The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one of the longest running series in gaming and it hasn’t been without its rough years. The past few iterations have left much to be desired, so I was encouraged upon hearing that Ubisoft changed their model of yearly releases and instead focused on a high-quality product in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Did they succeed? The answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” Having said that, the game is not without its flaws but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s the best Assassin’s Creed offering since AC3.
From a Desert Village to the Roman Capital
Assassin’s Creed: Origins takes the player into the era of Pharaohs and Pyramids in Egypt around the middle of 1st Century BC, Egypt is in turmoil, with a traitorous Pharaoh on the throne, and its people being oppressed by Roman occupiers at the same time. Bayek, in the meantime, leaves his home province in search of answers and revenge after his son is killed by the leader of a mysterious Order of the Ancients.
The general gist of the story is that the Medjay are a type of pre-cursor for the Assassins, while the Order of the Ancients will eventually become known as the Order of the Knights Templar. At this point, players will essentially understand how future conflicts came to be. Fortunately, none of these connections are being spoon-fed to the player, and most of the early story is spent providing insight into Bayek and his current state of mind. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the story writers is that I didn’t fully realize that I had been playing through the origins of the Brotherhood of the Assassins until 30 hours in the campaign. This isn’t because I’m dense or because the story wasn’t well told, quite the opposite in fact. The writing puts the player into a position of experiencing the very first Assassin without ever obnoxiously tapping them on the shoulder and saying “Hey, you realize you’re the first Assassin, right?”
As Bayek leaves his home province of Siwa and travels across Egypt, players will want to take pause of the gorgeous environments that Ubisoft have carefully crafted. Small villages are filled with famers working the fields, stray cats will approach and beg for food and pets, and the Roman occupation has clearly left its mark on the architecture in the bigger cities. The game world feels alive. So much so, in fact, that you could spend hours merely being an observer of the various AI characters as they go about their daily business. A full day-night cycle adds to the atmosphere and even becomes a crucial part of tactical planning, as the environment behaves naturally. For example, seeing soldiers and wild animals going to sleep at night.
The story of Assassin’s Creed: Origins is not a short affair. Except for side-tracking for a few secret quests, I spent most of my time pursuing the main quest line, which easily provides 25 hours of entertainment or more. While I’m by no means an expert on the historical accuracy of the era, I did grow up enjoying Asterix & Obelix comics and have a passion for anything that involves Roman History, Julius Caesar, or Cleopatra. As such, I was excited to find out that the story includes many popular figures from the time period, and does a great job of portraying them in a light that, at the very least, seemed familiar and accurate.
The pacing of the story is structured around a typical series of acts, with occasional slow downs between major quests as the player is forced to adventure on side quests to raise their level. Fortunately, even the side quests are usually entertaining and more complex than the typical fetch quests that often clutter up games for the sole intention of adding meat to the bones. In this game, I felt compelled to explore what else Bayek could do in the world. As a Medjay, his job is to protect and assist the populace, and the people of Egypt aren’t shy to ask. Side quests also contributed a great deal to the overall lore of the game and introduces Bayek to a host of interesting and recurring characters.
Another element that injects variety into the game is that some portions of the story will be played as Aya, Bayek’s wife, lover, and fellow Assassin. Aya’s role typically comes up during the most interesting of parts in the overarching story, and is a welcome change of pace every time she became the focus of the game. The story concludes in a satisfying fashion and sets the stage for future (or rather past) iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series.
The Struggles of Combat in a Stealth RPG Game
Assassin’s Creed: Origins sets itself apart from previous games in the franchise by focusing much more on character development and roleplaying-like elements. As Bayek earns experience from just about any activity in the game, he can unlock skills in three different trees. One focuses on melee combat, a second improves Bayek’s ranged abilities, while a third covers everything from bartering to utilizing tools, such as poison darts and fire bombs. Each skill tree is open-ended, providing the ability to continue improving overall damage output indefinitely. This certainly makes it easier for players to customize Bayek’s skills to their desires, without being forced into any particular play style, or left with excess skill points and nowhere to spend them.
Assassins are typically meant to be stealthy and protagonists of past Assassin’s Creed titles have generally been less skilled at open, direct combat. Bayek is no exception to this, and the gameplay mechanics push you into the direction of stealth, with some glaring exceptions. Bayek has a trusty companion named Senu, an eagle that can be dispatched at any moment to spot enemies, scout the area ahead, and even assist during combat. It pays to take your time and plot the best route to your mission’s target because getting caught in all out brawls with the enemy is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had all year.
Perhaps the reason for my frustration there is because I recently spent time with Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’s excellent combat system, but Bayek’s ability to parry, dodge, and inflict damage, especially in a one-vs-many scenario, is laughable. The controls feel sluggish, enemies that are merely one or two levels above Bayek’s rank will often demolish you instantly, and the lock on system is more of a hinderance than a help. Most of the time that I’ve gotten caught in such a situation, my keyboard and mouse have taken a beating, but at least I could usually blame myself for even getting into that kind of debacle. Unfortunately, a few main quests force Bayek to become an all-out fighter, at times removing any of his typical assassin abilities. Personally, I found this more frustrating than beneficial to the story, and really could have done without it.
Outside of those extremes, the gameplay mechanics work quite well. Bayek’s Eagle Vision ability is helpful in finding rare loot, Senu does a great job of providing vital intel, and quality of life features, such as auto-run and automatic horse navigation on roads, are a welcome addition. The game even offers an online revenge system whereby Bayek can avenge the deaths of other players whose corpse he comes across in the world. Add to that an excellent photo mode, the ability to pause cutscenes (hallelujah), and the game becomes a pleasure to play.
How to Melt Your CPU and Heat Your Home
When I first launched into the world of Egypt, I was very impressed by the visuals. Graphics are crisp, varied, and provide a real sense of the times you’re playing in. All this beauty comes at a price, however. While the initial launch version had a few texture bugs, especially when traversing areas very quickly on your horse, these were soon fixed in a patch. Unfortunately, said patch also seems to have included the DRM from hell. My PC is quite powerful and generally does not struggle with a game’s performance. Assassin’s Creed: Origins, however, will heat your house while trying to provide a steady 60 frames per second. Apparently inexplicably, the game’s own benchmarking puts my system into the Low category, despite using less than half of my GTX 1080’s 8GB of memory. The result is a serviceable 50-60 fps on Very High settings, with a silicon-melting 100% usage of all four of my CPUs. The going theory is that Ubisoft’s DRM is what’s causing the strain on the processors, and while that has been denied, some simple tests seem to indicate a correlation between CPU usage, available bandwidth even while playing offline, and the typical symptoms of a PC struggling to crunch CPU cycles.
When a computer is overly taxed, the first thing that tends to suffer is audio, and I have experienced several problems on that side. The audio tends to cut out for a few seconds, presumably while the CPU tries to get its business in order. I have also experienced negative side-effects in Discord, a popular voice chat application that I used to chat with friends while playing the game. On rare occasions there have been issues with controls, where Bayek would refuse to stop moving as all inputs were seemingly ignored by the game. Not the best thing to have happen to you when you’re sneaking around a Roman Fort. Everything points back to the unusually high CPU usage that afflicts Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Quite frankly, given the heat generated, I’m surprised there aren’t more issues in the game, which manages to look remarkably beautiful.
I suppose sometimes you can put makeup on a pig, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins fits that bill a little bit. It looks gorgeous, performs reasonably well if you’re not looking too closely at the conveniently included performance graphs, and immerses the player in an environment that very satisfying. It is a credit to the game’s quality that, given the issues mentioned above, it still receives such a high rating from me. I remain positive that Ubisoft will patch out the current issues, which incidentally only apply to the PC version.
Having Said All That…
It has been a very good 2017 fall season for gamers so far, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins plays a big part in that. Finally, Ubisoft has managed to shake the shroud of boring, repetitive, copy and paste offerings in this franchise. The game’s story, move to a more role-playing focused environment, beautiful graphics, atmosphere, and bucket loads of content make this game very easy to recommend. Additionally, free content is already being offered to extend the life of a game, which I’m certain has at least another 30 hours of play time waiting for me. If you haven’t given Assassin’s Creed a chance lately and you need to fill many cold winter nights, then you will be well-served by Origins.