Assassin’s Creed Origins Review
Stalk like an Egyptian in a literal sandbox (Updated with DLC impressions)
Though it was a parkour exponent with seven years experience, the Assassin's Creed series slipped and fell from grace. The trip-up was the bugtastic, microtranstacular abomination that was 2014's Assassin's Creed Unity. The handhold Ubisoft managed to snatch onto, on the way down to total franchise faceplant, was the halfway decent – but painfully safe – Assassin's Creed Syndicate (2015). Today, as the franchise enters its tenth year and just as many major releases, Assassin's Creed Origins is attempting to monkey back up to the level expected and synchronise with its disillusioned fanbase.Solid footing is found quickly in terms of character and time period selection. You'll be pulling on the conspicuous hoody of Medjay (read: Nubian sheriff) Bayek of Siwa, during the troubled reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Anybody who was a fan of HBO's Rome will know the events surrounding this idiotic boy king. Whilst Ptolemy's harbouring ambitions of expanding his kingdom, his sister, the recently deposed Cleopatra, begins marshalling loyalist forces to launch a counter-coup. Meanwhile, Julius Caesar tracks a fleeing rival to Egypt, and, after seeing what the place has to offer, starts hatching his own pyramid schemes. Lastly, this entire tale is interspersed with those token “outside the Animus” bits that are unnecessary, but lite-on. As is always the case with the AC franchise, many of the historical figures depicted are attached to the strings of The Order – shadowy puppet-masters who seek to dominate mankind with powerful artifacts from mankind's forgotten precursor age. A simple need for personal vengeance causes Bayek and his wife, Aya, to stumble into this dark web of corruption. In the fullness of time, they'll make roof-diving and ring finger mutilation fashionable, and become the mother and father of the Assassin Brotherhood. Married folks in the audience, take note: couples who slay together, stay together. If you like it, then you should put a spring (loaded blade) on it.
Clearly all the pieces are in place to deliver a rip-roaring ride where history comes alive (with death). However, after the 24-hour mark, the story I was ploughing through just sort of came and went. Act 1 asks you to unmask and perforate half a dozen shadowy lords who are on your shitlist; the pruning of these two-dimensional baddies offers no surprising twists or unique scenarios. The hunting in Act 2 diversifies things more – especially when you have to engage in tomb raiding, gladiatorial combat, questionably-handling chariot racing, and naval warfare. I was well onboard with boats, being a huge fan of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Sadly, you only get three (or so) hemmed in sea battles that offer little navigational freedom. To be fair, this game swaps out galleon sails for a bunch of slaves with paddles – circumnavigating Africa like that would probably be an oar full experience.
Beyond those side-diversions, Origins brings little to the table that's genuinely new. Yes there's a zippier combat system, which deepens the strategy and streamlines some of the old clunkiness, but calling it innovative would be a stretch. Most of this game's bolder ideas have simply bled across from other Ubisoft titles. Case in point: the way those enemy-tagging drones from Ghost Recon Wildlands and Watch Dogs 2 pop up as an out-of-body bird experience. While Senu the eagle is fun to use, and a reasonable fit for the series (assassins have always had a weird avian fetish), your feathered friend is taking more than he's giving. Gone is your Eagle Vision, an AC constant that has offered us wall-piercing sight for years. As a result, infiltrating a fort without proper prep-work means you're going in with all the spatial awareness of Hans Moleman. I like the renewed challenge of it, to be honest. Except for the chaotic times when you're asked to chase an escaping target in a built-up area on horseback, but end up losing them.
Horseplay in general, is a bit iffy. As mentioned earlier, getting your Spartacus on in the hippodrome sounds like something worth saddling up for; right up until when you feel how limp-wristed the chariot drifting mechanic is. Likewise, whipping out a sword and playing a game of polo with an enemy's head might seem like a capital idea, however, it can devolve into an awkward, lock-on mash where you'll circle your prey as the camera becomes fixated on the ground. All that being said, the auto-ride-to-destination function (lifted from The Witcher 3) is a great creature comfort, because the distance between unlockable fast-travel points is Skyrim insanity.
Fortunately, this expansive playground is an absolute pleasure to exist in. The natural, diverse beauty of The Nile and its surrounds have been lovingly recreated, and the cultural melting-pot of Greek / Roman / Egyptian architecture makes this the richest historical holiday Ubisoft's ever attempted. Climbing up (and sliding down) a pyramid is such a watershed moment, it almost made me forget my bitterness about this sequel not being set in feudal Japan. Aside from a few shadow/texture mishaps here and there, and an isolated bit of animation oddness when AI systems jostle, Origins looks and plays quite well on the entry-level consoles. A HDR patch is set to arrive after launch. I have every confidence this will be a top-tier looker.
On the topic of breath-taking, Origins has Far Cry's obsession with “kill x amount of animals to increase your pouch sizes”. Slaughtering hyenas, lions, cobras, crocs, hippos and gazelles can also yield the crafting components needed to increase the potency of your melee attacks, shield defence, arrow firing, bombs, and hidden blade. Those are minor bumps in power, though, as the real decider is how high your level is (you'll need to be 28-30ish if you want to make the last act manageable).
Thankfully, said end-game isn't anywhere near as grindy as Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, though I did hit a slow point in the centre where I had to suffer tertiary fetch-quests because I didn't have enough “assassin's cred” to survive a main mission. It was slightly annoying when, after all of the effort I'd invested in Bayek – unlocking nifty combat perks, amassing legendary gear, and earning the blacksmith coin needed to keep said arsenal levelled – became all for nought when the game swapped in another character.
More and more, Origins opts to substitute Bayek for another whose gear and skills are unfamiliar and under-levelled. Ubisoft doesn't pull a full Assassin's Creed III here, by doing a permanent hero switch mid-game, but the disruptions we do get serve no great narrative purpose. It's odd decisions like this – along with a general sense of safe tweaks under the hood, versus true, cutting edge innovation – that mar what is otherwise a killer return to form.
Update: Outright cursing at the Curse of the Pharaohs DLC
I'm a level-headed veteran who's clocked every AC out there, but inside of five minutes of play-time I found myself cursing the Curse of the Pharaohs. For those of you not in the know, that's Ubisoft's next big DLC for the widely praised Assassin's Creed: Origins. It should not be confused with the similarly-titled Curse of Osiris, DLC for the wildly unpopular Destiny 2.
So, back to that f-bomb of mine. After spending hundreds of interim hours with other melee-focused, open-world titles (Monster Hunter World, Metal Gear Survive, etc), I found that most of my assassin skills had left me. Like the shifting sands of Egypt, all memory of Origins' revised control scheme had left my brain, and at the worst possible time, too. The second you hop off the boat as Bayek and into the new area of Thebes, death via supernatural uber-enemy is but a few sandal shuffles away. Be warned: go in cocky and Curse of the Pharaohs will rort you quicker than a pyramid scheme.
Your new worst enemy will soon become the titular Curses. Imagine seven-foot tall enemies who can teleport in via some sort of ash magic, at which point they'll hand you bladed death quicker than a bloodthirsty chainsaw. They're so utterly lethal the Animus will warn you of their arrival into the world, even if you're suburbs away. Quite how these deceased and murderous ghost-kings are sniffed out by Abstergo technology is never really explained, but I'm thinking it has something to do with pharaohmones.
If you do try to take on a level 46 Pharaoh's Shadow – typically while a bunch of regular enemies perforate your pancreas from behind – you'll be very thankful you over-achieved to the level 40 cap in vanilla's main quest (and then to 45 in The Hidden Ones DLC). After a bit of adjustment, I got my groove back and was back in the game, plus I had crept a little higher to the new level cap of 55. At this point, the Shadows still demanded your respect, but feel less like ancient Egyptian Terminators. All that said, they will not be the last of your supernatural troubles when Bayek's "living nightmare" continues.
If you love mythology and the thought of being toyed with by changeable, dark Egyptian gods, then you're all Set in this DLC. After thirty minutes of doing detective work in Thebes (think: a lot of sneaking through The Valley of the Kings, and some numerically-unfair street brawls) you can look forward to a trip to the afterlife – or at least Bayek's imagining of it.
I'll not spoil too much about the nature of your mission there, suffice to say that the golden plains of Aaru are an absolutely gorgeous feast for the eyes. It's a massive region to explore and is littered with some lovely surreal stuff, too, like huge warships that slice their way through the wheat fields. Out over the crops, I also spotted the periscopic stingers of giant scorpions lying in wait. Can't tell you much more about them, because I'm not an idiot – I stayed the hell away from their obvious sting operations.
After spending a full hour with Curse of the Pharaohs, I'm hooked on the increased combat challenge and its fascinating plot that revolves around Queen Nefertiti. I've rediscovered my love of this title, especially as I can now experience it in glorious 4K HDR. I really loved the last freebie bit of Origins DLC (that turned this sandbox into a grounded history tour) but that content pales in comparison to the crazy delights of this afterlife. Sample Curse of the Pharaohs in ultra-high definition and – wow – you really will feel like you've died and gone to heaven.
We reviewed Assassin's Creed Origins on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
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