So Assassins Creed Origins. Welp, It’s an Assassins Creed Game. After playing for about 5 hours I’d decided that I wasn’t going to write about it because I didn’t find anything egregious enough or great enough to discuss. But by the time I’d gotten to 15 hours I knew I had to. Because AC origins is so painfully average it ends up being a lesson about scope, ambition, polish and about losing site of what the core vision of a game is.
So, as I always do, lets VERY quickly go over the history here. The first Assassins Creed Game released almost exactly 2 years after the release of the 7th generation of home video game consoles.
As we all now know early in a console generation the games are barely distinguishable from the best titles of the previous iterations and it often takes a couple of years just to build a library. More importantly it takes a couple of years for games that were developed specifically for the new hardware to appear.
As such the first Assassins Creed arrived at the perfect time. It was certainly a fresh new title. Loosely based on the Price of Persia style platforming it had unique gameplay, state of the art animations and fairly huge maps. Yes there were issues. Climbing (one of the core mechanics) was often janky, combat was basically a one button affair, the stealth could be annoying (especially the follow and eavesdrop missions) and most of the assassination missions were similar. But for a first installment it was promising. Coupled with a massive marketing campaign the game was a huge mainstream commercial success.
That success led to yearly installments. As such there has been shockingly little evolution of the core gameplay. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Uncharted, which everyone except me seem to absolutely love, made four of the same games. COD is basically the same thing year in year out. The problem with AC is that it’s been making yearly installments of a game that was never mechanically perfected and certainly wasn’t polished and tight.
Each game in the series up to Black Flag had felt like it was the one that was almost really good. And in fact the further we get from Black Flag (a legitimately wonderful game that had perfected naval combat and featured an actually engaging story with characters I gave a shit about) the more it looks like a fluke. With critical reception and sales becoming more and more muted Ubisoft finally made the decision to take a step back and give the series the refresh it needs. And Origins did do much better in reviews though I’d argue that reviewers gave it far too much credit for change itself rather than whether those changes made the game any more fun that it had been.
In fact I think they clearly didn’t take enough time. This game is RIDDLED with bugs that we’ll get to later and it’s obvious that instead of really stepping back and deciding to create a game that perfected the soul of what the series is, what happened is a bunch of market research people were used to shape this game. So instead of being a pure Assassins Creed game we got a game that tries to experiment with what works in other games.
Most very good games do one or two things exceptionally well. Bayonetta featured almost perfect fast paced, combo centered, hack and slash combat that holds up to this day. Destiny has it’s flawlessly smooth FPS shooting mechanics.
And the very best games generally do a few things really really well. Soulsborne has perfect combat that works because of tender loving care being paid to animations and stamina management. The game then uses that mechanic within expertly crafted levels set within a world with best in class environmental story telling.
Uncharted (I’m not a fan but I can see what it does well) uses movie quality cut scene direction and gives the illusion of fully interactive set pieces that allow the player to feel like they are controlling an action film.
The Witcher creates a living breathing world of moral complexity and genuine emotion with satisfying and varied combat that allows the player to explore a world in motion, even Ubisoft’s own Far Cry series creates a huge and detailed open world sandbox and gives players the tools to wreak havoc in it with a huge variety of vehicles and armaments giving freedom to tackle encounters through stealth or mayhem as the player see’s fit.
The problem with Assassins Creed is that it’s never settled on what it wants to do really well. If the series is know for anything it’s probably the parkour movement system. But ten years in the system is still at times frustrating and strangely linear. You can climb most things but not anything. Sometimes you’ll jump off a wall to your death while other times it feels so on rails that you won’t be able to scramble over a low fence. There’s much less freedom of movement than one would expect. And the mechanic itself is barely gameplay. If AC wanted to lean heavy into this system (and that might in fact be an idea) they could have used a stamina system, or make the platforming elements have fail states so that there are stakes for your actions. At least they could have gone back to the platforming puzzles of the early games.
Or maybe Assassins Creed is about the stealth mechanics? If anything Origins has tried to de-emphasize stealth. IF AC wanted to focus hard on stealth they could institute dynamic lighting effects like Thief. They could have created Hitman style infiltration gameplay, or have a skill tree that features fun and interesting stealth based skills in the vein of Dishonored (though obviously less....magical).
Or is it the combat? If anything AC combat has always been looking for an identity. In Origins they’ve gone to a mix of 3D Zelda and Soulsbourne. It’s far more Zelda that Dark Souls though. What makes Dark Souls so satisfying is the depth of the mechanics: stamina management, varied weapon move-sets, parrying, magic, From creates a very structured system that forces you to adapt to it. Origins gives us the lock on strafing without the stamina management or consistent animation based dodging. Souls works because you learn the ways enemies attack. The fodder enemies attack in one or two specific ways while the difficult ones have large pools of animations to choose from. The game arises from recognizing and learning to react to the different animations and when to apply your large kit of responses.
AC Origins takes the very basic elements of this system without having any of the depth or risk the system requires to be fun and engaging. And it lacks polish. The range of the lock on is poor and it’s difficult to know if you’re close enough to engage an enemy. There are only 3 enemy types for the most part so it doesn’t take long to be back to where we were in the previous games, just face-rolling through enemies without any real effort. Violence in video games is always somewhat fun but the combat never rises above adequate which is exactly where it’s always been.
AC seems to want to be the jack of all these trades and master of none. And that leaves it in a strange place. This begs the question of why? Why doesn’t AC pick one or two of these mechanics and flesh it out into a compelling bit of gameplay?
And the answer to that is the other thing AC thinks it does well. AC is known for crafting tremendous, absurdly large maps with the veneer of historical accuracy. And rather than being the strength it was at the beginning of the series it’s become a burden for the game. The maps are enormous. So large that it’s almost impossible to do the kind of intuitive sign posting that players need to be directed. You’ll find yourself regularly opening the map and scrolling about looking for icons to chase so you can progress further. And the games very strict leveling/stat based combat demands you grind levels to move further.
Does this add a sense of realism by de-emphasizing the gamey quest hubs we’ve all grown so accustomed to? Sure. But I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face or developers start listening. In a contest between fun and realism, fun should win every time. And there’s nothing particularly fun about hovering over a map and then traveling a significant distance to find your next task. Especially when your next task is just an extremely uninspired gamey quest.
This problem has crept into other aspects of the design as well. AC has to have a huge map because that’s what an AC game has to have. This means that player navigation and traversal needs to be dealt with. Fast traveling everywhere is immersion breaking and runs the risk of the player never seeing all the work the developers did to program palm trees and fishing nets and baskets and shrubs. So AC has to have mounts. But the distances are long and AC doesn’t trust it’s content to keep you invested. So you have the option of simply pressing a button to have the horse autopilot it’s way to your objective.
The AI is pretty atrocious so this does provide some fun as pedestrians blithely wander in front of your galloping steed to be trampled to death. But by the 30th time you’ve run over a nameless NPC you’ll be annoyed at the way they are slowing your progress. Other games have managed to make horse travel a fun mechanic in itself. Red Dead Redemption basically set the standard and the Witcher 3 kept it. I’m somewhat baffled at the choice to simplify an already simple mechanic. The removal of the ability to sprint can be dumped into this bucket as well.
In order to craft a map so large and detailed other compromises have to be made. NPC models are re-used often. Sometimes to hilarious effect. In the bathhouse during a quest one obscenely hairy man was having a conversation in the middle of the room. After marveling at his fur I moved along only to find his doppelganger in the very next group. Once I had two quest givers of the same character model consecutively. These were not uncommon occurrences.
This brings us to the amazing lack of polish. In the video attached I feature a little montage of immersion breaking hilarity. But the game is riddled with strange bugs. Everything from NPC and enemy pathing to physics problems to absolutely terrible facial animations and lip syncing. When I purchase an indie game on Steam I don’t expect AAA polish. When I buy a game from Ubisoft I’m expecting a perfect polished experience worthy of the AAA price tag.
The writing is very very bad and voice acting ranges from lifelessly adequate to high school drama club terrible. The progression system is lackluster being simultaneously too large and slow while being meaningless and lackluster. The actual story begins almost incoherently. I waited 10 hours for the story to start before realizing I was actually already half way through.
So what does this game do well? Well in the video linked above I said the game looks good but not great and I’ve been thinking that might have been too harsh. The environments are spectacular and the graphics technology is clearly top notch. But much of the time that graphical power is being used to depict very bland art direction. The pyramids and tombs really do shine but all of the animations are strangely choppy and remind me of good stop motion animation. I found that distracting. So while the graphics are beautiful there were enough small polish issues that it ended up detracting from the overall experience.
The combat is fun enough, not great just pretty fun. Finding loot is fun. And the map is very cool. They obviously put an obscene amount of time into creating a very impressive Ptolemaic Era Egypt. But even there...
Why would you choose the Ptolemaic dynasty rather than the First Dynasty era? Think of the narrative space available to you during the building of the pyramids rather than one of the most studied and dissected eras in human history? Being LESS historically based might open up mountains of gameplay possibilities. The franchise has no problem leaning into ancient aliens type conspiracy so set the game in 10,000 BC at a time when the ancestor race was building the pyramids with magic. Worry about what will make the game fun, THEN build a world and map around that fun gameplay. AC has been doing it the wrong way around. They’ve been picking an era, building a map and then trying to find fun in the world they’ve created.
This, finally, brings me to why I started writing and making videos about games. I played a lot of games growing up. I started with an Atari 2600 and made my way through a Commodore 64 and all the important systems until I moved out of my house at 18 years old.
At that point I traded games for punk rock and started playing in bands full time, barely making enough to eat. As such I missed gaming from about 1995-2013. In a those 18 years I played World of Warcraft from Vanilla through Cataclysm and the occasional PC game but it was more likely that our electricity had been turned off than I would have enough money to buy a game AND pay my WoW sub.
In 2013 we became suddenly lower middle class after my wife’s years of school and my years of manual labor payed off and we suddenly had disposable income. SO I bought an Xbox 360 used for $20 off Craigslist. Buying a console at the end of a generation is an amazing thing! There was 7 years of amazing games to play. I finished basically every single title of note from the system before buying the new consoles and making a decent gaming PC.
That experience spoiled me. The new generation has shown me that the release of great games is exceedingly rare. In a good year there are maybe 3 good AAA releases, 5-10 short but great indie Steam games and a mountain of mediocrity.
And it’s because of games like Assassins Creed Origins. The industry is stuck in a rut. Games that take chances are rare. Games that put in the effort to create unique systems or finely tuned experiences don’t come along often. I’ve simply run out of great games to play and the AAA developers refuse to take the time or put in the effort to deserve the price they are charging for these games. So I’ve started writing.
Is there fun to be had in Assassins Creed: Origins? Yeah. Sure. Video games are almost all fun if they work. There’s something uniquely satisfying about them. One rarely gets to see the consequences for their actions immediately. Games do the same thing for me that playing baseball in high school did. They do the same thing that playing shows with an indie rock band did. They provide instant feedback. They give a challenge that’s either passed or failed. They occupy time with at least the illusion of consequence.
But AC Origins also is an excellent example of the difference between a great experience and one that ONLY occupies time. The difference between seeing Fugazi or Wilco or Magnetic Fields and watching a cover band in a bar. Both are pleasant ways to pass the time. One is memorable the other entirely forgettable. AC Origins is a cover band of itself.
It could be more. It’s got the resources, the audience, the base mechanics to craft something truly memorable. But I’m done waiting. How many more times am I expected to pay $60 in hopes that they finally pull it off? Video games are the only place where I will regularly invest dozens of hours into something I consider mediocre at best. I don’t buy mediocre albums. There are too many transcendent ones. I don’t watch mediocre (meaning almost all) television shows. I don’t go watch movies that are only OK. But I’ll consistently pay $60 and invest 40 hours in a game that I’m barely enjoying.
Maybe that’s because games age worse than any other medium. A Sam Cooke album sounds as good today as it did decades ago. The Godfather or The Shining are as watchable as they were on release. Or maybe it’s because games are interactive in a way no other art form are so even a mediocre experience is something that feels less passive. And I’m not a passive guy.
Either way, this game needs to go away for FIVE years. Take this combat system and perfect it. Take the parkour system and perfect it. Shrink the map. Craft areas that cater to gameplay rather than gameplay that caters to areas. I’m not sure that’s in the cards (the game sold pretty well it seems so by business standards it was perfect) but it’s possible. All it requires is stopping and asking the right questions. What about this game is the core concept? What’s the most fun part? How do we make levels and areas that let the player use those fun tools in the most immersive way possible? The game needs to be entirely rethought from the ground up. In the meantime I guess I’ll have noting to do but keep writing and making videos about games.
Pliny would love if you watch his videos and share, like, comment on them. Etc. He also would very much like if you were to begin worshiping him. Not like a god or anything. Just like a really super amazing person. Like a demigod I guess. No burnt offerings or anything like that but like, gasps of joy when he walks by. Or at least eyes cast down to avert his fiery gaze.
Coming up next: The Best Games I Played This Year (not just the best games RELEASED this year)
Destiny 2: And The Danger Of Telling Your Players How They Must Enjoy Your Game.
Furi, Dark Souls, Cuphead: How To Handle Difficulty.
Horizon Zero Dawn: How to Get Away With Radical Social Statements in Your Game.
Nier Automata: How To Make The Ordinary Feel Extraordinary