Has Assassin’s Creed managed to find itself during its gap year?

sliding down a pyramid is probably a lot like falling down a hill

During the Assassin’s Creed: Origins [official site] demo I played at E3, I pressed the wrong button and thought I’d broken the game. I was trying to switch to my bow while sneaking and I accidentally meditated, causing time to fast forward. The sun wheeled around the sky, sank below the horizon, and night fell. The developer guiding me through the experience – an environmental artist – was slightly taken aback, but we rolled with my mistake and I got an accidental peek at the nightlife of Ptolemaic Egypt. Colour me intrigued.

It feels strange to refer to Origins as some kind of dramatic return, since Assassin’s Creed hasn’t been gone long enough for anyone to really miss it. In the grand scheme of things, taking a year off from the release churn was the equivalent of telling the family you’re nipping out for some cigarettes and a pint of milk, and then genuinely nipping to the corner shop and coming straight home.

We hadn’t been fretting or mourning or planning for a future without Assassin’s Creed; I dare say most of us weren’t even wondering when that pint of milk would be arriving. Ubisoft do tend to keep the fridge well-stocked with their particular brand. Whether it’s the full fat of Far Cry, some semi-skimmed Clancy or the Soybean variant of The Crew, there’s always something fresh on the shelf.

Assassin’s Creed was past its sell by date though, it seemed. I found Syndicate thoroughly enjoyable, mainly thanks to its wonderful city and the fun-loving characters who felt like the Spideys of the AssCreed world in among all the serious business. Even though I had a blast with it, I’d never argue that it wasn’t formulaic to a fault though, and I was keen to see how Origins would refresh the series.

In what is becoming a mantra as I write up my experiences with E3 demos, I can’t answer the big questions. The trailers and dev diaries will tell you that this is the biggest Assassin’s Creed game ever, that it introduces RPG aspects, that the world feels more alive than ever, and that the combat system is much-improved. Except they won’t say ‘much-improved’, they’ll say ‘dynamic’ or ‘visceral’ or something like that.

I’ll say ‘much-improved’ though. There’s an arena mode, where you can test out combat while blood-thirsty crowds cheer you on. I played four rounds, culminating in a boss battle against a gigantic bundle of muscles in the shape of a man, who I killed by dodging around him until he stumbled or charged into five or six spinning blade traps. In the earlier rounds, I dodged and parried and clobbered in a way that felt pretty damn good, and made me realise something that I hadn’t really considered before…

I don’t know what kind of game Assassin’s Creed is supposed to be. The obvious answer, after all these years, is that an Assassin’s Creed game is simply supposed to be an Assassin’s Creed game, and perhaps that’s true; a little subgenre falling under the Ubi open world umbrella.

Assassin’s Creed games have never been stealth games, even though there are stealthy bits in some of the missions and there’s a whole set of ideas around hiding in crowds and jumping on targets from above. The sneaking has never been particularly satisfying or precise, and if I can hop, skip and jump across rooftops, and wristblade the heck out of anyone who sees me, why bother with fiddly shadow-hugging?

If I were going to guess what an Assassin’s Creed game might be without playing one, my mind would immediately jump to Historical Hitman, but that’s nowhere near the mark. Assassinations are a small part of the game rather than the entirety of it, as in IO’s series. And where Hitman is a sandbox killing simulator (a snuffbox, if you will), Assassin’s Creed is more an open world climbing and running and jumping and collecting simulator. It’s vague. Against other Ubisoft games, where Far Cry is very much an action game, Assassin’s Creed is a bit of everything, doing lots of things quite well, but no one thing exceptionally well.

Actually, I’ll make an exception for its environments, which are… exceptional. Syndicate’s London and Unity’s Paris in particular. Black Flag has some lovely coastlines too, but it’s notable for being the Assassin’s Creed game that people who don’t like Assassin’s Creed games can enjoy. I’m pretty sure that’s because the boats and piratical stuff give it a centre; that’s what the game is about. That’s its reason to exist, beyond the stealth and the collecting and the combat and the running and the jumping.

And now that I’ve taken a detour longer than a person trying to assassinate the head of a globe-threatening conspiracy who gets distracted by a feather on a distant rooftop, we’re back at Origins.

The combat is fun and far more skill-based than in previous games, there’s a proper RPG-like loot system for weapons and other bits and bobs, and I played an entire mission, and explored the surrounding area, and didn’t once run up the side of a building. In the tiny town I was exploring, there were no buildings tall enough to stretch my parkour muscles, so my attention turned to the people rather than the structures.

They’re good people, stopping to haggle and natter, and my guide told me they’ll follow basic routines, changing with the time of day.

I found that out for myself when I inadvertently meditated for half a day.

At night, the streets were empty, bar a couple of stragglers or ne’er do wells. I was swimming back to shore from a boat I’d just been investigating, in search of religious statues recovered from the water where they’d been lost. Job done and guards evaded, I dived into the water and headed back to town, where the information I’d uncovered could be used to convince a nasty priest to stop beating the bloke he’d accused of stealing the statues. The mission didn’t adjust to time of day, so when I reached the town square I saw the priest still whipping the poor guy. Eight to ten hours on the lash. Barbaric, and an unfortunate though understandable crack in the illusion of time passing.

Elsewhere, night time was very convincing, and no more so than in the fishing boat that nearly killed me. When I’d headed out to the ship, minutes ago in real-time but hours ago in the game world, the tiny dock had been fairly busy, with little one-person boats heading in and out. I stole one to make my way off-shore.

At night, everything was still. It probably goes without saying that Origins looks splendid, and I’m a sucker for day/night cycles, so seeing the occasional blaze of torchlight reflected in the water made me stop to admire the sight. I was treading water at the time and the sound of creaking wood was just loud enough to tip me off as one late-night fisherman returned home, almost punting his little vessel straight through my head.

I managed to paddle away, unseen, and watched as he parked his boat and started checking over the fish he’d caught. It was a lovely moment, near-death experience and all, that gave me hope that Origins’ enormous world won’t skimp on the little details. Whether improved combat, horse-riding and character progression (through all of that stat-loaded loot) will be enough to make any one part of the game exceptional, I can’t say. But early impressions are of a game that might be shifting away from a focus on the mostly-automated parkour for more considered use of abilities, from combat to stealth, and a more studied observation of environments and NPC behaviours.

How that fits into such a sprawling world, I’m not entirely sure. In fact, after its gap year, I’m not sure if Assassin’s Creed has found itself or not. It’s found a new look, a new culture, a new set of stuff to collect. Hopefully the new stuff is actually meaningful, and I think it might be, even if it’s only giving “+4 to accuracy”. That’s better than “+1 to the number of these things you’ve picked up”.

It certainly seems to be a little bit better at all of the things that an Assassin’s Creed game does, and that’s probably enough. It’ll be enough for me, if this recreation of Egypt is as fascinating and beautiful as the little slice I saw, but in all of the sprawl, I can’t help but hope that the new RPG elements provide a clearer sense of identity.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is out October 27th.

32 Comments

  1. MushyWaffle says:

    I personally like the AC’s that take place in America the best. I did enjoy Syndicate. But I sure dont’ want to play another sand tower climbing game. I find Deserts drab and boring and the localization doesn’t just not interest me, it annoys me. When all the side chatter and names of characters are in non-enlgish (difficult to even say let alone remember), I feel a complete separation and lack of caring for the characters and story. Which means I by pass all story elements and play it essentially with the sound off, but still forced to look at the boring locations.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Holy shit. We turn ever inward.

    • abomb76 says:

      I gather you don’t enjoy traveling to other places to experience new and different cultures either.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Ever considered he’s not from America?
        Anyway deserts are in almost any game featuring different outside locations, I saw literally hundreds of video game deserts I’m not too excited either.

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      particlese says:

      Aha, but when you’re listening to a triple-A game in your mother tongue, you can’t pretend the NPCs are saying something cool/intelligent/normal. You’re forced to hear, “Verily, the production capacity of thy phoneme production subsystems would appear to the casual observer to be bloody well off the hook, yo” the entire time, over and over, which I would argue detracts from the lovely scenery.

    • GenialityOfEvil says:

      Now imagine how the other 194 countries feel about 98% of games taking place in the US and half of the other 2% still mostly having American characters.

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        elvirais says:

        Hear hear. Where is my Assassin’s Creed: Waffles from Brussels?

      • batraz says:

        It’s not the same because we got so used to anglo american stuff that, for instance, most french people believe we have habeas corpus, and expect policemen to yell “you have the right to remain silent” if they get arrested. So you can’t switch point of views, imo, between an imperialist culture and a local one, they’ re not on the same plan.
        Actually, seeing references to your own culture in a game is what is really exotic.

    • zubbuz says:

      The Americas based ones were my most hated :)

      I love AC 1 through Revelations, and enjoyed Unity and Syndicate. I found the others to be boring or downright crap…

    • DRoseDARs says:

      You lost me at “non-enlgish” and as a fellow countryman that screed you posted embarrasses me as an American.

      • syndrome says:

        Being an anti-American, what he said makes me the most proud… Though you’re an odd fella, are you sure you’re American? Better watch yourself out there buddy, you sound almost as caring as me. That’s not an American value.

        • theblazeuk says:

          Did you have to top the cringeworthiness of MushyWaffle? I can only hope both of you are American, so that there’s some kind of scale balanced out…

          “Almost as caring as Me” blech.

  2. MooseMuffin says:

    The AC series is odd, because it seemed to lose its way almost immediately. Blending in with crowds, hooded robes to conceal your face, hidden retractable blade, free running – the systems and toolkit pointed to a game where you make your way to a target, stealthily kill them, and then make an exciting getaway. And then by game 2, you spend most of your time openly swordfighting 8 guards at once in the middle of the town square. And by “swordfighting” I mean standing there and waiting to hit the counterattack button. You get to these forts and if it wasn’t for the mission auto-failing if you don’t sneak in, you could just walk in the front door and kill all 50 guards. It came as no surprise that their “assassin” combat system translated just fine to swinging over to an enemy ship and killing the 50 pirates on the deck.

    • April March says:

      Yeah, this is spot on. I like the AC games, but there’s nothing Assassiny about them, except for the first, and even then… They did come up with a fun thing but only realized a few games too late that it didn’t gel with their concept, and now there’s nothing they can do but run with it for ever and ever and ever.

    • Hyena Grin says:

      This seems to vary from title to title. Some of them make you feel like a combat god, others not so much. Unity in particular punished you quite badly for getting into fights with large groups. Yeah you could finangle your way through a big fight with judicious use of smoke bombs and other tools, but most of the time the ranged enemies would rapidly turn you into swiss cheese. And since most of the melee enemies were also ranged enemies given a half a chance, once you got up to 6 or so enemies things got pretty tough.

      Not that Unity was a great title in the series, just an example of one where they seemed to nudge away from combat being an easy way to solve problems.

  3. Blastaz says:

    I’m liking this more the more I hear of it. Seems this one is stealing heavily from the witcher 3, with auto running horses, quest structure and meditating.

    I think of all the annual series none have a fraction of the ideas of AssCreed. They have new characters, timelines, locations and sub systems that they quickly pick up and try out then discard (the crafting of AC3, the tower defence of revelations, the whole pirate thing in BlackFlag). They reinvent large sections of themselves fairly regularly on top of the core of parkour and stabbing. So it’s an interesting question of what makes an AssCreed game. I think a big chunk is historical exploration, either of actual history (the Pazi and the Borgias) but much more frequently of place. AC2s Florence was perfect for me because I love Florence and it still basically looks like that. BlackFlag’s Caribbean allowed you to sail around and play the sea shantys. Unity’s Paris is probably the best one though, the way the city decayed, with barricades springing up and rubbish and bodies pilling up, as the Revolution bit deep was a great touch on what was already a fantastically beautiful place.

  4. McGuit says:

    “I’m liking this more the more I hear of it. Seems this one is stealing heavily from the witcher 3, with auto running horses, quest structure and meditating.”

    This is exactly what I’ve been thinking while I watched some video on the game. I guess you could steal from a lot worse.
    Be interesting to see how this turns out. First AC game I’ve been interested in since “Black Flag”…which gor…was quite good.

  5. draglikepull says:

    My biggest question is: What even *is* an Asssassin’s Creed game? What is the relationship between this game and the early ACs other than the fact that the main guy wears a hood and lives in the past?

    To me the thing about the early ACs that was interesting was the parkour running/climbing stuff. It was sort of an open-world take on the Prince of Persia style of platforming, with the development led by the guy who’d made Sands of Time. The early ACs were platformers, not action games.

    So now when I hear stuff like “the combat is better” or “it’s got an RPG skill tree” I wonder what that’s got to do with what made the series interesting, which was its unique take on the platformer genre. I can play lots of games that have good combat. Assassin’s Creed was interesting because of the things it did differently from other games, and now it feels just like a mish-mash of ideas from other games but not very much of its own.

    • Blastaz says:

      It’s interesting that you see it as originally a platformer and Mooseman as a stealth game.

      I saw AC1 as a tech demo of a beautiful engine with a handful of ideas thrown at it randomly, modern conspiracy! historical plot! hidden blade! social stealth! parkour!

      Then AC2 and delivered an actual game an historical swashbuckling Errol Flynn of a game. It kept the stylings of AC1 (hood, eagles, climbing view points, wrist blade etc.) and the embryonic trappings of stealth that were never fully developed, but basically was it’s own creation and never really looked back.

      • Xocrates says:

        Yeah, I’m currently replaying AC 1 and playing Syndicate, and what separates them is iteration, not a change in focus.

        The games were never good as platformers or as stealth games, and frankly never really focused on either. They’re mostly reasonably entertaining busywork on generally interesting settings.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      I’d say less platformer, more free-form exploration game with a side of combat and stealth. Despite having tired of the series somewhat (though this one has me interested again) my favourite thing in these games has always been climbing around at my own pace and just marveling at the environments.

  6. udat says:

    “I played an entire mission, and explored the surrounding area, and didn’t once run up the side of a building.”

    Did you mean by accident, or on purpose? I’ve accidentally run up the side of hundreds and hundreds of buildings I didn’t want to climb. If they’ve made the controls tight enough to avoid this, I’m sold.

  7. Zenicetus says:

    So, no Abstergo sci-fi nonsense this time around?

    I hope so. It was so far in the background of Syndicate that it looked like they were about to ditch it. Syndicate didn’t have any of the horrible insta-fail stealth missions that marred Black Flag either, although there was a bit too much repetition of locales for assassination targets (the factory bosses in particular).

    It sounds like they’ve tightened up the format, so I’m looking forward to this if the initial reviews are good.

  8. bfar says:

    Unisoft games. Big maps full of boxes to tick.

  9. haldolium says:

    “there’s always something fresh on the shelf.”

    You mean there is always something stale on the shelf, right?

    It really doesn’t matter what Ubi approaches next, since *every* major game is one step forward (75% in the visual department) and two steps back.

    All their expensive games “have to have” to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which is “the dumb kid that plays for the very first time and hasn’t even reached the age of our rating”

    Whatever layer they but underneath those issues, it really doesnt matter anymore. Their (in their view, and now in millions of players since they grew up with that) compliant design ethics are ever obscuring, no matter what good elements they might bring.

    • April March says:

      Yeah, but once you realize all those things are true, you can enjoy the games for what they are: dumb, often visually striking, sometimes even more often cringeworthy. I think less than 10% of my gaming time is spent on AAA games, and I find that to be a sterling rate to enjoy the medium.

  10. poliovaccine says:

    SNUFFBOX

    A FUGGEN SNUFFBOX

    my mind is meeeelting at the sheer icarian proximity to that joke

  11. vast_anusse103 says:

    Climbing that tower in Ass 2 was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a game. For me it’s the locations, for sure. And the thrilling shudder you get when you jump or fall off. I do agree with Waffle though, all future games should be set in Bumfilth, Alabama, where peeple speek proper Englshi.

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    duns4t says:

    Let us hope that exploring the “origins” will then somehow allow Ubi to finally put to rest the entire VR-timetravel (and I am probably misinterpreting or misremembering the sci-fi part because I purposely turn my brain off for it) angle for the series. If there’s one thing that will forever ruin the immersion and flow of a game, it’s that. At this point it must be one of the most stubbornly misguided design elements in the history of videogaming.

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