After seven years of annual releases, the Assassin’s Creed series seemed to hit a wall creatively and technically. What had once been one of the more groundbreaking IPs of the last generation of consoles instead become formulaic, and even the most hardcore members of its fanbase were beginning to feel a bit fatigued. So, Ubisoft did something we don’t expect companies to do once their series goes annual: they took a year off. Now, I can’t definitively say how much that extra year of development helped the team that worked on Assassin’s Creed Origins. I can happily say, however, that it worked, and that Assassin’s Creed is back—not just in the literal sense, but in the sense that it’s again pushing the envelope of open-world action-adventure games like it did when it first debuted a decade ago.
Assassin’s Creed Origins takes fans of the series back farther than any other game has with its primary setting, as you’ll play as an Egyptian man named Bayek towards the end of the Ptolemaic Era (47 BCE to be exact). Bayek is the last of a breed of Egyptian protectors known as Medjay, but when he fails to protect his own son from a sinister threat lurking in the shadows of the country’s highest ranks of government and society, Bayek’s mission goes from one of protection to one of vengeance. With the help of his wife, Aya (who you also play as in certain missions), and other key allies, Bayek will slowly uncover the puppet masters—known only as The Order of Ancients—that have been manipulating Egypt from behind the scenes, while also potentially finding peace over what he has lost.
The story of Assassin’s Creed Origins is one of the most personal tales of the series, and Bayek’s journey (and subsequent transformation as a character over the course of the game) is easily the most complete since Edward Kenway in Black Flag. What drives Bayek is a visceral and easily-justified emotion, but his evolution as he explores the world, meets new characters, and ultimately comes to grips with his internal struggle while dealing with the obviously outward conflict against the Order is a beautiful thing to play and see unfold.
Bayek’s tale also succeeds in another pleasantly surprising way: it’s unpredictable. We know going in that Origins is a prequel to the rest of the series, that the game’s events will lead to the creation of the Brotherhood of Assassins, and of course you’re going to kill some people at some point. It could have easily drawn a straight line from the catalyst of Bayek’s rage—the death of his innocent son—to the formation of the Creed. Instead, how we get to that formation, and then what happens after we actually get there, was both shocking and tremendous fun to play. Seriously, it kept me on the edge of my seat for the entirety of my 30-hour playthrough.
The narrative also does a great job of referencing past games in subtle ways. These nods won’t detract from the experience if you’re new or have only played a couple of Assassin’s Creed games in the past, but definitely up the enjoyment factor if you’re someone like me who has played every main game up to this point. And, if you pay close attention, you’ll be rewarded by seeing how Origins fits perfectly into the chronology the series had established up so far, whether referencing the first assassin, Xerxes, or laying the groundwork for Altair, Ezio, and all the other assassins that would come after.
Origins isn’t just a return to the roots of the Brotherhood, however—it also brings back a key element from previous games that had slowly been phased out in recent iterations. Basically, you’ll get to play around in the modern era. Early in your adventure, you’ll step out of the latest version of the Animus and take control of Layla Hassan, an Abstergo employee with an axe to grind. In a real throwback, you control these segments from the same third-person viewpoint always used when inside the Animus. Layla’s story is unique in its own right, but just like Bayek’s, finds a way to fit perfectly into the Assassin’s Creed overarching narrative—it even makes that Michael Fassbender movie somehow make sense! In a way, Layla’s adventure might even be more important than Bayek’s, because it lays the groundwork for where the series can go from here.
While it’s great that this new Assassin’s Creed tale really seems to have righted the ship in terms of the narrative element of the game, what will really suck you in is all the brand new gameplay. Sure, you’re still going to skulk around in the shadows and use your hidden blade to assassinate people, and even some of the naval gameplay that really hooked people in Black Flag returns in designated sections (it’s really awesome sailing a trireme). But, I admit that I was very worried when we were first shown all the RPG elements being added to the game, with recommended levels for enemies and areas of the world, random loot drops, and potential grinds for resources to upgrade gear. After having played the story from beginning to end, though—and being allowed to craft my own Bayek through his three skill trees and adapt him to my personal playstyle—I think Origins strikes a brilliant balance between the action from the series we love and this new layer of RPG gameplay that has been introduced.
The biggest worry I think I had was the potential of being surrounded by enemies who were way higher levels than me and not being able to really advance through the game. Although the game does give you the freedom (after it takes you through your first assassination) to basically go wherever you want in the world, if you follow the main story, and then do all the side quests in each subsequent region, you should never have to worry about where your level will be. By the time you’re ready to move on, you should be right within that perfect range recommended on the world map.
Of course, this brings up the quality of the side quests. I will say that a fair amount of them do a good job of grabbing your attention while fleshing out the world and the characters. In fact, there are some side missions that are even more heart-wrenching than Bayek’s personal tragedy. It’s really easy to see an exclamation point on your HUD, learn the plight of the NPC, and then find yourself following a thread that’s several missions long, guiding you around the entire region before coming to a conclusion with a fat XP bonus, maybe a rare item, and a feeling of satisfaction.
However, in an attempt to fill the world with content and make sure you have enough opportunities to level Bayek up so as not to hit a wall in combat, there are a fair amount that felt like copy/paste fetch quests, too. This is an issue with a lot of RPGs, and not just Assassin’s Creed, and so I understand why they have to be there. Still, I could see some players getting frustrated by this fact and trying to stick to the main story, only to find they might have to do those quests for XP—and that’s when it might feel like a grind.
There’s a lot of content here in Assassin’s Creed Origins, though. Whether racing chariots, fighting in the arena, or completing side quests and main quests, Ancient Egypt is a busy place. Another way to avoid that potential XP grind is that everything in Origins gives you XP. Kill an enemy, find a new area, synchronize the world from a high point, clear an enemy barracks, finish one of the aforementioned missions, and so on, and Bayek is going to get stronger. In theory, if you really wanted, you could just run around and kill bandits to level up. Clearing a fort only nets an XP bonus once, but those soldiers will respawn at some point—or you can manually light a brazier in the fort to purposely call for reinforcements and more enemies to fight—and you can kill them again if you’d like. I also mentioned earlier that I beat the game in 30 hours, but there were still dozens of side quests for me to finish. And, after I finished the story, I was able to go back into the world and keep playing. In those 30 hours, I completed 93 total side and main quests and reached level 37, which was plenty for me to beat the main story.
So, even if some of those fetch quests leave a bad taste in your mouth, there’s plenty of other things to do in Origins—which leads me to the world itself. Ubisoft has crafted what is probably its most beautiful world here in Ancient Egypt, but it’s also easily the most massive. Every couple of regions feel like they could be the size of entire older Assassin’s Creed game, and the major hub cities Alexandria and Memphis, and even lesser cities like Philadelphia or Cyrene, are absolutely breathtaking. Whether it was the swamps around Krokodilopolis, the swirling sands around the pyramids of Giza (grave robbing the Pyramids might’ve been my favorite side activity), or even Bayek’s rural home region of Siwa, it never got old to just take a moment and look around at the world created here. And, if you want to get fancy, you can even take a picture in photo mode, then upload it for everyone to see.
Another worry some might have is spending a ton of time in your inventory now that a lot of enemies will drop gear for you to potentially equip. Luckily, I found the menu UI to be crystal clear, and comparing two items was as easy as just hovering over something in your inventory. Scrapping unwanted gear was also a great way to get crafting items like bronze and iron, and that made sure I was rarely lacking in the resources I needed to improve the strength of my hidden blade or increase my health by reinforcing my armor. I never felt like I was wasting time navigating the menus, and wish more RPGs had a system as straightforward as Origins.
Moving around in the world has also seen some changes this go around—although the improvements here are subtler than everything else I’ve talked about at this point. Bayek will still occasionally get caught on a rough patch of geometry in the world, but for the most part, it feels smoother than ever when climbing or parkouring around. In particular, more of the hand and footholds in the world are cleverly hidden this time, but in a way that makes it look like Bayek is accurately climbing a rock face instead of looking for conveniently-placed rocks jutting out of the side. It’s a tiny detail, but one that helps with immersion.
For combat, a lot of the buttons have been changed around. The default is now to assign your light and heavy attacks to the right shoulder buttons, and your new bow and arrows to the left shoulder. I ended up switching to the alternate control with those right shoulder button attacks being reassigned to the face buttons, because the right trigger for me will forever be how to climb in AC. Still, it’s nice to see the team trying different things, and the options are there to go back to something more comfortable if you feel the need to.
There’s also a new parry system, but I struggled to find the proper timing because it was never really clear when I was supposed to parry. I’m not saying we need symbols above an enemy’s head like in the Batman: Arkham games, but clearer tells could’ve helped here. I found it easy enough to get through the game on normal without having to parry almost the entire game, though, so that might be a system that needs to go back to the drawing board entirely.
As great as Assassin’s Creed Origins is, there are a few issues with the game, and although I’ve nitpicked here or there over the course of this review, there’s no getting around the fact that the game has some rough bugs. Sometimes the animation breaks, and you’ll end up with something that looks like a breakdancing flamingo in the middle of a pond. Or, Bayek will get caught on something he shouldn’t get caught on. Nothing crazy, mostly comical, but they’re there. Also, Alexandria is the biggest city in the game, with the most NPCs out and about at a given time, and occasionally there were some framerate drops while running through that particular city’s streets. Ubisoft had a review event for some folks to play the game on an Xbox One X (that I did not attend), and I wonder if that issue is remedied thanks to the system’s higher power, or even the PS4 Pro’s, as compared to my regular PS4.
Something that I don’t think can be fixed with more powerful hardware is some of the glitches on quests. There were easily half a dozen moments throughout the game where an NPC glitched so badly that I needed to restart the checkpoint. A lot of times they just wouldn’t go anywhere when I was told to follow them, or they wouldn’t follow me when I was asked to escort them. There was also a couple of times when the game wouldn’t recognize when I had achieved the condition to trigger the next part of the mission. The worst was when I died mid-mission on a late-game side quest where I was asked to undermine war efforts by stealing the formula for Roman fire from a nearby fort. Even still, no matter how many times I select it and try to restart the checkpoint, or even restart the game, Origins refuses to let me advance the quest—even when I achieve the objective I died on, which was to destroy some barrels full of the Roman fire. This was the only instance of this, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
Now, considering again that I did 93 different missions, that means something went wrong often enough to be a notable nuisance for sure. Most of them were just inconvenient, and none of them experience-breaking to the point I couldn’t actually beat the game—still, I felt they needed to be pointed out, and hopefully there is a patch in the future that will smooth things out.
Despite these rough edges, Assassin’s Creed Origins has already cemented itself as one of my favorite games in the series. The world is gorgeous, there are a ton of things to do—so much so that had I not been reviewing this game, I could’ve easily sank another 10-15 hours in before touching the final missions—and the story is amongst the best told over the series’ history. Yeah, there’s some bugs, but it was impressive how the series was able to bust out of its slump and find a new way to evolve, making all those RPG elements their own in a way that feels fun and exciting. This was an epic adventure that was more than fitting for what serves as the starting point of the Assassin’s Creed storyline.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins delivers a robust experience that mixes up the traditional Assassin’s Creed formula in a way that’s fresh and fun to play—but which also harkens back to the series’ roots in some welcome ways, too. It marks an evolution fans might not have even known they were waiting for, delivering one of the best overall experiences we’ve seen yet from the series.
M - Mature
|Assassin's Creed Origins is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|