For all the controversy that’s swirled around Assassin’s Creed Origins and its use of DRM, underneath it’s a hell of a good game. This series has been guilty of retreading old ground far too many times but here we have a reshuffle from the ground up. Origins is developed by the core team which last worked on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, along with the help of several other studios, and it really shows. They are the ones capable of, or at least willing to, bring about change to the franchise. That’s because this time, AC: Origins isn’t a traditional game in the series at all. It’s now a full-blown action-RPG, complete with a levelling system, questlines, experience points and stat-based loot drops. It’s The Witcher 3 in Egypt.
But first impressions of Assassin’s Creed Origins aren’t great. The controls have been completely changed (on gamepad at least) and my initial reaction was to recoil. During an early scene I also followed a man on a camel. We rode side by side while he implored me to stay quiet so as to not attract attention. As these words were leaving his mouth, he was trampling several civilians to death beneath his camel’s, erm, toes, his camel glitching out and turning in circles just to add the carnage. It was a massacre, but be quiet, we can’t go attracting attention. I’ve also seen reports of ships flying through the air, and animal textures on human models.
Then, gradually, Assassin’s Creed Origins opens up and any ill will I had towards its ramshackle nature began to soften when I realised the sheer scope of Ubisoft’s undertaking. You see, the Ancient Egypt that Ubisoft Montreal has put together for AC: Origins isn’t just any old open-world. In fact, it’s probably one of the most cohesive, believable worlds ever seen in a game, and a few bugs are just an unfortunate side-effect we have to put up with for the package as a whole to work.
Not only is a humongous, but it seldom, if ever, feels like it’s repeating itself. It's immense and undeniably believable. Often we’re asked to suspend disbelief for the sake of gamifying a world but here, everything has a place. There are entire hamlets and farms that you never have any reason to go to. Ever. But they’re all there, forming the backdrop off the beaten path. Layered on top of this is its systemic nature. Get stranded in the Nile and a passing sailor may offer to pick you up, rowing you to the shore. Setting off a fire near someone’s storefront will prompt them to try to douse it with sand. Crocodiles lunge out of the river and grab their prey. The sun rises just as you clamber to the top of a pyramid. To cap it all off you can now climb anywhere, and get to the top of anything. Not just buildings but each and every rock and crevice is climbable. It’s Breath of the Wild without the pesky stamina mechanic. Everything just dovetails together so sublimely that you’ll be punching a hole through the photo mode button as if you had the fists of Amun-Ra himself.
But enough gushing, let’s get back to those controls. Combat in Assassin’s Creed Origins has been totally reworked. While you’re still clicking with a mouse on a mouse & keyboard, with a controller it’s now R1 for a light attack and R2 for a heavy shield-breaking attack. Square (or X) is now dodge also, while L1 holds up a shield for defence. To borrow an overused but accurate comparison - Assassin’s Creed Origins combat now plays a lot like Dark Souls. It has none of the inherent nuance and difficulty of course, but the fundamentals shared between the two are now alike. There are also no timed counters. Rather than holding off an entire group of soldiers as they attack you one at a time, waiting for the counter prompt to pop up and then executing a takedown, you now have to crowd control. You can lock onto a single enemy but attacks can come from anywhere, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed quickly. Efficient dodging is the trick, combined with powerful super moves that can be executed once you have enough adrenaline. It all makes combat a lot less rote than previous entries in the series; attacks are hefty and feel powerful, but you can be hit just as hard.
Additional freshness is provided with the loot system. Gear is now graded from normal up to Legendary and Epic based on its rareness and attributes. They’ve all got individual stats while the weapons have unique super moves. A trident can be useful thanks to its long range for example, while a battleaxe's special can supercharge attacks for 20 seconds or so. On top of this, there are craftable upgrades and the addition of bows for the first time. Bows come in four unique types, tailored towards hunting or rapid firing. One subset even delivers a shotgun-like blast at close range but tapers off with distance. It provides an even greater toolset for an assassin’s arsenal, on top of the returning favourites like poison darts, smoke bombs and the hidden blades.
It’s not just the feel of the combat that’s been improved though. One of the other major changes to be found in Assassin’s Creed Origins is the laundry list of activities and busywork for which the series has become so dependent. It’s gone. Completely. In fact, there aren’t really any collectables at all. Dotted about the vast landscape are a bunch of quests (with a recommended level) and a plethora of those telltale question marks. If I didn’t know any better I’d say they’ve nabbed the exact same question marks as The Witcher 3. These hide side locations that can offer some mini challenges such as hunting a crocodile, finding a loot chest, or assassinating a captain. They’re quick and fairly easy to breeze through, but they’re only there to offer an additional means to level up - you’re not pushed to do a 100% sweep of the area, and indeed the game doesn’t tell if it has. It’s a refreshing change from AC Unity and AC Syndicate’s crowded maps crammed with hundreds of chests and collectables. Like Ancient Egypt its sparse, and all the better for it. It’s a complete turnaround that Assassin’s Creed Origins revels in the space it provides you, rather than the amount it can fit into it. Trotting across a vast desert to find out what’s across the other side is just plain relaxing, providing a moment to drink it in rather than hunt down a stupid chest. It’s a change of pace that really works, giving the day and night cycle, wildlife and various AI systems the chance to run free rather than staring at a map screen for 80% of the game.
Instead of pointless knick-knacks to pick up, the bulk of the player’s time will be spent burning through the main storyline and the assorted side quests. To my immense surprise, the side quests are actually largely enjoyable, even offering some interesting narrative diversions that can occasionally rival Geralt’s jaunt. Ultimately they boil down to go here, do this or collect that, but the journey ultimately makes them worthwhile. As for the main narrative artery that chugs through Assassin’s Creed Origins - it’s never gonna win any awards but it’s a compelling enough tale of revenge aided by some strong characters. Bayek and his wife Aya are arguably two of the strongest, most likeable characters in the series’ history, and the writing is usually top-tier. The only downside is the modern-day segments that Ubisoft still insists on inserting. They don’t add anything and only serve to break immersion right after critical plot moments. Ubisoft either needs to go in hard on this stuff or just not bother at all.
I could wax on about Assassin’s Creed Origins for a long time. For all its foibles it’s a staggering achievement, and most certainly the best the series has ever offered alongside Black Flag. Those who prefer the dense city networks of the original games may bounce off it a little, but for anyone even remotely interested in the prospect of The Witcher and Assassin’s Creed crossing paths, this comes highly recommended.