Assassin’s Creed Origins is a dark, multifaceted, deep dive into one of the series’ most alluring settings yet: ancient Egypt. As Bayek of Siwa, who is simultaneously compassionate, bold, and driven by revenge, you’re strung through a twisted story of pharaohs and corrupt leaders, of love gained and lost, and the plights of the lower class in a time when they were routinely worked to death and nobody batted an eye. It’s a tense journey that challenges your concepts of right and wrong, making you consider the morality of those you kill in the process – and, in a dramatic shift for the series, it’s all part of a full-on roleplaying game.
I spent 30 hours finishing the main campaign, which took me through just over half of the expansive and beautiful map that recreates ancient Egypt’s varied architecture and environments. It’s filled with areas of soft sand that are swept by dynamic sandstorms, ranges of treacherous and rocky mountains, catacombs of towering ancient structures built in the names of the gods, and the decaying shacks of the common people. Refreshingly, I discovered all of these things through an organic drive to explore, rather than through the series’ traditional structure of climbing to viewpoints to have them unveiled for you. There are plenty more secrets to uncover, and the delightful sense of discovery still hasn’t left me.
This is also the biggest and most connected map we’ve seen in an Assassin’s Creed game. Even the seemingly-empty desert regions having their own treats, like the breathtaking view from the highest elevation point, with an impressive draw distance, whether you’re playing on Xbox One X or PlayStation 4. There are multiple cities, too, each with their own unique culture featuring different gods, politics, race relations, and prejudices to uncover. They’re distinct in architecture and environment, and that makes the significant time commitment one that’s consistently varied and surprising.
The density of it is made more impressive by being able to explore it in its entirety without any loading screens, with the exception of some story cutscenes, and if you choose to fast travel. If you want to get around quickly, a smart in-universe transit system lets you call your mount and press a button to follow the main road, or to head to a custom marker you’ve placed on the map all fully automated, letting you take in the scenery around you.
While the main story is delightfully mystical and elaborate on its own, Origins also has some of the strongest actual mission design I’ve encountered in the entire 10-game series and maybe in any open-world RPG. From collecting clues to solve mysteries, to chariot racing and gladiatorial arena fighting, to chasing down leads and assassinating high-level enemies hidden in fortresses, to Black Flag-style ship-to-ship combat, I was pleasantly surprised by how each of them felt like a self-contained short, well-paced story. Another highlight is the series of hidden temples, which without spoiling anything tie into Assassin’s Creed’s overarching sci-fi story, among other things. They are distinct from every other tomb you’ll find in ancient Egypt, and even include some throwbacks to the fan-favorite, timing-based platforming puzzles introduced way back in Assassin’s Creed 2. I rarely felt like I was doing too much of any one thing.
While there are quests that simply involve finding a hidden location or looting a building, Origins has largely done away with the cluttered mini-map full of useless chests. Instead, the vast majority of quests require multiple steps to complete and have multi-faceted, interesting characters with believable motives. Even when I really only began a quest for the XP, many of them ended up distinctly memorable. I’ll remember the man who was poisoning poor Egyptians so he, as a Greek, could acquire their land when they died and I’ll remember the little girl who was selling fake Siwan artefacts for her mother, repeatedly assuring me they were real. My sole complaint is the NPCs’ overuse of ‘my family member died!’ and Bayek’s constant outrage at someone’s disrespect of the gods as the driving force of a quest.
Of course, being an Assassin’s Creed game, there’s a whole lot of parkour and climbing in Origins, and this is undoubtedly most seamlessly executed version of that well-rehearsed mechanic. Things that can be climbed are blended more organically into buildings and the act of climbing feels clean and almost as passive as running. True, that removes some of the challenge that existed in previous games where you’d have to figure out the best route up a building, but it takes a fair amount of frustration out the door with it. I never had a moment where Bayek failed to climb something I thought he should be able to, and that smoothness put Ezio, Altair, and the rest of the previous Assassins to shame.
The notably strong XP-based RPG progression elements are what make Origins addictive on a new level. Assassin’s Creed has let you unlock and upgrade abilities for a while now, but Origins does it in a way that enables multiple creative options that can cater to your playstyle, rather than just things that you’ll pick arbitrarily. If you want to approach missions stealthily, there are abilities that give you bonuses for stealth kills, ones that let you control arrows in the air after you’ve fired them for more precise headshots and ones that let you visually predict the path an enemy will walk on. If subtlety isn’t your thing, there are options that make you a beast in melee combat, others that increase the amount of money you get from looting and some that mostly just look cool (like activating slow-mo if you’re mid-air with your bow out). In the earlier stages, there are some plainly obvious picks, but I think most people will end up with very different sets of abilities by the end of the main story.
Thankfully, Origins does away with previous games’ auto-fail stealth missions and its heavy-handed suggestions for how you should approach certain objectives. Instead, it finally gives you absolute, almost Hitman-level freedom to approach a target however you’d like, and your choice of abilities can unlock new solutions. For example, as soon as I gained the ability to befriend animals, it changed the way I approached any mission locations where they were in the area. I’d survey the area with Bayek’s bird companion, Senu, then stealthily take out the guards at the front of a camp with a predator bow, sneak through to a caged lion, befriend it, and release it. That’s generally more than enough of a distraction to get past the remaining guards and break out the hostage I was sent to free from another cage, then slip out totally unseen.
While unlocking new abilities and story missions generally happens at a smooth pace, there is quite a lot of ‘grinding’ to be done in Origins. This happened to me when the recommended level for a new main quest mission appeared as several levels above where I was when I first unlocked it a difference that can render enemies all but unkillable. That’s usually no big deal, since Origins is flush with side activities that can help you make up the difference, but on two separate occasions, I couldn’t find any side quests at my level. That meant I had to go for much lower-level quests for small rewards, which stretched out the process uncomfortably. If you do urgently want to get to the next story event as I did at one point towards the very end of the story this stymied progress can be a little frustrating.
That said, one of my favourite things to do (and one of many options for grinding) is to attempt to infiltrate and liberate a fortress manned by enemies that are a few levels higher than me, just to challenge myself to see how long I can survive against opponents who could kill me in a couple of hits if I’m discovered. For me, the biggest appeal of Origins’ introduction of a level system is in that optional, self-induced challenge. Previous Assassin’s Creed games don’t have anything to put up a fight once you feel confident in your abilities, but there’s challenge in Origins every step of the way if you go looking for it.
In some cases, though, it will come looking for you. The world is also full of mini-bosses called Phylakes who’re constantly seeking you out, and when they’re first introduced are a dramatically higher level than you. If you’re careless and one of them shows up at a bad time it’s almost certainly a death sentence, and finally working up the courage to face one of them intentionally was one of my favourite parts of the endgame. (It’s not unlike taking down Guardians in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.) It’s made even more satisfying by the fact that they’re named you’ll remember the guy who killed you, and it’ll mean twice as much when you can finally return the favor. It’s not quite as elaborate as the Nemesis system of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, but you get some of that same grudge-match flavor.
Those fights feel immediately different from anything we’ve done in an Assassin’s Creed game to date because combat has been significantly rebuilt for Origins. One of the biggest differences is the introduction of hit boxes, meaning that when you press the attack button you have the potential to hit multiple enemies, or hit none of them and leave yourself very vulnerable to attack, depending on where your weapon actually strikes. (That’s different from the previous system, which was focused on one-on-one combat.) And because your enemies do significantly more damage per hit than we’ve seen before, there’s more urgency in knowing when to block, when to dodge, and when to parry; that, of course, depends entirely on what kind of enemy you’re fighting, what their specific combat animations are, and how many of them are attacking you at once. It creates a whole lot more thoughtful tension than has existed in previous games.
There’s a fair amount of enemy variety, too, pitting you against shields that require heavy attacks to knock back, archers who’ll quickly pick you off if you ignore them (especially since the AI is smart enough to predict your next location and shoot arrows accordingly), rogue assassins who’re almost as quick and impenetrable as you are, and even wild animals who might show up at inconvenient times (taking a page from Far Cry’s playbook). Each enemy presents their own challenge, and the combination of them present makes combat encounters feel a little like a puzzle.
You also have the ability to lock onto one specific target at a time, and while I used it constantly for one-on-one encounters, swapping between enemies in the heat of battle rarely worked. It’s supposed to be as simple as moving the right stick, but most often, my lock-on target just didn’t move at all, no matter how hard I tried. Thankfully, it worked perfectly in stealth moments where enemies weren’t moving quite as erratically, and assassinating an enemy from the safety of a bush or a haystack is just as satisfying as ever. My only gripe there is the inability to get double hidden blades, but the ability to upgrade the amount of damage your singular hidden blade does through Far Cry-style hunting and crafting did make up for that a little.
Then there are weapons, which vary in type, rarity, and effect. Some give you health on a hit, or issue bleeding damage, and they let you cater pretty specifically to your preference of playstyle while also regularly feeding you new loot to make you consider trying something different. Once I’d picked them up and learned their uses, I always kept three different bow types handy and swapped between them regularly depending on the encounter, like using the light bow for hunting animals since it locks on, the predator bow for one-shot killing enemies where I had time to wait and take aim, and the hunter bow for combat encounters with bigger enemies who were right in front of me. That same variety and choice helped with boss fights and tougher enemies who might be taken down faster with a heavy but slow mace, where amongst a group of enemies I wanted to stay quick with a sword. It’s a constant decision-making process and the combat is much richer for it.
There are Legendary and Rare weapons in Origins, too, and while finding a Legendary weapon is a thrill, it’s not as dramatic as it is in a game like Destiny 2 because Legendary weapons are easy to come by in main story quests, and most have unexciting benefits. I ultimately ended up with a very obvious choice for each type: the one that did the most damage, maybe occasionally considering swapping for something that had burning damage or health on hit, but there are no dramatic variations there that might change the way you play or make you reluctant to trade out a lower- damage weapon because of its other benefits. There are rare exceptions, but I didn’t encounter anything major. One of most unique weapons I found was one that had stronger buffs, but was also ‘cursed’, meaning you lost two health bars if you had it equipped. I was intrigued, but it ultimately it wasn’t worth suffering through the ‘curse’ to use it.
Decisions for clothing and mounts are even easier to make since they’re purely aesthetic and there are limited choices… unless you opt to buy them as part of Origins’ microtransation system, where you can even buy a unicorn for $4.99 USD. Because of the generous way the loot system works, though, a lot of people are likely to end up with the exact same weapons and there’s almost no need to spend much money or even to visit a regular blacksmith, since anything you buy or craft will be redundant or obsolete in no time.