With a year out to clear its mind, Assassin's Creed is coming back this year with Assassin's Creed Origins, taking us to Ancient Egypt to fill the shoes of new protagonist Bayek, and we recently attended a preview event in London in which we got to see the longest section of the game yet. This four-hour demo was at an advanced point in the story, and we were let loose with our character already at level 12, meaning there was a lot of weapons, abilities, and areas already at our disposal.
We were told by game director Ashraf Ismail and creative director Jean Guesdon that we'd have to unlearn some of the stuff that we've come to know from previous games, and they weren't kidding. As we stepped into Bayek's shoes, we tried to climb something and found the first big control change - RT (we played on Xbox One X) is now heavy attack, not climb, which has been shifted to A. We've touched upon this change in previous previews, but it's worth re-emphasising how much of a difference it will be for existing fans, who may have to endure pressing the wrong buttons for a while.
The area we were plunged into was open and was comprised of many locations (not including Memphis, however, which was where our Gamescom preview took us). As mentioned, we started at level 12, but we were advised for our own sake to explore and level up a bit before tackling the main mission. A useful part of the game is that each enemy has a level, and each mission a level requirement so you can see how well-suited you are to each before you tackle a mammoth task. The main mission path was recommended for level 15, so off we went to get stronger.
There are a number of ways to get your level up in Origins. The most obvious one would be side-quests, which grant you large experience rewards. That's not all, though, as throughout the world you'll find smaller opportunities to get experience as well. Every location, for example, has an indication of what's there (loot and enemy captains, for instance), and clearing these areas will earn you experience, as does tackling rogue animals, both of which encourage players to actually discover what's around the map rather than fast travel everywhere (not to mention the all-important loot).
We won't go into all of the side-quests we completed, but there's a lot of variety in them, and notable substance. Each one we played had more depth than simply retrieving an item or following someone, which was very much appreciated after some of the tiresome tasks we've completed in the series over the years (to paraphrase game director Ashraf Ismail, he said these are more like quests than missions now).
Our first side-quest, for instance, saw us find a missing daughter from a village, before discovering her fate and seeking revenge on who was responsible. Another notable example saw us seek out a specially crafted spear called the Serpent of Serapis, which had been stolen, the thief taking to sailing constantly on a boat on one of the map's lakes. Of course not all of them are as entertaining, like the one that had us carrying dead bodies to a cart while a bloat of hippos (yes, that's the word) kept attacking us. For the most part, though, we enjoyed playing these additional tasks, which were numerous enough to provide plenty of experience, but weren't watered down by a lack of creativity. We played them because we wanted to, not just because of the rewards.
The world we were given, surrounded by enforced borders (much to our dismay, as we could see wider, interesting areas on the world map), was pretty varied, which was a relief. What's an open-world game without an engaging open-world, after all? There were several bodies of water in our area of exploration, as well as villages, towns, deserts, bandit camps, animal lairs, and more, all of which was varied from one another and had their own distinct style. You even have a horse to explore this all with, which can be programmed to autopilot, which means they follow the road automatically to your marked objective.
Part of the appeal of this world is that it feels dynamic. You can be riding along and suddenly a rogue animal event pops up, for instance, tempting you to take it down for some experience, or you could bump into some enemy soldiers who will relentlessly pursue you. None of this is entirely new to the series, but it keeps the world from feeling stale, and always keeps you guessing, much like with Far Cry, where you could get mauled by any number of things at any minute. It doesn't feel as Ubi-centric as games have done in the past, but it feels like a mesh of a lot of modern Ubisoft ideas expressed in games like Wildlands and Watch Dogs 2 specifically.
To help you explore the world you have Senu, your eagle who helps you spot enemies and locate objectives from the air. You can activate Senu easily by just pressing down on the d-pad, and thanks to easy controls (you can even hover) you can spot everything, which works almost exactly like the drone in Ghost Recon: Wildlands. This makes infiltrating and objective-pursuing much, much more efficient, and more importantly, it allows you the satisfaction of planning an assault and executing it with deadly precision. Making your way into a base silently and dispatching all the enemies inside without being detected - this is truly the purest joy in Assassin's Creed.
If you fluff your lines or get spotted assassinations simply won't do, and you'll need to fight your way out, an experience that's a whole lot different from previous games. As we were informed by the Ubisoft rep at the event, the game has changed from an animation-based system to a hitbox one, and everything is much more tactical. Instead of hitting counter each time to get an instakill, here you have to outwit your opponent, parry at the right time, and dodge away from danger. It's a worn comparison, but it has to be said that it's not dissimilar from Dark Souls, with light attack on R1/RB and heavy on R2/RT. Using the limited combos you have (you can't attack endlessly after all) with your shield is vital for staying alive, especially since getting away from enemies is especially difficult in open terrain.
What's more is that assassinations are also slightly tweaked, but in a good way. Don't worry, pressing triangle/Y behind an unsuspecting enemy will still kill them instantly, but here they feel more visceral and brutal. It's not just a case of poking them with your outstretched hand, as you often throw them to the floor first, barge them over, or slash their neck - it feels much more impactful and satisfying to pull off.
When it kicks off and things get wild there are plenty of weapons to choose from. We opted for a heavy mace, which was slow but dealt plenty of damage, as well as the aforementioned spear, the Serpent of Serapis. Adrenaline moves can also be used once you've been in battle long enough, which varies from weapon to weapon; for the mace, it was a burst of intensity that we assume dealt more damage, whereas for the spear it was a singular lunging attack. Other kinds of weapons include twin blades, regular shortswords, and you can even go in unarmed (although we wouldn't recommend that).
There are even different types of bow. The Warrior Bow, for instance, fires multiple arrows at a time, which as you can imagine is effective but very taxing on your ammunition. The Predator Bow, on the other hand, allows you to control the arrow mid-air, to get those extra accurate slow-mo shots. This variety in terms of combat really helped keep things fresh, especially since weapons can be collected in the world, broken down for parts, sold, bought, and even upgraded, so when you find a loadout that works, you can really go to town making it a beastly one.
This upgrading and looting system doesn't just apply to weapons, though. Armour, shields, tools, mounts, and more can all be exchanged for bigger and better variants, so it's worth scouring the land to find crafting resources to constantly better your equipment. The pursuit of more effective gear was a hook that caught us in our time with the game, and we can imagine that would persist throughout, especially since we were constantly finding new things we wanted to try out.
Bayek can also be upgraded via the rather extensive skill tree that was mentioned in our first hands-on. This includes all manner of things that can help you out in combat, and since we advanced four levels in four hours, it's not like you can fill it up insanely quickly. There's plenty to choose from, like a perk that lets you shoot arrows in slow-motion, another that increases the effectiveness of Predator Bows, and one that lets you land more hits in combat per combo. Choosing wisely is therefore imperative, as is making sure you know what's ahead in the skill tree too.
What we haven't talked about yet is the main quest, which saw us pursue the Scarab. The entire questline we saw featured pretty big spoilers, so we won't go into too much detail, but the basis of this part of the story was that the Scarab was one of the many branches of the Order of the Ancients, a mysterious force controlling the major figures of the era, and we needed to hunt them down and stop them (again, not unlike Wildlands' different cartel leaders). This took us in a lot of directions, and we liked what we saw, as it all felt fresh, grand in scale, and we didn't always see things coming.
Not everything was perfect when we played, though, as the characters were probably the weakest point. Bayek, while gritty and stoic, can often be a bit boring in his dialogue, and a lot of the other characters weren't particularly interesting either. Taharqa was one of the more interesting personalities we met, but a lot of them just seem a bit wooden. What's more, the lip sync was off a number of times too, while some characters even lacked a bit of detail. Issues like clipping were also present, but considering we don't know how old the build we played was, some of this may well have already been fixed.
Origins seems to strike a balance between feeling like an Assassin's Creed game, with the assassinations, the mystery, and the third-person historical setting, but also mixes this with a modernisation inspired in major ways by other Ubisoft titles. The predominance of wild animals, for instance, feels a lot like Far Cry, the eagle felt like the drone in Watch Dogs 2 and Wildlands, and Wildlands also came to mind when we had to take down different leaders on the map.
We were relieved to see that the world was interesting to explore and discover, and that there's depth in the gear and upgrade options, so there should be plenty for players to see, try, and do when October 27 comes around. It's definitely a revamp for the franchise, one with an engaging setting, a new outlook on player progression, and something to prove after a year in the shadows.
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