Games Review [PROVISIONAL]: Assassin’s Creed Origins (PS4, 2017): Something borrowed, something new

Assassin’s Creed Origins is a greatest hits of modern action-adventure game design. In seeking to update the series’ ageing core mechanics and design, Origins looks to its genre stablemates to see what they’re doing and where it can’t subtly imitate them, it copies them brazenly instead. What surprised me the most about this smash-and-grab design philosophy is how cohesive the end result is.

The game centres on a man named Bayek, a Medjay, a kind of ancient Egyptian military officer, enforcing the Pharaoh’s will. By the time we meet Bayek, the times have changed and the Medjay have become little more than a memory. Bayek, one of the only active Medjay left, has become little more than a beat cop in his home town of Siwa. When his son is murdered by a shadowy cabal of powerful figures, Bayek and his wife Aya swear vengeance and begin to carve a swath across Egypt to bring these men to their end. It’s towards the end of this long and bloody road that we first meet Bayek.

Bayek is a simple creature. He is exactly what you think of when someone describes a man as being an “animal.” He is impulsive and crude, violent and prone to black out fury. He’s scary in a way video game protagonists rarely are. Playing as Bayek feels less like you’re controlling him and more you’re like keeping him contained. Whenever you aren’t directly in control of Bayek, say, during a cutscene, it’s hard to know how he’ll react to any given stimulus. In response to a threat, he might smile a hollow, too-wide grin that doesn’t reach his eyes, but then he’ll fly into a murderous rage over an insult that makes him feel stupid. He’s not a good guy. Like, at all. And neither is his wife Aya. She’s just as bad as he is, though more cunning and manipulative on the whole. The two of them locked in a self-destructive, Pumpkin-and-Honey-Bunny cycle of violence, feeding off each other’s unhinged energy and the chaos they create.

This is what makes Aya and Bayek’s relationship interesting to me. It’s rare for video games to tackle the sort of fucked up relationship dynamics that they have. Bayek is the protagonist of the story, and as the player I should, on some level, like the guy. But I don’t. I don’t understand him, I don’t relate to him. The only feeling Bayek inspires in me is one of wariness. Full marks to British actor Abubakar Salim who wholeheartedly embraces Bayek’s mania and puts in a performance that regularly unnerved me.

The thrust of most Assassin’s Creed games is “See interesting places! Meet interesting people! And then kill them!” and in that sense, Assassin’s Creed Origins follows suit. Bayek’s adventure takes him all over a beautifully rendered but condensed open world version of Ancient Egypt. Ptolemy XIII rules the land. Believing him to be an immature and ineffectual leader, his older sister and wife, the ambitious Cleopatra, has her eye on his seat. Much of the game revolves around Bayek’s interactions with Cleopatra as her Machiavellian bid for power gains momentum.

The version of Assassin’s Creed Origins I played for review was performed on a PS4 Pro. At the time of writing, the game was playable in 4K but we were advised that a patch would arrive in the first week of November to add support for HDR so I can’t really comment on that aspect at this time. What I can say is that, even without the HDR lighting, Origins looks lovely in 4K. Environments are expansive and detailed, moving from rolling sand dunes into vibrant, multicultural cities like Alexandria. Alexandria in the particular is a sight to behold, rendered in detail down to mismatched cobblestones on roads. It’s many towering buildings are works of art in and of themselves. A great many of them are also traversable inside and out. In terms of the intersection between aesthetic and architecture, it feels like what Ubi was trying to do with Assassin’s Creed Unity has finally come to fruition here. This is as close to a living, breathing world as Ubisoft have ever gotten.

It’s easy to see just how much of 2016’s Watch Dogs 2 was a test bed for ideas Ubi would flesh out here. There’s Senu, Bayek’s pet hawk, an eye in the sky that allows him to scout enemy strongholds and plan his next move. Exactly the same way the drone did in Watch Dogs 2. The three-prong skill tree is also very similar, offering upgrades to ranged attacks, melee and tactical insertion.

But Watch Dogs 2 isn’t the only game that Assassin’s Creed Origins pulls from. There is a not-insignificant amount of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in this thing. It mirrors TW3‘s quest design, the way it tells you which quests are a good match for your level, the way it lets you lock your mount onto the road and go. Even it’s combat, which has been compared repeatedly (and justifiably) to Dark Souls, I feel, has more in common with The Witcher 3‘s system of Shield Up, Dodge, Attack. But it augments this further, pulling its take on Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s use of bow-and-arrow combat into the mix, as well as its pouch and ammo upgrades (though you could argue that it pulled this from Ubi’s own Far Cry series and still be correct).

As if this wasn’t enough, it also goes all in on the sort of loot drop cavalcade that’s proven so popular in games like Destiny and Ubi’s own The Division. Indeed, this is the part of the game where Origins doesn’t even bother to hide its wilful Destiny cribbing. Grey, Blue, Purple and Gold loot tiers across weapons, mounts, gear and more. You can even hold two of each weapon, melee and ranged. To cap it all off, they even use a suspiciously similar UI for the character screen, right down to the large circular reticle you use to select things.

Given how much of Assassin’s Creed Origins appears adapted or pinched wholesale from elsewhere, it would be easy for a lesser game to feel bloated or overstuffed. But it doesn’t. Rather, Origins feels like it’s got everything it needs to stay mechanically interesting, in just the right amounts. This is no small feat and Ubisoft are to be congratulated for it. While they ravenously hoovered up inspiration from every conceivable genre stablemate, they’ve shown remarkable restraint in exactly what it is they’ve used and how.

There are a few design oddities, however, that may confuse or frustrate you depending on your desire to nitpick. For instance, Bayek’s mount has a variable running speed, accelerating and decelerating depending on where you are. If you’re in town, for instance, your horse will slow to canter, but when you’re on the highway to the next settlement it will ramp up to a gallop.  Bayek himself really only has one on-foot running speed and, maybe its just me, but even when he’s running for his life it feels like he’s not going quite as fast as I would like. It felt initially like I was being robbed of a certain amount of agency — if I want to sprint, I should be able to sprint, dammit — but the longer I played, the less it seemed to bother me. The reason for the omission of a sprint input is a matter of utility — the controller only has so many buttons and altering the sprint mechanic to make it a part of regular movement frees one of those buttons up for something else.

The combat, while fairly straightforward, binds its light and heavy attack buttons to the right shoulder and right triggers respectively which took some getting used to. It took me a good five or six hours to start feeling comfortable with the way combat flows in Origins. Sometimes the dodge didn’t feel like it moved me far enough or didn’t respond fast enough, sometimes I pressed the wrong buttons to attack, and sometimes it felt like the places I found myself doing battle in weren’t really designed for brawling. This particular facet really bugged me until I realised that these buildings weren’t designed for fighting in. Assassin’s Creed deals in history and, yeah, if you start a fight in a bathhouse, you’re probably gonna have a bad time.

This plays into the game’s big reason for all of this open world and all of this cribbing and all of this redesigning of an ageing series —  it wants you to be better able to plan, execute and complete any given mission in exactly the ways that you want. And you can, Origins gives you remarkable freedom in planning each step of every mission. It’s worth nothing, however, that while you can headbutt open the doors and march into any fort spitting blood and teeth, it may not necessarily be the best thing to do every single time. The loot you collect and the upgrades you unlock will better facilitate whatever play style fits you most comfortably. Personally, I prefer stealth, going in with pouches full of darts, poisons and toys and wreaking havoc with the entrenched security, securing the objective and bailing without anyone knowing I was there.

It’s also nice going back to a period where no-one had any fucking guns and, if Assassin’s Creed‘s version of history is to be believed, they hadn’t figured out you could put a guard on the roof yet.

We have marked this review as Provisional and have not given the game a score because, at the time of writing, we have not yet been able to play it with the full range of online features available, nor have we been able to test it on the new Xbox One X hardware for comparison. We will continue to update this review as these facets of the game come online.

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Enhanced for: PS4 Pro, Xbox One X
Available: October 27, 2017

Provisional review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro.