Needed change comes to ‘Assassins Creed’

Sometimes change is a good thing. It feels as if with every subsequent entry, the “Assassin’s Creed” series changes too little and not often enough. The series’ newest title, “Assassin’s Creed: Origins,” embraces change to experiment with standards fans have come to accept. Through an overhauled combat system and an intense focus on RPG-like level progression and weapon drops, “Origins” goes back to the beginning by reimagining everything that it has preached for so long. The result is a leaner, faster and more enjoyable game than the series has seen in many years.

"Origins” takes players to Ptolemaic Egypt, roughly around 50 BC, to explore the birth of the Brotherhood of Assassins, the century-spanning legion on which the series is based. This game’s particular assassin is named Bayek, a well-meaning “Medjay,” the equivalent of a high-ranking police officer today. Bayek sets off on a trail of revenge once government officials kill his son early in the game. His story spans historic locales like Giza and Memphis.

Bayek’s plight makes for a convincing narrative that ranks among the best in the series. His revenge tale produces a tangible, human protagonist who’s easy to empathize with. Once the game moves past its abrupt in-media-res opening, the story beats shift in exciting directions which play upon the mystical nature of ancient Egypt. The writers and designers use side quests to let Bayek explore the wide-open deserts littered with secret sand-drenched tombs and pyramids which, yes, you can explore inside and out. Graphically, it’s one of the best-looking titles in the series. Yet shortly after a post-launch patch, I noticed the textures got slightly muddier. Whatever this patch changed drastically degraded the graphic quality, unfortunately making the game look ugly in the cities you visit.

Riding your horse or camel through the dunes can even lead you to puzzles involving Bayek aligning constellations to stars, which flesh out the oft-cryptic essence of ancient Egypt, and even provide backstory about Bayek’s relationship with his son. These little details and excursions are fun detours which play with series expectations, producing actual places to explore within a very large map. (hikeaddicts.com) At any time, you can use Senu, a bird that serves as a hovering camera to find objectives on the map when they’re near or scope out enemy locations. Though this mechanic is becoming regular fare within each new Ubisoft game, it works because this one helps narrow down the vast map.

In some ways, however, the map is too vast for its own good when it comes to the available quests. Side quests almost always involve finding someone’s carriage or loved one, then bringing them back. There are a myriad side quests, so many that each one ends up blurring together. The writing in the game is weak overall and doesn’t help the already archaic structure of the quests. It feels like padding for a game that is already large enough.

This map is filled with alligators, hippos, other animals and deadly stalking assassins named phylakes who can attack at any moment. The combat often requires deft movement and hack-and-slash precision, which is a sharp departure from the subdued, chain-focused combat of past games. Attacks are mapped to the shoulder buttons, while dodging sits on a face button. It feels similar to “The Witcher 3,” where parrying can turn the tide of a fight. There are also shades of “Dark Souls” in the phylakes, which prove brutal and require quick thinking.

Weapons drop from enemies, can be crafted, found in treasure chests or rewarded following a quest. Drops update the weapon system in a relevant way. Weapons range from light swords to powerful two-handed axes, with bows of all shapes and sizes included. You can further modify your combat focus through leveling and skill points. There’s an XP system that works much like RPG games, with points being awarded after leveling up. Skill trees branch to focus on bows, melee weapons or stealth. Elements like this are foreign to “Assassin’s Creed,” so it’s jarring to see them become such a fundamental part of “Origins.” They work for shaping the way you want to play but don’t radically push you in one certain direction. In this way, it hones back into traditional “Assassin’s Creed” by still making Bayek’s traits matter without overpowering his identity.

By the end of “Origins,” all the minor and major adjustments make for a stronger, bolder game. It’s the shot in the arm this series needed after its wavering sales. Also telling is how “Origins” is the series’ first game in two years. The extra development time shows in the mechanics and care for the setting. “Origins” provides hours and hours of content with enough revamped ideas for several iterations. It’s hard not to notice how fun this game is, and how much of a joy exploring these sprawling settings can still be. The writing does need work, though, and the content, particularly the side quests, need to be trimmed. It’s a stew of series ambitions and hard looks at what can be change that makes for a memorable, exciting entry.