Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Origins
I just finished Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017). AC Origins is a significant step forward for the long running Assassin’s Creed franchise, introducing new mechanics, a rich, sprawling open world, and a likeable, well written protagonist spearheading a captivating story. Although it is held back by its own towering technical and gameplay ambitions, it is a welcomed return to form for Ubisoft’s crown jewel.
NOTE: Modern day segments of the game will not be discussed as they were skipped.
AC Origins features one of the biggest, most well realized open worlds I have ever experienced in a video game. This is one of Ubisoft Quebec’s special talents. Their previous effort in the franchise — Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag — also featured a well-designed and richly detailed sandbox of landmark locations and areas to explore. Ptolemaic Egypt, the final dynasty to rule the Nile Kingdom, is bristling with a dynamic environment, diverse fauna, beautiful vistas, and wide suite of ecologies. From the first time you set foot in the Siwan Oasis, the home of main protagonist Bayek, you are engrossed in the unique ethos of Egyptian life. From thereon, you will enter the bustling, opulent city of Alexandria, punctuated by Greco influenced architecture, art, and design. You will traverse through the Black and White deserts, encounter lion’s dens, hyena lairs, vulture nests, crocodile filled swamps, and other wildlife that are peppered across the vast open world. Each subregion has its own unique personality, exhibited through the fashion on display, the languages spoken, the architectural design employed, the wildlife rummaging through, the use of the land, and the vocations hosted. Memphis, one of Origins’ other major cities, sharply contrasts the upper-class, mainly Greek occupants of Alexandria, that is littered with libraries, museums, art galleries, royal palaces, and other indicia of affluence. Memphis is a city of workers, with simple, efficiently designed buildings, farmers toiling the lands, vendors selling their wares, and construction workers expanding the city limits. Memphis’ Old Kingdom inspired architectural design, and specific focus on religious temples, differentiates it noticeably from their Greco counterparts in the north. This distinctiveness in environment is repeatedly notable at every juncture in the story, from Faiyum, to the Roman controlled Cyrene, to the islandic Heraklion. Additionally, it is important to note how seamlessly one region transitions into the other. As you near the Nile, the luscious greens begin to slowly emerge under your feet, the wildlife in the area begins to change, and the hot desert mirage is lifted. AC Origins features a ‘museum mode’ as well, added on to the game by popular demand, and it is a credit to the builders of this open world that their creation is one of the most well-crafted virtual depictions of this region and time period ever made.
AC Origins is, to no one’s surprise, an origin story for the Assassin’s Creed. It would be a misnomer however to think that this game was about Assassins or their Creed. This game is about Bayek of Siwa, a Medjay — the equivalent of a Marshall in the Wild West — seeking revenge after the death of his son, Khemu. This revenge story slowly blossoms into a wider narrative about the struggle for power atop the Egyptian throne, the brewing civil war in the Kingdom, the colonization of the region by the Greeks, the attempted occupation of the area by the Romans, and the corruption of leadership in the region at the hands of the ‘Ancient Order’ (the equivalent of the Templars). There are plenty of twists along the way, clever incorporations of real-world figures like Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Apollodorus the Sicilian, and a proper fleshing out of both Bayek’s backstory and the responsibilities he is balancing along his path for vengeance. Bayek is the most likeable, easy to sympathize with, and multi-dimensional character an Assassin’s Creed has had since Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag (also a Ubisoft Quebec game), and his motivations are clearly delineated and logical. Side characters, such as Aya, Apollodorus, and a host of others, are all well written and voiced. The ending featured unexpected narrative choices that left me genuinely surprised, given how formulaic and predictable previous AC games have been, and this was for the better. SPOILERS AHEAD: The mutual decision made by Bayek and Aya to end their relationship at the end of the game — in order to pursue their new goals as members of the Creed (Hidden Ones) — demonstrates a certain level of emotional maturity often missing in Assassin’s Creed games. The very nature of the role of assassin and their piety to the creed is both self-isolating and selfless, and devoting oneself to the cause necessitates a separation from commitments attendant to romantic or familial relationships. The game’s decision to make Aya, instead of Bayek, Amunet — the first assassin — was also refreshing given the limited role women have had in previous Assassin’s Creed entries and the expectation that the protagonist would naturally be the character taking up the mantle. Instead, AC Origins decides to stray from the path, and this should be commended for its courage and originality. The game’s ending also telegraphs an important moral to the player: grief must end for healing to begin. Throughout the story, Bayek displays a near obsession with bringing his son’s killers to justice — a justice that he imagines as retributive. As each target falls to his blade, Bayek’s energies are refocused to the next target, and the next target, and so on and so forth. After all of the assassinations are undertaken, Bayek is left with the realization that his continued grief has not brought him any semblance of peace: at the end of the story, as Bayek sinks the blade into his final target, he meets his son in a dreamlike state, and acknowledges that nothing he has done or will do will bring his son back from the afterlife. It is at this moment that Bayek recognizes the value of devoting himself to a higher cause: The Creed. This is a character arch done right. There are other morals, themes, and patterns in the story that are worth noting for their novelty and grit.
AC Origins touches on the issue of racism and class disparity. The chasm between the white, Greek colonizers and the Black, Egyptian natives is wide and unmissable in both the story and the presentation itself. The sharp contrast between how each side’s cities are built, the vocations they occupy, the level of power they wield, and how they are perceived by the wider public, is palpable. AC Origins is not a comprehensive inquiry into race relations in Ptolemaic Egypt, but it does make a concerted effort to illustrate to the players the many entrenched systems of racism, colonialism, and intersecting classism that accents every interaction Bayek has with both the Greeks and Romans in the story. This is a surprising, intellectually mature depiction from a series that, as was mentioned before, tended to gloss over the underlying political, social, and economic issues that shaded both its setting and time period.
AC Origins also touches on the issue of religion and its role in social customs, political battles, and economic policy. I was genuinely astonished by just how interwoven religion was in the fabric of Ptolemaic Egypt. Temples, which are featured in every major destination in the game world, act as both religious sites but also centres of governance. Priests and Priestesses wielded immense power over both regional leaders and the Pharaoh himself (who was considered a god in his own right). Egyptians structured their lives around religious practices and beliefs. References to gods and godlessness are sprinkled across the story and world. This was a refreshing sign of maturity from a franchise that has been reticent about the complicated role of religion in the developments of history.
Although AC Origins traverses into new, uncharted waters with many of its themes and narrative decisions, it remains inferior to other open world RPGs like The Witcher 3 and Elder Scrolls V. The level of character development and engagement with sociopolitical complexities remain relatively perfunctory compared to the more ambitious and better executed titles from CD Project Red and Bethesda, but it lays a solid foundation for future entries.
The Sights and Sounds of Egypt
On a technical level, AC Origins is quite impressive for a 2017 title. The graphics are a marked improvement from Syndicate. The soundtrack is stirring and satisfying. The sound effects are pleasing to the ear and authentic. However, it features a few pitfalls. AC Origins’ biggest technical setback is its loading times, which can be become excruciatingly long during its narrative crescendos. Much of this is a product of the hardware, which is now almost seven years old, but much of it is a product of poor optimization and haphazard resource allocation. AC Origins also suffers from occasional texture pop ins, clipping, glitches, and a mismatch between character animation and voice tracks. For its scale, however, the limited number of glitches and other technical mishaps is impressive, but this does not excuse its general lack polish, which its contemporaries have shown is possible.
The Witcher of Siwa
AC Origins transforms the Assassin’s Creed franchise from its traditional open world stealth/rudimentary combat system with basic character progression, to a fully fleshed RPG (Role Playing Game). Loot is the primary fuel of the entire gameplay enterprise, with multiple tiers of armour, weapons, and vehicles for the player to acquire. The grind for better and better loot can and did become addictive, as is intended, but Ubisoft’s devotion to character progression through levelled gear comes with a significant drawback. AC Origins’ scaled levelling system creates unnecessary barriers to progression in the game and exploration of the environment. Each region in AC Origins is pegged to a specific minimum and maximum level. To do practically anything in these regions, you need to meet this level. This blocks off entire regions from the game until much later in the story and, in half of the cases, after the story. It discourages organic exploration of the environment, setting off into your own path, discovering major landmarks and characters at your own pace. Instead, Ubisoft erects XP barriers that that need to be knocked down, usually through story or side missions. Story missions are, however, themselves in the pegged to a specific minimum level. Thus, both exploration of the environment and a natural, free progression in the story are walled off by XP barriers, significantly reducing player agency. To a certain extent, this decision is understandable. I appreciate that AC Origins encourages and incentivizes performing side missions. However, the benefit of this slant towards alternative avenues of stats accumulation is outweighed by the cost of severely stunting the forward momentum of the story and natural exploration of the environment. In this scenario, a playe will complete a mission, be excited by its events and what lies ahead, and, as they attempt to turn the page, be greeted by a level requirement that will take several hours to reach. This slows the game to a halt and breaks all of the inertia that was built up by the narrative. Some of the side missions are quite comprehensive and feature compelling stories, and in this way the incentive is noteworthy, but others are simple rehashes of previous story missions and a mask for a ‘complete this enemy encampment’ level. This is a far cry from the deep, branching but interconnected side quests that feature in games like the Witcher 3 or Red Dead Redemption 2. Eventually, AC Origins reaches an agitating level of monotony and repetition. There is so much duplication in the types of things you do in AC Origins, from the enemy outposts, to the loot stashed away at a cloned installation, to an animal haven you have to take on, that it becomes a chore to do. The core gameplay loop, which involves combat, parrying, dodges, ranged attacks, melee attacks, and a special ability are undoubtedly captivating, but each mission devolves into this same rhythm and the melody begins to annoy rather than excite. Stealth in AC Origins plays a supplementary role and, while a palette cleanser, lacks enough variety to keep the player engaged throughout the story. Ultimately, AC Origins feels 10–20 hours too long, and it would have served the player better if story missions and entire regions were not cordoned off by level barriers that require repetitive side missions to complete. Sometimes quality is better than quality. This issue is compounded by the lack of an organic increase in the complexity and intelligence of the AI in Origins. As you progress in the story and enter new regions, the AI remain similar in how they interact with the player. Whether you are level 5 or 45, the only notable difference between your enemy will be the amount of damage they can endure. The best games are those that increase difficulty through increasingly sophisticated, creative, non-linear AI behaviour (see: Batman Arkham series), and Origins fails to meet this standard. Ultimately, while AC Origins’ adoption of a Witcher style of gameplay is fresh for series veterans, and many of that game’s best qualities are replicated in this title, it remains an inferior imitation than a fully realized spiritual successor.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is the best Assassin’s Creed game I have ever played (I have played all of the entries in the franchise except Odyssey). Its ambitions have raised the expectations we, as gamers, have about this franchise, which signals its elevation from a ‘good’ to a ‘great’ series. It boasts a stunning and well realized open world, a thoughtful story, and a fresh gameplay loop that can be addictive. However, it is weighed down by a general lack of technical polish, a cursory engagement with deeper analytic approaches to storytelling, and a high level of repetition. AC Origins is a solid foundation for a new era in the franchise, reimagining what it means to be an Assassin’s Creed game, while retaining the spirit that made it a global success. I look forward to my next Odyssey.