Assassin's Creed Origins Review
Returning to the world of Assassin's Creed was not something that I thought I wanted. When Assassin's Creed: Origins' release date was announced and I saw that it shared a day with both Mario Odyssey and Wolfenstein, I immediately triaged the group of games, relegating Origins to third in line in order of importance and personal interest. The reason I listed it as third in importance to me was familiarity and over saturation. I have played all of the Assassin's Creed games and I have finished 6 of them. That is a lot of Assassin's Creed. Did I really need more? Do they actually have something to say this outing? Was this going to be just more of the same? Having now completed the game I can firmly say that Origins is the standout entry in the series due to it's setting, it's gameplay, and, most importantly, it's characters.
You play as Bayek of Siwa. Bayek is a medjay, which as far as I can tell is basically the Ancient Egypt equivalent of a sheriff. Bayek is a helper, a protector, a community watchman. In the game's opening hours the player is sent into a number of flashbacks explaining why Bayek and his wife, Aya, are out to kill a mysterious group of individuals known as The Order of Ancients. Several years ago, the Order of Ancients came to the quiet village of Siwa and wanted Bayek's help opening an ancient vault. Bayek did not know what was in the vault but, whatever it was, was something of great interest to the Order. In order to make Bayek comply with their plans, the Order kidnaps Bayek and Aya's son, Khefu. Bayek attempts to rescue Khefu, a struggle ensues, and Khefu is murdered. Bayek and Aya are now consumed with getting revenge on the group responsible for their son's death. This is the setup for the journey Bayek and Aya take across Egypt.
Before I touch too much on the story and characters, I must talk about the setting. Ancient Egypt is cool. I've always been fascinated by the stories and mythology surrounding Ancient Egypt so I'm a little predisposed to liking the setting. Exploring this world is awesome, but for reasons that I might not have realized at first. I was stoked to play this game because, like everyone else, the first thing I wanted to do was to climb the pyramids and the Sphinx. Those were my main events going into this game. Now, while I got to do both those things and it felt very cool, what I wasn't prepared for was the extent to which I'd be captivated by other parts of the setting.
AC Origins appears to pay a lot of respect to Egyptian culture. Before I comment too much farther on this I must state that I am not Egyptian, nor am I educated enough on the topic to comment with any significance on Egyptian culture. That being said, I believe that the culture of Egypt is treated with a lot of respect in this game. There is much talk of the Gods and rituals performed and that type of talk about polytheistic religions always concerns me in video games because it almost always comes off as condescending toward the culture it is referencing. However, in Origins, the Egyptian cultural beats of the story are always treated with a sense of reverence and respect that I found very refreshing and satisfying. I learned a lot from playing this game. Some of it came directly from the game, like a side quest from the Temple of Anubis that taught me about the mummification process. Some education came indirectly from when the game mentions the god Sobek and I decided to do a little research of my own to find out who Sobek was. Most importantly, the game never treated any of these beliefs as silly or outdated. The characters' faith and practices are always handled with a level of genuine respect that I just don't expect from video games.
All of the above was exciting and unexpected, but the setting doesn't just offer a look into Egyptian culture. The time period that you are playing in focuses on Greek and Roman involvement in Egyptian affairs. You can literally see the cultures interacting with each other in the world. A particular scene in the city of Memphis comes to mind where I was climbing an ornate obelisk covered with hieroglyphics that was directly located next to a Greek temple reminiscent of the Parthenon. Seeing edifices of these cultures side by side was a very effective representation of the clash of cultures happening in Egypt at this time. Watching these cultures interact on this scale is impressive because it's not just limited to architecture. You hear people having conversations on the street, merchants arguing over cultural significance, politicians and religious officials debating which culture has the best policies and which gods are the true gods. This game nails the clash of cultures from bottom to top.
All of these details add up to making a world that I want to spend more time in. Yet all of these details would be less effective without the visuals. This game is crazy good looking. I was playing this game on a launch Xbox One, no 4K enhancements, no Pro or X treatments, and I was constantly stopping to enjoy the view. The photo mode is a welcome addition to pair with these graphics, although it doesn't have as many features as similar photo modes in Horizon and Uncharted. Still, the ability to pan the camera and get unique views of this world is something I spent a lot of time doing. There is a ton of visual storytelling being done in this game and the overall look is just as important as the writing. Whether it is looking at broad cityscapes, being among the people in a farming village, or chasing a mirage out into the desert, the visuals in this game add a layer that must be experienced to be understood.
The gameplay itself has some new additions that will feel foreign to long time fans of Assassin's Creed games. Some of the core mechanics are still there, but they have been tweaked significantly. You still scale towers to synchronize viewpoints but doing this no longer unfogs the map or brings up quest icons. The map is revealed along with quests simply by entering an area. The viewpoints exist as a way of upgrading your eagle's perception.
Oh yeah, you have a pet eagle.
Senu, your pet eagle, exists as your scout and finder. Those of you who played Watch Dogs 2 will remember using the drone to spot enemies and objectives. Senu is used the same way. At any time you can call on Senu and soar through the skies above Egypt, marking enemies and tagging objective points. It is by using Senu that you locate treasures and assassination targets when in previous games you did this by syncing viewpoints. In Origins, the viewpoints upgrade Senu's perception, allowing you to more easily tag your targets. This system works well but is wholly overused. There was literally not a mission in the game where I didn't have to use Senu to tag an icon. Now, I still vastly preferred this than having a minimap with 10000 icons on it telling me where to go. To me, those overcrowded mini maps served as a physical representation of the anxiety I feel when playing open world games. "Oh my god! Look at all the stuff I have to do! I'll never get to that!" Origins has made this process much more enjoyable by only putting side quests and viewpoints on the map as you approach them. It becomes the player's choice to look for the collectibles. Want to see if there are any treasures in the area? Call Senu and look around. You will always find something, but you don't have to do any of that. Origins is much more likely to give you the freedom to explore your environments without feeling tied to a collect-a-thon. This made me feel much more free in that world, even if the eagle mechanic was overused.
Origins feels like it has poached from almost every open world game on the market. Crafting and outposts from the Far Cry series have found their way into Assassin's Creed in this game. Bayek is set with the task of hunting down different types of animals to upgrade his health and damage levels, just like the Far Cry series. These elements are ok, they don't feel forced but they don't feel necessarily innovative either. Midway through my playthrough I pretty much abandoned doing any of the upgrade hunting side activities because I was always getting new gear.
Combat and weaponry are probably where the biggest changes to gameplay lie for Origins. Combat is completely overhauled for Origins, taking a complete turn from what the series used to offer. The Arkham style of countering and attacking is completely gone, opting for a much more demanding and engaging combat system. Combat in Origins resembles more of a Dark Souls style of combat, having a light and heavy attack tied to the shoulder and trigger buttons. This new combat style rewards the player for learning the traits of their enemies and striking when the opportunity arises. The varied weapon types give the player many different choices to make for how they want to combat the enemies. Whether you want to get in close with dual swords, keep your distance with poles or javelins, or strike from afar with your bow, the options are there for you. Personally, I went with sickle swords as my main melee weapon and the Hunter bow as my ranged weapon, allowing me to do massive damage from afar and to strike quickly in close. Still, even equipped with the weapons of my choosing, combat encounters are much more difficult in this game than they were in previous games. I remember in AC2 fighting off a horde of 30 soldiers with ease. In Origins, a group of 5 or more is most likely a deadly recipe, especially if one of those enemies is a special enemy type like a heavy or a dual wielder. This encourages the player to do their research before enemy encounters and to hopefully take out as many of them stealthily without alerting anyone. I found this change to combat to be a positive because it made me carefully consider my options for each encounter like a true assassin would, rather than charging headfirst into all situations.
Another new addition is the gear system. Unlike the systems that just resemble systems from other games, the gear system feels straight out of Destiny. All of your weapons and shields are color coded, blue for rare, purple for epic, yellow for legendary. Each item has a quality number, the higher the number the better the item. Even the menu reticle is a circle, just like Destiny, and you have to hold the select button to make changes. I found this system to be pretty boring except for a couple of details. One detail is that you can upgrade your weapon to your current level at any moment for a certain amount of drachmas. An example from my playthrough is that I got a legendary sickle sword that had a chance to poison my enemies when I hit them. I got this weapon at level 11. Now, when I was level 15, that sword's quality level was lower than other gear I was getting, but I still liked the status effects it gave. What the game allows you to do is to go to a blacksmith and pay to have your old gear upgraded to your current level. So, I was able to keep upgrading the sword I liked throughout the game. Sounds good, right? Well, it was good for me personally, but it essentially made me ignore the rest of the gear system. I was glad I had the option to upgrade my sword, but it made all other gear obsolete to me. I just kept upgrading the sword I liked, which led to me being unmotivated to scour for chests filled with new gear. While I think that it is an upgrade from previous entries in the series, I wish the gear system was a little deeper because I was quickly bored by it.
Now, having covered gameplay and combat, let's talk story, spoiler free of course. I believe I can say with confidence that this is the best story in any Assassin's Creed game. The reason is it's characters. Bayek is perhaps my favorite video game protagonist of this generation. He has emotional depth that seems to elude most video game characters. Bayek is a father who is seeking revenge for the loss of his son. This is something that could justifiably turn anyone into a cold, rage fueled husk focused only on vengeance. However, his responsibilities as a medjay and his duty to protect the population override that vengeance. This is specifically seen in Bayek's interactions with children in this game. There is a theme running through this game regarding fatherhood. Almost every main story quest involves a child in some way and it is in these moments where you see Bayek's true character. He is someone who loves children, playing the role of the uncle chasing his nieces and nephews around the yard, the adult that children can trust to both protect them and be honest with them. When Bayek is killing people you can see his conflicts of interest playing out. He wants to complete his quest for vengeance but he knows that this isn't the life he would have wished for his son if he hadn't been killed. The voice acting for Bayek is incredible, giving the emotional core necessary to some very heavy moments in the story. Bayek is a conflicted hero, one who made me think about what my own feelings would have been if I were in the same situation.
Aya is captivating in her own way. She is equally as devastated by the loss of her son, but her grief is channeled more into action than Bayek's. She is, in one word, badass. Ruthless in her tactics, she takes out her targets with efficiency. She loves fiercely and her relationship with Bayek reflects that. The player only gets to control her a few times, but in those short moments you get a true sense of how dangerous he is. However, unlike Bayek, she doesn't seem to be as unclear about her purpose. Aya's ambition towards
higher goals drives her forward. She becomes obsessed with the politics of the time and seeks the influence necessary to topple the oppressive regimes supported by the Order. The differences in Bayek and Aya's focus affects their relationship, not necessarily straining it, but hinting at the fact that their diverging paths might be their undoing. I found Aya to be extremely likeable and her relationship with Bayek seemed genuine. The emotional moments between the two of them touched me and I knew I had to finish the game to see how their personal story ended. The combination of these characters is something special that needs to be experienced by any video game fan who enjoys quality storytelling.
While I obviously have a lot of good things to say about this game, it is not without its flaws. As with any open world game, there is a certain amount of glitchiness that exists. The horse glitches are the most prominent, horses sinking into the rocks, see the attached video. There's also NPC glitches that are to be expected, such as a quest giver being run over by a carriage while he or she is talking to you. Honestly though, as open world games go, the glitches aren't that terrible.
There's also some inconsistencies in story telling. The biggest example I encountered of this was in the city of Krokodilopolis. There was a side quest I had where Bayek was absolutely shocked and offended that someone was killing crocodiles because they were sacred animals. Apparently Bayek didn't remember that we spent the previous 30 minutes killing about 20 crocodiles because I needed their hard leather to upgrade my health. These inconsistencies aren't game breaking in any way, but they can be harmful in disrupting the flow of the narrative.
Thirdly, the sequences of the game outside of the Animus are terrible. If you read this far and don't already know I'd be shocked, but just in case, here we go. Assassins Creed is about people who use a device called an Animus to access the memories of their ancestors. Ok, that's as much as I'm saying because the rest is nonsense. This game comes SO close to eradicating this part of the story. You are only forced to be outside the Animus three times and each time all I could think about was getting back in to be with Bayek and Aya. It is time to give up on this unnecessary side of the story and to just focus on the history side of things. However, aside from these slight issues, the game's strengths strongly outweigh the flaws.
This game caught me completely off guard. I was expecting another mediocre entry to the series, a title to dip into for 5 hours and then forget forever. The game that Origins turned out to be is so much more than I expected. Assassin's Creed has gone from the every year model to the every other year model and I think it serves the games well. What I would really like to know is how long this game has actually been in development because this world feels like a lot of careful consideration went into its creation. The characters are real and emotionally deep in a way that no other entry in the series has ever come close to. The story evoked a real emotional response from me and the changes in gameplay were almost universally positive. Aside from the game's few shortcomings, this game is an absolutely essential title for this generation and writing this game off as just another Assassin's Creed game would be a mistake.
Who would I recommend this to? - Fans of the series looking for a new direction and great character based story.
Who wouldn't I recommend this to? - People suffering from open world fatigue.
Time spent with game - 41 hours so far. Completed story in 36. Tons left to do.
Overall Review - A great game that takes the franchise in an exciting new direction.