My three year old rates games based on whether the character goes into water, and if they do, do they swim underneath. My personal rating systems are a little more nuanced, but it turns out that Assassin's Creed Origins' swimming is so astoundingly atmospheric I'm willing to forgive it a dozen other foibles. In all of gaming, water has never felt wetter.
It leaves me wondering when it was that gaming started to get swimming right. It used to be, for all of the 1990s and a good way beyond, that a game's inevitable swimming section was always a tiresome chore. All the effort would go into, say, Lara's run and jump, but since she only swam for two short bits in the game, her swimming received not nearly the same refinement. Swimming sections were a seemingly obligatory portion of the game that had to be included to secure, I dunno, funding from Big Water? Who knows. But at some point in the last decade, this is far less often the case. And with Origins, it proves to be a real highlight.
That's not to say there's anything especially wonderful about the swimming mechanics. They - and I can't stress how important and complimentary this is - don't get in the way of themselves. You can swim, you rarely need to, it's not objectionable to do so. That's pretty much all you want from a game where swimming isn't a priority. But where I find my joy is in the absolutely extraordinary atmosphere that surrounds it. It just sounds incredible.
One of my favourite things is to lie on my back in the sea, on a quiet day, and just listen to the sounds of the water ba-looping and ga-looping around me. In the mix will be the faint sounds of a child laughing far away, a boat's engine in the distance, a few gulls exchanging bitter words. And then, to let my head go under the water, and hear all those suddenly muted, deepened, the extraordinary cacophony of echoes and rumbles filling my ears, at once seeming to offer a deep sense of quiet. It's gloriously isolating, and enormously calming. And goodness me, if Origins doesn't evoke those feelings with its wonderful sound effects. Just have a listen:
The whole game has amazing background sound, but the very best of it is the underwater effects. That moment of transition from the gentle lapping noise of floating on the water, to the echoing majesty of your ears being filled - I've never seen (or heard) a game get it anything like this right.