. For once your game may be ahead of the curve with its features, rather than chasing behind the crowd whilst regurgitating the same content repeatedly.

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It’s a tricky proposition to talk about this game. It could easily slide into constant gushing with occasional niggles, rather than any satisfying commentary. So I’ve elected to keep it simple and describe every general aspect of Assassin’s Creed: Origins one-by-one, why they work so well, with some small issues, and then connect it all to why the overall game is such a success.

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Origins’ version of Hellenic Egypt is absolutely stunning. Whilst you could dismissively call it a big desert with a big river running through it, with a patch of ocean at the top; that would be so reductive. For starters this game’s desert is beautiful. Even within a single region the changing lighting from sunrise to sunset (and in between) can make a repeated kind of sand look and feel very different. Origins also understands that there are different kinds of sandy desert. Which sounds incredibly dull as a thing to write, but it really does create a sense of place and variation wherever you go. However every town and city has its own tailored personality and vibe. Landmarks from ancient Egypt such as the pyramids are striking and hold secrets when you explore them. The farms and their bespoke irrigation system fed by The Nile have rich greens covering the flat. The canals of Memphis hold mysteries and adventure. The political changes going on in the world, such as the influence of the Romans and Greeks over Egyptian geography and culture, can be felt in the environments.  Transitioning from Siwa to Alexandria is a dramatic mood shift, a trick the game manages to replicate in different forms with every new area. Details in the environments are rich. Background NPCs tell their own story just from their quality of garb, their choice of surroundings (if they were able to choose it) and the items around them. Corruption is an obvious influence in both wealthy and impoverished areas, as well as hopes and attempts at honest living. The campaign is focused enough to make the map small enough for big map haters, whilst those who adore a big map will be very happy. There are collectibles you can highlight on the map through the usual ‘towers’ mechanic of Assassin’s Creed (incorporated with more flair this time due to easier and swifter climbing that allows you to climb anything) in addition to collectibles that have to be found through geographically defined riddles. These require knowledge of the game world as well as lateral thinking and skill with wordplay .The world of Origins finds variation in minor differences in similar locales whilst managing to create stark contrasts as well. Dangerous animals (from snakes to lions to vultures) roam the sparse wilderness. The rivers and lakes are teeming with hippos and crocodiles, who are far from shy and not opposed to attacking you in numbers. Which brings me to combat.

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Like previous titles you can separate the combat formula into two discrete sections. Stealth and hand-to-hand (sometimes on horseback) with ranged combat functioning differently within those. However Origins abandons the weak imitation of Arkham combat of previous titles (counter button, attack button and so on). What it’s replaced with is a Dark Souls-lite combat system. You lock/unlock onto your opponents, every button press equates to a single move: quick/light attack, heavy attacks and a counter that has to be timed to the animations of your enemies in addition to multi-directional dodging and strafing. There’s a basic block function as well that is toggled on and off wherein you can block anything (except heavy attacks) from the front, but nothing from the back. There’s also ranged combat with archery and different kinds of bows that fire at different rates, ranges and damage amounts that are balanced with ammo restrictions. The damage dealt to you is high, albeit not Dark Souls high, but enough to make taking on larger numbers an active experience rather than the passive gameplay of previous Assassin’s Creed games. Different weapons in your hands or your enemies have different speeds, animations and damage levels. The output from the visuals, sound and gamepad feedback gives combat a constant sense of force and weight. You have to be on the ball when taking on many enemies with different weapon types. Origins also introduces RPG elements. You can change your outfits and thus defensive/offensive abilities. You have skills to unlock. Weapons are locked to a certain level. Your enemies can be dozens and dozens of levels above you, or dozens below you. This allows the player a clear sense of progression through a game that is more challenging than most mainstream popular titles of this ilk. Less skilled players can work through easier side missions and tasks to build themselves up to make challenging fights much easier. Whilst players who want extreme challenges can go find NPCs who can strike them down with a single blow. Origins doesn’t have overly difficult combat, but it does punish severe mistakes. Basic tactical and space unawareness will cost one dearly. All the opposing factions in the narrative have numerous forts across the world. Some of these forts are massive and daunting. Due to more aggressive AI that’ll chase you and look at obvious (or just any available) hiding places that populate every inch of a fort and readily calling for reinforcements; charging into a fort is suicide. Thus stealth isn’t a choice, but a requirement to even the odds.

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The stealth mechanics of Origins is very similar to previous titles. The traversal has been significantly tightened up. One button can be used to climb and the interpretation of the analog stick’s direction is very intuitive (most of the time). Stealth kills are still mapped to a single button and when an enemy is killable it’s highlighted. The AI being more aggressive makes it a tense affair when enemy guards still outnumber you by quite a ways. There are now enemies you can’t kill in a single stealth attack. So you have to find a way to isolate them so you can finish them hand-to-hand without more guards arriving. Alternatively you often have to limit the damage as much as possible and ‘go loud’ against an intimidating number and range of enemies.

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In addition to these tougher guards is captains and other mini bosses. These guys can range from a doddle to kill to a nightmare. Some will require specific attack patterns and counters to learn (very Dark Souls) and this can turn the tables on you quickly if you just happen to encounter an AI captain with tougher stats and abilities, let alone if he has significant back up. Then there’s there Phylakes: individually designed bounty hunters with particular names and abilities. If you’re even the same level as these guys you’ll likely die. To take them on safely requires to be at least several levels above them, before leading them into ambushes with multiple retreating points (and long range archery sniping points) and only guerrilla hand-to-hand sessions to whittle their health down. It’s best to repeat this process until they finally fall. It feels like you’re Arnie in the climax of Predator every time you fight a Phylake. And these guys are constantly hunting you. They’ll turn up at the worst of times, be it a main or side mission or whilst you’re taking on a fort. This is frustrating in a fun way that creates tension. Revealing yourself in an area with a Phylake even half a mile away will lead to them turning up. This makes you feel like you’re in a living and breathing world that reacts to you. However, Origins has some distasteful frustrations as well. When you have this many gameplay elements interacting (I’ve not even mentioned river and sea based traversal) it can lead to deaths at the hand of weaker enemies you didn’t deserve. Sometimes you’ll jump down into enemies when trying to jump from building to building above them. When running from some enemies your character will climb up or down the wrong thing, or hang onto some shelving rather than go up and out of reach of enemies. And so on. This only becomes a significant irritant when you suffer an unjust death at the tail end of a fort takedown session. You’ll have to restart taking on the entire fort. This is good for tension until said unjust deaths. The thing that specifically pissed me off was when you have to rescan the occupants of a fort after a death. Origins has imported a feature from Far Cry Primal where you can scan and automatically track enemies through a bird companion. Manually scanning a fort with your eagle pal is hardly compelling the first time, let alone after the game’s systems have gone against design intentions leading to an angering death. Ultimately these moments are few and far between. The combat experience is something that usually encourages choice and tactical design making, sometimes slowly and deliberately as you sneak, but often in the moment as you have to choose a direction to dodge and strafe when facing a crowd in a tight space. Some enemies may beyond your abilities to fight hand-to-hand, can’t be killed with stealth, thus have to be taken on with a bow as they slash at you. When a Phylake with a broad shield and a bigger health bar comes at you; headshots become a commodity. It’s safe to say the combat methods provide multiple paces and strategies in a beautiful, but deadly, world. Thus the soundtrack must also match these shifting tones and styles. Thankfully Origins’ soundtrack is more than up to the task.

The word I’d use to describe the music here is haunting. Every note brings out a sense of fear and melancholy. The story of this game is quite emotionally and morally bleak. There’re tinges of humanity, hope and inspiration. However the main purpose of the soundtrack here is to evoke an ancient land being pulled apart by manipulative forces, both literally oppressive forces and more vaguely defined conspiratorial elements. Loneliness is a big part of the narrative as well as the nature of the often quiet and reflective gameplay. The sound doesn’t just haunt, but also isolates. It’s as if someone took the heart-wrenchingly depressing ‘Vigil’ theme from the Mass Effect series, gave it tinges of literal and existential horror and fear, injected some adventure and action undertones, and then diluted that into every piece of music; from practical bits of incidental combat music to the bombastic score moments for the epic sequences. This is all done whilst achieving a sense of verisimilitude with Hellenic Egypt and the modern day set meta game sequences. Deserts inherently evoke death, brutal combat is obviously combat death and this version of Egypt is also facing a form of intrusive and slow drawn out cultural death, yet whilst all remaining beautiful in straight forward and ‘ugly’ ways. It’s apt then that the soundtrack creates a litany of varying feelings of dread. So what could possibly inhabit the heart of a series of such a cruel and unloving world? A brilliant campaign story that’s actually full of love and made with plenty of it too.

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Bayek of Siwa is easily in my top five video game characters. An empathetic Medjay (a sort of roaming Sheriff; which gives a justification for interference in other’s affairs) driven by vengeance, but with enough altruism to make what could be a hackneyed character actually feel fresh and nuanced. He’s semi-split with his partner Aya due to getting his son killed due to rash actions on Bayek’s part; however they have an understanding relationship with each other without blame thrown about, despite the complicated series of regrets between them. They still have a sexual relationship with each other, but handle it without overstepping boundaries emotionally or having it played as cheap titillation. Bayek and Aya are the heart of this game, and whilst they are haunted and depressed by the state of their lives (and what they’ve survived) they genuinely care about each other. It’s refreshing to have a plot about two parents vengeance against the cult that killed by their son played with so much emotional maturity. Apart from some inevitable outbursts at their enemies, the duo handles their revenge plot in a matter-of-fact way. It’s a long term series of plans they develop together without charging into stupid situations. They openly admit that killing their enemies in the cult will give them no actual emotional satisfaction. Said cult is the mysterious Order of the Ancients. Whilst we know that these guys will eventually become the Templars that appear in every Assassin’s Creed title, their depiction here is both very prior to previous games as well as a massive departure in presentation. Then you get the fun inclusion of significant historical figures such as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Their role(s) in the story are surprising and hold twisty turns in how they relate to our protagonists. Origins’ dialogue writing, character animations (and design) and voice acting is all superb. Cinematics have flair without being distracting. The game has many, many side missions. The characters within them are memorable and compelling. Beyond the core gameplay elements of traversal, combat and exploration, there is also investigating crime scenes in both main and side missions. Despite my descriptions of the game making it likely sound very dour and depressed, there are lots of quirks, eccentricities and actual laugh-out-loud moments, in addition to the gut punches and tears. It’s also absolutely amazing that the game allows the player to handle main and side missions (and assassin contracts) in any order they want. Pick a direction and you’ll discover an adventure or fifteen.

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Akin to the music and world design, the story and people within it all contribute to a rich atmosphere. Bayek as a Medjay feels like a relic of the past when competing against the legions of bandits, Romans, Greeks and collaborative Egyptians. A corrupted hero who does horrible things alone out in the wilderness, but has enough contact with elements of his past to remind him constantly of the less lonely life he used to possess. Seeing that Bayek has fallen somewhat lets players think about the consequences (and perhaps immorality) of Bayek’s assassin ways. The more punishing combat reflects the fact that Bayek is just a normal Sherriff, with some decent animal hunting skills, that has to try and somehow take on multiple Empires and the cult that secretly controls them all. An early boss takes down Bayek in a single hit; an enemy that long term levelling up will be required to even scratch. Bayek is just a dude who’ll have to work to achieve anything against his enemies. He’ll need better skills, armour, weaponry, contact networks (including political figures), supply networks, knowledge of the geography of Egypt and so on. Many Assassin’s Creed games (and genre contemporaries) assume a fantasy (and power fantasy) for the player has to be about being the ultimate warrior and ninja and so on. Origins however understands that an alternative fantasy is to work yourself up through grit and determination (reflected in story and character) to go from acceptably skilled Sherriff to a legendary fighter who can still be outfought by many other fighters, but has developed enough cunning to kill those warriors anyway. The pacing of an epic video game can convey the passing of years that makes this change feel genuine and earned.

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It’s actually Bayek’s ex-wife Aya who has the destiny that’ll lead to the legacy of the Brotherhood of Assassins seen in the future from previous games. Bayek wants to finish his mission of vengeance, help out the innocent where he can and then live out the rest of his days in peace (even assassination contracts feel less antithetical the series’ morality than before given a sense of grey justice). That desire for peace and life building to it is obviously difficult in a time well before what would be called pre-industrial eras. To eat, have shelter, clothe oneself and be able to afford weaponry and supplies requires constant pragmatic hard work. The gameplay and story dovetail to capture the spirit of this life perfectly. Even the modern day set meta game sequences are short and unobtrusive, but can be explored further if the player wants. Those who liked (or felt short changed) by the meta game sequences in Syndicate can both be satisfied.

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Assassin’s Creed: Origins is an undoubtedly well designed and intentioned video game. Even the open world busy work of collectibles feels motivated. Through designing a bleak and tough world that feels like a challenge to survive in day-to-day even if you aren’t a Medjay, finding trinkets and treasures has value both to sell, or as things that reveal mysteries that could aid against the Order of Ancients. The game sells being a weaker protagonist to a mainstream gaming audience who are used to fantasies of feeling powerful. Said protagonist is a mature and well rounded human being. The tropey revenge plot is turned into something more affecting that is more about the relationship between a dwindling marriage and love. The combat is raw, yet precise, and actually feels a part of the characters and their natures. This virtual Egypt is stunning to behold and manages to find rich variances of colour within vast plains of sand. It sounds absurd, but Origins feels like it captures a realistic vision of life, not just in Hellenic Egypt, but all people’s lives. It’s full of hard work that takes time to build up into useful skills and possessions. There are outright joyful outbursts and happy moments, but also horrendous tragedies, but most of what you’ll experience is a mixture of regret, loneliness, ennui, hope, laughter and different reasons to cry. Yeah, Ubisoft made this game, I’m confused as well.

Played on Xbox One X

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