The gaming medium loves franchises. Lengthy numbered titles or reboots – it doesn’t matter. As long as there’s a new one on the shelf, publishers will be happy. The problem is that fatigue can often set in – and not just for the fans consuming the games. Ideas become stale, storylines become convoluted, and developers just get tired.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins represents Ubisoft’s recognition of that fact. Taking a step back for a couple years has let Ubisoft focus on the core ideas that they think underpin the franchise. The result is a game that is shaping up to be two very different things; a love letter to the series’ roots, and a sweeping mechanical departure.
I managed to get multiple hours with a preview build of the game, which opened vast sections of Egypt up for me to explore. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always toyed with RPG mechanics, but Origins goes fully in – going so far as to give you levels and stats for your equipment. The game doesn’t artificially gate your access to regions, but the map does recommend level ranges for zones.
And that’s probably for the best; Assassin’s Creed Origins gets hard. The first game – which released nearly a decade ago – focused very much on planning your approach. Through quests you would build a profile of your target, and learn the routes of guards and possible plans of attack. With that knowledge you could plan just how your hit would go. Origins cribs on that in two ways.
The first is the ease of scouting your surroundings. At the touch of a button, protagonist Bayek can summon his eagle companion. This gives you a bird’s-eye-view of the area, and lets you fly around tagging enemies, and identifying opportunities – stocks of explosives, patrol routes, and hiding places. The game even goes as far as surfacing enemy A.I.’s states, like letting you know when a guard is pre-occupied with a menial task.
The second is through melee encounters. Instead of the simple counter-heavy combat of the previous games, Origins changes the rules completely. You’re more of an active participant this time around, raising and lowering your shield when necessary, and attempting to parry blows with precise timing. Animations have a lot of wind-up, and enemies will hit you for a lot of damage. With this, the messaging is clear: combat is a last resort.
This is compounded even further when attempting to engage multiple foes. Dealing with enemies in a one-on-one context is fine, but managing several becomes tricky. They love flanking around you, and ducking out of your vision – especially when you’re already locked on to someone else.
There are some tools at your disposal to help though. Spend enough time in combat dodging, parrying, blocking, or attacking, and you’ll gain meter. Burning this lets you target an enemy around you and rush at them for a critical hit. Like most of the combat though, there is a slight risk/reward involved, in that you can be interrupted while charging up the move.
Speaking of crits, the game now surfaces damage numbers. In a decidedly Destiny-inspired interface, players can equip Bayek with all manner of swords, bows, and armour. A lot of this loot is stratified further into archetypes; hunter bows turn you into a long-distance sniper, while another will fire multiple arrows off at once. What’s more, you can break this gear down and feed it into Bayek’s more persistent upgrades. These range from armour, to increasing the damage of his hidden blade.
There are skill trees now too, and much like Far Cry, they come in different flavours depending on your style of play. Some of these have persistent passive upgrades like increasing your combo string, while others add utility, like giving access to incendiary bombs. Diving deeper into the tree requires multiple upgrade points, so I can see speccing your character correctly – or at least, for your style of play – being an important factor.
I’m not entirely sold on some of the quest structure, in that their design feels like it would be more at home in something like Destiny. One side activity tasked me with destroying an enemy chariot. Instead of driving it off a cliff or finding some scripted solution, I just had to wail on it with my sword until it disintegrated. It felt clumsy.
I probably won’t get tired of the organic events that pop up as you explore though. Seeing a pack of hungry, hungry hippos raiding a town is as hilarious as it sounds.
With Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft appears to be taking stock of its cornerstone franchise. We’ll know come October 27 if the extra development time has paid off.
Keith travelled to an Assassin’s Creed Origins preview event in Sydney, courtesy of Ubisoft. The build was running on an Xbox One X dev kit.