Climbing to the very top of the Great Pyramid of Giza, at the peak of its limestone-clad, gold-tipped Wonders of the World glory. Strolling around the Library of Alexandria while the Lighthouse (another World Wonder) looms in the background. Resorting to sneaky tactics during a high stakes chariot race at the hippodrome. Making breathtaking discoveries in the bowels of a booby-trapped pharaoh’s tomb. Taking charge of a war galley and issuing ramming orders during a battle at sea. Entering the gladiatorial arena. Simply taking part in a temple festival to celebrate one of Egypt’s many many gods…
If you can fantasise it, you can find it in Assassin’s Creed Origins – and experience it for yourself. The game is a dream come true for history buffs, and/or sword-and-sandal fans. When you stumble into these scenarios, you realise Origins’ greatest strength: the excitement and sense of wonder it continually stirs up as it unveils yet another part of its attentively and gorgeously realised world. Whether you’re playing on a standard PS4 or Xbox One, or have gone full 4K, Assassin’s Creed Origins is relentlessly bee-yoo-tee-full. Few games have been more deserving of a built-in Photo Mode (which Origins has, of course).
And yes, the game – a prequel which shows how the Brotherhood of Assassins came into being – is a decent jumping-on point for newcomers to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. There is a present-day story wrapped around the 48 BCE exploits of Bayek, Egypt’s last medjay, but you don’t really need to be familiar with series events. The information is there for lore fanatics (embedded in assorted digital journals and documents), but all players need to know is that multinational corporation Abstergo Industries has invented a machine called the Animus, which allows users to tap into genetic memories through the use of DNA.
But honestly, nobody really cares about the sci-fi side of things, or the series’ insistence there was a technically advanced First Civilisation prior to the rise of Mankind, and that they left certain powerful artefacts. People love Assassin’s Creed for the chance to play around in a historical setting. In this regard, Origins delivers, and then some. With story arcs and events lifted straight from ancient texts and Archaeology journals, you might find yourself embroiled in a controversy over fake cat mummies. Alternatively, you could choose to defend a dissident playwright in Alexandria, a city so unlike the rest of Egypt it feels like it’s been transplanted straight from Greece across the Mediterranean, Greek population and all.
One of the best surprises about Assassin’s Creed Origins, though, is how well it handles the “modernisation” of the franchise’s gameplay systems. As an Action Adventure fan, I was worried that Origins was going to go full RPG, forcing an overwhelming number of customisation and crafting options on the player – which grind gameplay to a frequent, frustrating halt. Thankfully it doesn’t. You can buy, find and be awarded better weapons. You can use the five or so types of looted resources to improve the stats of your armour and other adventuring gear. And there’s the requisite skill tree. But that’s about it.
Origins is very flexible with how you go about things. If you consider looting a painful time sink, you can even spend real money at the game’s store (in the form of Helix credits) to buy thousands of drachma, different costumes, fancy weapons and a highly tempting unicorn mount. You’re not forced to, though, nor do you need to – unless you really want that unicorn. In no mood to hunt for animal skins? Simply disassemble that useless found shield into its base components. Or make some quick bucks by selling it intact, along with all your other junk, to your bff in the game: the blacksmith. For a price, he’ll even keep upgrading your beloved legendary sword so it keeps pace with your level.
The combat has been reworked and given more depth for the tenth Assassin’s Creed title. No longer about timing your attack and defence around paired animations as per the older games, now the player has considerably more options to experiment with – and worry about when facing opponents. There’s weapon reach, speed, light attacks, heavy attacks, parries, dodges, combos and a special Overpower attack (or Frenzy) you can unleash when your adrenaline is fully charged.
Outside of combat situations, though, there’s the usual guidance players have come to expect of contemporary third-person action-adventures. Just like Batman with his Detective Vision in the Arkham games, and Lara Croft’s Survival Instincts in the Tomb Raider reboots, Bayek in Origins has an Animus Pulse ability that highlights nearby points of interest. He also has literal Eagle Vision in the form of his bird companion Senu who flies overhead, and will, among other things, pinpoint the location of quest objectives. The use of Bayek’s Animus Pulse is optional, but Senu’s pointer is active by default, and that feels like hand-holding gone a little too far in a game that stresses exploration and discovery.
No Unity, Assassin’s Creed Origins is well-thought-out and runs smoothly, barring a tiny bit of juddering and a couple of non-playing dialogue files. It’s also excellent value for money. The prologue alone is over two hours long. For the record, this review was written after dozens of hours of gameplay, and 20 levels of character advancement – and there’s still more to do. How you cope with the game’s challenging combat (enemy AI is crafty!) will also affect your playtime, although you can change Origins’ difficulty setting at any point.
The only major drawback of Assassin’s Creed Origins is that the side quests in each area can feel a bit samey – and you must complete some to keep up with the main storyline’s level requirements. Origins promised a move away from the repeated missions of the older games to a quest system instead, but for the most part these quests are so formulaic they may as well be missions: Infiltrate a bandit or military camp, rescue and/or escort someone, assassinate a bully, investigate an incident, help with an everyday household task, go swimming to retrieve something from the bottom of the Nile. And repeat.
This said, there are some gems among the pebbles. Origins looks like it will be one of those games where you ask your friends if they discovered the same random thing you did during your wanderings. A ship in the middle of the desert, for example. That secret passageway behind an iconic structure. Papyrus riddles left all over the place as cryptic treasure maps. Or a murder mystery that will have you visiting shrines across Egypt to search for evidence of black magic.
My personal favourite side quest though is only available at night, and involves the matching of constellations. It’s a different type of activity for one thing, but it’s also poignant as it ties in to Bayek’s past. The dialogue in these scenes is especially good as it reflects existential philosophising that so often accompanies star-gazing.
As inconsistent as the side quests can be, the main storyline in Assassin’s Creed Origins is very strong. It’s interesting, it’s diverse with its tasks and locations, and, most importantly, it’s full of heart. Bayek is essentially on a revenge quest, but he is never treated as a grim, textbook loner as a result of the tragedy he’s experienced. He can laugh and smile; get drunk with frenemies; make very passionate love to his wife; bond with children. He’s never presented as the Punisher. It’s refreshing to play a character who is very much a valued, familiar member of the community instead of being a poster child for self-destructive masculinity. Bayek feels like a character who’s been treated with as much care as the credible and dynamic universe he occupies.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is a prime example of why single-player games exist. They function as our own little Animus, allowing us to be someone else for a while, walking in their shoes (or sandals) through a world that we cannot otherwise access. It’s satisfying, mentally challenging escapism that comes with a side serving of education about the past. And in Origins’ case, you’ll happily lose yourself in its sumptuous setting for hours. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a chariot race to win.
Last Updated: October 26, 2017