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Assassin's Creed Mirage harks back to Ezio's glory days, for better and worse

After playing three hours of it, I can confirm that yep, this sure is old Assassin's Creed again

A close-up shot of Basim from Assassin's Creed Mirage in his assassin gear
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

I don't know about you, but after spending 100+ hours in both Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Assassin's Creed Valhalla, I'm well up for an AC game that reins its open world in a bit and goes back to the sort-of single city stab-athon the series used to be. The ones where stealth actually mattered, and you felt like a proper assassin working from the shadows. Assassin's Creed Mirage is all this to a tee - as Ubisoft have taken great pains to remind us over the last year as they gear up to celebrate the series' 15th anniversary.

And after spending three hours playing some of its early mission sequences, I can confirm this is very much a game whose sole purpose is to scratch that nostalgic itch good and proper (before we inevitably hurl ourselves into the still very ambiguous void of whatever the heck Assassin's Creed Infinity is). If, however, you don't have much fondness for those older games, and prefer the more action-oriented RPG-ing of recent Creeds, Mirage is probably going to feel like a step backward from all the things you know and like - and you may be better off waiting until the next big open world entry set in feudal Japan pitches up instead.

Katharine recently played four hours of Assassin's Creed Mirage and, yep, it's certainly a classic Assassin's Creed game.Watch on YouTube

In case you've forgotten, Mirage is all about Basim, everyone's favourite scamp of a not-villain from Assassin's Creed Valhalla. You don't need to have played Valhalla to play Mirage (though it does lead in nicely if you have). Rather, Mirage charts his journey from boy-thief-to-man-assassin in his pre-Eivor days in 9th century Baghdad - a sequence that's captured in a truly brilliant Lion King-style training montage where instead of Timon and Pumbaa teaching Basim(ba) the ropes, he's got his baby eagle squawking in his ear and the deep tones of Shohreh Aghdashloo (as head assassin Roshan) repeatedly whooping him into shape.

In truth, the younger Basim I played in the game's early tutorial mission, where he's tasked with stealing a ledger from local Baghdad port office, didn't feel substantially different to the slightly older Basim I was handed in the second part of my preview, which covered both the before and after moments of his official induction into the proto-Assassin Brotherhood (which at this point in AC lore is known as The Hidden Ones). Even when he's fully tooled up with a fully grown out man beard, Basim is still just as nimble at the old parkouring and auto-climbing as he was before, and he was still as much of dab hand at whistling to guards from a hedge and luring them to an unseen oblivion. In this sense, Basim is as much an empty vessel as previous Creed heroes and heroines - an umpteenth avatar for us to slip on like the same old comfortable pair of shoes we've been wearing for the last 15 years. And honestly, that's fine. There's a muscle memory built into Assassin's Creed now, and given Mirage is effectively one big nostalgia bath, I wasn't expecting anything less.

A young Basim holds a large cat in Assassin's Creed Mirage
I'm pleased to report that Valhalla's oversized, huggable cats are BACK. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

Slightly less fine is the obvious step back to early AC's quite terrible combat routines. Combat has never been Assassin's Creed's strong suit, admittedly, but it has at least become more exciting over the years, with moves like Kassandra's excellent hoofing Sparta kick and Eivor's charging shoulder barrage to name just a two. Sure, the ground gained in beefing up Assassin's Creed's fights has probably come at the expense of its actual stealth (why sneak when you can just barge your way to victory, after all), but in my book Mirage still doesn't quite strike the ideal balance between the two. Here, you merely have a sword and a dagger - which means no spears, flails, hammers, axes, bows or shields or any of the other myriad weapon types you may have become used to - and a combat style that can be neatly summarised as mashing light attack, parrying, dodging out the way, and maybe charging up for a heavy swing with your sword. That's kinda it, and I worry that the lack of options available to you when you are inevitably drawn into a fight will be keenly felt by newer Creed players.

That said, despite Mirage's RPG elements and combat upgrades being noticeably stripped back compared to more recent Assassin's Creed games, it retains a light dusting of RPG-ness about it. You can still upgrade the strength of your sword and dagger by pumping in crafting materials to it, for example, and levelling up still grants you skill points to assign to a trio of skill trees. None of them fundamentally change its basic sword-swinging, though - unless of course the late game opens up a whole new layer of it a la Valhalla that just isn't present here.

The player runs past a camel at night with the button prompt to 'Hijack' it in Assassin's Creed Mirage
I mean, it would almost be rude not to, given you're offering me the choice (PS: despite the PlayStation button prompts, I was playing the PC version - just had a Dualsense 5 plugged in).Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

I'd be surprised if it did, given this is a strict homage to old AC, but what skills I did see in my preview session didn't exactly get the blood pumping with excitement. The Predator tree focuses on your eagle Enkidu, enhancing their ability to mark up guards and chests and the like, while the Trickster tree lets you carry extra tools and increases the number of potions you can carry. Inventory-based stuff, in other words. Finally, Phantom is a bit more focused on combat, adding a light (but certainly not Kassandra-strength) knock-back kick to throw guards off balance after a successful parry, as well as the returning chain assassination ability to take out another guard after a successful stealth kill.

The only truly interesting new wrinkle is the Air Strike, which is powered by your Assassin Focus bar. Taking a leaf out of Breath Of The Wild's airborne slow-mo attacks, this lets you mark up multiple enemies for simultaneous takedowns with your throwing knives when you're mid-jump - although only if you've got enough Focus in your bar to do it, which you can recharge by performing stealth assassinations. This creates a much neater and more tightly-woven relationship between Mirage's harder lean into stealth and its out and out combat, and thanks to Baghdad's plentiful supply of rope lifts (the same ones we saw in Valhalla) and the densely layered nature of its city streets, you certainly won't be short of opportunities to make use of it. I just kinda wish there was more of this stuff.

Two assassins talk in front of a large auction house in Assassin's Creed Mirage
Simple, she says. Easy, she says. How about a spare 200 coins to bid on this special hairpin, then, eh, Roshan? | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

Then again, even if Mirage's broader combat does feel like a downgrade compared to recent ACs, the return to a more Hitman-style sensibility in its stealth will, I think, likely overpower those complaints. Assassin's Creed II's social stealth elements make a roaring comeback here, and stabbing people out in the open, getting caught moving bodies and generally getting up to no good in public will land you with a fatter notoriety rating as tensions start escalating. You can return it to more scrupulous levels by tearing down wanted posters or bartering with your local town crier to put in a good word for you - much as you could with Ezio in ACII - but let it get too high and guards will start actively pursuing you through the streets. Blend-in benches and curtained-off little lookout boxes make a welcome return, too, and eavesdropping on conversations will reveal new avenues of attack or hints about your objective.

Yes, there have been variations of these hostility tactics in more recent AC games - see the warring nations of Odyssey and the bristling, anti-Viking cities of Valhalla - but here it feels like a much more obvious throwback to 'how they did it in the olden days' and I actually quite like it. I was, in fairness, deliberately going out of my way to push its boundaries and see what happened (I mean, if you're going to offer me the button prompt to hijack a camel, who am I to refuse it?), but the reactive nature of the city made it feel much more alive than previous AC games I've played, and the warren-like streets of Baghdad made for much more thrilling escape sequences, too - especially when, with the aforementioned combat not being particularly brilliant, getting caught is something you actively want to avoid.

You can also bribe conveniently placed groups of mercenaries to create brouhaha distractions for you in the vein of more recent Assassin's Creed games, though a new barter system of specially designed tokens to enable these opportunities in the first place makes these moments feel a lot more earned than they've ever done before. The rarity of these tokens - at least in my preview build - also made me more cautious about utilising these distractions at all. I might need that token for something else down the line, so do I really want to waste it on a bunch of mercs? Other AC games simply let you chuck money at them, which you always had plenty of, so I'm glad Mirage is trying to shake things up here and make you engage more deeply with its stealth and methods of approach.

The player enters eagle vision mode in Assassin's Creed Mirage
When Eagle Vision is active, all guards, treasure and interactive objects are highlighted - including our favourite flaming oil cannisters from Odyssey and Valhalla, oh yes. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

And nowhere is more obvious than with its 'black box' assassination missions, which made up the third and final part of my preview build. The last time I heard that phrase being bandied about was all the way back in the Unity and Syndicate days - which was arguably the last time assassinations were actually good and exciting in this series (fight me). In case you skipped that section of your AC history lesson, these missions are essentially big murder setpieces that take place inside large, sandbox-y locations with multiple routes of entry and, often, multiple ways of taking out your target. In my Mirage preivew the black box mission took place in an imposing auction house, where dozens of individual merchants had set up shop in its sheltered hallways. I had to put in quite a lot of legwork to gain access to the place beforehand, helping out a local tea leaf seller by murdering another harbour master who'd confiscated some of his goods (and sneaking into a warehouse-style encampment to get clues on his whereabouts). Even when I was finally inside its packed corridors I had to set about gathering several bits of 'evidence' to help narrow down the identity of my target - a process that will feel instantly familiar to unmasking Valhalla's Order Of The Ancients and Odyssey's Cult Of Kosmos.

In truth, this particular black box mission felt like it was leading me to a single conclusion. While I was free to gather said evidence in whatever order I liked, it still culminated in an auction scene where I could bid on the desired item (which, if I'd won it, would presumably cut out the very small 'steal it back' sequence afterwards if you don't have enough money), and I still had to acquire a special brooch to access to the target's private office. I looked for other ways in, but alas, if there was another route in the vein of Syndicate's brilliant 'rise up from the morgue and pretend to be a cadaver' style nonsense, I wasn't about to suss it out.

Still, even if this particular mission wasn't a great showcase for a return-to-form 'black box' mission, the assassination itself still felt a heck of a lot more momentous than, say, taking out Valhalla and Odyssey's extremely underwhelming Cultists/Order bods. I hope these missions get more creative as the Mirage goes on, but even if they don't, the fact they have any build up at all, with twists, turns, stealth, drama and a clearly paced, authored structure makes them instantly more appealing to me than yet another board of 30-odd random, out in the open throats to slice. If Mirage can sustain this kind of momentum throughout its (hopefully) shorter run-time, I'll put up with as many duff sword swings as it takes just to get another bite of its meaty murder missions.

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