Despite the fact that I review games and even, under duress, discuss their sales figures per the NPD, I’m firmly of the belief that it’s not possible for the average game-buying Joe to really know what goes on in the video game industry. Psychological manipulation and trickery is at the heart of the video game experience, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that it’s probably best to assume that same sort of trickery is at work in industry-led discussion of industry practices and sales.
To try and extrapolate meaning from what little information we’re allowed to know (after it’s been carefully curated and spun just right, of course) is to try and determine the emotional state of Cthulhu based on the way he ate that cultist just now. Besides the deliciousness, of course.
Sometimes, though, people stumble upon ideas about how the industry works that seem to have a little truth behind them. Case in point: it’s popular to rail against the one-year development cycle for new games in a given series, the idea being that this truncated development period will result in lower-quality games. After playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the result of a two-year cycle after the series skipped 2016, I’m inclined to agree that a little more time could be useful here and there. Origins represents a new, powerful vision for a series that had seemed to be on its last creative legs, and it’s also one of the best games to release in a year that’s been jam-packed with great games.
We follow Bayek, a Medjay (a community protector, somewhat akin to a sheriff in the Old West) in Ancient Egypt around a century BCE. After tragedy strikes Bayek’s family, he embarks on a quest for revenge against those who have wronged him. His journey will take him all over Egypt, up and down the Nile, and we’ll follow as he distributes a special brand of ancient justice to no-goodniks. Assassin’s Creed’s signature future-tech framing device remains intact as well, though it’s less emphasized here than in many previous entries; this lighter touch makes this side of things a little easier to swallow, but the focus is firmly on Bayek and his adventures.
Bayek himself is a breath of fresh air for the series, a sort of nod back to Italian assassin and fan favorite Ezio Auditore from the Assassin’s Creed 2 sub-series. By contrast to AC3’s grimly serious Connor Kenway and Syndicate’s happy-go-lucky Jacob Frye (and his mostly-dull sister Evie), both Ezio and Bayek manage to play out as interesting characters capable of a varied emotional spread. Bayek’s at home playing hide-and-seek with a friend’s children as he is shoving a spear down a bandit’s throat. It’s a nice touch and shows that a little more love was put into the character than some recent protagonists.
A little more love was put into the game as a whole than some recent entries in the series, honestly. Syndicate was a solid game, don’t get me wrong, but it was held back by sticking close to a formula that was nearly a decade old; while said formula had certainly evolved over the years, we’d rarely see Assassin’s Creed go out of its way to shake things up. Black Flag and Rogue’s focus on naval adventure made those games feel fresh and new, but AC went firmly back to its roots with Unity and Syndicate. With Origins we see another effort to make Assassin’s Creed a new, fresh game, this time by incorporating lessons learned from the many open-world games that have risen to prominence in the past several years.
Case in point: Origins is an action-RPG. We’d seen hints of this shift starting in Unity’s gear-focused progression system (which was later incorporated into Syndicate) but Origins goes all in on the concept. The damage values popping up over your opponent are a dead giveaway. Origins is enamored with one particular flavor of action-RPG in particular – the Souls games. Don’t worry, I’m not pulling a Modern Games Journalist and saying that this is the Dark Souls of Assassin’s Creed games, but the default control layout and overall snappy feel to the new combat system certainly recalls slashing away at baddies in Anor Londo. Far from the chore it had slowly become in previous titles, straight-up battle now feels solid and enjoyable; it’s something to look forward to rather than a punishment for failed attempts at stealth.
The gear-focused character progression is part of this, as well, as there’s nothing like trying out a new sword by taking out a few guards here and there. Again, this isn’t necessarily new to the series, though Unity and Syndicate both focused on discrete gear while Origins features generated and leveled equipment that you’ll find throughout the game. That elation from finding an upgrade is present and accounted for in Origins, and much of your gameplay will be spent exploring ruins and hostile, guarded areas for new items. Note that while microtransactions are present here, as they have been throughout the series for years now, everything but some goofy cosmetics are entirely and readily accessible via ingame means. Settle down, in other words.
Combine these refined gameplay systems with a gorgeous and beautifully realized world and you’ve got something special. Ancient Egypt as presented in Origins is a magical place full of wonder, mystery and danger; this contributes heavily to the sense of discovery and progression that makes the game such a joy to play. There’s always a new quest to work on, an animal attack to stop or a set of bandits to fight; the idea of a content-saturated game that you can play “forever” is in vogue right now and Origins provides a fantastic example of how to do it right. Boiled down there are only a few basic gameplay loops – sneak around, fight bad guys, climb structures, explore underwater, etc. – but there’s variety enough that no one mechanic starts to feel like a drag.
On top of all this, Origins is a beautiful game. The developers were certainly aware of this, as the ability to stop the action and take photos of what you’re doing to share on the ingame map is available from the start! The PC version requires some very beefy hardware and could probably stand to have a patch or two, but it was playable and smooth with my setup and certainly looked stellar throughout. Meanwhile, audio is pretty much exactly what you’d expect and excels in that sense, particularly with regards to the music. In particular, there’s something to be said for the voice acting, with Abubakar Salim’s first video game role as Bayek as a high point.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a high-quality title in every sense of the word, and if you’ve been fatigued by the series’ repetition then Ubisoft has clearly heard you. Seems like taking a year off has done wonders for the series’ overall quality, and I’m not complaining. Origins is a new take on a classic series that makes everything old feel new again; it fulfills the original Assassin’s Creed’s promise of a historical playground to explore and conquer. If we end up seeing a return to the one-year development cycle then at least there’s a fantastic foundation for future entries to build upon.