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.