In all honesty Assassin's Creed needed a break. It's not that there have been any truly poor games, perhaps with the exception of the state that Unity launched in, but there had been a feeling that players had become a bit fatigued with the series. Now, after an Assassin's-Creed-free 2016 (at least as far as main series goes), the hunger is back, but to be fair that could be just as much about the setting as it is about the franchise itself.
At Gamescom Ubisoft has focused their attention on the story elements that tie the main character Bayek to the political intrigue that is taking place. The Pharoah Ptolemy has assumed power, but it would seem someone else is pulling his strings, and in the other corner there's Clepatra, his sister trying to take what's rightfully hers, with the aid of Rome's Julius Ceasar.
We spent our hands-on session in and around Memphis, an ancient city even at the time of the game (49 BCE), as it was already 3,000 years old. It's a labyrinthine city with the sort of organic architecture you'd expect from an old town that's slowly grown over millenia, and there are channels cutting through the city and a huge temple dedicated to Ptah.
Combat is fluid and easy to grasp and allows for switching on the fly between weapons, regardless of whether you're on foot or on horseback. We were particularly impressed by the latter, as fighting on horseback truly empowers the player without making them overpowered or cumbersome. Apart from the bow and the sword, we also made use of a heavier club that had some real weight to it, making for some truly satisfying killing blows and charged moves. Hopefully, then, the RPG system will provide long term depth and challenge.
The main mission we played introduced us to Bayek's wife, Aya, and she in turn introduced us to Cleopatra. Originally from Alexandra, Aya moved as a kid to Siva where Bayek grew up, and that's how they found each other. She has some of the same skills as Bayek, though she's not a Medjay (guardian of ancient Egypt) in the same way as Bayek. The still-undisclosed incident at the start of the game that sets the story in motion also separated the two, so while they seem to love each other and care for one another there's also a wedge between them, and it's going to be interesting to see how this relationship evolves through the story and intermingles with the more politically-fueled intrigue.
The main story mission we played saw Aya and Bayek looking into the poor health of a cherished deity, the Apis Bull, who has seemingly been poisoned. Naturally there's more to it and a conspiracy is at least partially unraveled. There was a nice flow to the questline, and it saw us take out guards and investigate a scene, while there was also a cinematic feel to how the narrative was exposed, both while you were in control of Bayek and during brief cutscenes.
As we made our way outside of Memphis to explore the nearby desert and its pyramids, we not only got a taste of the horseback combat, but we also got to interact with some of the wildlife, in this case a vulture nest, although unfortunately the alpha wasn't around so we couldn't clear and get the reward of a rare material. Then we started climbing on the pyramids, which took a little getting used to as there was more of a puzzle aspect to finding the damaged stones you could hold onto in order to make your way up to the top. After scaling the Pyramid we slid down one of its sides and entered a Tomb, which saw us enter a more puzzle-oriented section, but this is clearly evolved from what we've seen in previous games, and it reminded us quite a bit of the tombs in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Searching for hidden passages, using weights to move platforms to allow us to progress, and things of this nature provided a very different kind of challenge, and it's this sort of diversity that truly reveals the promise of Assassin's Creed: Origins. This is a different Assassin's Creed, one that would stand out regardless of what came before.
In addition to this we also got to sample a side mission. It played much like the main mission, involving investigation, a chase scene, combat, and scouting, but as it involved orphans it not only gave us some insight into the more harsh practices of the time, but it also gave us further insights into the personality of Bayek, who at first glance can come across as a bit stiff and overly bound by honour.
We walked away thoroughly impressed by Assassin's Creed Origins having played it for just over an hour. Everywhere you look there seems to be an extra layer of depth, something new to explore or engage with and that's even before we get into how this serves as the origin story of the brotherhood. We still have yet to see how all the different strands like politics link together, but we're looking forward to finding out how they do.