Release Date: October 27, 2017Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Ubisoft MontrealPublisher: UbisoftGenre: Action-adventure
Of all the games in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, Assassin’s Creed II still stands as one of the best. It was something of a revelation for open-world gaming, inviting players to explore a vast recreation of 15th century Italy as wise-cracking gallant Ezio Auditore da Firenze, darting through the bustling city streets one moment and leaping from rooftop to rooftop the next.
The game’s freedom of movement and new brand of exploration felt exhilarating at the time, but the novelty has worn off as the series has aged. Subsequent open-world games have had a tendency to inadvertently encourage players to become obsessed with the map screen, fast-traveling from location to location, knocking down tasks in rapid succession if for no other reason than to clear away the hideous mess of tiny icons that stay burned into your retinas even after you’ve gone to sleep.
Assassin’s Creed Origins, the latest entry in the long-running franchise, recaptures the thrill of exploration that’s become something of a lost art in recent years. It’s set in a massive recreation of Ancient Egypt that’s staggering in both scope and beauty, and while the world is teeming with quests and surprise encounters for players to discover, the simple act of traversing the sun-drenched cities and desert expanses is as fun and fulfilling as any of the narrative or combat experiences the game has to offer.
If there’s one thing Origins will be remembered for, it’s how meticulously crafted and artistically inspired Ubisoft Montreal’s game world is, from the towering pyramids at Giza, to the flocks of birds that scatter as you approach their riverside habitat. The environments feel alive and vibrant thanks to spectacular lighting and post-processing effects, detailed textures, and a surprising amount of visual variety across the game’s half dozen-or-so regions, especially considering that most laymen would expect a recreation of ancient Egypt to utilize but a small sliver of the color wheel.
The graphics are spectacular, but it’s the artistic intent behind the presentation that makes the game world such a joy to get lost in, and the same care has been taken with the character models and animation.
You play as Bayek, one of the last of the medjay, an Egyptian special forces unit sworn to protect the Pharaoh. He’s as gifted at killing and scampering up towering structures as any Assassin’s Creed protagonist, but the series’ signature brand of parkour-based mass murder looks better than ever. Bayek moves naturally from action to action, and the subtler animations – like when he shakes water droplets off of his arms after a dip in a lake – look startlingly realistic.
Bayek is further fleshed out in the game’s epic story, which revolves around his obsession with revenge (for what I won’t spoil here) and the irreconcilable nature of his relationship with his wife, Aya, and their respective roles in a larger political conflict involving Cleopatra and Ptolemy. This is perhaps the longest, most thematically rich campaign in Assassin’s Creed history, exploring ideas of loyalty, lust, nationalism, and family via an eccentric cast of characters brought vividly to life by the voice actors (excellent across the board) and digital artists.
Sadly, for all of Origins’ virtues, its gameplay mechanics are a mixed bag that mires the experience and stops the game short of being a modern classic. Ubisoft Montreal has overhauled the series’ combat system, opting for a more intimate approach that focuses more on positioning and maneuvering than quick-reflex counters. No longer do baddies surround you and inexplicably decide to attack one at a time as you flit between them like a super-fast ninja of doom. Combat is now more dynamic and weighted, forcing players to think tactically about range and weapon speed.
This all sounds good conceptually, but the harsh reality is that the combat just never feels quite right. Controls work fine for the most part, but there’s a herky-jerky quality to general in-combat movement that feels woefully unpolished. Dodging seems to be largely ineffective in certain situations, and timing attacks, blocks, and parries feels slightly awkward no matter which weapon you use (the game offers a wide range of weapon types, from sickle swords to gigantic axes to nimble dual-wielded blades).
There are a lot of good ideas implemented here, but they never gel, resulting in combat that’s more frustrating than it is fun. Enemy encounters are more challenging than in previous titles, which is good, but too often you’ll find yourself blaming the game’s loosey-goosey mechanics for your deaths rather than your own skills (or lack thereof), which is almost always an indicator of poor game design. Dark Souls and Cuphead are hard games, but most importantly, they’re fair as fair can be.
One aspect of gameplay that the game handles marvelously, however, is the variety of quests, side quests, and extracurricular activities. There’s always something new to do, whether it be old standards like clearing out enemy outposts, captaining a battleship, and assassinating hapless targets, or new scenarios like racing chariots, fending off hippos and crocodiles, and figuring out how to not die when buried up to your chin in sand as the sunlight beating down on your forehead causes you to hallucinate and see ghosts from your past. The sheer variety of things to do in Origins is fantastic, and for such a massive open-world game like this to constantly present you with fresh, exciting things to do is not to be taken for granted. In this respect, Ubisoft Montreal has set a new standard for the genre.
Aside from the unsightly blemish that is the game’s combat system, Assassin’s Creed Origins is one of the most notable games in the franchise. It boasts the most fully realized world seen in any game of its ilk (bested only by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), and features a full cast of dark-skinned characters (with region-appropriate accents!), which is never something to be taken for granted. The Assassin’s formula is perhaps in need of a more significant reworking than Origins offers, but for those attracted to the franchise’s uniquely touristic qualities, this is hands down the most immersive entry yet.
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