If Ross and Rachel taught us anything, it’s that ‘taking a break’ usually doesn’t end well. Yet that’s exactly what Assassin’s Creed did last year after interest waned in Ubisoft’s action-packed stealth franchise. Even though Syndicate avoided the cavalcade of bugs and frustrations that beset Unity, it still had something missing: some kind of focus amidst a sprawl of towers and icons.
Assassin’s Creed Origins aims to change all that with a slew of new mechanics and tweaks familiar ones. From combat to exploration, Origins feels very much like the game fans have been so sorely waiting for. But is that enough to reignite the franchise? We got hands-on with the latest Assassin’s Creed at E3 2017.
Welcome to Egypt
The last time we fell head over heels for an Assassin’s Creed game was 2013’s Black Flag. Why? Pirates. Any excuse to man the rigging, batten down the hatches and enjoy a good, old fashioned spot of treasure hunting is alright by us. That’s why we’re so excited for Rare’s upcoming Sea of Thieves.
Basically, what we’re getting at here is that setting is crucial to the AC univese, and with the ancient Egypt-themed Origins Ubisoft is onto an absolute winner. Pyramids. Sphinxes. Tutankhamun. The possibilities for hero Bayek are both myriad and genuinely exciting. A Medjay (a.k.a. Egyptian mega-soldier) blessed with a fearsome array of lethal talents, his story will take in the formation of the perennial Assassins versus Templars struggle.
From what we’ve played so far, that’s an exciting prospect. Even if Bayek himself rigidly adheres to the brooding hero archetype we’ve seen countless times already.
No more towers
The fun of an Assassin’s Creed game has never been in following through its story, but transforming its perilous open-world into your very own playground. Albeit one that’s full of knives, spears and Hookblade-enabled thrills. Our demo with Origins was split into two distinct sections with the first taking place in a small town which we rode into on horseback before coming across a nasty priest who was beating his slave for supposedly losing two golden idols.
Despite the mission’s flimsy setup, it did give us that chance to indulge in Origins' all-new scouting technique: eagle. Yup, rather than climbing up towers to suss out his surroundings, Bayek can summon a bird of prey to do the job for him by marking out enemies and handing you the opportunity to quietly dispatch them. Having found the idols on two nearby boats, we leapt off the town’s pier with the most stealthy of intentions.... before we were accosted by a hippo and leapt out of the water in sheer panic.
Truly, Ubisoft has built a world here that’s alive with both peril and possibility. Whether it holds up to the likes of Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn remains to be seen. The bar for open world games right now is ridiculously high.
Having returned the golden idols and slain that nefarious slave-beating priest for good measure, our demo switched to a different arena entirely: a gladiatorial one. Assassin’s Creed’s combat mechanics have been completely revamped for Origins with light and heavy attacks mapped to your right-hand triggers, and a shield-based block placed on the top-left trigger. Basically, the franchise now has Dark Souls-style controls.
While these changes are supposed to allow for more fluid, varied fights, we found the experience a tad awkward. Yes, there’s less hack and slash fare and a greater reliance on blocks and counterattacks, but this didn’t translate into anything that set our pulse racing. In a dust-strewn arena filled with rotating spiked poles and a litany of armoured brutes to contend with, we spent too much time scrambling to stay alive than realising our dreams as a warrior to be feared.
Although familiarity should ensure our future AC endeavours aren’t quite so strewn with death screens, we can’t imagine returning to Origins’ gladiatorial segments in a hurry again.
Assassin's Creed Origins initial verdict
Having spent about half an hour with Assassin’s Creed Origins, it’s clear that its year off has been well-spent. This isn’t Syndicate with a different setting and a facelift, but a whole new game entirely. One that does a lot to address the many foibles that have turned fans off AC titles in the recent past.
Even though Egypt offers up a lot to uncover and fresh means for Bayek to go about his deadly business, we’re not entirely convinced by Origins so far. In a year that’s set a new standard for open world games, Assassin’s Creed Origins seems more concerned with fixing up its past issues than establishing a new legacy altogether. We’ll see whether its that's actually the case come the game’s release on 27 October 2017.