The latest Assassin’s Creed game looks great, but is it more than just a pretty face?
After two years in development — an unusually long time for a Ubisoft game — Assassin’s Creed made its inevitable return to our screens with Origins.
It’s clear where Ubisoft Montreal have spent much of this time: the world design. And I’ll grant them this, it is a truly beautiful game. From the pastel desert-scapes of Siwa to the thrumming metropolis of Alexandria, the setting of Origins is a sight to behold.
There are very few games which compel you to explore just by looking great, but this is one. Even the aggressive white isometrics of the animus have been replaced with a much more attractive and satisfying royal blue and gold colour scheme.
Scratch below the surface, however, and the way that the world has been brought to life is just a bit odd. Ubisoft seems to have attempted to emulate something resembling Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos in populating Origins with a number of wacky and irreverent NPCs who send you on often bizarre side quests.
However, what makes Los Santos so brilliant is the fact that it is a living, breathing critique of celebrity culture, capitalism and advertising.
Origins, without this contemporary contextual grounding, flounders in its humour. I heard jokes about linen, hieroglyphs and farming, puns, and some truly terrible sexual innuendos. It just didn’t really land, and often had me cringing. Origins favourite source of wit, however, is alcohol. Yes, the populace of Egypt are drinkers, and oh how they love you to know it.
After just three or four hours, I had already completed multiple side quests that involved drinking, moving drunk people, rescuing people who had passed out and generally getting into all sorts of quirky situations as a result. It’s not that there isn’t amusement to be had in this area, but in Origins, it feels desperate and attention seeking.
This tone is not entirely consistent, often jarringly so. Having just saved a villager from a hyena after a drunken night out, I was immediately faced with a quest called ‘a family reunited’ which involved retrieving the dead body of a father to return to the mass grave of his family.
This scene was not helped by the terrible voice acting that perpetuates the entire game, where the incident is described with a level of wooden neutrality that makes even Mass Effect: Andromeda look masterfully done.
It seems odd to talk about side quests before the main quest, but in some ways it’s fitting as you are constantly made to do side quests in order to level up (Origins features an RPG style levelling system), which means lots of grinding in order to progress through the game.
I can see why Ubisoft made this decision; it encourages exploration and adds some structure to the sprawling and intimidatingly large world, but it often slows the pacing to a crawl and makes the overarching narrative feel stilted.
Additionally, the perils of under-leveling are many, making it almost impossible to circumnavigate the grind. Most irritatingly, you cannot assassinate an enemy until you match their level, so sneak attacking them alerts the whole camp, whilst higher level enemies can absolutely wreck you. As a level plucky level 10 assassin, I fancied my odds against a group of level 13 vultures. My confidence was misplaced.
Onto the main story, though. Working your way through the hierarchical pyramid of villains (the members of the spectre-esque ‘order of ancients’) that constitute the bulk of the main story is a monotonous affair and the attempt to weave the contrived structure of this into the main narrative is an often ill-fated affair that punches large gaps into the decent story that is sparsely spread in between.
It’s a pity, as the central story, when stripped of all the ‘kill boss’ missions, is an admirable attempt to weave a story of love and revenge into historically inspired events based on the politics of the day. Whilst the dialogue and voice acting detracted from this somewhat, there is some value to be had here, even though it is buried deeper than my copy of Unity.
As you might imagine, combat and/or sneaking are the key methods of achieving anything in Assassin’s Creed. The combat is arguably one of the strongest aspects of the game. It takes a little getting used to, and the lock system can be a little haphazard, but it requires a good balance of patience, timing and finesse to master. The weapon variety adds to this, meaning you can take on your enemies in a number of ways.
You can circle your enemies before jabbing them with a pike from a safe distance, hit them with a flurry of scimitars, attack them from range with arrows, or get up close and brutal with a mace. Whilst I eventually found the strongest weapon was the best, a number of different scenarios sprung up that required me to vary up my approach, which kept things fresh for a while.
The sneaking was also strong. Whilst lacking the nuance of leading competitors such as Metal Gear or The Last of Us, protagonist Beyak felt quick and assured, and it was actually pretty enjoyable to assassinate my way through a number of forts and camps. The levelling system always kept it sufficiently challenging, too, which I suppose is the (one) upside of all the grinding the game requires of you.
However, the satisfying combat, like the graphics, again provides a gloss over a flawed underbelly. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is often a repetitive grind, and no matter how pretty it looks or how competent the combat is, immersion is constantly eroded by the game’s structure: a seemingly constant cycle of doing side quests to kill bosses in order to do more side quests to kill more bosses.
Origins is a sports car with the engine of an Astra. On the surface, it looks great and handles well enough, but, under the hood, the ludonarrative mechanics are so dated and contrived that I’m not sure Origins lives up to its premium price tag.