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Ubisoft Open World Action Stealth game #17

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    Assassin’s Creed Origins

    Rating: 2.5 – Playable

    Ubisoft Open World Action Stealth game #17

    The first Assassin’s Creed was one of the surprise hits of the last generation. It combined innovative new parkour gameplay with accessible stealth and combat, along with dual-narratives of historical action-adventure alongside a modern thriller of secret societies battling it out in the shadows. It was quickly followed by the bigger and better sequel, Assassin’s Creed 2, which improved and expanded on the original in every way. Assassin’s Creed 2 went on to be not just the best game in the entire series, but one of the best games of the last decade.

    Ubisoft’s response to the success of the franchise was controversial, to say the least. They began setting up multiple teams to work on concurrent projects and developed yearly releases. They wanted to sell you something with the Assassin’s Creed label on it every year, no matter what. They milked the Ezio plot lines as much as they could; they made two whole games based on the naval combat minigame from Assassin’s Creed 3. Plotlines were stretched thin, creative vision wavered, and people went from making games because they had a story to tell, to making up a story because they had a game to sell. This culminated with the bug-filled Assassin’s Creed Unity and utterly forgettable Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, before Ubisoft announced they’d be taking a break and rethinking the series.

    Assassin’s Creed Origins is the revamp and new direction for the series Ubisoft promised. No one was really sure what that was going to mean; it turns out it means copying the design of The Witcher 3 and slapping an Assassin’s Creed skin on it. So now Ubisoft has gone from setting trends to chasing them, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the results aren’t exactly great either.

    Assassin’s Creed Origins takes the series back to ancient Egypt, just before the dawn of the common era, during the last days of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the beginnings of Roman rule. The setting is a bit of a surprise as every game has inched the series closer to the modern era, so a sudden 2000 year jump back in time is quite a change of pace. The game claims to tell the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood; this is inherently a retcon. We already know how the Brotherhood came to be, this was told in the very first Assassin’s Creed game. Still, it’s a forgivable retcon because the era and place in history is just too compelling to ignore. Featuring such legendary historical figures such as Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and amazing historical locations such as the city of Alexandria with it’s great library and lighthouse, and the pyramid of Khufu at Giza. It’s too bad the story is pretty ho-hum to match.

    Previous Creed titles weaved a fictional story with real historical figures and events, often with surprising nods to real life. Assassin’s Creed 2 involved numerous real-life events, such as the Pazzi conspiracy and the assassinations of the Doge of Venice, and even made the notorious Pope Alexander VI the main villain. Later games have faltered at this sort of storytelling, either finding it too difficult to fit into real events, or not caring enough to bother. These games have taken on a ¡°Magic Schoolbus¡± feeling to their historical narrative, where a famous figure from history pops up out of nowhere, practically saying ¡°Hi, I’m the famous so-and-so!¡± and then give you some half-assed side quest. Origins is no different in this regard, giving us a totally generic revenge tale peppered with famous historical figures who are completely wasted in it. How do you take a story and with someone as legendary as Cleopatra and make it this dull? Furthermore, past titles in the series have at least included some kind of in-game archive which would give you the background and context on the game’s historical setting, but that’s missing from Origins. The game doesn’t bother to tell you what the Sarapeum is, or who the Ptolemies were, because it doesn’t seem to think you will care.

    You play as Bayek, an Egyptian ¡°Medjay,¡± another concept the game does a poor job of explaining. It’s implied the Medjay were bodyguards to the Pharaohs, but historically they were also police, priests, and mercenaries. In any case, the game begins with Bayek murdering some mysterious masked figures, for reasons that don’t become clear right away. It turns out to be a basic story of revenge, but the In Media Res storytelling style suits the game poorly. The game asks the player to care deeply about an event they don’t even witness for several hours into the story, about a character they’ve barely known or seen. It’s the kind of assumed empathy that’s the result of sacrificing story for gameplay’s sake. You can almost see the boardroom at Ubisoft, pitching the idea of an extended intro scene to establish an emotional connection with the main character, and have a more compelling story. Then the business guys immediately veto the idea because it would be ¡°too boring¡± and they want the player to ¡°get right into the action.¡±

    One other game that made this mistake was Dishonored, where the game expects you to care deeply about a person who is murdered mere seconds after you meet them. Meanwhile, another recent release that took the opposite approach was Horizon: Zero Dawn, which allowed the player to see the main character from an early age and come to identify with her struggles, which worked to great effect in that game’s story.

    Bayek also falls into the problem of being the same kind of direct, earnest, and oddly introspective ¡°wise minority character¡± that affected Connor, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed 3. Bayek just can’t seem to stop talking down to everyone about how they’re supposed to act and behave, something previous Creed protagonists never did, other than Connor. The story clearly portrays him as a moral exemplar that isn’t really earned. It makes Bayek oddly schizophrenic, where he goes from being filled with rage for revenge in one scene to lecturing everyone on morals and good behavior in one side quest after another. Whether it’s telling husbands not to drink or telling hunters how to hunt, Bayek is always just the smartest and most superior character in the room. In any other story this kind of behavior would be a setup for a lesson in humility (including several past Creed titles), but in Origins such a lesson is never forthcoming.

    The other problem with the game’s story is the framing narrative. Like all other titles in the series, Origins features a dual narrative where someone in modern times is experiencing Bayek’s life via a device called the Animus. Ubisoft has seemed to shy away from this part of the story ever since Desmond’s tale ended, with each game minimizing its impact further and not even giving us a name or a face for the character. Origins reverses this trend with the first new modern era protagonist with an actual name and backstory; unfortunately this character has an arrogant, abrasive, grating personality which makes them instantly unlikable. Ubisoft has always teased the idea of a fully present-day Creed game, and in this reviewer’s opinion if they tried to lead such a game with this character, it would be awful. It’s rather telling they chose to hide this character from all the marketing and pre release materials, essentially sneaking them into the game by stealth.

    As mentioned earlier, Origins revamps much of the classic Creed gameplay mechanics, but does so mostly by aping The Witcher 3, with a smattering of Ubisoft’s own Far Cry mechanics. First and foremost, almost all original aspects of the series’ gameplay mechanics have been reduced to mere vestiges or eliminated entirely. Gone is the whole concept of ¡°social stealth,¡± there are no crowds to hide in. Instead you have a bog-standard stealth system of crouch-walking behind low walls and hiding in tall grass. Gone entirely is the innovative control scheme which gave you different types of actions depending on whether you wanted to attract attention or not; there’s no longer any such thing as ¡°high profile¡± or ¡°low profile¡± actions. Combat has been gutted and turned into a generic action-RPG, complete with levels, stats, equipment drops, and MMO-style leveled zones. Gone is the ability to use the Hidden Blade as a distinct item, it’s now just the prop for stealth takedowns, like the machete in Far Cry 3. Gone are the chain kills, combo kills, and double-assassination moves, replaced mostly by button mashing and enemy HP bloat. Gone are the wealth-generation and district-takeover mechanics, replaced by endless fetch quests. Gone is most of the focus on parkour; while you can still climb most buildings, there is hardly ever a need to do so, and the concept of the smooth parkour run has been totally cut from the environmental design. Lastly, gone is most of the need to ever actually use stealth at all, even as an optional objective; most missions don’t even mention it, and there are no scenarios where an elaborate assassination needs to be scouted, planned, and executed.

    Assassin’s Creed Origin mostly occupies your time with roaming around the huge map, exploring (?) zones, and heading to (!) quest givers for side quests. Horseback (or camel) riding is the main mode of travel, with a handy autopilot mode that steers the horse for you if you want. Most points of interest contain a few enemies to fight and a treasure or two to find, along with an XP reward for completing it. Sidequests dot the map, and are almost always about travelling to a nearby point and killing something or collecting an item. Each of these gives you experience points to level up, so you can approach higher level quests, and level up more. None of this is inherently bad, it’s just not all that compelling. The previous Creed games have always struggled with stretching out the series’ combat mechanics with a power progression. After all, it’s hard for a new sword or dagger to matter that much when every counter attack is an instant kill. The first game had a mere three weapon upgrades; the second game had over a dozen, along with armor. Every game since has filled out an endless list of marginally different weapons, items, and collectables, with minimal combat improvements from each one. Origins takes this idea to its ultimate conclusion with an abstract leveling system–including leveled gear and enemies. Now when you find a level 14 sword at level 13, you’re inexplicably prevented from using it. Moreover, the guards on one side of road might be level 10 while the same-looking guards on the other side are level 20, making them beyond your reach. Not even the hidden blade and stealth can help you defeat higher level opponents, as stealth kills fail on superior targets.

    The combat in Origins is brand new, and fairly simple. You perform light attacks with the R1 button, heavy attacks with the R2 button, and block by holding L1. Sound familiar? At least there’s no stamina meter. You can lock on to enemies to circle around them while dodging or countering their attacks. The counter move is now a shield parry and isn’t very important for the combo system. There’s a wide variety of weapons including era-appropriate swords, axes, hammers, staves, and spears; and all of them can be used from horseback. The mounted combat in particular handles fairly well, it’s easy to control your horse and perform quick blitzes and charge attacks. Bows are available too, and they come in different types which seem to oddly mirror modern weapons. There’s the standard Hunter bow, but also a Warrior bow (fires a blast of arrows like a shotgun), Light bow (rapid fire like a semi-auto pistol), and the Predator bow (a silenced sniper rifle).

    The main problem with the combat is how formulaic it is. Assassin Creed games have never been overly difficult, and have been criticized for making it too easy to kill multiple opponents. Origins removes all the overpowered mechanics from previous games, but replaces them with boring, button-mashing battles of attrition. Here’s how a combat encounter in the game works: If the enemy approaching you does not have a shield, R1-mash them to death. If they do have a shield, press R2 to knock it out of the way, then R1 them to death. If they are a bigger enemy with a two-handed weapon, dodge out of the way of their obviously-telegraphed attack, and then R1 them to death. Finally, if they are some kind of elite guard commander or something, you use your R1+R2 special move to kill them.

    The rare commanders and elite enemies are the only ones that matter, and even they aren’t a big deal. Annoyingly, they are immune to most of Bayek’s tools and weapons, so you’re supposed to build up the special attack meter before you hit them. None of the combat is really all that hard though because all of it depends on your level. If Bayek is high enough level to deal damage and withstand what the enemies dish out, you win. If not, come back when higher level. Repeat for 50 hours of play time. It would be a different story if this were a traditional RPG, which keep the player engaged in the combat through interesting leveling and character development mechanics. But Bayek has the standard list of skill upgrades from other Ubisoft open-world games like Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4, Watch Dogs, Watch Dogs 2, and the recent Creed titles. It’s just a list of generic abilities you fully unlock over the course of the game, not a distinct choice of limited builds or loadouts like a real RPG.

    Origins is a dud on story and bland on gameplay, so it tries to make up for the lack of quality with quantity of activities. A huge amount of Egypt is featured in the game, including cities such as Alexandria, Memphis, Giza, and the Siwa Oasis, plus a huge expanse of desert and wilderness. Every zone has a dozen or more quests, and the game’s main story missions are spread out in any order you wish. When you head to an area to complete an assassination target, you’re given another half-dozen or so more side quests to complete along with it. It’s a game that can take quite a while to get through, if you can stand it. It also looks amazing, with great city and desert design, huge open areas and picturesque vistas everywhere you look.

    Assassin’s Creed Origins feels like the worst sort of designed-by-committee commercial studio project in recent memory. As if someone just looked at the highest-selling games of the last few years, and made a title cobbled out of all of them. Call of Duty popular? Let’s put pseudo-gun like bows in the game. Witcher 3 sold well, let’s use the same map design, quests, and combat mechanics. Every game has microtransactions now, can’t forget those. Let’s put some pointless MMO daily quest nonsense in there too. Strange there’s no online invasion or PUBG battle royale mode; perhaps they’re saving them for DLC?

    In a lot of ways, this was inevitable. The Assassin’s Creed franchise was never envisioned as a dozen-plus game series, nor are any of the main people who created it still working on the project. In a world where video games take years to make with hundreds of people and millions of dollars on the line, sooner or later they will always morph into the safest, most bland amalgam of focus-tested popular gameplay trends, and addictive, soulless skinner-box content possible. We shouldn’t mourn Assassin’s Creed for what it used to be; those games still exist and are still enjoyable. Nor should we attack it for what it has inevitably become. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy it anymore, either.

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