Assassin’s Creed Origins release date and news: Hands on with Ubisoft’s revamped murder romp
Memphis is a looker and Bayek is a bruiser. In a hands-on session with Assassin’s Creed Origins, I was able to sample a story mission in the ancient Egyptian city, all palm-lined waterways and errant storks. What I found was a protagonist that plays like a soldier and a game that wants to break from its formulaic trappings, often by dressing itself in other formulaic trappings, leading to improvements in some quarters but a muddled identity in others.
Ubisoft took a year off from its annual Assassin’s Creed cycle, and Origins is being pitched as a thought-out reassessment of the series. The clock has been reset all the way back to ancient Egypt, and the game comes with a new focus on RPG-style enemy levels and upgrade trees. In the section I played through, main character Bayek is tasked with investigating a holy cow that has fallen ill. Is there foul play involved? Of course there is. Bayek is a Medjay; a sort-of ancient sheriff that fits the standard detective/Witcher/Batman trope, and therefore makes short work of the crime scene with a cursory jaunt around the environment. Clues gathered and fingers pointed, he’s ready to run off to the next objective icon.
While the beats of the story mission are uninspiring, the wider world of the game is a lot of fun to romp around in. Outside of the main quest, I took Bayek on a trip to a local barracks to rescue a prisoner. Instead of segueing into the series’ Eagle Vision, our man uses the vision of an actual eagle to scope the scene and tag enemy locations. It plays much like the drone mechanic in Watch Dogs 2, but there is an amusing addition in being able to use the eagle to attack enemies. In this way, the eagle can serve as a feathery distraction while Bayek slips into place for a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Assassin’s Creed has always, somewhat ironically, treaded lightly around the stealth involved with its many murders. The oft-maligned combat of previous series tends to descend into a button-mashing brawl, with our assassin du jour leaping around 20 bodies instead of hiding in shadows like a deadly but vulnerable killer. In Origins, the combat has been revamped substantially. Bayek comes with an adrenaline meter, and fighting involves more in the way of pacing, spatial awareness and crowd control. The result is a fighting system that’s varied and fun to play, and more challenging than previous entries, but also makes Bayek feel like even less of a slippery cutthroat.
An archery mechanic goes some way to stop Bayek feeling like a complete bruiser, but whereas games like Horizon Zero Dawn balance powerful long-range attacks with weaker close-combat skills, Origins seems to want to have its power fantasy cake and eat it too. Granted, a handful of hours aren’t long enough to get a full grip on the subtleties of the game’s combat balance, but it will be interesting to whether the RPG-style progression tree results in different styles of strengths and vulnerabilities – and whether any of these actually end up in characters that feel like assassins.
Played on Xbox One X, the game looks rich with detail, and Memphis boasts a gorgeous palette of greens, blues and yellows. Ubisoft looks to have done a stellar job with creating an impression of life, with an environment bustling like humans, crocodiles and hippos. Coupled with a revamped combat system and the potential for more customisation, this could be enough to give this long-running series a new lease of life. As pretty as it all looks, however, the results so far are far from groundbreaking. In the wake of innovative RPGs such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ubisoft will need to show that its rejigged take on Assassin’s Creed is more than the sum of its parts.