“They’re just scavenger hunts,” my friend says. He’s dismissing big-budget open-world AAA games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins. He’s explaining why he doesn’t play them. I’m explaining why he’s totally missing out.
“Well, sure,” I agree. “But the idea is they’re scavenger hunts in really cool places. Imaginative places where you want to spend time. The scavenger hunt is disguised as gameplay, and it’s your reason for being there. The real point of the game is the place, the worldbuilding.”
Many many hours later, I will come to rue these words. Or will I?
Assassin’s Creed: Origins is Ubisoft at its best and at its worst. The ancient Egypt they’ve built is nothing short of breathtaking for its detail, expanse, aesthetic, and sheer splendor. And it damn well better be, because it’s pretty much all there is to this game.
A well-made open world game will pepper its open world with a variety of things to do and reasons to do them. But for some weird reason, this loveliest of all Assassin’s Creeds is where Ubisoft decided to pare down the gameplay. Of all the times to leave out a homestead to develop, or a villa to improve, or a trading operation to run, or a pirate ship to level up, or territory to conquer, or gangs to recruit. What’s left is a game about going to a waypoint. This breathtaking ancient Egypt is just something that slides gorgeously under you while you’re on your way to stab someone. Ghost Recon: Wildlands all over again, where a breathtaking Bolivia slides gorgeously under you while you’re on your way to shoot someone.
Ubisoft has built Assassin’s Creed: Origins almost exclusively around the idea of gear churn. Get stuff to get stuff, but don’t get attached to stuff because you’re about to get more stuff. The moment you open your inventory, you can see it’s got Destiny all up in it. The interface is built around settling on your favorite weapons, hopefully rares and then legendaries. Occasionally you muck around to improve your armor, which passes for crafting. Big fat numbers, ever upward and upward, make the decisions easy once you’ve settled on the type of gun you want. Did I say gun? I meant swords and whatnot. The dual swords? The club? The big-ass axe? The sickle sword? The spear? Keep the one with the highest level and break the others down for crafting mats. Oh, wait, are you attached to one of the weapons you already found? Maybe the one Ubisoft gave your pre-ordering? That’s okay, they knew this might happen. Just spend resources to upgrade it. Where the gear churn stops, the money sink starts. Did I mention the loot crates?
This inventory screen is the hub of the game. The level of your weapons, which are gated by your level, which is gated by the parts of the world you’ve finished quests in. Again, it’s got Destiny all up in it. But Destiny rushed you through it all so you could start grinding light levels, running pell mell, back and forth across the same maps, ad infinitum. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is similarly open-ended, as you’ll note by the bottomless wells at the tips of the skill tree. And in case you missed that, when the story ends, you unlock the option to convert gold directly into experience points to pour into those bottomless wells. But Assassin’s Creed: Origins draws out the leveling process to accompany the storyline (mind the gap around level 30, where the story sits and twiddles its thumbs waiting for you to grind a few levels to catch up). It’s Destiny, but with the endgame grind built into the game.
The Destiny comparison doesn’t need to be a slight. Destiny’s MMO and RPG trappings are pared down because it knows you’re here for gunplay, and no one does gunplay like Bungie. But Assassin’s Creed: Origin’s MMO and RPG trappings feel pared down because Destiny was such a hit, not because the combat is a good enough foundation for the game. Ubisoft’s animations are as lovely as their world, but the actual combat is mostly a matter of spamming the attack button and occasionally rolling out of the way. You don’t fight a battle so much as admire the animators’ hard work (conspicuously missing dismemberment effects, for some reason). This is certainly enjoyable, but not much of a game. It’s in marked contrast to games with combat as hardy as their worldbuilding: Volition’s Agents of Mayhem, Monolith’s Shadow of War, Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight, Avalanche’s Mad Max. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series has always been reluctant for its combat to be anything other than a spectator sport.
Actually, Assassin’s Creed: Origins is willing to push back, but only with geography. Different areas have different level ranges, a la World of Warcraft. If you try to get ahead of wherever the story has situated the power curve, you’ll get some pushback. Get too far ahead, and you’ll get a nasty shove. Once things start conning red, you’re not supposed to be here. Go grind up a level or two. And this isn’t just because things have more hit points. Ubisoft effectively turns off some of the gameplay by making it impossible to assassinate targets that aren’t within a certain range of your level. This leaves you a pretty narrow gameplay Goldilocks zone. Those Roman soldiers in Alexandria are like fighting cornstalks. Those Roman soldiers in Apollonia are just quick ways to force a reload. But the Roman soldiers in Memphis are just right. Hope you like playing in Memphis for a while! It doesn’t matter what you fight. It only matters where you fight it.
The story is as bad as it’s ever been. Ubisoft’s writers continue to demonstrate an inability to distinguish between badass and douchebag, passion and volume, or heartfelt and hackneyed. They continue to think their hastily erected and even more hastily torn down cardboard villains are an effective motivation. This story leans on dead kids a lot because, you know, everyone hates when kids get dead. It furthermore manages to both sideline and undercut a strong black female character. Aya is the main character’s wife. She loiters in the wings tantalizingly throughout the game. She teases the possibility of becoming a playable character by showing up for quick sequences. Then she gets some godawful dialogue about assassins and creeds and “poets of the kill”. She talks into the camera and flips her hood up. Ubisoft thinks this is a money shot, because now the game is over. If you want to finish scraping Ubistuff off the map, go back to playing the character who isn’t her. Remember Aveline? I do. Ubisoft apparently doesn’t.
So the story has ended and now you can now go anywhere. The combat is trivial and you’ve got all the weapons you want. Your upgraded quivers hold plenty of arrows for your four bows. You’ve got more smoke bombs and fire grenades than you’ll ever need, assuming you remember to even use them. And you have discovered the origins of this idea that “assassins” have a “creed”.
Time to move on to another game?
Oddly enough, if you accept that maybe this lovely ancient Egypt is worth admiring just a little longer, Assassin’s Creed: Origins eases into a sort of post-game retiree stage. There are a few puzzles baked into the map and a handful of collectibles to complete. There are rumors of four beasties that need killing, like the Spanish treasure galleons at the end of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. You can visit all the question marks on the map to reveal locations of no gameplay consequence, but they’ll probably be plenty pretty. I recommend spending some time in the desert, because…well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll say that Silicon Knights would be proud. The traversal is certainly gratifying, so why not traverse some more? Why not parkour around some of history’s least parkourable geography or ride a horse with cruise control and a built-in bird’s eye view of some of the loveliest scenery you’ll see in a videogame? Why not think of Assassin’s Creed: Origins as a lovely and chill sightseer sim? It only took about forty hours of game tax to get here, but you’ve earned it.
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