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Assassin’s Creed: Origins review-in-progress — side quests waylay a search for justice

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Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a stunning tour of ancient Egypt. As Bayek of Siwa, a seeker of justice and protector of the people, you’ll scale pyramids, climb the Great Sphinx, and scour silent tombs full of lost treasure and winding passageways. It’s the latest installment in Ubisoft’s series that’s renown for its sweeping vistas and aerial sneak kills.

Origins is out today on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. I’m playing it on the PS4, and I’ve clocked in a little over 30 hours. So far the main story intrigues me. Bayek’s a compelling protagonist, with a convincing performance from British actor Abubakar Salim that brings by turns stoicism, warmth, nostalgia, and unrelenting righteous hatred. The writers weave Egyptian lore and culture into the narrative, and it’s heavy with symbolism.

That said, it’s not all sunshine and lotuses along the Nile. It has some weaknesses, most noticeably with the open world gameplay.

[The following has light spoilers — Ed.]

What you’ll like (so far)

A stunning world to explore

Above: It’s a beautiful day to go sailing.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Origins is beautiful, and traversing the roads between iconic ancient cities like Alexandria and Giza never ceases to amaze. It’s a huge map, so fast travel options exist. But when I’ve been forced to hoof it the old-fashioned way along dusty paths and by boat along canals and across lakes, Assassin’s Creed’s take on Egypt has been a spectacle to behold: sunsets on shimmering waters, murky swamps full of lurking crocodiles, lush farmlands, and massive ruins rising from sandy dunes.

Occasionally, you’ll get caught up in a sandstorm, which sweeps across the landscape and plunges you into a deep blood orange haze. Specters and hallucinations begin haunting your steps and bandits can fall upon you in an instant, taking advantage of the limited visibility. Origins makes good use of its environment and each major area has its own personality. When you reach Memphis, the air is still, and the sounds are hushed. It’s a gorgeous city that’s fallen under a plague, and it’s clearly withering in the grasp of some dark power. Even the rivers seem dull and uninviting, a decided difference from the clear waters of Lake Moeris.

Each of the cities you visit yields stories and snippets of ancient Egyptian life. You hear about merchants who sell forgeries from faraway towns, and you visit temples and learn about their gods and religious orders.

Dividing time between vengeance and duty

Bayek is a Medjay, a member of an elite force that serves the pharaoh and protects the lands. At the start, the Order of the Ancients captures him and his son Khemu and attempts to extort information from him. In the ensuing scuffle, he accidentally kills Khemu with a blade meant for their captors. From then on, his story is one of vengeance — tracking down the Order and assassinating them one by one in both retribution and to prevent them from spreading further corruption in Egypt.

As Bayek searches for justice, he also gets pulled into myriad tasks for commoners. Side quests are necessary in that they enable you to gain experience points and level up, so you can unlock skills such as a charged heavy attack and brandishing fire bombs.

Mainly, these odd jobs give a peek into what everyday life is like under the rule of the pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. They also offer contrast between Bayek’s duties as Medjay and his personal journey as a grieving father. When the villagers implore him to stop bandits, avenge family members’ deaths, and retrieve stolen items, they sometimes invoke that responsibility. “You’re the Medjay,” they tell him. “Aren’t you supposed to help us?” The tension between his duties and his bloody path of revenge is intriguing.

Solid combat

Above: Unleashing a heavy attack to break through the enemy’s shield.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Most of the time, you can avoid combat by using stealth and sneak kills remain satisfying. But when you do end up in a sticky situation, it feels mostly pretty good. When Bayek’s adrenaline bar is full, he can unleash a brutal, bone-crushing overpower move that changes depending on the weapon you’re wielding. There are varieties of bows to equip, such as the quick-firing light bow and the warrior bow, which lets loose multiple arrows to strike down the enemy.

Your surroundings also comes into play during combat, whether you’re scaling walls to attack your pursuers from a distance or kicking over a jar of oil and lighting it on fire. You can always scan your surroundings for solutions, and the enemies telegraph plenty of information so you know when to dodge or when a crushing heavy attack is going to knock your shield out from in front of you.

What you won’t like (so far)

Repetitive side quests

Above: Sometimes you’ll find secret challenges on the rooftops.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Though I appreciate that the side quests are the everyday aspect of life in Ancient Egypt, I can’t help but feel that they’re too repetitive. I’ve infiltrated dozens of enemy camps and hideouts by now, and barring differences in layout, they’re pretty much the same. It feels routine — I send out Senu, Bayek’s faithful eagle, to scout the lay of the land and mark soldiers that I’ll have to take down. Then I sneak in, eliminate the enemy, and plunder the place.

The way you hear about these quests is often from other characters, but you can also search the map for symbols that denote strongholds or mystery locations. When you’re grinding for levels, this can often feel like running errands — going from point A to point B and checking off a to-do list. It doesn’t feel so much like exploring. I much prefer the subtler environmental cues you find sometimes, like little notes and challenges hidden on the rooftops, which make you want to explore more and discover secrets.

The politics

Above: Bayek’s wife, Aya, is out for a vengeance of her own.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

Bayek’s actions are contrasted with those of his wife, Aya. She too wants to avenge their son’s death, but she goes about it in a different way. She’s also killed members of the Order, but now she’s aligned herself with Cleopatra and seeks to create a world where no one else will have to experience the trauma of losing a child the way she did.

The problem is that the politics in Origins is a little weak. I like how Aya and Bayek have diverged in their search of justice, but I don’t find Cleopatra to be a compelling character. I’m much more interested in the personal stories unfolding, and it feels like we’re not given enough information about the power struggle that’s going on at the top.

The politics seem so far removed, particularly since we haven’t met Ptolemy, whom Cleopatra seeks to overthrow so that she can become pharaoh. It’s hard to care when Bayek is out in the trenches dealing with immediate threats, like corrupt local politicians and power-hungry soldiers.

The gameplay doesn’t match the story

Above: Bayek and one of the Order of the Ancients in Duat.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

My biggest complaint so far is Origin’s uneven handling of story and gameplay. It’s partially because it’s open world — even though Bayek’s story is dramatic, you’ll have to take a break to run errands for the local villagers, which disperses the tension. But it’s also because of how understated certain major game events feel. Even though he’s been hunting the Order across the land, Bayek’s eventual encounter with one feels like any other mission. Most of the time, you end up infiltrating their base, stealthily dispatching their guards, and then landing a death-blow on them like they’re any other character. Throw it all together and the tone feels inconsistent, breaking immersion for what I find a compelling story about a man’s quest for redemption and revenge while staying true to his principles.

I also wish there were more boss fights. There are two terrific ones I’ve encountered so far, which I won’t go into too much detail because they’re really awesome when you’re blindsided by them. The battle against Apep the eater of souls is fantastic because of the visuals as well as the symbolic meaning for the story. I want more of that.

Conclusion (so far)

Assassin’s Creed: Origins offers a rich world and a compelling story, but it’s waylaid in part by the repetitive side quests. It has secrets to find, but you’ll have to go looking for them. If you don’t mind hours of grinding to move forward a story piece by piece, then this is something you’ll enjoy. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next, but I wish that the open world aspect either didn’t affect the pacing so much or did more to expand on the story.

Score: NA

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is out today on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The publisher sent us a code for review.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.

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