Assassin’s Creed Origins
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Published by: Ubisoft
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Not long ago, I used to associate the Assassin’s Creed series with the words “annual serialization” and “series fatigue.” Although I spent a number of contented weeks taking in the sights of Renaissance Italy as depicted in “Assassin’s Creed 2” (2009) and “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” (2010), my attention drifted from the series for a number of years until I was enticed by the good notices that “Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag” (2013) received. Alas, that one never got its pirate hook into me. The game’s much lauded maritime battles weren’t enough to make me warm to its protagonist and his tasks.
So I wasn’t overeager to get my gauntlets around the recently-released “Assassin’s Creed Origins.” Yet, after completing its main campaign and spending more than forty hours with it, I’ve been reminded of why the series used to regularly pin my attention. To wander across “Origins’ ” vast environments is to indulge in a historical, sci-fi fantasy whose visual opulence often made me think of David Lean’s films. No wonder there is an in-game camera feature. There are a stupefying number of visual details that invite recording. (A “Reporter” trophy is awarded for taking a photo in five different sectors.)
History is both the springboard and the plaything of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, asking players to step into the boots of a superhuman assassin and hobnob with the luminaries of a particular epoch. Setting could hardly be more important to these games, and “Origins” benefits from a fantastic one. It unfolds circa 50. B.C. during the waning decades of The Ptolemaic Kingdom, when Ptolemy XIII was locked in a power struggle with his sister, Cleopatra. For the majority of the game, players assume the role a Medjay — an elite caste of warriors sworn to prosecute Pharaonic interests — named Bayek. Circumstances conspire to launch Bayek and his wife Aya, also a Medjay, on a winding road of vengeance following the abduction and death of their young son. The perpetrators belong to a secret sect known as The Order of Ancients. Fans will recognize this sect as the forerunners to the Templars, the authoritarian cabal which, in the mythology of the series, has warred with the more liberal-minded Hidden Ones, a.k.a. Assassin Brotherhood, for over two millennia.
It appears that the designers looked toward “Dark Souls” and “The Witcher” series for inspiration. “Origins’ ” combat is less stilted than what I recall from the earlier games where opponents seemed to wait their turn to attack. The controls are structured around the familiar shield-weapon setup of “Dark Souls” and, in terms of storytelling devices, a number of Bayek’s quests require him to investigate a crime scene in a similar manner to that in “The Witcher.”
I did notice, though, that while I appreciated “Origins’ ” story, the characters broadcast their intentions to the audience in a way that runs counter to “The Witcher’s” best story lines. Overall, the quests in “Origins” are generally well constructed and a fair number of the side quests pick up on themes and characters from the main story and explore them in ways that reflect well upon the whole. I found it interesting to watch Bayek play hide-and-seek with some kids at a temple, help a woman perform a fertility ritual so she could carry a baby to term, help other parents grieve for their lost child, and fight a woman attempting to resurrect her daughter. Filial feelings pulse through this game as loud as any generational signal; it’s as if Ubisoft Montreal said: here’s a game for the parents. Who else could better understand Bayek and Aya’s unraveling as they struggle to understand what’s it’s like to not be parents?
For all the hours I have put into “Origins” there is still much that I could do. There are chariot races and a Ben-Hur trophy that I have not yet won as well as side quests for which my character is under-leveled. Naturally, for an open-world game of this size I’ve encountered a few bugs. My favorite involved a fierce underwater battle with a hippo. In any case, the occasional A.I. pathfinding mishap did not detract from the pleasure I took in visiting the Library of Alexandria, climbing over The Sphinx, sliding down the side of a pyramid, and listening to people defend and deride poets.
In “Assassin’s Creed Origins,” history and the amusement park intermix and the result is thoroughly transporting.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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