I'm skulking across rooftops, tiptoeing across a handily placed rope, shimmying around a shining blue dome, and hopping between balconies. The man below continues with his daily message-carrying routine. He must know something's afoot, as occasionally he turns round and scans the people moving around the streets behind him, checking to see if he's being followed. Thankfully though, he has no idea I'm up here, surveying from above and waiting to see if indeed he's taking that message where I think he's headed. While that might sound like a description of an Assassin's Creed game from the late '00s, this is actually Assassin's Creed Mirage.
Release date: October 5, 2023
Platform(s): PS5, Xbox Series X, PC, Xbox One, PS4
Developer: Ubisoft Bordeaux
Ubisoft Bordeaux promised that this standalone entry in the series would be a more compact, stealth-focused experience, distinct from the more sprawling RPG entries of recent years. Although I imagined we might see some of those elements in here, the developer has stuck to its word, with this return to the series' roots tackling a single city – and a few small extra areas – to focus in on the stealth mechanics that originally defined the Assassin's Creed series.
The Creed's homecoming
For Assassin's Creed Mirage, we've headed back to the Middle East and into Baghdad with Basim, a hero many will know from Assassin's Creed Valhalla. The city is beautifully crafted and consistently feels alive. Markets bustle with shoppers and traders speaking multiple languages, streets see people meander in clusters, and shady spots feature folk taking a break from the sun to lounge amongst flowers and foliage. Elsewhere the brains of 9th Century Baghdad discuss politics and poetry, and what's awesome is that I can just sit on a bench and just listen to it all happen. Not just for fun, of course, there's information to be gleaned from many a conversation, whether it's the location of a guard with the key to a crucial locked door or gossip about the identity of your next target. It's a huge pleasure to explore and discover everything Baghdad has to offer as a result.
That's particularly true when it comes to the returning focus on parkour. Seeing the old parkour system back in play is such a nostalgia hit, and even after many, many hours that novelty doesn't wear off. Climbing is a puzzle now as, rather than being able to climb wherever and whenever you want, you need to look for handholds – a window ledge here or exposed brick there – in order to scale a wall. It adds challenge, especially with an array of enemies chasing you and hitting a high, smooth wall around a well-guarded area. Watching Basim nimbly sprint across rooftops is such a rush though, especially when you really get into a flow state. The parkour does come with some frustration still – as it always used to – where you have to be pretty perfectly aligned with a handhold to make Basim move to it. There's certainly a nuance to making it look slick.
You'll be utilizing parkour a lot too, as much of Assassin's Creed Mirage will have you hightailing it out of mission areas with guards in tow. The notoriety system is back, which means that as aware as you are of the people roaming Baghdad, they are also aware of you. Do anything vaguely nefarious, like getting caught pickpocketing, and your wanted level will rise. Citizens will start pointing you out in the streets, alerting nearby guards, and calling them to hunt you down. The only way to return to anonymity is to tear down posters of your face or bribe the town criers – or Munadi, as they're known – because if you cause more havoc those run-of-the-mill guards will be aided by archers and heavy enemies that are more formidable.
Remain hidden, Hidden One
The aim is, as you'd expect from a traditional Assassin's Creed experience, to stay undetected. Pickpocketing involves a small rhythm-based minigame, which, if failed, will mean you've probably jostled your poor victim while snatching their coin purse. The better the prize, the harder this test is and it's just tight enough to make the heaviest purses feel like a true win. But, elsewhere the adventure is about embodying a Hidden One as much as possible. You do have some tools at your disposal – starting with throwing knives and later moving into poison traps and berzerker darts – but they're limited enough that it really forces you to focus on what you can do with your hidden blade.
Black Box missions return, found throughout core story missions and contracts that you can pick up from the Hidden One bureaus, rely on you being able to exercise patience. These locations have you searching for a single enemy or piece of information, but there's always a multitude of guards and other hurdles to overcome before you can reach your goal. You won't get anywhere by being brash. Instead, these elaborate missions play out like old-school Assassin's Creed or Hitman games, where picking off an enemy one or two at a time is best.
Assassin's Creed Mirage is as much a detective game as it is a stealth-focused one. Basim's Eagle Vision in combination with your actual eagle, Enkidu, helps you map out points of interest, whether that's a locked door or person of interest, and plan out your approach. Often there will be only a single entranceway into a building or you might need to use a distraction like some mercenaries or a musician, so part of the puzzle is simply just figuring out where you need to go. It's almost mathematical and formulaic, but also utterly satisfying when you manage to clear an entire area without anyone catching even a glimpse of a white robe. It's Assassin's Creed at its purest.
If you do get spotted, combat is pretty unforgiving. It's nimble and fast-paced compared to the slower, more lumbering combat of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, but also more focused on parrying. Combat sees enemies with almost three levels of attack. Normal attacks, gold attacks that can be parried, and then the new red heavy hitters that can only be dodged rather than parried. If you happen to have recently pulsed an area with Eagle, which highlights any nearby enemies with an orangey-red for a decent chunk of time, it can then be impossible to see what attack they're unleashing while they're still selected. That's not great when you've triggered an alarm and have the masses descending on you. It's a quick way to defeat.
You can hone your combat abilities with some skills, like being able to kick away an enemy after a successful parry, but the majority are geared toward the stealth experience. Combat always feels like an absolute last option for Basim – especially en masse – and I love that about Assassin's Creed Mirage. Running away and enduring the chase is much more gratifying than trying to take on an army. It truly is a murderous playground for the patient.
Back to Basim
But it's also a celebration. Everything about Mirage channels the original groundwork laid by those early Assassin's Creed games. Some of the smaller contracts deliberately nod to old tropes like rooftop races and the inclusion of the Alamut is certainly a boon for long-term fans, even if I would have liked more opportunity to explore it at leisure. The same can be said for the narrative. It's human-driven, exploring Basim's own mental struggles and the relationship he builds with those around him, but there's that touch of the mythical too that has always been a core backbone of the series.
Ubisoft Bordeaux has even added some small world-event-style quests in the form of Tales of Baghdad, which just tell really small stories about a single citizen or event. They're a lovely way to tell players a little more about the city at this time and the kind of people that live there, but I would have loved a way to track these better, as they otherwise aren't marked on your investigation board and can easily get lost. It's also a nightmare if you want to double-check exactly what they need as rarely do the NPC want to talk to you again.
Thankfully though, the investigation board is otherwise a triumph. It does well to map out each of the core mission threads you're following, all the clues you've collected, and who's next on the hit list. You can essentially do them in any order you want, crossing over from one thread to another at will. It feels really organic but also does well to guide you through the structure of the game.
Assassin's Creed Mirage is a more compact game than its most immediate predecessors, with my fairly completionist adventure coming in around the 20-hour mark, and the game does well to set expectations. The investigation board itself clearly showcases what your ultimate goal is, with everything else feeding into that core strategy. I do wonder whether that was specifically done for those coming to Mirage from the sprawling RPGs of Assassin's Creed Origins, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and Assassin's Creed Valhalla. It's certainly an adjustment to my romps with Eivor and Kassandra, but ultimately Ubisoft never promised this would be a massive RPG.
Despite its more compact vision, it manages to encapsulate exactly what it means to be an Assassin's Creed game. From the more classic costuming to the focus on stealth and streamlined parkour, this is a beautiful return to the classic games. And oh boy does it look good doing it.
Assassin's Creed Mirage was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher.