Assassin's Creed: Origins review

Emergent storytelling is, uh, good sometimes?

Like most modern Ubisoft games, Assassin's Creed: Origins wants to be all things at all times. It's an open-world assassination RPG. Stealth is key... unless you don't want it to be. In that case, it's a loot-driven action game with battles that seamlessly slide from mounted combat, to sniping foes with bows, to locked-on battles in the style of Dark Souls. Do you want fantastical 50-foot bosses? You've got it. Historical fiction not your thing? Don't worry, it's really a sci-fi story. It's all here for you to ignore or engage with at your leisure.

What sets Origins apart from the homogenous Ubisoft set—including the series' own most recent games—are the details. Which isn't to say Origins is that much more detailed than, say, the tragically mediocre Assassin's Creed: Unity. For all that game's failings, it was filled to bursting with small touches, creating the illusion of a world which turned with or without you. NPCs danced at nighttime festivals, made out in secluded alleys, and just generally lived up to a level of detail Origins exceeds, albeit not by much.

The camel seems pretty nonplussed about all this.

What's interesting about Origins, by contrast, is how those details feel ambitious, rather than compulsory. The vision of pre-collapse Egypt in which Origins takes place isn't just detailed. It's lively and connected to its lead character, Bayek, in a way that smacks of real human hands sculpting the experience, rather than a machine determining which "detailed" characters should appear when and where. If Unity felt like it was filled by some character modeling SpeedTree, then Origins feels like it was populated by people.

Case in point: I'd just guided Bayek through an enormous enemy camp. A horned helmed captain, mostly immune to Assassin's Creed's once omnipotent hidden blade, had nearly killed me for the fourth time. I ignited him with a few flaming arrows to squeeze out his last sliver of health before he took mine. But his cadre of armed friends still wasn't happy with the result of that bloody scuffle.

So I dipped—literally and figuratively. The safest way to escape was, paradoxically, a crocodile-infested lagoon that rippled translucent green at the tips of its waves. While I'm not usually the sort of reviewer who "stops to appreciate a game's graphically beauty," that particular detail took me back to summer weeks spent at lakes around Fourth of July. A second of synesthesia left me tasting the green-brown sediment in Bayek's mouth as he breast stroked through the scummy stuff.

We take for granted big box games will be visually stunning, but sometimes, oh man.

That's when a passing fisherman pulled up alongside my avatar and motioned for me to hop aboard. I'd "commandeered" wicker vessels like his to get around Origins' absolutely silly-sized map before, but no random participant in the world had ever offered me a ride—in this or basically any game I've ever played. What's more, when I took the offer and pulled Bayek aboard, the game actually had an option for me to sit down, as well as steal the craft. When I did the former, the fisherman carried me to dry land—just some random stranger in murky water that needed a lift, to his eyes.

That kind of interconnectivity pierced straight through the cynicism I felt over "yet another Assassin's Creed game.” It's present in the main story path, too. Bayek is that most common of videogame heroes, a vengeful dad, but in a slight twist he's not totally alone. His wife Aya is also a major mover in the story and the two are given time to comfort each other in their loss, between spindling corrupt politicians in the throat.

These are tiny moments in an enormous game, but by virtue of being as dense as it is wide for once, Assassin's Creed feels as alive as it wants to look. All that space no longer goes to waste.

Ah yes, the giant scorpions, just like in history class. Ah yes, the giant scorpions, just like in history class.

The same goes for the mountain of compulsory side quests and activities every open-world game demands. Origins has fully shifted away from "Batman combat," the smoother, counter-heavy fighting style popularized by Arkham Asylum, for more deliberately paced battles. You lock on, dodge, block, and attack in the aforementioned Dark Souls fashion. There's no stamina meter to worry about, though, so 90 percent of open conflicts amount to swinging your sword (or what have you) until the other guy is dead.

It's easily the weakest link in Origins' otherwise ambitious chain of systems and events. Since combat is so simple, but the world around it is so open to exploration, zones are now soft gated by Bayek's level and gear instead of plotting paths around watchful enemies.

There's just enough skill required to make it passably satisfying. Some enemies have shields that can only be broken with charged bash attacks. Archers will try to strafe outside your reach, forcing you to either save your own arrows for them, or thin them out in advance. Bigger foes like my horned friend from earlier are too tough to one-hit-kill from stealth. But these just aren't enough variables to make me worry about anything more than whether Bayek's level matched theirs.

That's where the speckling of open-world activities matter so much more now. Nearly all of them dish out XP, increasing your ability to travel Egypt safely, and most of them grant tiered equipment. New shields, bows, spears, and the like don't just make you better prepared. They also add slight variables to combat that force you to shake things up as their individual numbers get higher.

Hey! I just crafted this thing, asshole!

A predator bow might be good for sniping, for instance, but only holds six shots. That's six fewer guards surrounding a treasure chest, but the rest will need to be dealt with for free. But maybe you've got a short-range, fast-firing bow that launches burning arrows instead. That means bunny hopping around the action, kiting enemies as they burn to death, without ever needing to swing steel. Since you can't guarantee what kind of gear you'll get you can't always guarantee what play style you need to rely on next.

Having to adapt on the fly like this can be frustrating. Maybe you just don't like sniping or a mace's attack pattern. But I found myself acquiring new and better gear so rapidly, just for exploring Assassin's Creed's jam-packed world the way I've always done, that it rarely mattered for long.

Here, too, Origins leverages Ubisoft's drive to cover every base to its advantage, rather than as naked spectacle. The game doesn't just pepper in different combat schema to suit your preferences. It makes them a necessary part of the progression, so nothing ever feels too comfortable even among comfortably simple battles.

Something something leap of faith something something

I had a hard time taking in that long view of the game this year. 2017 has been a low-grade LSD trip of great games—a constant stream of colors at once more vivid than what I thought possible and so bled together that I can't remember a quarter of them. It didn't help that Origins came out on Videogame Doomsday; and lacked the built-in timely marketing of Wolfenstein 2 or Nintendo bump of Super Mario Odyssey.

That is to say: I am so very, very tired. But I'm glad I was economically obligated to finally hop back into Assassin's Creed weeks after release. It's a game that benefits from a good soaking. I can't say that I care much about the stakes of its ongoing conspiracies, or the umpteenth revenge plot I've played this year. But I enjoy being in the world and around its virtual people—scripted and otherwise—more than I have in any Assassin's Creed game since Black Flag.

Origins will be a lot of things to a lot of different kinds of players. It's engineered that way. To me, though, it's a strangely gentle escape after a nonstop ride through the year's other must-play games. And it's all thanks to the details.

Verdict: Yes