When it comes to gaming, Ubisoft is a company that’s never been shy of a few press headlines. When journalists aren’t writing about a potential take over by Vivendi, they’re usually busy talking about things that the acclaimed Assassin’s Creed franchise is or isn’t doing right. When the first one was released back in 2007, gamers were taken into a world full of history and intrigue. Granted, nobody was expecting the game to jump between modern times and the Third Crusade that we saw in the cinematic trailers, but both Desmond Miles and Altair were interesting enough to forgive any misdirection on Ubisoft’s part. While it took them two years to develop a sequel, all of the Assassin’s Creed entries became annual releases after the charming and tragic adventures of Ezio Auditore in Assassin’s Creed II. In 2010 we saw the release of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, 2011 Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, 2012 Assassin’s Creed III, 2013 Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, which despite critical complaints about the scope of the game was actually in my opinion the best one so far. Then in 2014 Ubisoft tried to bridge the gap between current and next-gen consoles with a dual release of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue and Unity, followed by Syndicate in 2015. And while reviewers and gaming publications still scored most of them at 7 or over on a scale of 1 to 10, fans were becoming burnt out. Despite desperate attempts on Ubisoft’s part to reinvent the franchise, the war between the assassin’s and Templars was growing stale. Fast forward to E3 2016, where gamers waited expectantly for Ubisoft to inevitably announce the next entry in the franchise, and were surprised to find out that the assassin’s were going to be taking a year off. A year later, Assassin’s Creed: Origins hits shelves and the one question hesitant gamers are asking is, did the extra year pay off?
Yes . . . and no.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins tells the story of a Medjay named Bayek of Siwa. Along with his son Khemu, Bayek is abducted by a group of masked men called the Order of Ancients, who take them to an underground vault in the Temple of Amun. Somehow, they think Bayek is the only one who can open the door and lead them inside. This is when we see that all-too-familiar Apple of Eden that causes people to go crazy and kill each other. They hand it to Bayek and demand that he open the vault. Naturally, he doesn’t cooperate and they have to resort to threatening his son to get him to do it. Khemu, the crafty little Egyptian boy is able to steal a knife from one of their captors and gives it to his dad. When the struggle for their escape begins, Bayek attempts to kill one of the masked men and accidentally stabs his son in the chest, both killing him and plummeting Bayek into an obsessive quest for vengeance.
Fast forward to a year later, we catch Bayek in a tomb scratching a name off of his list after taking the life of Rudjek “The Heron”. For some reason everybody in the order has animal nicknames: the heron, the ibis, the vulture, the ram, the snake, the scarab, the hyena, the lizard, the crocodile, the hippo, the scorpion, the jackal, the lion, the platypus. Just kidding, that last one isn’t real, but you get the picture. By the time you’re done with the game, you slaughter an entire zoo. Along with the help of his faithful wife Aya, Bayek’s quest for vengeance puts him in the path of Cleopatra, a queen without a throne. Aya reveals that she’s been working with Cleopatra and a Sicilian named Apollodorus to uncover the identity of the Snake. One favor leads to another and soon Bayek and Aya are Cleopatra’s medjays in the war against the Order of Ancients, who Cleopatra believes are using her brother Ptolemy (the Pharaoh) to take control of Egypt. Bayek reluctantly agrees to help her in her fight as long as it furthers him toward his own goal of killing all the members of the order. Meanwhile, Aya puts her faith in Cleopatra instead of Bayek and leaves to convince Pompey the Great to help put Cleopatra on the throne.
After finally reaching the end of his list of names, Bayek receives a letter from Aya saying that there are two more names, “the scorpion” and the “the jackal” who are both members of Ptolemy’s royal guard and most-likely directly responsible for Khemu’s death. The Jackal kills Pompey, leaving Cleopatra no choice but to – along with the help of Bayek and Aya – sneak into the royal palace, to meet with Julius Caesar, who is there to discuss an alliance with Egypt. Cleopatra offers Caesar her hand in marriage in exchange for an alliance with her instead of her brother, which he accepts, thus causing Ptolemy to assemble his soldiers and attack the capital. The Egyptian Civil War sees Bayek and Aya teaming up with Caesar in one of the funnest parts of the game, which pits you and Roman soldiers against several blood thirsty Ptolemy soldiers. You fight an elephant and then the jackal, and this is where things get interesting. In typical Assassin’s Creed fashion, Bayek and Aya are betrayed. Caesar spares the life of the jackal.
After opening the tomb of Alexander the Great and fighting for Caesar, Cleopatra has Apollodorus tell Bayek and Aya that their services are no longer needed and they’ve been banned from the palace. Upset and rightfully so, Bayek gathers his allies and in a short cut scene, they form the Brotherhood of Assassins to finish what they started. However, this time they have a couple of extra names on the list, and if you know your history or have read Julius Caesar, you know how this story ends. There’s a few more fights and several times where the game makes you think it’s going to end but doesn’t. Keep in mind that this is a very long game, in fact, it’s several hours longer than a typical Assassin’s Creed game, and I don’t want to get into a play-by-play, but that’s a condensed version of the game’s story.
Now to get to the good and bad of it all.
Taking a year off did great things for both the gameplay and development of the characters. Unlike other annual games like Call of Duty and the various attempts at story-driven sports games, creating an Assassin’s Creed game requires more than a few re-skins and a six hour campaign. Each Assassin’s Creed game is a brand new, narrative driven experience built from the ground up, which is by no means a bad thing as much as it is slightly over ambitious. And this is where the problem occurs. The games kept getting bigger (i.e. the jump from Assassin’s Creed III to Black Flag), but the development cycle stayed the same. This is why there were so many problems with Assassin’s Creed Unity when the franchise made its first original entry on next-gen consoles. Everybody was expecting a massively scaled game that took full advantage of everything the next generation of consoles had to offer, instead they got a game that was indeed massive, but for every good thing the game had to offer, there were at least ten bugs that needed fixing. While Syndicate was a bit stronger coming out the gate, it played it safe instead of attempting to innovate, thus filling the void in the yearly cycle, but not offering gamers anything new.
So did the year off help? Hell yeah it did. Assassin’s Creed: Origins succeeds in every aspect the last few entries failed in. While there are a few bugs, and I’ll get to those, the gameplay was smooth and the combat flowed with the grace of a Devil May Cry game (and I mean that in a good way). When reviewers compared the game to an RPG, I was hesitant to believe them. After spending over forty hours exploring the vast lands of Egypt, I now understand why they feel that way. Not only is the map huge – there are several areas you won’t even go to unless you’re a completionist – but it’s filled with tombs and forts for you to explore and raid. The pyramids, while not overly long ventures, are mysterious and satisfying enough to make venturing off the beaten path feel more like an accomplishment and less of a waste of time. Then there are the sidequests, while part of this will go into my “bad” section, and you’ll see why, for the most part, they’re fairly simple and still interesting, and where previous entries in the franchise had sidequests that could take longer than some of the main ones, all of the side quests in Origins help contribute the story’s overall narrative. For example, there’s a priest that gives Bayek some questionable liquid that sends you into a dream fight with a giant snake (can I get some of that?), and you can actually go back to him and find out what the dream means if you complete the sidequests he has. Some of them even help flesh out Bayek’s past. And the really cool thing about completing everything is that most of the people you help while doing these sidequests will become assassins in the end of the game.
Another area that Origins succeeded in is character development. This is something that the Assassin’s Creed franchise hasn’t done well in the past. The franchise suffers from Bruce Wayne syndrome. All of their protagonists have been tragic characters shaped by one or two significant events, but there’s very little change or development past the point of taking up the cause of the assassins. Yes, Ezio Auditore’s story has a little more substance to it, but after three games there’s only so much interest you can invest in a character like that. As for Bayek of Siwa, he was by far the most enjoyable protagonist that’s ever appeared in the franchise. While his quest is driven by revenge, he still cares for his home and the people who live there, and every encounter he has with strangers and people from his past are fun and genuine. Though he gives up his marriage for the cause of the brotherhood, at the end of the day, he seems like somebody you’d want to sit down and have a beer with.
Finally, one of the best things about this game is that it returns you to present time. The last few entries have been seen through (if at all) the eyes of anonymous modern protagonists whose onscreen time, while interesting, isn’t easy to invest in. This time, however, being in the shoes of Layla Hassan, a researcher at Abstergo’s Historical Research Division, you feel both the modern plight and severity of the assassin/Templar struggle. You even get to do a little assassinating yourself. It’s funny how Abstergo employees never last long. Apparently, they don’t like being pursued by Templar death squads. And in between your time exploring the cave and the animus, if you stop by Layla’s computer, you’ll find some neat easter eggs that bridge the gaps between the Assassin’s Creed movie, Origins, and even Ubisoft’s other tentpole series Watchdogs.
Now, let’s dive into the bad.
Because of the game’s massive scope and size, it almost feels daunting at points. There are areas of the map that serve no purpose besides going there just to unfog them and get the map achievement or trophy. Exploring early on in the game is difficult because each new area has a suggested level and by the time you reach any level above 35, chances are you’re either close to finishing the game or getting burnt out on doing non-story items. Speaking of story, they do a great job of fleshing out a non-typical Assassin’s Creed story in this game, but they don’t do a great job of ending it. Much like Lord of the Rings, Origins has several places where it feels like it should end but doesn’t. While Bayek is an interesting character and well developed, his wife Aya feels one dimensional and even during the naval missions, somewhat boring. Then there’s the long cut scene at the end that explains what happened after the games several endings and where the first assassin’s bureau was established. We get it, it’s an origins game. It was in the title. We don’t need a five minute video telling us who the assassins are, and we especially don’t need Aya to break the fourth wall, attempting to be an unburnt and uninteresting Deadpool. I think after ten main entries, we have a pretty good idea of who the assassins are and why they do what they do. And lets not forget about poor Bayek. Everything he did in this game was motivated by a love of his family, and in the end, Aya throws away their marriage for the brotherhood. How can somebody endure so much for so little payoff. The writers over at Ubisoft probably thought they were being courageous and clever, but it felt cheap and lazy, sort of like killing an animal to draw tears from an audience.
In gameplay, the leveling system was tedious at the best of times. Yeah, gaining levels gave you access to better gear and armor, but you got access to those things without having to level up in previous Assassin’s Creed games. This was one of many things that felt like a knock off of The Witcher and Elder Scrolls. And because all of the weapons do essentially the same amount of damage once they’re fully upgraded, there isn’t much motivation to explore tombs and forts that might offer something better. While we’re on sidequests, they did such a great job at developing Bayek’s character that his interactions with people during the sidequests feel too short or like they’re lacking depth.
Lastly, let’s talk about the story and how it contributes to the franchise as a whole. Basically it doesn’t. “Oh but it’s an origin story, it’s not supposed to,” says other people. Even bad origin stories in B grade horror movies do something to propel their respective franchises forward. The Star Wars prequels at least helped explain where the series could go after Return of the Jedi, which is absolutely nowhere after The Last Jedi, but uphill or downhill, at least there’s still momentum. Origins while interesting, didn’t do anything to move the franchise forward. We got a glimpse of the Apple of Eden, but not further information about the first civilization or what happened to Minerva after she escaped into the world in Black Flag. And while I’m glad they brought a new modern protagonist into the fold, there were a lot of missed storytelling opportunities in her arc.
When this game came out, reviewers were scoring it with eights and nines out of ten. They clearly didn’t play the game all the way to end. Few reviewers probably play games until the very end, which makes the idea of a rating system seem rather pointless. However after investing more than forty hours into this game, I can tell you with confidence that I both loved and hated it. I look back on it with both awe and disappointment. I don’t know if there are any story expansions planned at the moment, but I hope to see Bayek get something that at least resembles a happy ending. The gameplay, combat and character development are all fresh and new, but if the narrative of the franchise doesn’t move forward soon, it’s only a matter of time before that franchise burnout returns and not even a year off is going to reinvigorate it. Overall, the game was fun and well paced. Egypt was beautiful and full of places to explore and mysteries to investigate. The story was lacking and the endings felt cheap, but hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day (no pun intended) and even baby steps are at least steps in the right direction.