Hands-on: Assassin’s Creed Origins is a jaw-dropping showcase for the Xbox One X

Confession time: I’ve never really been able to get into the Assassin’s Creed games. The couple I’ve tried, I’ve appreciated, but I never found them compelling for one reason or another. Getting hands-on with upcoming prequel (and series revitalization) Assassin’s Creed Origins on Xbox One X, well, I found a lot more to keep me engaged.

An intricate, gorgeous world

First and foremost, there’s the visual splendour of the game. At this press event we played on Xbox One X, and there is absolutely no question that Assassin’s Creed Origins, which is set in Ancient Egypt (49 BCE to be exact), will be a major showcase for the console’s capabilities. My favourite thing to do during the session was simply hop protagonist Bayek on a felucca and cruise along the Nile, marvelling at the riverside settlements spewing smoke, passing war galleys and feeding crocs, taking out oversized water lilies and trying to avoid river trash when not being distracted by the sun’s dazzling reflection on the water. The experience was as soul-soothing as sitting on the beach and staring at the waves for a few hours.

The Assassin’s Creed games have always offered a kind of historical tourism, and Origins takes it to the next level. The game could have staggered, and then suffocated, under its immense attention to detail, but fortunately the world teems with life that operates according to its own “real” agenda. You’re encouraged to explore and lose yourself in Ancient Egypt… which evidently is compulsory if you want to advance in the game.

The combat learning curve

Simply following the main storyline in Assassin’s Creed Origins won’t give you enough XP or enhanced gear to overcome higher level challenges. It’s not like the old franchise days of running the same missions ad nauseam, at least. But in Origins you must do side-quests, hunt or  randomly pick a fight with someone, or something, tough to level up. Trying to go toe-to-toe with a Level 15 boss when you’re Level 13 was just not happening for me.

This said, a lot of my struggle had to do with Origins’ combat system. There’s been a lot of media attention stressing how combat has been reworked and given more depth for the tenth Assassin’s Creed title. No longer about timing your attack and defence around paired animations as per the older games, now the player has considerably more options to experiment with – and worry about when facing opponents. There’s weapon reach, speed, light attacks, heavy attacks, parries, dodges, combos and a special Overpower attack (or Frenzy) you can unleash when your adrenaline is fully charged.

Most of this functionality is located in your trigger and bumper buttons, and when you’re used to good ol’ “Button X” to attack, the new controls take some getting used to. In conversation, Origins game director Ashraf Ismail mentioned a usual adjustment period of two hours for the new combat system, and that was my experience as well. Two hours in, I felt like I was just starting to get to grips with my many options – and appreciating the true defensive value of my shield.

Grumbles about outmatched boss encounters aside, fights in Assassin’s Creed Origins are more pleasurably challenging than frustrating. And mounted combat is a rewarding inclusion. It’s immensely satisfying to perform a drive-by shooting from a chariot.

Hand-holding, or not

Of course, frontal assault isn’t your only option when it comes to combat in Assassin’s Creed Origins. Sometimes it’s a downright terrible choice. But it’s with combat where you seem to be given the most freedom to make your own decisions.

Apart from an onscreen reminder when your adrenaline bar is full, you’re left to your own devices; in terms of fighting style and the nature of the battle. As a player you’re encouraged to embrace more of an RPG mindset. Instead of rushing headlong into a confrontation, light a fire to create a distraction first, open that cage of lions, or use sleep darts to make your opponent drowsy and then easily assassinate them.

Outside of combat situations, though, there’s the usual guidance players have come to expect of contemporary third-person action-adventures. Just like Batman with his Detective Vision in the Arkham games, and Lara Croft’s Survival Instincts in the Tomb Raider reboots, Bayek in Origins has an Animus Pulse ability that highlights nearby points of interest. He also has literal Eagle Vision in the form of his bird companion Senu who flies overhead, and will, among other things, pinpoint the location of quest objectives. The use of Bayek’s Animus Pulse is optional, but Senu’s pointer is active by default, and that feels like hand-holding gone a little too far in a game that stresses exploration and discovery.

Still, the best word to describe gameplay in Assassin’s Creed Origins is “sleek”, and that reflects across the board. Resource collection and crafting could have been a headache that continually disrupts player progression through the story. Fortunately it’s not. There’s no fumbling over bark, cloth and the like. There’s just straightforward all-in-one looting of chests, vessels and corpses to acquire what you need for gear upgrades. No need to make valuable arrows on the run, unlike a certain lady archaeologist.


Emotionally satisfying quests

Because of my boss fight obstacle, I didn’t head far down the main quest chain of this specific demo build. Instead I free-roamed, accidentally aggravating hippos, trashing a boat or two, and accepting several side-quests. Tonally, Assassin’s Creed Origins seems to be a pretty sombre game, much like its protagonist. Bayek is the last of the Medjays, an ancient order of paramilitary-trained protectors, and you fill that role as you roam the world. You’re there to help the people of Egypt – even if that means simply assisting with everyday tasks. Typically, though, you’re exacting justice for the weak and powerless in a setting where life is cheap. Given the times we live in, going out and putting bullies (and far worse), in their place is extremely gratifying.

I didn’t stumble on any quirky quests in this specific demo, but there were still historical icons around to liven things up. This applies especially in the case of exiled queen Cleopatra, who is every bit the morally dubious wild card you would expect. In a cutscene shown at the press event she announces that she will sleep with anyone at a party… if they’re prepared to be executed the following morning. The Cleopatra of Assassin’s Creed Origins is a fascinating, enigmatic figure, and I’m looking forward to more exposure to her in-game.

Summary

So, just 23 days from release, Assassin’s Creed Origins is ticking all the right boxes. It looks spectacular, and is stuffed full of cerebral and emotional rewards. This applies whether you embrace the hand-holding features and skim over search challenges, or put serious time and thought into your gameplay choices. Origins seems to accommodate both approaches with equal satisfaction for the player.

Read our earlier hands-on experiences of Assassin’s Creed Origins here and here.

This preview was conducted at an event in London, with travel and accomodation provided by Ubisoft.

Last Updated: October 4, 2017

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