It’s been nearly two years since the world was graced with a new installment in the Assassin’s Creed series, and even longer since I personally embarked on an assassin adventure. In the time off, Ubisoft has taken the series back to where it all began with Assassin’s Creed Origins, and a new demo of Origins was a major part of Ubisoft’s presence at this year’s Gamescom event. The event’s small chunk of gameplay not only set the stage for the historical intrigue the series is known for, but it also exhibited the broad strides Origins has made in the core gameplay, turning my admitted cynicism into some practical optimism.
Before jumping into the gameplay, we were given some narrative context for the world we were about to find ourselves in. The age of the Egyptian Empire is coming to an end in Assassins’ Creed Origins, but that hasn’t stopped the region’s power struggle between several iconic leaders of history. The three most significant players in the conflict are Ptolemy XIII, the pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, his banished sister who is amassing forces to take the throne back from her tyrant brother, and the Roman General Julius Caesar, who allies himself with Cleopatra, but also has his own goals in mind.
Tying this network of allegiances and rivalries together is our main character, Bayek. Bayek is the last member of the Medjay military order which has fought for peace across history, and Bayek must use the skills he’s obtained to undermine the Order of the Ancients, a shadowy organization pulling the strings behind the region’s political strife. These rival organizations presumably give birth to the Assassin Brotherhood and Templar Order, and it is this genesis that will be most interesting to experience in Origins as we learn the true meaning behind the game’s subtitle.
The settings of Assassin’s Creed installments often play even more of a role in the experience than the characters. There are few settings throughout history more iconic than ancient Egypt, and Ubisoft has seemingly done the location and time period justice. The Gamescom demo was comprised only of one city and a small outlying region, but even this modest cutout of the game offered up well more than I could entirely experience in my short time with it.
Origins does an effective job of combining the open-world virtues of previous Assassin’s Creed games into one all-encompassing environment. The first handful of games in the series took place within and around historic cities with plenty to climb, but even their majesty could get old after a while. Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag took the series in a different direction with more varied, natural locations, but this limited the population and architectural scale of those games’ open-world playgrounds. The massive map of Assassin’s Creed Origins lands right in the middle of these extremes, with towering cities packed full of interactivity adjacent to sprawling natural landscapes just beyond the walls.
While impressive, the new directions for story and environment design are nothing compared to what has become of the core gameplay. Platforming is still relatively familiar and straightforward, but the gameplay pillars of combat and stealth are far less recognizable. Open combat is no longer a game of grandmother’s footsteps where the optimal strategy is waiting patiently for enemies to attack in sequence. Players will have to be much more involved in Origins‘ combat. One button puts Bayek into a combat stance, slowing him slightly but allowing him to block damage while intermittently doling out sequences of light and heavy attacks. A dash side-step is Bayek’s most versatile defensive maneuver, and while parrying is also a defensive option, occasionally obstructive camera angles and erratic enemy attack patterns made it feel like this option was more of a risk than its worth.
The game’s massive weapon variety of swords, clubs, spears, and more—not to mention the ranged weapons like bows and throwing knives—give the combat extensive potential for personalization. More than any installment before it, Origins tasks the player to be fully involved in combat through careful consideration and management of one’s hostile surroundings, as opposed to relying on the consecutive preanimated takedowns of older games. It took me quite a while to get used to in the demo, but the result felt far more worthwhile.
Stealth has also been reworked, but not quite to the same extent. Importantly, Origins features a crouch function that gives control of one’s stealth back to the player. Environmental elements such as tall grass are still present in Origins as auxiliary methods of remaining covert, but being able to manually increase your stealthiness by crouching takes away the player’s reliance on the environment and increases its flexibility as a strategy.
When it comes to covertly moving in for the kill, players will have to account for Origins‘ other major paradigm shift; an RPG-based progression system. A first for the series, players will upgrade the stats and abilities of their character and arsenal through usage. The impact of this new progression system can be felt in every corner of the experience, but perhaps no where as drastically as in the stealth. Assassinations from the shadows are no longer a guaranteed one-hit kill, if the target’s stats exceed that of the player’s hidden blade. Strategies like open combat, lethal stealth, or evasion will require specialization this time around, inviting a little more discipline into the series.
The two years that the Assassin’s Creed team took to innovate on the series was not time wasted. At the series’ inception, fans were dropped into a conflict with little context of how it began; something that Origins appears to finally be addressing. On the gameplay side, Origins puts far more control in the hands of the player in whatever manner they like to play. It may be easier for players to screw up under this new design, but it is that much more rewarding when practice turns into proficiency. Assassin’s Creed Origins may be a step back in time, but it is a step forward for the series.