I haven’t really enjoyed the recent Assassin’s Creed games (aka the “RPG trilogy” that began with 2017’s Origins). By all accounts from those who do enjoy them, they are fine games that obviously benefited from exceptional production values and a series of eventual gameplay refinements. However, they are also open-world action titles with a ton of things to do and light RPG elements. In other words, they bear a pretty strong resemblance to the basic formula that countless modern Triple-A games follow to varying degrees of effectiveness.
At a time when more and more pieces of major entertainment must be familiar enough to not potentially offend the palates and sensibilities of a massive global audience, “basic” has become the new “bad.” Years worth of too much entertainment that could best be described as “ok” has greatly lowered the value of that description. You start to crave something that breaks the mold (even if it’s a big swing that doesn’t land). In their own ways, those recent Assassin’s Creed games perfectly represent the Triple-A game mold from which dozens of multi-million dollar titles are formed.
Seemingly recognizing the want (if not need) for something different, the Asassin’s Creed Mirage team decided to mix things up a bit. What began as a substantial piece of DLC for Valhalla turned into a standalone release that harkens back to a classic style of AC gameplay. That means a greater emphasis on stealth and assassinations, but it also means trimming down or entirely removing certain modern franchise features. Mirage is smaller, shorter, and cheaper than the recent AC titles, and it hardly features any RPG elements worth knowing about.
The idea that going backward and offering fewer things to do could somehow constitute a refreshing change of pace is a strange thing, isn’t it? Yet, in an equally strange world where entertainment is becoming too big to dare to do anything different, that design decision grants Mirage the one thing so many pieces of modern entertainment need: an identity that some will love and some will hate for many of the same reasons.
Go Home, Again
Set in 9th-century Baghdad, Assassin’s Creed Mirage follows the adventures of Basim Ibn Ishaq, whom some of you may know from Valhalla. Without going too deep into story spoilers, Mirage essentially charts the rise of Basim and shows how he eventually became an assassin of some renown.
It’s a serviceable story, which is again something you don’t want to catch yourself saying about too many pieces of modern media. It’s certainly the part of the game that exposes Mirage’s humble DLC origins. Interested in Basim’s earliest days? You’ll find them here, but don’t expect them to form an irreplaceable narrative that will rank high among the series’ finest stories. For that matter, Mirage often feels like a deliberate step away from the franchise’s sometimes overwhelming mythology.
The real story of Mirage is its gameplay. Though Mirage has sometimes been described as a throwback to the first Assasin’s Creed game, that’s not entirely accurate. Mirage actually features entirely new gameplay concepts (like a special Assassin’s Focus power) as well as various gameplay refinements you won’t find in any other AC game. It’s closer to a reimagining of what the first game might have been like if the original AC team was able to play the AC games that would follow but were not necessarily inspired to make something significantly more substantial than what they had already envisioned.
It’s a fundamentally odd approach to a major modern game release. It’s kind of like when Rockstar published a version of GTA for Game Boy Advance that visually resembled the original top-down GTA games but incorporated some of the stylistic and gameplay ideas seen in the post-GTA 3 titles. Of course, that decision was made largely out of technical necessity. Mirage suffers from no such limitations.
Yet, those who are even vaguely familiar with the early Assassin’s Creed games will only need to spend a few minutes with Mirage to realize that it is essentially trying to offer a refined take on some of the biggest things that made this franchise notable in the first place. It turns out that’s no small feat.
Mirage’s Moment-to-Moment Gameplay Rediscovers the Unique Joy of an Assassin’s Creed Game
The bulk of the Mirage experience sees you bounce around Baghdad parkour-style in order to locate the clues needed to eventually hunt down your primary targets spread throughout the city. Actually, you’ll rarely ever get from Point A to Point B (no matter how close they are) without performing some acrobatic moves that are certainly not lacking visual flair yet feel more substantial and engaging than the flashy movements you’ll find in something like the more constrained Uncharted games. That isn’t going to blow the minds of anyone familiar wiht the early Assassin’s Creed games, but it’s a refreshing return to form for a series that has had to embrace less engaging (yet practical) methods of massive open world navigation.
That enhanced movement system is one of the best aspects of the entire experience. Baghdad is practically a parkour playground filled with wonderful little touches of personality, life, and notable historical reference points you won’t find in any other video game (or many other pieces of entertainment). You really get the sense that the team took a special amount of pleasure in being able to craft a smaller more structured environment rather than a sprawling world of stuff. It’s such a little thing, but this kind of level design is something we see less and less of since increasingly larger open worlds become the unquestioned standard.
When you do need to fight in Mirage, you will most often do so by sneaking up on a target and assassinating them. Again, it sounds so obvious, but given the evolution of recent Assassin’s Creed games, you may be surprised by how difficult it is to remember to actually be stealthy. For that matter, few modern games ever really ask you to utilize stealth without also giving you the tools needed to more than defend yourself in combat if you get caught. As such, I’d almost forgotten the thrill of identifying a target, using whatever means are available to reach them, and then quickly finding a way to take them down before you’re swarmed by their capable and suddenly angry friends.
A legion of so-called power fantasy games can’t offer an experience quite that rewarding, and Mirage offers it time and time again. After spending too much time trying to get into recent Assassin’s Creed games that utilized a gameplay loop built on “freedom” that necessitated a relative lack of meaningful actions, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to succeed in Mirage’s gameplay loop where failure and consequences greatly enhance the impact of nearly every encounter and interaction.
Then again, that touches on one of the big reasons Mirage will be divisive. See, it’s not that Mirage doesn’t allow you to get into fights; it’s that it practically makes those fights intentionally unenjoyable to discourage you from seeking them out. Close-quarters combat has been stripped down to its barest essentials. You can survive those battles, but without access to proper combos or meaningful attack abilities, you’re probably not going to have a great time doing it.
To be honest, that’s a symptom of the game’s biggest problem: its lack of ambition and the ways it sometimes treats old-school Assassin’s Creed gameplay like a novelty.
A Mirage In a Desert of Monotony
I understand the desire to force people into more of a stealth-based style, but combat in Mirage never really evolves even as you gain new Perks, abilities, and equipment (which largely make you better at the things you’re already good at). The same is true of the game’s few side activities and the aforementioned narrative. I don’t expect a game to change drastically in those areas over the course of a relatively modest 15-20-hour runtime, but given the considerable foundation that this game had to work with, I did hope it would eventually build towards something slightly more substantial than an exceptional version of fundamental Assassin’s Creed gameplay.
Many of Mirage’s biggest critics are already looking at the game and asking “Is that it?” I can understand why. It’s short, it’s relatively simple, and it offers about as many cosmetic microtransactions as gameplay innovations. I’ve already seen some fans worry that this game might fall short of expectations and “justify” the decision to stick to the series’ RPG formula, and I certainly think that’s a real possibility given that this project sometimes feels like more of a throwback than a comeback. What could have been the proper Black Flag sequel (or something along those lines) instead sometimes feels like a thorough reconsidering of some of the series’ earliest ideas.
In its own, flawed ways, though, Mirage bothers to look back at the things that gave this series a personality before it became too big to take meaningful risks that might alienate some of those whose money was desperately needed to justify ballooning production costs.
I know millions love those recent Assassin’s Creed games, and I know millions will probably not get as much out of Mirage. Yet, others have also been settling for those recent games when they really wanted something else that those titles only vaguely reminded them of. As the success of Baldur’s Gate 3 showed, a supposedly “niche” form of gameplay design can turn into a blockbuster when you deny people meaningful access to such experiences over a long enough period of time. We have had to settle for watered-down examples of core AC concepts that are but one tray in a buffet of content. Mirage‘s menu is smaller, but if you love what’s on it, you’ll struggle to find a better example of its offerings.
Ultimately, I love Mirage most for what it represents both for Assassin’s Creed and the possibility of more games that harness its spirit. I want a Batman: Arkham game that utilizes Arkham Asylum’s original Metroidvania design. I want a Far Cry game that picks up where the survival style of Far Cry 2 left off. Give me another turn-based Final Fantasy game, a classic Legend of Zelda title, and a retro Castlevania sidescroller in the style of the NES entries. I don’t want those games to replace the current entries in those franchises, and I don’t even think all of them will be as successful as those modern entries. Yet as titles like the Resident Evil remakes, Sonic Mania, and even the upcoming Super Mario Bros. Wonder show, there is still a want and need for games that tap into the roots of a popular franchise, especially when so few other games are bothering to pick up where they left off.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that Mirage exists, warts and all. At a time when many series get on the “open-world game with light RPG elements” treadmill and few get off, it’s so refreshing to play a game in one of those major franchises that bother to ask the question “What the hell ever made us unique in the first place?” Mirage will not be loved by everyone, and I kind of love it for that.