Assassin’s Creed Origins Review

The best yet, but what next?

9 April 2018
Played on Windows

In the past decade, there have been a lot of Assassin’s Creed games, stretching right back to Altair’s first outing in the Middle East. Once a yearly franchise, the Creed series has taken a breather prior to Origins, and it shows. This is the best Assassin’s Creed of the lot, but does that make it a must-buy?

TL;DR

A visually stunning romp around Egypt during the first century BC, with a huge open world and plenty to do. Missions are varied and exciting, although less so in the side quest area. Less of an emphasis on stealth than previous games, and combat can be repetitive, unless you challenge yourself to use a variety of methods. Takes some liberties with history, but very accurate considering it's a video game.

The Good

  • Looks fantastic
  • Massive open world to explore that is not empty
  • Lots of historical landmarks and figures
  • Photography mode is outstanding

The Bad

  • Less stealthy and vertical than previous titles
  • Not entirely free of bugs
Assassin's Creed Origins: A barren desert in the blazing heat, with rocky outcrops in the background

Performance

I tested this on an i5–2500k (very old) and a GeForce 970. It took a little while fiddling with the settings, but on roughly medium, I was able to get a stable 40 to 50 fps running at 1920 x 1080.

You might think that sounds a bit crappy, on medium, but you’d be wrong. The game is absolutely stunning, with rich, vibrant colours and a beautiful day to night cycle. Lens flares appear in all the right places, and the photo mode is an added bonus. More on that later.

There is a little stuttering here and there when you quickly traverse to new areas, but the draw distance is superb, and you won’t notice any lost detail on medium settings unless you’re literally licking the walls, where the lower texture quality comes into play.

There are a lot of graphical settings to play with, but, disappointingly, some will require a restart to take effect. If you want crystal clear shadows but you’re not bothered too much about particle effects, you can tweak everything to your liking.

This is a very welcome addition to a game with such beautiful vistas. You can trigger this mode at any time outside of cut scenes, and there are a huge number of options to play around with.

Perplexingly, some of the options are not represented on screen with control indicators, and it took some fiddling to work them all out, but you have manual focus, aperture control, white balance, noise, and the ability to apply an increasingly absurd number of filters to your photography.

What really makes the photo mode shine is that, on the map screen, little icons appear to show where other players have taken photos, and I spent a long time just looking at the vistas other people had captured, pressing “like” on the ones that impressed me the most.

It’s not clear to me whether the photographers behind these photos get any reward, or any notification at all, with regard to the fact that people are ‘liking’ their photos, but it’s a nice addition and a welcome break from the action.

The fictional, truncated version of Egypt is set in the year 49 BCE (49 years before the alleged birth of Christ), under the Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. This is a canny decision by Ubisoft, since it means that the golden age of Egypt is well in the past, and things like the Great Pyramids of Giza had already been around for thousands of years. It’s canny because this lets the player explore these fascinating historical icons as ruins, past their former glory, but still topped with gold and with most of their surface structure intact.

Assassins' Creed Origins: A simple raft on a lake, with a desert environment behind

Story

The story begins in a small village, as the player is thrust into the shoes of Bayek, a newcomer to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. It soon opens up, as the customary tutorial introduces the player to the controls, and the game world is absolutely huge.

When the first invitation arrives to journey to Alexandria, and the distance to the next objective is displayed in metres, you first get a sense of the scale of this rendition of Egypt. Sure, it’s not on a 1:1 scale, but that would be boring. Instead, it’s just large enough to gaze in awe at all the uncovered areas of the map, but not so large as to prevent detailed and inspiring locations everywhere you go.

Notably, for an Assassin’s Creed game, it seems Ubisoft have finally recognised that the “someone puked icons on the map” theme from the previous games was over the top and overwhelming some players.

Icon spam is gone here, and while some of that is due to the sheer size of the realm, much of it is down to cutting down the number of random stores, treasure chests and other assorted bric-a-brac that was leaving players, especially completionists, feeling like the task ahead was not worthwhile.

Also gone is the tired old “climb a tower to reveal the map” trope, first popularised by Ubisoft about a decade ago, and reused ad infinitum since then.

It’s a welcome break, although the towers are not gone. Instead, each one improves a key ability when scaled, and acts as a fast travel point, rather than littering your world map with pointless icons. Instead, you’ll just uncover these things as you explore.

It’s all roses up above so far, but this is where things start to slide downhill. I don’t know why, but Ubisoft seem to have a massive hard-on for “avenge my family” storylines, and almost every open world game seems to feature the same old tired story.

It’s not that this can’t work well when written properly, but there are plenty of other stories to tell, and this one is a bit of a shocker.

My advice is to enjoy the massive open world at your own pace, ignore the ludicrous main quest story (but still carry out the tasks if you want), and soak up as much sun and sand as your time allows.

It’s a trend that has plagued many open world games, and Ubisoft ones in particular: the artists, level designers, and architects of these huge worlds don’t seem to stay in step with the writers, who seem like they just scribbled a few notes on a page and left the rest of the team to it.

When you compare it to stories like The Witcher 3, or Gone Home, it’s almost like the task of putting together a coherent, interesting story in such a vast world was too much for the writers.

Assassin's Creed Origins: Interior of a coliseum

Side quests and combat

This extends to side quests as well, unfortunately. The quests are a mixed bag. Some are quite funny, and others really boring. The game loves its exposition, and each quest is preceded by some character explaining far too much detail about things I found I didn’t care too much about.

A lot of this is down to the design of the gameplay, which is clearly aimed at the novice gamer, but didn’t need to be. Quest markers are blindingly obvious, and there’s no way you could possibly miss where you need to go next, which makes it kind of pointless to listen to the quest giver’s explanation.

Also, Bayek’s nature seems to clash with the nature of Assassin’s Creed itself, which is a common problem in previous games as well. In one quest, I was told by a peasant that the tax collector was a bit of a jerk, and would I mind terribly if I stabbed him a bit until he was dead?

There are no lines to be drawn here; no CD Projekt grey areas. This man is bad because this other random man I just met has told me so, and he must die. Was the tax collector simply obeying an order from a higher power? Was the quest giver’s perception somehow wrong in some way and Bayek got the wrong end of the stick? We’ll never know, because the only action you can take is to follow the quest marker and stabbety stab until the tax collector is on his way to the nearest morgue.

The freedom with which you can traverse this enormous desert, pitted with oases and little villages, is immense, and it’s a genuinely exciting feeling to come across something new along a road, or go a little off the beaten track and discover something wondrous.

Combat is… lacking but functional. There is now a “lock on” button, but it’s only really useful in one-on-one fights, because you will often want to switch target depending on who poses the greatest threat, and there is just not time to change the locked enemy.

It’s not that combat isn’t fun, it’s just that it’s missing something. You often take hits when you feel you’ve done enough to dodge, while at other times, enemies just stand still while you pummel them into the soft sand underfoot.

Enemies are also ridiculous timid, to the point that you are rarely facing off against more than three at once, while the others just stand around waiting until whatever allotted time arrives to begin their attacks.

Honestly, there just isn’t enough variety in the humanoid opponents. Some have shields, but you can easily break their guard or simply dodge around the back for a few cheap blows.

Parkour, a long-standing staple of the franchise, has been gradually eroded over time, to the point that, in Origins, one simply has to hold the climb button near practically any vertical surface and Bayek will scale it automatically. Gone is the carefully planning, looking for sensible vertical escape routes, and with it, some of the frustration associated with getting a climb wrong.

This just feels like dumbing down, but I also understand that with a game world this size, it’s necessary to prefabricate a lot of the buildings and structures, and having general rules for climbing any structure, rather than needing a level designer to custom-make climbing surfaces across the entire world, is the only real way this kind of thing wouldn’t take years.

Progression-wise, the game is a veritable upgrade-a-thon, with a large skill tree split into combat skills, ranged skills, and tools and traps. The trouble is, some of these feel like you’re going to dominate with them, such as the ability to guide arrows once fired, and others feel more like they’re a bit pointless, like being able to sneak one extra blow before the enemy gets to recover.

It’s a mixed bag, but for the most part, progression feels steady, as though you’re working towards something, not so fast that it becomes easy, but not so slow that it’s frustrating.

I would have liked to have seen a better way to implement some of the improvements though. For example, why not have a quest to meet with a character who shows you how to use sleep darts, rather than just pick it from a menu and automatically learn it on the spot?

Finally, and this will annoy some people more than others: the “clear the base” mechanic is very repetitive. It’s the same old thing every time: use the bird to mark all the enemies, kill everyone including the one or two “leaders”, and loot all the treasure.

A bit of variety here wouldn’t have hurt too much, like having very powerful enemies and forcing the player to remain undetected, or having different objectives like sabotage or starting a fire in a particular area.

This one, in particular, is worth noting. The game tips its hat to history here and there, from the loading screen snippets to the little details like the nose of the Sphinx being intact, and the Pyramids still being tipped with gold. This isn’t just a massive slaughtering simulator: the developers have tried earnestly to imagine what life would have been like in this period and they’ve done a fantastic job of recreating it. Little details like a tree with baskets of fruit underneath, or the stone channels used for irrigation, all serve to make this world extremely believable and enrich the gameplay experience. Quite simply, the audio is outstanding in Origins.

The soundtrack, for the most part, is extremely subtle, but used to great effect. It stays true to the Egyptian theme, with a very Middle Eastern sound, which has a distinct tuning and aural experience. I imagine that the subtlety of the music was done to avoid excess repetition of tracks in a game which will likely take a long time to complete, but it also serves to highlight the moments when the music is totally absent, and the lonely feeling of isolation associated with long desert excursions. Cleverly, the menus and interface are laced with a more modern, electronic soundtrack, which is a nice contrast to the in-world one. Never overbearing and always reminding you of the distinction between the menu experience and the play experience, it’s a nice touch. Sound effects in the game are generally very well done. The floor makes an appropriate noise when stepped on, depending on the surface, and combat noises are passable but nothing special. In particular, the effects used when Bayek is swimming or underwater are impressive, and help to immerse the player in the watery action. Thankfully, nearly all the voice acting in the game adheres to the geography of the region. Characters speak with a Middle Eastern accent rather than the usual British one, but it’s clear enough to be understood with no need for subtitles.

Speaking of which, I would have liked the option presented to me in Metro 2033 and its sequel, where the audio was in the native language but the subtitles were in English, since this adds further to the immersion. This period of Egypt’s history, especially the North, saw its population combined with Romans and Greeks, so perhaps that wouldn’t have been feasible as a dialogue option.

A lot of fuss has been made, quite rightly, about paid loot boxes in full price games. They’re right here, in Origins, because why wouldn’t they be? Ubisoft is a game publishing giant just like the others, and it’s not like they haven’t done this before.

Thankfully, there is absolutely no requirement here to indulge in the shady practice of purchasing random loot for real money. The store itself can be avoided very easily, except for some dubious “gameplay hints” trying to push you in that direction.

Assassin's Creed Origins: A conversation between a number of males, with long shadows against the sand

Progression

The gameplay progression and advancement works just fine without the need to lay down further real cash. Still, one can’t help but feel like the rate of acquisition of drachma, the in-game currency, has been crippled on purpose.

You see, weapons all have a particular level, and as your character advances, the weapons stay the same, thus gradually getting worse and worse at handling the tougher opponents. But wait! You can upgrade these weapons using drachma at a blacksmith! It’s just, here’s the problem…

The legendary (as in, the best) weapons are ludicrously expensive to upgrade, and there is no easy source of quick drachma. I found myself shunning the legendary weapons in favour of the lesser ones, just because the advantage they granted wasn’t nearly enough to spend hours scouring the map for extra coins.

But, you know, some people aren’t as patient. They will no doubt see the ability to buy drachma for real money (through the “helix credits” system) and jump at the chance if it means they can retain their legendary stuff throughout the game.

On the plus side, the microtransactions here are not intrusive and are not necessary at all. If you want to open your wallet, I can’t stop you, but the more people who do this, the more Ubisoft will want to include a similar, and possibly more aggressive, system in the next game.

An open world game wouldn’t be complete without the plethora of associated bugs, and Origins is no different. However, none of the ones I experienced were game-breaking, and none were even that intrusive or off-putting.

Assassin's Creed Origins: Two men stand in a misty, muddy area with a wooden barricade to the right

Reliability and closing thoughts

I suffered one crash to desktop in my playthrough, and this was while taking a photo in photo mode. Apart from that, there were odd times when Bayek got stuck on some scenery, but never in an unrecoverable way.

Occasionally, textures would disappear from characters before reappearing moments later, and I assume this is because my graphics card just doesn’t have the necessary memory to have lots of active textures at once.

Once or twice, people mounted their horses or camels in a “teleporty” sort of way, and quest characters behaved slightly strangely when I was supposed to be giving them a ride and I wasn’t quite in the right place, but these are all minor things.

I think the extra time in the oven has done Origins well in terms of polish. No doubt there will be occasional game-breakers and absurd bugs, but certainly, from my perspective, it was a refreshingly bug-free experience.

Definitely get this game. The only question is: how much of a deep sale is right for you? At full price, it’s going to be the Assassin’s Creed or open world fans that pick this one up. If you don’t mind a terrible story and repetitive gameplay, this is almost a perfect game.

For everyone else, you will need to decide whether the stunning visuals and massive open world win over the game’s drawbacks. Hell, if you wait long enough, you might be able to get the inevitable “game of the year” edition in a sale, and avoid getting ripped off by the season pass that’s already on the storefront!

I had an absolute blast with this game, but I’m aware of my own fondness for ancient Egypt, and the bias that might be contained within. After all these years, Assassin’s Creed is still Assassin’s Creed. Love it or hate it, it’s not going away, so either dive into this sun soaked open world adventure, or miss out on one of the few chances to see Egypt in such incredible detail from the comfort of your gaming chair.

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