For a couple of years now, being a fan of Assassin’s Creed has felt a bit like being a smoker. You’ll admit to it, but you find yourself getting defensive: ‘Yeah, I started when I was a teenager, I know it’s not great but I kind of can’t stop now. I try not to do it in front of people, though.’ It’s a relief that, with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, we might not have to be slightly embarrassed anymore. It’s still Assassin’s Creed, but it’s a new, high tech, socially acceptable version. Origins is the vaping of Ubisoft games.
Playing as Bayek feels, in many respects, similar to the assassins that came before (but technically also after) him. If you do a 180 turn he suddenly jinks on the spot, and when he does a balanced run along a wall he crouches, head low, like a slightly less aggressive chicken, just as the others did. Where you really feel the difference this time is in the combat. Fighting had gradually evolved over the series, but the core remained the same: lock onto an enemy, from a distance up to and including approx. one (1) mile, press the attack button, and your hooded miscreant would automatically close distance and start busting heads. The counter might as well have been a button labelled ‘press this to win a fight with comical ease’.
It was with this in mind that I ran towards some guards with ill-deserved confidence, and was killed within actual seconds. With the combat in Origins you have to engage brain more, making good use of an updated dodge to get out of trouble or flank a target more effectively than in the past. If you just hammer attack you’ll be more mullered than a fruit corner, but there’s an incentive to push too. If you build up a chain of attacks, keeping enemies off balance, you’ll fill up a meter for a fuck you special attack, but it burns down while you’re not attacking. The game is almost baiting you into getting cocky and making a mistake, like my giggling Dungeon Master. There are even damage numbers this time, and the different weapons actually feel different. You can break them down for parts, or craft new ones.
The change won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Bayek can’t take down an assassination target in one go, for example. But this is the story of the first assassins, and it makes sense that he’s not yet the instant death from the sky kind of protagonist we’re used to. Bayek grows his skills as an assassin over time. Similar to the progression tree in Syndicate, you can unlock new abilities as you level up, and some of them are bananas. I gained the ability to poison corpses and watched as, gradually, a village became infected from the body of a single guard lying by the shore.
The overhaul to the open world is also exciting, because it looks like Ubi is putting the C back into the NPCs for Origins. In previous AC games, if you ran past a man shovelling coal into a bucket you could come back whenever you liked and he’d still be there. Shovelling the same coal. Into the same bucket. A Groundhog Day of anthracite. Day in. Day out. Unable to move except to shovel. The poor man.
The NPCs in Origins all do stuff, a set of internal quests that are exhibited as getting up, going to work, eating, sleeping, hanging out, trying not to get stabbed. Why, they’re just like you and I! As Bayek you can commandeer boats from citizens or, if you want, just as easily sit down and go along for the ride, because darn right that guy has somewhere he needs to go. I watched a hippo fight a crocodile, and then the crocodile came after me. The only bit of Assassin’s Creed that ever felt this alive was the Thames in Syndicate, and specifically the Thames at night, when you could see all the lights on the boats moving up and down.
In Origins you can sit and idly watch farmers gathering dates, palm trees waving a bit overhead, dusty earth beneath you, water lapping in front. Some currently unfinished textures aside, it feels like effort has gone into giving Egypt a beating heart (one which will presumably be weighed against a feather at some point).
Everything in the demo interacted in ways that made sense, which is good because people bloody love mechanics. You can make fire arrows by nocking one and sticking the head into a torch. I also, accidentally, found out you can smash a floating oil jar, and trail oil through the water behind your boat. I asked the developer if I could theoretically set this trail on fire, and he said ‘Of course,’ like it wasn’t a big deal that that kind of interaction was possible in an Assassin’s Creed game, the series where previously you looted tomatoes from dead bodies and had to physically collect the songsheet for a sea shanty before your crew would learn it, even though most of them probably couldn’t even read.
The only thing I wasn’t sold on was the eagle, Senu, who was described to me as being like ‘The original eagle vision.’ Senu, despite being an actual biological bird, spots objectives with a targeting reticule, not unlike a military drone. It felt a bit out of place, though possibly forgivable if then you can upgrade Senu to fire rockets out of his gaping beak. I’d forgive it for less than that if the full game is as good as the preview demo. It’s just nice to be unashamedly excited for Assassin’s Creed again.