Friday, 9 February 2018

Assassin's Creed Origins - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), PC 

There was a great sense of expectation with Assassin’s Creed Origins. For the first time in almost ten years, Ubisoft’s monolithic franchise had decided to take a year off in order to hone its latest offering into something that wasn’t simply a morass of bugs and re-hashed mechanics.

I don’t mean to sound too harsh when I talk about the series either. For all my criticisms of its more recent instalments, I want the series to be good, and regardless of what Ubisoft choose to do with it each year, I always find myself curious enough to play the darn things, even if they don’t end up being all that impressive or different from one another.

Assassin’s Creed Origins longer development is immediately noticeable. Locations and environments have never been a weak point in the series. After all, it’s arguably the primary idea at the heart of the games; letting players clamber all over historical locations.

Yet, visually at least, Ancient Egypt is a step forward for Ubisoft. The atmosphere, the cities, the pyramids. It’s the first time since Assassin’s Creed 3 that the developers have carved out a game space that looks and sometimes feels like a real place, rather than simply a host to slap a load of map icons.

The game’s sweeping vistas and epic scope are fitting, considering the rest of the game has undergone a similar overhaul. Gone is the Batman-esque rhythm combat that had been tinkered and tweaked to oblivion over the course of numerous instalments. In its place is part Witcher 3 and part Destiny, as Ubisoft have the series go full RPG. Numbers flash up when you hit enemies, weapons have dps ratings, and quests have recommended levels.

The combat has changed dramatically in order to fit this new focus. Origins adopts a typical third-person fighting system, along with a standard lock-on button and light and heavy attacks. I could at this point compare the system to a certain game by From Software, but I won’t, because at least five other reviews have already done so.

In actual fact, the combat has less in common with that particular game and more in common with Ubisoft’s own For Honor. Fighting is slow and sluggish with a heavy weight behind it, even when you’re wielding the lighter weapons. Enemy attacks flash briefly before connecting, highlighting when and where you should be timing your parries.

It’s an intriguing system for the series to adopt, and definitely makes for more involving fights than in the previous games. Between the five or so different weapon types, there’s a little variety here; with some weapons being lighter and faster, such as daggers and swords, whilst clubs and axes are slower but with better reach and damage.

Other game elements return but have been given a significant trim even as the scope and size of the game has grown. Scrounging up crafting materials to upgrade your gear is still present but isn’t the giant, unwieldy and convoluted nonsense it had become in the later instalments, as well as in the more recent Far Cry games.

With no base to upgrade, ship to improve or random areas to free from enemy control, the game instead devotes most of its time to expanding on its side missions. Pulling straight from the Witcher 3 handbook, these are little “mini-episodes” of story and gameplay that dot the map and have you doing everything from helping a family dealing with rampaging hippos, to helping a small village cure a plague.

It’s here where Assassin’s Creed Origins stumbles the most. It’s easy to see what the intention was. Coupled with more time and effort, each of these side quests has been given more attention, fleshed out with their own stories and locations.

However, that writing simply isn’t very good. Origins side stories are worse than filler, they’re simply boring. It’s painfully obvious from the outset that Ubisoft’s writers aren’t equipped to write good RPG-style quests, and this is compounded by the fact that the player has no choice in how these episodes play out in terms of dialogue choices and what have you.

This would perhaps be fine if the side content were optional, but even describing it as side content is somewhat misleading. Assassin’s Creed Origins takes its obsession with numbers and damn well runs with it in the most cack-handed fashion. Should you fall a level or two below the recommended level for a quest you can almost guarantee getting one-shotted by whatever enemy happens to be roaming around. Likewise, find yourself a few levels above a given mission and it ceases to be a challenge at all.

This means that, regardless of your investment in the game’s side quests, you’ll have to hunt them down because you’ll need the experience, and given that experience is higher on the more higher ranked side quests, you’ll constantly be chasing after a vague Goldilocks zone of quests with decent enough rewards but that are at just the right level range that you don’t get obliterated by attempting them.

All of this then, is in service of the game’s main thrust: its story, its main quest. It could be argued that, in some of the previous games, the story had become secondary to the myriad of “additional content” and hoards of map icons to chase after. Here, though, given the games stripped back mechanics and less things to do it becomes a much bigger focus.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft take the blunt cookie-cutter approach here that they do with the rest of the game’s writing. Bayek is a man out for revenge. The Order (read: Templars) have murdered his son and now he’s out to kill of the bastards.

Origins does mix this rather bland and basic revenge plot up a little bit by also involving Bayek’s wife, Aya. Throughout the game the pair work together to check everyone off their hit list, with some missions having you switch over to Aya.

Initially, there’s some interesting drama to be mined out of how each of the parents deals with their grief, which is helped by some surprisingly strong voice acting from its two leads. Abubakar Salim, who plays Bayek, is especially good. Bayek is consumed by revenge to the point where it’s all that matters, whilst Aya puts her faith in helping Cleopatra secure the Egyptian throne. On the odd occasion, the game seems to hint that becoming a pair of kill-happy thugs in service to a monarch might not be the best way to overcome the loss of your only child, but any self-reflexive writing on Ubisoft’s part is quickly buried long before the game rolls around to its climax.

The best way to describe Assassin’s Creed Origins is as a MORPG: a massive online role-playing game. From its Destiny-style equipment system, to its “go here do A, do B, get reward” mission structure, it’s an MMO in every way except that it’s played solo. Its world is massive, and gorgeous, but is also a hollow and empty time sink. A few of the game’s side quests are perhaps more engaging than others, but that involves sifting through all the chaff to get to the few good ones. And it’s a moot point because the game expects you to clear out most of them regardless, so that you level up enough.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this is another Assassin’s Creed, and by now you should know what that entails.


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