Hands On: Assassin’s Creed Origins (Xbox One X, 2017) feels like a game ready to try new things

As I write this, Assassin’s Creed Origins releases in exactly one month from today. It is, quite rightly, the subject of a bit of scrutiny from fans and detractors of the series alike. The first title to break with the series’ long running annual release pattern in quite a while, Origins has a lot of questions to answer. Chief among them, did the extra year in development yield the changes in design philosophy fans have been asking for since Unity? From my few hours with the game earlier today, the answer feels like yes.

With four hours of Assassin’s Creed Origins under my belt, I can tell you this: it feels like an experiment in the same way the original Assassin’s Creed felt like an experiment. There are multiple systems, all new to the series but familiar to the player, that alter the Assassin’s Creed experience in ways that are surprising. The vast majority of these are quite enjoyable. A few made me scratch my head and still more made me want more time or information to understand them. The bottom line is this: more than ever Assassin’s Creed Origins wants the player to try things out and see how they go. Its design feels like it’s doing the same.

Origins wears its inspirations on its sleeve, openly cribbing from a number of different AAA titles in the construction of its new systems. Origins’ new RPG-inspired loot drop system and character menus are an almost one-to-one recreation of Destiny‘s equipment UI, right down to gear colour coding and the large circular pointer you use to select menu items. I found open nods to other big name games throughout my session and, rather than being bugged by them, I found myself intrigued. TS Eliot once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal” and it feels like Assassin’s Creed Origins has taken this to heart in the most good-natured way possible. This is a blend of systems that worked well on their own in other games, massaged into working together. That there’s any cohesion at all is nothing short of a miracle, and yet what this approach has done is give the entire structure an incredibly sturdy foundation.

The combat system is a great example of this, a work in progress even when I played the game at E3 earlier this year. A far cry from the more standard action game fare of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, getting into a biff in Origins is reminiscent of Dark Souls. Comparing anything to Souls in games writing these days is extremely lazy, it’s typically a shorthand for “hard,” but here the comparison is warranted. It’s all about positioning, watching for openings and telegraphs on which to time your attacks. There’s also the new element of needing to juggle your multi-faceted kit. Bayek has a bow-and-arrow (that functions quite similarly to the one found in Horizon: Zero Dawn), a melee weapon and a shield. All three must be leveraged to successfully navigate a fight and failure to use them properly and to their fullest will result in an arse kicking.

It’s smoother than Souls. The attacks are more fluid. I only had two real gripes: 1) I felt like the dodge/roll manoeuvre could stand to be just a touch more responsive, and 2) the bindings for your attack buttons. Your light and heavy attack are bound to RB and the right trigger respectively. I understand the Why of this decision — all of the face buttons are used for interaction, dodge and parkour up/down. I wasn’t able to unlearn a lifetime of attacks being bound to the face buttons in the time I had and as a result I died a lot. That’s fine, there’s a learning curve, no problem. Given a few days, I’m sure it’ll become second nature. But it did throw me initially.

The demo we were playing only had two control options available for us to try, with the alt layout moving the light attack to the X button and keeping the heavy attack on the bumper. I live in hope that Ubi will include a number of other control layouts, or (I dream and wish and hope) the ability to customise the combat controls to taste.  For some players, combat is the change that is going to frustrate the life out of them, but there are many that will relish the added challenge. I’ll be watching with interest to see how this particular bet pays off. It can’t be argued that it ups the stakes.

Our preview was conducted on Xbox One X dev kits which meant we were given access to the game running at it’s console peak with true 4K resolution and HDR lighting. The textures popped and, despite the blustery Sydney weather outside and the office aircon, it felt warm. Origins‘ art direction communicates the heat of the desert incredibly well in its use of colour as much as any design or in-game cues. My eye was drawn, in particular, to Bayek’s clothing. Ever since Unity, Ubi have had a way of representing digital clothes that makes them feel more real than what I’m used to seeing in games. They are constructed like actual clothes, you can see where they’ve been stitched together and what the thinking behind each piece was. With the higher resolution and textures, this aspect is allowed to really shine, especially when you start giving Bayek new outfits to get around in.

We were dropped into a medium sized section of map that offered a taste of numerous environments — desert regions, swamps, plains, and expansive lakes. Traversal can be accomplished on foot or on a mount and the series’ vaunted parkour returns more or less unchanged on what you expect. Scaling and descending buildings was made to feel about as natural as it will ever get on controller in Syndicate and its one of the few areas that Ubi, wisely I think, haven’t felt the need to shake up.

While the demo began with a horse for me to get around on, I quickly discovered that I could take a camel instead and, frankly, I don’t know why I wouldn’t do that. The mounts were actually one of demo’s facets I enjoyed the most. My horse was willing to navigate the game’s varied terrain in a way Roach never would when I played The Witcher 3, an instant win in my book. Calling them to me resulted in them barging through anything in their way — pottery, fences, actual small children, they did not discriminate. This has set a dangerous precedent as I can no longer accept a video game mount that isn’t prepared to barge down a group of digital eight year olds when summoned. Lift your game, other devs.

It felt like Assassin’s Creed Origins was operating at its best it was entirely dynamic. The unscripted moments were the most memorable, like getting jumped by a bunch of mad hippos or accidentally walking into the middle of a fortified enemy compound without realising what it was until the guards saw me and it went pear-shaped.

There are still certain hallmarks of the series that remain — clambering up tall buildings to reveal more of the map is one of the series’ most well-known tropes, and a personal favourite. Locating and hitting these markers is usually the first thing I do in any AC title, allowing me to get a feel for the world and a lay of the land. One of the Ubisoft product managers on hand for the event saw me doing this and mistook it for me being confused about where I was supposed to go in my active quest. I had to assure him that, no, I knew what I was doing, this was just my process.

My big takeaway from my hands-on time with Origins was that, if I hadn’t had to run to the airport for my return flight, I could have stayed at Ubisoft’s Sydney HQ and played the game until they kicked me out at close of business. Even as a long-time fan of the series, that’s a really good sign. I look forward to spending a lot more time with this title when it releases later this month.

Assassin’s Creed Origins releases on October 27, 2017 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.