When you need to see the bigger picture, sometimes it's best to return to your roots. Assassin's Creed Origins takes this thinking to heart and steps into the seamless and dynamic open world of ancient Egypt. Although this move shows glimmers of a brighter future for the series, it also becomes clear that its core gameplay and presentation have some difficulties keeping up with the newfound pace and scale.
Blurring the lines between prequel and sequel, Assassin's Creed Origins takes us back to the beginning of the Assassin Brotherhood, while also laying the groundwork for a new present-day storyline. Set during the time of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, you take on the role of Bayek, a Medjay ranger who embarks on a quest for revenge against a mysterious order that pre-dates the Templars. Crossing paths with historical figures such as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Bayek travels through the dense and varied lands of Northern Africa. He'll sneak, loot, and stab key figures in the social and political worlds of Egypt, leading to several unforeseen consequences for the future of the Kingdom, right up to present day events.
While references to significant characters and events from other games are present, they take a backseat to the parallel narratives of Origins, particularly to that of Bayek and his companions as they lay the foundations of their creed in Egypt. Bayek himself is a major influence in the world, thoughtful of others and his surroundings. Despite facing tragedy, he isn't shy about breaking the tension with a joke or sharing a tender moment with loved ones. While he's steadfast in his resolve to take revenge against those who wronged him, he's always willing to help those in need.
Origins makes good on the potential of its setting, showing off a clash of ideologies and cultures during Ptolemaic Egypt, and giving it life in a number of surprising ways. In its 30 hour main story, you'll travel across Egypt and meet different allies and enemies with their own agendas. While some locations share a few too many similarities in style and general landscape--and others are frustratingly sparse with content and activity--Egypt overall is vibrant and lush, giving a strong sense of life within it.
From the flocks of birds that rise in unison while running through marshlands, to the crocodiles that pluck sailors off their boats as they float across rivers--Assassin's Creed Origins displays vivid details of a world in action, and houses several unique AI systems that play off each other. In one instance, you could find yourself raiding a camp, and which suddenly come under attack by groups of angry hippos from the nearby lake. Egypt is impressively dense in the more populated cities and towns, convincingly realized through a clear attention to detail, and is one of the series' finest achievements.
Playing through Bayek's journey is surprisingly educational, making each event and landmark--even the gladiator arenas and chariot race tracks--an opportunity to learn more about the setting and period. From general chatter of crowds in Alexandria, to the various notes and logs found from points of interests and bandit camps, you'll come to learn quite a lot about the past ages of Egypt, what led to the "present" state of its Ptolemaic rule, and the cause of the social strife throughout. Showing instances of culture clash between Greco-Roman and Egyptian influences, the core narrative and side-stories are engaging and feel meaningful, tackling issues of racism, colonialism, and the systemic misogyny of the times.
This is especially relevant to Bayek, who is himself an outsider in many of the locations he travels to, and as a result witnesses some of the abuse firsthand. Origins deftly handles its overall tone despite this by balancing moments of heartbreak and earnestness--such as quests dealing with greedy landowners poisoning lower-class citizens--with moments of levity, like when Bayek helps out local children in cities by performing parkour tricks.
Unfortunately, several technical hiccups and bugs crop up--which disrupt the flow of the experience. During our playthrough of the Xbox One X and PS4 versions, instances of texture pop-in, noticeable framerate dips during cutscenes and gameplay, and odd graphical issues while exploring and interacting with other characters detracted from impactful moments and events. These issues unfortunately persist throughout, slightly dragging down the otherwise incredible setting.
Moving steadily away from the somewhat identical formula of past Assassin's Creed games--where you gradually move out to different hub areas and tackle largely isolated missions--Origins gives you a greater level of freedom and agency in a more seamless world, where you can take part in activities at your leisure. With each region possessing several points of interest, veering off the path to find sights unseen can yield valuable loot, history about the world, and other secrets that tie into something greater.
Alongside introducing a new open setting, Origins overhauls one of the series' other major gameplay pillars: combat. Trading steel with enemies now feels more active and involved thanks to its dynamic strikes and real-time blocking and parrying. While certain traces of the series' group-oriented action remain, combat focuses more on smaller skirmishes where you pick your moments and strike at the right time. Moreover, ranged combat has also been improved, adding greater maneuverability and accuracy, including a useful slow-mo aim while leaping through the air. Though this new approach to combat initially feels like an improvement all around--making battles more engaging and involved--some of these changes give rise to problems that can make them a drag.
While combat is solid when fighting a limited number of foes, things quickly turn south when more enemies are added into the mix, as the mechanics are designed for more intimate engagements. This becomes especially problematic with a lock-on camera that follows the action far too closely, turning battles that could be tactical and fierce into disorienting and clumsy encounters. In some cases, it felt better fighting without lock-on enabled to better keep track of what's going on.
This clumsiness is even present in the stealth system, which is more awkward than in past games. Somehow, slower and deliberate movement can feel unreliable due to controls that are less accurate and unresponsive. In some instances while sneaking and climbing, Bayek can hitch onto ledges and other objects when he gets close enough, frequently resulting in accidental exposure to enemies. Sneaking is undermined by these inconsistencies, whether it comes from enemies seeing through objects, or instances where AI partners routinely walk into danger. Stealth is often more of a hassle than it's worth, making it one of Origins' weakest aspects.
Assassin's Creed Origins attempts to blend the established stealth-action elements with the mechanics of an action-RPG, but these two halves don't always coalesce. By including stat-building and a loot grind, it creates needless level-gating for areas of the map. This results in time spent grinding to acquire vital skills and resources--and in the broader sense can feel like artificial padding. This, in turn, conflicts with the fantasy of being a skillful assassin who uses his resources and wits to maneuver through enemy hideouts. It can be quite jarring spending the time sneaking up to elite enemies, and then finding out your hidden blade won't work for an assassination due to it being underpowered.
While Assassin's Creed Origins reaches great heights in this new setting, it routinely runs into issues that bog down the overall experience. Technical issues make for an inconsistent experience and its new gameplay pillars wobble under the weight of its systems. But despite this, the world of Origins remains fresh and exciting to explore, which is a testament to the remarkable setting and compelling story. Assassin's Creed has undergone many changes in its long and storied history, and Origins feels like the first step in the start of a new journey. It has its fair share of problems, but the vision for its future is one worth pursuing.