The series takes a few steps towards being an RPG.
I feel I must start this review off by stating this simple fact: I haven’t played a single Assassin’s Creed game since the original one released way back in 2007. Some may believe that this disqualifies me from reviewing Origins, but I disagree. I believe it has provided me with the rare ability to see how the latest release in the series stacks up to the original. What made me interested in playing Origins, after a long absence from the series, was the fact that there was a yearlong gap between releases (which never happens with Assassin’s Creed) and the game was billed as a reboot of sorts. The game certainly has that feel to it since many things have changed since Assassin’s Creed’s release almost eleven years ago. What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is how the core aspects of the series have stayed the same.
Let’s start with the story. Like the other games in the series, Origins has a story that takes place in the historical past and one that occurs during modern times (we’ll discuss the modern one later on). The historical story takes places in Egypt beginning in 48 BC. It is a time of turmoil as Cleopatra vies with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, for the throne while Rome continues to encroach onto that ancient land. The story revolves around the couple Bayek and Aya. What sets the adventure off is the murder of their son, Khemu, by a mask-wearing group called the Order of the Ancients who were trying to access the temple vault in the town of Siwa. This sets both Bayek and Aya (you will play as Bayek most of the time) on a quest for vengeance.
This premise is different than the other games as well because, in the beginning, Bayek and Aya are not part of the Assassin’s Brotherhood. The Brotherhood doesn’t even exist yet. Along their journey, assassinating members of the Order all along the way, they get caught up in the larger political struggle within Egypt which eventually leads to the Brotherhood’s founding. This isn’t a spoiler, by the way, since this information was made known in the leadup to the game’s release. This is what made Origins so interesting because there was no established creed to guide their assassinations. They simply developed it as they killed more and more targets.
The storyline is serviceable enough, I suppose. There were a few memorable moments but nothing too great (except one part involving a young girl but I won’t spoil it). The biggest shame, to me, is that almost all of the assassination targets are presented as one note villains before you kill them. What I mean by this is that you only hear about the horrible things the members of the Order have committed. There is no ambiguity to their actions. No signs of them ever trying to do good deeds. This carries over to their personalities, as well. The only time they ever show that they are three dimensional beings is in their death scenes. This is perhaps the thing I remember most about the original Assassin’s Creed. The death scenes were something unique that I had never seen in any game before. Just like back in 2007, I was most interested and impressed with the death scenes in Origins. They are not only beautiful to behold (I played on an Xbox One X) but they allowed the members of the Order to explain their actions since they never got to do so while they lived.
Before I continue, I would just like to point out that the act of assassinating targets hasn’t changed all that much since the first Assassin’s Creed. You find your target (and it’s very easy now since you have the eagle Senu, more on that below), follow their movements, and then eliminate them. That’s it. I remember doing that back in the original game. I don’t remember having a hard time killing any of the targets in Origins. I simply parkoured my way into the middle of whatever compound they were in, and then assassinated them. I barely ever had to fight any guards or anything. Also, there were no special ways to assassinate any of the targets, e.g. environmental hazards, deaths that wouldn’t put the blame on Bayek, etc. I’m not asking that Assassin’s Creed become like Hitman with its bevy of ways to kill people but I thought Ubisoft would have gotten more creative in its approach by now. I just think Ubisoft should offer more options for the player to accomplish the central objective of the Assassin’s Creed series.
Although I liked the death scenes and they did provide a few important details into what the Order was trying to accomplish, I felt like I never had the full picture by the time the credits rolled. I understand the Order probably wanted to control all of Egypt but much of what they were doing throughout the country didn’t make any sense to me and was never explained. It seemed most of their actions were counterproductive to their supposed goal. In addition, remember that vault I mentioned earlier? Yeah, the story never tells you what the Order finds in it. You just see the consequences of the vault’s opening, but are never told what was found inside. I feel the story needed fleshed out.
As for the modern story, you play as Layla who modified an Animus to be able to access the memories of people who aren’t her ancestor. She is assisted from afar by a woman named “Dee” (I don’t remember her real name nor do I care to go look it up). Similar to the Order’s ambitions, you never discover what Layla and Dee’s goals are when accessing Bayek’s memories. There is a ton of written material you can look through on Layla’s computer whenever you’re back in the modern-day period, but I didn’t bother to because it never appeared that interesting to me. The storyline didn’t even progress that much during the short time you play as Layla, either. By the end of it, I didn’t care one little bit about that storyline (could you tell by the fact that I couldn’t be bothered to look up Dee’s real name?). Maybe I have to play through the other ten mainline entries to understand what was going on but I feel that is a little much just to get the gist of the story. The modern story did end on a cliffhanger so I guess I’ll find out more when Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey comes out later this year.
Perhaps the biggest change of all in Origins, at least compared to previous entries, is the huge open world. I will say that it is one of the most beautiful worlds I’ve ever seen in any video game, especially at night. There were times when I would simply sit on top of a tower (yes, those make a return though aren’t nearly as important in Origins as other entries in the series) and be awestruck by Ubisoft’s recreation of ancient Egypt. Despite popular belief, Egypt is actually home to a variety of biomes and not just desert. There are certainly many large desert spaces recreated in the game but there is also the Nile Delta, Oases, plains, cities, lakes, and more all begging to be explored. You must be careful while exploring, however, since each region has a suggested level assigned to it. Every enemy has its own level too. If you see an enemy with a red skull above its head, then you should probably roam elsewhere as you will get killed rather easily by it.
The best thing, at least to me, about the world is the clash of cultures present within it. You will explore cities modeled after those in Greece with Greek descendants living in decadence and the native Egyptians living in squalor. You will hear the Egyptians grumbling about how the Greeks are taking everything while the Greeks say they are bringing culture and civilization to Egypt. You will even come across the Romans and their, let us say, unique way of dealing with civil disobedience. I would say, as an ignorant Westerner, that I experienced a little culture shock when walking through the different regions of Egypt. Ubisoft must have known this would happen to people like me since they added a Discovery Tour mode to the game. In this mode, you control Aya and guide her throughout the whole map without any combat encounters. You essentially walk from point to point and experience a tour of ancient Egypt. I really like this feature but, given the fact that the achievement for completing the first tour was rare, I don’t think it will be in any future titles. I hope I’m wrong about this though.
The game’s world, like all other open worlds in today’s gaming age, also offers a multitude of distractions. You can fight waves of enemies in either of the two arenas, race in the Hippodrome, or climb towers to create fast travel points. Points of interest are marked by, you guessed it, question marks. The question marks usually turn out to be bandit camps, army outposts, or even animal lairs. Each one has its own goals but for the most part you must simply kill the captain or commander (there are sometimes more than one) and loot the treasure chests in the camp. The task is made enormously easier by Senu, Bayek’s eagle companion. Whenever you’re close to a camp (or close to an objective or person you need to find) you can use Senu to fly over a camp and mark every enemy and also the treasure locations. Senu can even see through walls! I personally didn’t like Senu since it took the challenge out of sneaking into a camp or outpost to find out where all the guards were. It really made it easy to take everyone out, or at least thin the herd before entering the camp with my sword swinging, with stealth attacks.
There is also a plethora of side quests to discover throughout Egypt as well. These are marked on the map with an exclamation point and also come with a suggested level assigned to them. Most of the quests are standard fetch quest type material but a few offer some real character moments. I will say that they get better and better as the game goes along with more involved objectives and deeper storylines. No matter how involved the storyline for a quest is, however, you will inevitably have to infiltrate an enemy camp to steal something or rescue someone while using Senu to spot all the guards. That seems to be a requirement for all the side quests. The point I’m trying to make is that the game wants you to use Senu as much as humanly possible. I hope I’ve made that abundantly clear.
One of the more interesting side activities in Origins is that, after a certain point in the game, you are being hunted by a group of men called the Phylakes. The Phylakes are mercenaries who were hired to find and kill Bayek after assassinating a certain target in the story. They are basically tough mini-bosses who patrol a certain section of the map constantly on the lookout for Bayek. They are indeed powerful and I wouldn’t recommend fighting the Phylakes unless you are at a higher level than them. They reminded me of the orc captains from the Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor/War series except they lacked the character and personality indicative of the Nemesis system. I hope that Ubisoft expands upon the idea of the Phylakes in Odyssey (which I hear they are doing so that has me excited). There is even a quest tied to the Phylakes that promises a reward for killing them all. I am kind of interested in returning to the game to complete it as I had a good time fighting them.
An interesting facet of Origins is that even though it’s a single-player game, it incorporates many aspects that you would expect to find in a multiplayer-centric game: revenge quests, photo mode, and Animus glitch quests. Just like the Phylakes, the revenge quests remind me of what you can do in the Middle Earth games. You basically find another player’s body in your world and you have to avenge their death by eliminating their killers. These quests are fairly short and fun to complete just to get experience. The photo mode is where you can take a photo at any time and from any angle. You can adjust things like the lighting, effects, and even put filters on your photos. Other player’s photos appear on the map in your game so you can see what they are up to. I found it annoying at first because I usually don’t like online features but it grew on me as some people took a few really cool photos. As for the Animus glitch quests, these are timed events where you can fight a boss and then get special gear and equipment for it. I didn’t do any of these since they were all higher-level affairs and I beat the main storyline at a much lower level than what is required for these quests.
Now let’s talk about the actual gameplay. This is perhaps where the biggest changes were made when compared to previous Assassin’s Creed titles. Whereas past entries were mostly geared towards stealth and, if you had to, timed button presses to defeat enemies, Origin’s combat fits more into the category of an action RPG. You gain experience which gives you ability points you can then spend to unlock new moves and, yes, abilities to use in combat. You don’t have to play Origins as a strictly stealth-based game. You can now straight-up battle enemies without the fear of getting killed relatively easily.
Keeping in line with the RPG arc that the Assassin’s Creed series appears to be on, Origins boasts a large array of weapons: bows, swords, sickles, hammers, scepters, maces, and, of course, hidden blades. Each weapon has a different level of rarity, has a level requirement, and can be upgraded at weaponsmiths. You can gain weapons by defeating enemies, finding them in the world, and they are most often the treasures found in encampments. Along with the weapons, there are a large assortment of shields and outfits that Bayek can equip. All of these items can be broken down into crafting parts which you can then use to upgrade your equipment, including your hidden blades (which I recommend doing because they’re not guaranteed to kill an enemy outright if they are at a higher level than you). As a side note, I will admit that I had trouble adapting to the fighting controls at first since I thought they were kind of goofy and unresponsive. I got used to them after a while and, with the arena’s help, learned to appreciate them.
There is an online storefront that can be accessed directly from the pause menu (this seems to be a requirement in games nowadays). Within it, you can purchase a season pass, new weapon and outfit sets, and, of course, a currency that you can use to purchase additional items. The most upsetting thing to me, however, was all the stuff you can buy under the category labeled “time savers.” Why does this upset me so? Because if have you a set of items to purchase (you can buy ability points, maps, crafting materials, etc.) labeled as “time savers” then it leads me to believe you purposely made your game a grind to play. Even if it isn’t a grind, it stills makes me suspicious about the whole thing when there’s a category of items for sale designed to allow the player to essentially bypass playing the game. I wish publishers would drop this whole concept of selling experience points in single-player games.
And finally, a word about Origin’s gameplay loop (God, I hate that term). As with most open world games, you will find yourself doing the same thing over and over and over again. This seems especially egregious in Origins, if I’m being honest. I spent countless hours fetching items for NPCs, flying Senu around spotting enemies, eliminating camp captains, climbing towers to get a fast travel point, looking at other players’ photos, and so on and so forth. Behind the story, I think this is Origin’s biggest weakness. I don’t believe the series’ change to an open world is justified. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time running around Egypt taking in the sights and sounds. In fact, I could see myself returning to that world from time to time (I do plan on at least defeating all of the Phylakes). My point is that it feels like all of these repetitive activities were designed just to keep you coming back to the game. Much like how snack food companies have figured out the most addictive flavors to use in their products, I fear that Ubisoft has applied the same principle to the gameplay in Origins. It’s addictive but doesn’t really provide much depth or, ultimately, satisfaction.
Despite its flaws, I rather enjoyed my time with Origins. The story, both the modern and the past parts, didn’t answer many questions, the open world activities get repetitive quickly, and the main concept of assassinations hasn’t changed much since the first game. In spite of this, the beauty of the world, the combat, and the feeling of experiencing history, however, kept me coming back for more. If nothing else, Assassin’s Creed: Origins has me excited for the next entry in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which is coming out later this year (because of course they’ve returned to the annual release schedule). It even has me interested in playing some of the older titles in the series, especially the Ezio trilogy. If you’re a fan of the series, then I think you will enjoy Origins and all its changes. Even if you’re not, I do recommend you give this one a shot as it could surprise you.
Final Score: 7/10
Thanks for reading!