Clearing the Backlog: Assassin’s Creed Origins

Anyone who knows me well knows three things about me: I’m a sucker for anything science fiction, I go absolutely crazy for pancakes, and I love Assassin’s Creed on a level that is probably unhealthy. I was in high school when the first game launched and I didn’t know much about it. The only consoles I had at that time were the PS2 (the first console I ever bought with my own money), the Gamecube, and an original Xbox. I was hesitant to buy into the Xbox 360 or PS3. I figured there wouldn’t be any games I’d be interested in. A friend of mine told me I would like Assassin’s Creed, so he invited me over. I loved it so much I bought an Xbox 360 almost exclusively to play it, which was my gateway into a lot of other games I wouldn’t otherwise have played.

As much as I love the series, Assassin’s Creed 3 felt like the beginning of the end. The series’ annual cycle was starting to show its cracks, and the games were starting to feel less and less fulfilling. I first noticed something was off when storylines started being dropped for seemingly no reason. Remember in Brotherhood when Minerva name-dropped Eve? The only continuation of that plot thread was in Liberation, and then it disappeared from the series completely. Or what about the Erudito Collective? They appeared in Liberation too and played an important part in the story. The modern-day story, the connective tissue that links each game to a larger whole, had started to go nowhere. For several games, Minerva has been dicking around inside a computer doing god knows what. Nothing major has happened in the last couple of games. There have been teases of major events, sure, but nothing concrete has actually happened. I feared Ubisoft had lost its way. Unity and Syndicate showed that the series had definitely entered into a decline. While Syndicate was a step up over Unity, it was no Assassin’s Creed 2.

Then Ubisoft announced the series would be taking a break in 2016. This was a move I could get behind. I have long disliked the annual development cycle the series had adopted, and have maintained for years that a longer development cycle would lead to a better game. Assassin’s Creed Origins proved that point ten-fold. It is every bit the evolution of the series I had wanted. It brought the series into a bold new era with sweeping changes to the entire Assassin’s Creed formula. One of the most significant, and welcome, changes was the complete overhaul of the combat system. Admittedly, I was skeptical of the combat system at first, especially after having played a demo of it at E3, but after getting the game for myself, I quickly got used to the new controls. Using the trigger for combat initially felt very awkward, but I quickly adjusted and now it feels like the only way to play.

There were also some significant changes to the gameplay mechanics in general. Making a triumphant return from Unity is character customization. While Unity was by most accounts a bad game, I found the customization it offered to be among its stronger points. I was happy to see aspects of that customization make a return in Origins, though there have been some changes. Outfits are now merely cosmetic rather than functional, but there are a huge variety of weapons and shields to choose from. Players who favor long-range over close-quarters combat have a multitude of bows to choose from, while players who prefer close-quarters have a myriad array of swords, maces, daggers and spears to choose from, each with their own additional attributes and perks. This makes the game feel more personal to every player. I favor a balance of close quarters and ranged combat, and I fluctuate between going in swords blazing and stealth.

The modern-day story in Origins also feels more fulfilling and engaging than in previous titles, but still leaves a lot to be desired. I’m happy to see a controllable protagonist again instead of just relegating the modern-day to cutscenes like Unity and Syndicate, but I would have liked to see the story move forward a little more. At the very least, it’s been confirmed that Layla will return in Odyssey later this week. It’s nice to see the series return to having a modern-day story with characters and events that actually carry forward between games. My hope is that Odyssey’s modern-day builds on Origins’ and is even more engaging with massive repercussions for the series as a whole.

The extra year of development Origins received allowed the development team to expand the game in pretty significant ways. For one thing, it featured an absolutely massive world map. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the largest map the series has had to date (and Odyssey is larger still). Origins feels much bigger than previous titles, and not just in its landmass. There are actual side quests now, instead of side activities. These side quests add hours to the game’s overall length and have proved crucial in leveling up Bayek. If he confronts an enemy even just one or two levels above him, he’ll be absolutely decimated. A lot of the time, I undertake side quests just to get enough XP to level up enough to face those higher level enemies. Some of the side quests are your standard RPG fare like fetch quests, but some are genuinely engaging side stories that have helped me learn more about the world.

Speaking of the world, can we talk about how amazing a job Ubisoft did in recreating ancient Egypt? I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but it felt very real, very alive and believable, more so than previous titles in the series. One of my favorite parts of Origins was exploring the pyramids. Not only was I able to scale the outside, but I could go inside and loot the tombs. Plus, a number of those pyramids also housed an ISU message, and I do love those First Civilization moments. The pyramids were masterfully recreated, so much so that Ubisoft actually managed to include a room inside one of the pyramids that wasn’t proven to exist until after Origins was released. Ubisoft strives to maintain as much historical accuracy as possible with their games, and it definitely shows with Origins.

Another major change I liked that was added post-launch was the Discovery Tour. Admittedly I’m still going through it, but it’s cool to walk around ancient Egypt in a conflict-free setting and learn about its history, its culture, and behind the scenes insight into the game’s development. Discovery Tour sheds light on what kind of changes Ubisoft made from the established history and why those changes were made. Some changes were made to make the game more playable and easier for players to get into. What’s really cool about Discovery Tour is that it can be used in classrooms and other educational settings, and can be purchased independently of the main game, at least on PC. Now students have an excuse to play video games in school. While it likely won’t reshape the face of education, it’s still nice to be able to have an accurate and educational depiction of ancient Egypt that could be used in an educational setting. Discovery Tour is returning in Odyssey as a post-launch addition, and I’m actually excited for it.

Story-wise, Origins rewinds the series to it’s earliest point yet, telling the beginnings of the Assassin Brotherhood. What’s really refreshing here is the terms Assassin and Templar are featured nowhere in the game. The villains refer to themselves as the Order of The Ancients, and while they are a precursor to the Knights Templar with similar goals and ideals, it’s still refreshing to not have them called Templars. More importantly, Bayek’s feud with them is more personal than anything else. They are responsible for the death of his son, and Bayek and Aya seek revenge. The more members of the Order they kill, the more their lives and intentions change. By the game’s conclusion, Bayek and Aya have started The Hidden Ones, the earliest known precursor to the Assassin’s Brotherhood. In a nod to the original game, the Hidden Ones operate out of bureaus spread out across the world. Aya also adopts the name Amunet, a reference to Assassin’s Creed 2, which featured a statue of Amunet in the basement of the Auditore villa. Bayek and Aya started the brotherhood to fight injustices in the world and right the wrongs other couldn’t. They didn’t want to be recognized for their deeds, they merely wanted to help from the shadows.

Overall, Origins was a huge step forward for the series in every conceivable way. It evolved the series, threw away its conventions and mechanics and started fresh. It was almost a soft-reboot for the series. It told a story that was more personal than in games past, and it showed us the origins of the Brotherhood itself. It introduced new mechanics to the series that I hope stick around for the long haul, and it built on the mechanics it kept from previous games. With Odyssey coming out in just a few short days, I’m incredibly excited to start playing it (and not finish it for a couple more years). Heres to hoping it can match, and hopefully exceed, the achievements in Origins.

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