If you’ve read this blog for a while – I am shocked by the fact that I’ve owned this domain for almost twenty years, just quietly – then you’ll know that I’m something of a fan of a bit of period neck-stabbing action. You know, the Assassin’s Creed series, aka Ubisoft’s procession of Conspiracy Woo and Historical Shoulder-Charging Simulator games.
At one point, I played all of the games in a row on my PS3 – from the first up to the then-new(ish – I have a backlog) AC IV: Black Flag. I had a bit of a break then, because there’s only so much assassination you can stand in a row. But, like everyone else, I was pretty solid on the fact that the second game and Black Flag were pretty much tied for the title of favourite.
That was until I got my hidden blade into Origins. Or, rather, it got its talons into me.
You see, this game is set in Egypt. Not super-ancient Egypt – the pyramids are already built and looted at this point – but Ptolemaic Egypt. The Egypt of Cleopatra, of Greek and Egyptian stoushes, or Roman incursion. Strictly BCE, yo.
It’s also before the establishment of the Assassins, as they exist in the rest of the series canon. As you’d expect from the title, Origins seeks to explain how the organisation came into being. And there’s a simple answer: through grief.
You play (mostly) Bayek of Siwa (excellently voiced by Abubakar Salim), a medjay who is a part of a long-vanished Pharaonic police force. He’s basically a Good Cop, wandering around the sands attempting to help right wrongs. The most egregious wrong he’s attempting to remedy – or at least repay – is the murder of his son, Khemu. A cohort of masked fuckwits punch on with the guy, ending in a rogue stab ending the boy’s life after neither he nor Bayek can help them figure out how to use one of the AC series’ cornerstones, a golden orb of unfeasible power.
This is set in motion a period of wandering. We come in as Bayek, bearded and grimy in a sandy tomb, hunts down one of the individuals on his list and sends them to the Duat. This revenge – leavened by side-missions of a more throwaway nature – is what drives the game for the most part. Aya, Bayek’s wife, spends this hunting period in the service of Cleopatra: her grief at the death of the couple’s son drives her passion to make a change. Through her, we battle on the sea and land in exchanges that will move the queen to the throne. Aya provides the political perspective, Bayek the everyday.
And both of them are driven by grief, almost completely. They have tender moments together – I’m of the opinion that they’re the most rounded characters yet to appear in an AC instalment, which is brilliant when you consider that the pair are also not the usual white-dude-in-a-cowl central figure that’s so common in the series – but grief ultimately rears its head, either in flashback or in anxiety. It’s something that will lead them to surrender themselves to the establishment of the Assassins, as a bulwark against the sort of jockeying that led to the death of their son, and it’s poignant and understandable.
(There is still a modern-day story in this game, but it’s tacked on at best. This is a good thing, because let’s face it: nobody’s given a shit about the whole modern day corporate espionage/Matrix-lite stuff since Desmond snuffed it. It’s there because it has to be, but the real game is about what happens in the past.)
If you’ve played other games in the series, you’d notice that some of the key mechanics have changed. The fighting system is perhaps the most obvious: it seems that the game’s moved to a hitbox-based system, with uninterruptable fight moves a common part of the game. This takes a little getting used to, but when you figure how to approach different types of enemies, it makes things a lot easier to cheese. Also, everything is visibly levelled now, in a move which makes the game more like an RPG: enemies display levels above their heads if viewed from above by your feathered friend Senu (yes, Eagle vision was replaced by a literal eagle) and anyone who’s two levels or more above your own is likely to hand you your arse. Some enemies just have skulls above their head, an indicator that yes you will die and most likely today no matter how hard you flog ’em with your sword, no matter how many arrows you fire.
The levelling system is pretty simple – it’s based on grinding enough to be able to take on missions. You can pretty safely attempt anything that’s up to two levels above your ranking – sneaking about helps, as assassinations mostly work up to that level of disparity – and practically everything you do leads to XP. It is frustrating to have whole parts of the map off-limits until you’ve ground your way through the XP requirements – you can still go there, but it’s likely a hippo will fuck your shit up in a massively-OP way – but it’s not a deal-breaker. What it does mean, though, is that if you play like I do – opening up all viewpoints and unfogging the map as first order of business – by the time you get back to playing through the main story missions you’ll probably be massively overpowered, rendering things a lot easier.
Crafting and skill trees make a reappearance in this game, too. Gear upgrades are really the only thing that’s crafted – and you’ll want to, as they’re directly tied to the strength with which you can wield melee weapons, or the ferocity with which you can fire arrows. Skills are broadly grouped into three types – fighter, hunter and seer – and offer perks to your fighting style, ranging from additional ammo slots for bows, to the ability to break through bulkier baddies’ defences. It’s serviceable and works, but I couldn’t help but think that a badarse medjay would’ve already known all of this stuff, particularly given how long he’d been on a mission to kill some masked scumbags.
There’s a new challenge in the game this time around, too – astronomy. Harking back to some earlier instalments’ puzzle sections, these moments of reminiscence let us eavesdrop between Bayek and Khemu in times past, as Bayek explains constellations to his offspring. It’s not difficult stuff, but it grounds the game further in the cosmology of the period, and was an example of a puzzle deepening the narrative rather than padding out the gameplay.
The game also features some arena sections that, thankfully, aren’t mandatory beyond their introductory excursions. There’s a fully-fledged Ben-Hur-style racing ladder, which sees you sideswipe opponents (and get dragged behind your chariot for crotch-shreddingly tense moments) as well as a wave-based series of gladiatorial beatdowns. You can make cash and earn prestige here, and though there’s undoubtedly trophies to be had by seeing all of these activities through to the end, I appreciated that they weren’t things I was forced to do. I wish more devs would pay attention to that: acknowledging that racing games aren’t why people play AC games (but including them if you like ’em because hey, why not?) is a good move.
But for all the talk of mechanics, it’s the location that drives this game. It’s well researched, though mostly speculative as though we know a lot about particular parts of this period in Egyptian history, there’s a lot of stuff that just isn’t recorded. But there’s a unity of vision that’s remarkable: more than most of the other games in the series, this feels like a living world: one where being in the sands too long can fry your brain into hallucination, where the Nile’s level determines whether you live another year, where the gods walk alongside man. It’s a wonderland of pyramids, tombs and stelae. I remember, when a kid, seeing a National Geographic story about tomb interiors and that part of me got a thrill when I noticed the roof of that same tomb, in-game, featured the same golden stars on a lapis-lazuli sky.
(The game features a pretty great educational tour mode, as well, where you can learn about the setting and the times. I’ve not explored this too deeply, but it’s a wonderful example, particularly given how much incidental history is taught over the course of an AC game. More games set in Real Places should do this kinda thing. There’s also an enhanced photo mode because all games need to have one of those these days, it seems – I did manage to take some goofy shots, though the game doesn’t allow you to easily share them without taking another PS4 screenshot so… yeah, nah for implementation there, folks.)
(I don’t know exactly where to work it into this review, but there’s some great examination of whether the game has portrayed Egyptians of the period truthfully as far as complexion goes, over here. It’s lengthy, but considered, and well worth a look.)
One thing that was strange with this instalment was that I wasn’t as won over by the whole secret history narrative, particularly as it related to political angling between Greek, Egyptian and Roman forces. There was an adequate sense of oppression for Bayek and Aya to work against, but it seemed little more involved than that, really. Which I guess is fine, because the world of the game is enthralling and enough to be going on with – but it was a little odd given how much weight is given to the historical narrative in the series. Of course, they played up familiar stereotypes – vampy Cleopatra was never pictured without serious sideboob (even though it’s a load of shit to do that) – but I just found I wasn’t particularly interested in the political machinations. I guess dead orators pale in comparison to dead children.
The main game’s story was a bit shaggy, but I was happy enough to keep ploughing through the locations to reach the end, such was my involvement and affection for the setting. There’s always more animals to hunt, more wrecks to dive, more tombs to uncover. As a focus, Bayek is a pretty endearing – and wry – character, and both his and Aya’s quest for peace is affecting. As an origin story, it’s serviceable, and plugs some holes, but when the world you explore is this interesting, it doesn’t matter.
Additional DLC pushes playtime out by another 20 hours or so, and adds further locations – Sinai and the Valley of the Kings – to the world. The Hidden Ones takes place after the Assassins’ establishment, and sees Bayek enmeshed in a campaign against the Sinai branch of the vigilantes. It’s more of the same, but doesn’t feel like a retread.
The real DLC gold is in the Curse of the Pharaohs expansion, which borrows from Hollywood tropes and features malevolent undead rulers beating down hapless citizens of Thebes and surrounds. It was like catnip for me and felt like some kind of adventure film: Bayek tries to discover the conspiracy that’s causing the returns from the dead and ends up going to the land of the dead himself.
Yep, this is as fantastical as AC has ever gone. There’s different iterations of the land of the dead – the Duat, the Aten (from monotheistic Akhenaten’s reign) and more. And they’re brilliant – fields of reeds through which golden barges plough, or desolate sands peppered with enormous stone heads. Giant, luminous lotuses unfurl in a night’s breeze. An enormous beast skull rises in the landscape. It’s a trip, and it’s delightful, particularly in the end run of a game as long as this one.
(Of course, the whole sections set in the afterlife are perhaps the most obvious divergence from the you’re-in-a-simulation part of the game series. Your compatriot in the real world doesn’t figure in any of the DLC – it’s Bayek only. And even he knows that excursions into variants of the Egyptian afterlife are perhaps a bridge too far for even simulated reality. So he confesses to a priestess that he entered the Duat in his mind only – but hey, let’s roll with it.)
I didn’t finish the whole game, of course. As I’ve written before, I can become blinkered in pursuit of achieving all the things. I did, of course, visit every location, and completed them all. Hell, I even fought the boss elephants – something of a moot point when I’d reached the level cap and had continued to buff my skills beyond it several degrees – but there was some stuff I couldn’t be arsed completing, namely the chariot and gladiatorial ladders, and some earn-this-display-only-armour-by-defeating-activity-bosses-over-several-rounds events. But I felt that I’d had a decent dose of story among the busywork. I didn’t feel like I was grinding needlessly, and that there was always something remarkable just around the corner.
I felt like I was part of a world. A real, living, worshipping world. And isn’t that what we really want from games? That sense of being engrossed, enfolded in what’s created? Mission accomplished, Ubisoft.
Now, it’s a year after Origins‘ release. There’s another AC game, Odyssey, out. It’s set in Greece, and looks to be more of the same. I’d read online that it seems less open, attitude-wise than Origins, but I’ll be keen to check it out after I’ve decompressed from the hundred-odd hours I spent with Bayek over the past few weeks. But if it’s even half as good as Origins, I’m definitely interested.
TLDR? If you’re even vaguely interested in either Egypt or in what happens when a triple-A title makes someone other than a white dude the focus of attention, you should give this game a whirl. It’s great, and I loved practically every part of it. Maybe you will, too.