Thanks to more leaks than one of hooded alumni Edward Kenway’s pirate ships, you probably already know that Assassin’s Creed Origins is the latest in Ubisoft’s free-running franchise. You also know that it’s going to Ancient Egypt, has a hero called Bayek and that you can ride camels across the desert. What you don’t know is that this isn’t stabby business as usual. This time? Prepare for everything to actually change.
It turns out that the combination of three and a half years, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag creative lead, Ashraf Ismail and his pirate dev crew mean the biggest leap of faith that we have ever seen from the franchise. Forget your AC muscle memory, throw your free running skills out the window. Assassin’s Creed Origins feels fresh as a murderous daisy. The franchise finally feels like the action RPG it’s always wanted to be with quests, abilities, levelling and skill trees, not to mention huge boss battles, gladiatorial arenas, and a truly living world.
In short, it’s utterly exhilarating and leaves the rest of the franchise in the dust. Oh, and on Xbox Scorpio? Egypt is gorgeous. This is a world of azure blue waters, endless skies and sweltering deserts. Crocodiles swim the Nile, lions pace the wilds, hippos roar to the skies. After going hands on with Origins, one thing is very clear. Assassin’s Creed finally belongs in 2017. Here’s why.
The Animus is taking us back to 49 BCE
The Creed is nothing without its history and Ancient Egypt is a beautifully rich offering. Set in 49 BCE, Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Egypt already has 3000 years of history behind it. The pyramids are long built and our hero Bayek is living through a tumultuous age as the line of pharaohs is about to die out. As a Medjay, a warrior who lived for the people of Egypt, Bayek is seen as a hero to be respected. Whether he is exploring the great cities of Alexandria or Memphis or clambering across pyramids and educating us about mummification, everything he does is for the good of the people. This is immediately obvious in my hands on. I swim through the Nile before clambering onto a stranger’s felucca on its way across the water. Instead of forcibly seizing control like ancient Egyptian GTA, Bayek merely borrows the boat and the original sailor settles down next to the mast to wait for its return.
It’s worth noting too that this is a world where everything is alive. Every NPC has a job, every area has its own purpose. Arrive at a location during the day and it’ll be buzzing with people, go at night and everyone will have gone home for the day. Throw in the local wildlife and warring factions on horseback and, those horrible but true words ‘emergent gameplay’ rear their ugly head. Case in point, I’m riding on my way to murder some bandits and end up embroiled in a horseback war. I alternate between swinging Bayek’s nasty looking Khopesh sword and firing arrows into enemy skulls. It’s short, brutal and bloody good fun. Everything feels slick and effortless.
Oh, so you have an Eagle now
And yes, before I go any further, I really should make an important introduction. Say hello to Senu, your new best friend. While Eagles have always perched on the Creed’s synch points, we’ve never really connected with the haughty predators. They never let you even get close. The minute I’m allowed into the lush green Faiyum Region, I immediately remedy that with a quick press of the down directional button and take to the skies as Bayek’s Bonelli’s eagle. Senu is your new synch point with wings. Scouting ahead, you can swoop over the world, labelling up places of interest and she's an incredible way to take in the view of the sprawling expanse.
Objectives must be scoped out before you get involved. I approach a camp in the desert as Bayek and send Senu soaring into the sky to check the lay of the land. Keeping her stationary, you can go into scope mode and move your gaze, around the world. The enemy encampment comes into view and the objective changes to infiltration. Before switching back to Bayek, I fly closer and label up the foes wandering the camp. Like Far Cry’s camera or Watch Dogs 2’s handy drone, this keeps them labelled for Bayek’s infiltration attempt.
Plus, Senu sees everything, not just objectives. That hippo on its way across the Nile? Leather. Oh is that a treasure chest you’ve spotted, feathered friend? I’ll go grab that…
Goodbye mini map, hello quest system
Nothing screams Assassin’s Creed like a mini map covered in icons. Well, it’s gone. Binned. Nada. Zip. Forget that reassuring little circle in the bottom right of your screen and say hello to a Bethesda-style compass scattered with tantalising question marks as you spin around and wonder where to go next. Yep, Origins has moved to a quest based system. There is fast travel across the massive map but there's no more map covered in seas of chests and missions. Throw in Senu’s scoping abilities and the possibilities immediately seem endless. Can Assassin’s Creed really feel like Breath of the Wild? Well. Yes. There’s no handholding here. It’s your world to uncover.
While I can of course follow the main mission in my demo and kill The Crocodile - which turns out to be a person rather than the actual toothy reptile we assumed in the leaked image - I immediately get distracted by a side quest. Every activity you complete will help you level up and unlock abilities. Which brings me to…
Stealthy or warrior, Bayek is yours to customise
Assassin’s Creed has never let you truly personalise your character. While Syndicate’s Jacob and Evie had limited skill trees, there was never any true incentive and you just ended up with all of them anyway. Bayek is the complete opposite. If you prefer a stealthy approach, a slew of silent but deadly abilities and upgrades await, if you’re a warrior then you’ll want the weapon and armour upgrades to make sure you can endure the swords of your foes. I’m already at level 20 in my demo so have unlocked a stack of abilities but my favourite has to be the Shotgun bow that lets you fire five arrows at the same time. Imagine hurtling across the desert sending five arrows at a time hurtling through the air from the back of a camel. See? Now you want to go to ancient Egypt. In terms of other upgrades, I don’t see it myself but I hear tell of a poisoned axe upgrade and a trap that lets you seed a dead body with a poison that will send nearby enemies into a dead faint.
Forget the Assassin’s Creed combat of old
No matter how many times Ubi has told us that the combat has changed over the last five or so years, it just hasn’t. Until now. Assassin’s Creed Origins has overhauled combat dramatically. Attacks live on your right bumper and trigger, while you’re going to have to raise your shield with L1 if you don’t fancy being skewered by arrows. Dodge is vital too. Engage an enemy by raising your shield and you can flick between your targets with the left stick. And yes, everyone attacks at once. Bayek has to be light on his feet, leaping out of the way before ending up skewered. More than one enemy becomes a dangerous brawl. Archers hang back to make your their pin cushion, demanding you take them down first.
Combat is satisfying, crunchy and filled with death. Swing your weapon and multiple enemies will fall at the same time if they're foolish enough to be standing too close. Finally it doesn’t just feel like foes take turns to stab you. This is AC like we’ve never played it before. Different weapons mean different fighting styles. Sword or spear? Poison tipped arrow or skewering trident, you’re going to have to constantly change your style. Even the assassinations of yore, dependent on your enemy type your hidden blade might not be strong enough for your foe. Oh and speaking of foes, there are bosses and there isn’t just one or two. Assassin’s Creed Origins has a stack of enemies who'll be a serious challenge until you work out exactly how to beat them.
Crafting is back and more essential than ever
Far Cry style, you’re going to have to take down the local wildlife if you want to improve your gear. Bracers, armour, shields, you name it, it needs upgrading and improving in a series of inventory screens that for once don’t seem overly complicated. Even landing in the game mid way through, everything is clearly connected. Upgrades are key so we’ll be hunting down hippos, crocodiles and other probably angry and very territorial creatures in search of nice shiny new kit. Speaking of shiny kit, take down outposts of enemies out in the deserts and you might find new and rare armour and weaponry hiding in chests. Finally Assassin’s Creed’s base ingredients truly mean something rather than just being a checklist to distract you from the murder. Also, in another nice little touch, after you’ve avoided meeting gnashing teeth, if you skewer your prey with an arrow, you’ll get it back when you loot the corpse. Useful.
Swim for it
When the team says it’s added new depths to the game, it really has. Assassin’s Creed Origins now lets you dive into any body of water and go for a swim to see what’s hidden beneath the depths. Treasure lurks buried in the briny deep and dependent on the type of water you’re swimming through, different predators await. Clearer waters will have hippopotamus lurking while swampier cloudier H2O is the home of crocodiles. And the water effects? Swimming to the sun dappled surface looks staggeringly beautiful. This is a world that you might just have to upgrade to 4K for. I wait under the water until Bayek’s air gets dangerously low just watching the sun reflect on the water and the shapes of boats travelling overhead. No, you have the wrong priorities.
I am Gladiator. Well, Bayek is.
And last but not least, The Arena. Ubi isn’t giving away exactly how it appears in the narrative but a gladitorial arena unlocks for your gory pleasure. I go hands on with two battles, blinking into the sun as enormous doors open and the roar of the crowd echoes from above. First I try a horde mode as I find Bayek’s feet and work out how to avoid enemy attacks as well as the spinning spikes scattered across the arena. The second is a showdown with a man known only as The Stalker and armed with a long deadly trident.
It’s the perfect place to learn the art of Origins’ combat. Shield carrying foes need dodged around and tackled from the side, while archers need to drop pronto. It’s exhilarating and full of grisly death. The Stalker is an unforgiving menace, skewering Bayek and tossing him away. I overcome him eventually by shoving him into some deadly spinning spikes. I'm given the chance to either show mercy or assassinate him bloodily. With the crowd echoing in my ears, I show him all the mercy he had shown me earlier in the match and gorily plunge a blade through his flesh. The game might be so different that it’s almost a shock to the system but I am still an Assassin after all…