I’ve only spent one weekend with this title, so far, after its release on the 27th October. However, here are my initial impressions. A full review will come at a later date.
The Assassin’s Creed games have long excelled in the visual and historical elements and this title has taken that to an all new level. The world map is massive, it took me four hours to clear just the opening pre title sequence area. Granted, I did do just about every quest and activity available in the area. As expected from an Assassin’s Creed title, the visuals are stunning from the deserts to the mountains and the temples to the mud huts. You can tell that research has been done and the world in Origins does look like a fairly faithfully recreated ancient world, right out of the history books. A world which is alive, with npcs going about their daily lives, cooking, working, shopping and worshipping, at the many temples. I, actually, took time out of my busy schedule of rescuing npcs from various enemy strongholds to follow a cat around a temple and also discovered that when npcs say meet me at a certain place, that they actually travel there, as opposed to going a short distance and then vanishing, as I’ve followed them all the way.
However, the Assassin’s Creed titles have never been deficient in the above areas. Even the last two titles, while disappointing overall, looked fantastic and had expansive and believable period settings. The issues with the franchise were the tired and repetitive game mechanics, the increasingly dull and lifeless story, and the either stoic and boring or awkwardly half-charismatic, clearly trying too hard to be likable, characters. Let’s face it, Ezio, of the Assassin’s Creed golden era, is a hard act to follow. He had wit, humour, charisma and his do-gooder tendencies were actually believable. When Ezio stopped to help a crying child whose mother had been taken by slavers, while in the midst of his personal vendetta to deliver justice to the murders of this father and brothers, it felt like genuine moment of empathy. Across all three of his titles, it never felt like his job as an assassin or his thirst for vengeance ever eroded his personality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me that the new character, Bayek, doesn’t live up to his larger than life predecessor, or in real timeline terms successor, as this new title is set well over a millennium before the iconic renaissance instalments.
Bayek is a Medjay whose duty is to protect the Pharaoh and all citizens of Egypt. He is almost as stoic as Altair. I’ve played about 16 hours of the game, so far, and in that time Bayek has already done as much do-gooding as Ezio but for Bayek it’s a duty, not an act of kindness. Bayek does still have his moments. He plays well with children and has a passionate relationship with his wife. However, his interactions with nearly every other character feels on the whole lifeless and emotionless. I remember connecting with Ezio’s character after just 30 minutes of playing his first game, but after 16 hours, which would have pretty much got you through the whole of AC2, I still don’t care much for Bayek. Ubisoft’s inability to write engaging protagonists really frustrates me. Following just the basics of character design should avoid manikin characters. Who exist only to prop up the story. Edward Kenway was about the only post Ezio assassin to break that mould and actually have a full blown personality. Not all his traits were likable, but I connected with him all the same.
The story in Origins is shaping up to be similarly lacklustre to its predecessors. It follows the age old family member murdered must get revenge cliché that was already tired in Ezio’s days. He just carried it so well and with so much charisma that few cared. The path to vengeance is obviously further hampered by the politics of the era. Granted, there is much stronger story telling in the side quests. You no longer have to climb a viewpoint just to clear the fog of an area of map or take over a stronghold to unlock shops or trainable allies, and it does lead to much improved engagement with the process. It’s still grinding. The main questline frequently requires you to advance Bayek to a certain level, rpg fashion, to advance. Side quests are essential in that but at least each one has meaning. When balanced with exploration, crafting and npc watching the game remains fun to play.
Surprisingly, it’s the gameplay elements which have saved this instalment from adding another game to peoples ‘I really wish I hadn’t bought that one’ slush pile. Exploring the wonderfully formed and populated game world is a joy. Far more than just a big desert with a few temples, the areas each have their own look and focus, from the majestic architecture of Alexandria to the natural wonders of half buried ruins, desert valleys and tall cliff faces. Where the game does succeed is in empowering you to find your own adventure which proves far more engaging than the scripted story, to date anyway. While I have little interest in Bayek or the struggle for control of Egypt, I do find the world itself fascinating and full of endless wonders.
The combat system now functions more like an action RPG, with dodge, parry, block and heavy and light hits. However, the stealth mechanics remain largely unchanged which gives the player a choice as to whether to range, stealth or melee their way through missions. To date, I’ve come across no instances in the game of forced stealth. The stealth mechanics are just a fun as they’ve always been, and I’m quite enjoying the new long range bow for sniper style stealth shots as well as the traditional hidden blade assassinations. Through the assigning of ability points gained as you level the player is free to customise Beyak to match their play style and having a choice of play style does bring much more variety to the gameplay and gives you the freedom to approach different problems with different solutions. All in all, the endless grind feeling of previous title has been mostly vanquished. The side quests do start to feel a little samey after a while but at least you’re free to complete them in different ways.
My current feelings are that while the story and main protagonist still feel plucked from the AC cliché box of shame, the game is far more fun and enjoyable to play. In this title the joy is in the journey and not the destination and that is not a bad thing. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t be combined with an engaging plot and an endearing protagonist. If my opinions change after completing the game then I’ll be sure to post an update, but despite its short comings this instalment feels like a vast improvement over recent titles and does put the fun back into the AC franchise. Here’s hoping the sort out the plot next title.