After a long cycle of yearly iterations of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Ubisoft took a year off last year and remained quiet on the time-hopping series. Because of that previous annual release cycle, it feels as if we’ve had an especially long wait to discover what time period and story we’d be tackling next. Assassin’s Creed Origins has now been revealed, in part through our latest Game Informer cover story, and we now have many of those answers. We’ll be headed back in time to the era of Cleopatra, a lush Nile delta, and the mysterious early days of the Assassin order.
Joe Juba and I have a lot of hours of Assassin’s Creed between us, including dozens of distinct written stories and countless hours of playtime. At E3 this year, we both had a chance to sit down and play a full hour of the new adventure, guiding Bayek through battles and exploration. If you, like us, have a long history with the franchise, we’re here to share what’s new, what remains unchanged, and what we still have yet to learn.
Matt Miller: Joe, you and I sat down next to each other and played the same demo of Assassin’s Creed Origins, but judging by some brief glimpses at your screen, we had very different experiences, wouldn’t you say?
Joe Juba: Yeah, that’s fair. First of all, I spent a good ten minutes trying to burn my own boat with fire arrows.
Matt: Which you did.
Joe: I did! Sailing through some oil did the trick. I also ran around making mischief; I killed several friendly guards, set their bodies on burning braziers, and put villagers to sleep with darts. This isn’t just me being a jerk. I always enjoy seeing how simulated worlds respond to this kind of behavior – and I think other AC fans enjoy that, too. But hijinks aside, I eventually followed the objective markers for the demo’s main mission, whereas you did some sidequest business instead.
Matt: Yeah, I did the beginning of that main mission thread, but then totally split off onto this other side-quest, which was focused on some farms that had gotten destroyed. I met a woman farmer who joined up with me, and we galloped off into the desert to take down an outpost of the people who had done the deed, rescued her neighbor, and finally I went to assassinate this fellow who fashioned himself the Son of Ra. It made me curious about how Ubisoft is handling the Egyptian gods in this installment. I’ve been wondering a lot if they might play up the idea that some of those gods might have been members of the First Civilization.
Anyway, the interesting thing about this is that each of us had a conscious choice of which mission to pursue, selected from a quest log, something that feels a lot more like a traditional RPG system than what we’ve come to expect in an Assassin’s Creed game. I liked the deliberate and determinative nature of that organizational structure. Did it feel okay to you?
Joe: I didn’t deliberately choose anything from a list. An hour seems like a long demo, but it went by quickly, and I didn’t want to spend too much time fiddling with menus. I just followed the objectives for the main mission and didn’t worry about it.
Matt: Yeah, it does a good job of giving those choices to folks who want them, but otherwise just setting some clear central objectives and letting you go on your merry way. Another thing that I am totally on board with? The setting. I’ve been pining for a more exotic historical period for a long time with this franchise, and I love that they’re leaping so far back in time. My hour in Ancient Egypt really impressed me on a pure environment level. I pulled up the map of the game world, and it looks absolutely massive, stretching from the Nile Delta deep down into the lush areas further south. I also really enjoyed being able to hop into boats and cross the river, and the horse-riding felt quite good.
Joe: I think Assassin’s Creed always nails its settings, even when other parts of the games have varied in quality over the years. In that sense, I feel like Origins has a strong identity, and I can’t wait to see more of the world. However, one area where I think the game has lost some of its signature flair is the combat system. It has changed a lot – though that isn’t necessarily bad. What did you think about the fighting?
Matt: I’m willing to withhold final judgment, but in my brief time I would agree that it’s the most fundamental change from expectation. It’s hard for me to imagine a fellow fan of Assassin’s Creed who isn’t going to feel the same way; the combat system is totally different. All semblance of the prior counter/block/strike dynamic has disappeared. Instead, the focus of melee combat is on light and heavy attacks, and then dodging out of the way before enemies can reach you. And when dealing with multiple foes, it’s much more about positional tactics. Back when we were playing with Ezio, Connor, Arno, Evie, or any of the other heroes of the franchise, I always felt like my character was in the center of a maelstrom of action. Bayek is still a powerful fighter in his own right, but his need to dodge away to the outside changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. In many ways, melee feels more like a game such as The Witcher, and less like the games that originally were inspired by Assassin’s Creed, such as the Batman Arkham games, or Shadow of Mordor.
Joe: Of course, The Witcher is still a good game, so maybe the deviation will turn out well. After all, the fans’ fatigue with annual (and too-similar) entries is what spurred Ubisoft to forgo a new AC game last year. They need to reinvent rather than tightly grip every element that people expect to see in the series. However, from the bit of the game that I played, my reservations don’t have anything to do with the combat not being “Assassin’s Creed enough” so much as just feeling a bit generic.
Matt: Any way you cut it, getting that combat system right is going to be key to the game’s success. A lot of its RPG leveling systems, weapon upgrades, and overall approach to long-term investment rely on a compelling system of melee battles, so I’m really crossing my fingers that it emerges as a strong system. I share your concerns; it was hard for me to separate my own sense of it being different from the Assassin’s Creed battles I’m familiar with, and my worry that some aspects of fighting felt not quite right. However, those concerns did not extend to the stealth and ranged play; I thought both of those elements offered some easy-to-grasp fun. What about you?
Joe: In one leg of the main quest, I had to infiltrate a mansion crawling with guards, and it almost felt more like Metal Gear than Assassin’s Creed (in a good way). I flew my eagle-buddy around the grounds to mark hostiles, and then systematically snuck my way through the camp. I stabbed guards with my hidden blade, put them to sleep with darts, and one-shotted them with carefully placed arrows from afar. I didn’t even go grab my objective until I had cleared the whole place out because I was having so much fun being a silent menace. So, yeah, I had a good time with that facet of the experience, for sure.
Matt: The predator experience feels spot on. Even if it does lean a little into the fantastical, the eagle vision element being the actual vision of an eagle is quite entertaining, and a great way to get a clear understanding of the layout in an area. And moreover, this is just a beautiful game world they’ve crafted, so seeing it from a hundred feet up can make for some breathtaking views.
One thing we didn’t get to see? The modern day stuff. You think Ubisoft is finally going to do something interesting in that part of their fiction? The last few entries felt like the modern-day stuff had completely been shunted to insignificance.
Joe: I hope so! But I think that gets back to the question of identity we were talking about earlier. In my mind, the interaction of past and present is a key part of this franchise – but in reality, Ubisoft hasn’t made it a focus of the story since Assassin’s Creed III, back in 2012. On the other hand, each game has teased developments out in the world regarding the ongoing war between Assassins and Templars, so the door is still open. What about you? Think it’s coming back?
Matt: If they don’t do something meaningful in this installment, I feel like they might as well abandon the whole concept of the Animus, and just do historical games about these two fictional orders fighting each other. And I can’t imagine they’re ready to do that. Ever since the end of Assassin’s Creed III, we’ve had this looming threat of Juno in the world, and they’ve alluded to it in minor ways without ever really following through in a real way, at least not in the core games. I’m hopeful that the whole “origins” part of the name speaks not just to Bayek’s role in getting the Assassins going, but also the origins of some of these deeper threats to humanity, and the mystical ties to this forgotten, almost magical god-people.
Joe: You and I have been fans of this series from the beginning, and a lot of the stuff we’re talking about – from the First Civ stuff to the combat – springs from that history with previous installments. I’m sure Ubi is thankful for the people who have supported the series over the years, but I think they are probably looking to expand the audience with Origins, reinventing a series that was treading water in some ways. I don’t think this is even a bad goal – all of the great game franchises change over time, right?
Matt: Absolutely. And well they should be looking to expand the audience. Remaining static is a good recipe for franchise death. I think it’s possible to evolve and change in some dramatic ways without losing identity. For instance, Origins clearly has embraced the broader industry trend toward role-playing mechanics that we’ve seen in recent years, and if done well, that has the potential to keep everyone deeply engaged over what might be a very long and deep game.
Joe: I’m especially eager to see how the RPG elements play out over the long haul. I really like the idea of a more involved loot system; Assassin’s Creed games have been flirting with this kind of system for a while, but haven’t really gone all-in. Cool weapons and abilities go a long way toward getting me invested in an RPG, and I can see the formula working very well from the small slice of Origins that we’ve seen.
Matt: For the record, I don’t think my hour with the game is anywhere near enough time to determine if the game manages to maintain its identity in the face of some big changes. But there’s no denying that the moment-to-moment arc of gameplay here feels quite different from what has come before. I think fans should try very hard to approach the game with an open mind, and judge it on its own merits when they get a chance to play; that’s certainly my plan. After the long hiatus, I’ve definitely been feeling an itch for some new Assassin’s Creed, and I know you’ve expressed the same sentiment. At the very least, my time playing left me confident that we’ll have a lot of new things to learn when Origins hits this fall.