Maybe it's because we lived in London when we were younger, but the last big Assassin's Creed game, Syndicate, didn't do much for us. Or maybe the Assassin's Creed formula was just wearing a little thin? Judging by Ubisoft's decision to take a year off to spend extra time developing Assassin's Creed Origins, perhaps the developer felt the same. That investment has certainly paid off, because Origins feels like a return to form for the series - a richly detailed world that blurs the line between reality and mythology, and always has a bunch of entertaining activities for you to pursue.
A worthy hero
Set in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy XIII, Origins puts you in the garb of Bayek, who is a Medjay, a sort of roaming elite policeman who looks out for his community and the Pharaoh's interests. You join Bayek midway through some sort of murderous rampage, and as a lengthy prologue section plays out around the region of Siwa Oasis, the game gradually explains why he's such a ragged, angry man. We won't spoil it, but he has good reasons.
Anyone fearing another humorless Assassin's Creed needn't worry, though, because with a little time and distance the real Bayek emerges - literally, as he shaves his scruffy beard and cleans himself up - and turns out to be a likeable hero cut from the same cloth as Ezio Auditore or Edward Kenway. Ubisoft quickly surrounds him with an engaging cast, too, including his wife Aya - who is frankly so good that she probably ought to have been the lead - and a Who's Who of Egyptian and Roman historical figures. Again, revealing the names would take away some of the fun, so we won't, but the series' habit of thrusting you into an audience with someone whose name you recognize and then turning them into a quest giver or rival is alive and well, and the script and performances are consistently engaging.
Bayek's fun, then, and he's on a revenge-fuelled journey through ancient Egypt surrounded by interesting historical figures. So far, so Assassin's Creed. What helps elevate Origins, though, is the huge variety of missions with an appreciable lack of filler, a raft of thoughtfully overhauled mechanics, and a brilliant world that ties them all together with esprit.
The star is Egypt
Egypt is probably our favorite Assassin's Creed location since Renaissance Italy. That sense of wonder and awe is back as you rove across the desert from your oasis village to the cultural nexus of Alexandria, with the pyramids of Giza visible on the horizon as you crest the dunes and the masts of beautiful antique ships visible scooting across the harbor. Nobody in the world has been to these places in these periods, and as with Renaissance Italy, Ubisoft delights in the details it's uncovered about everything from the historical skylines to how societies functioned on the ground.
The decision to set the game as Roman and Egyptian interests commingle is a canny one, too, because it allows for Roman culture to bleed into locations as well, from gladiatorial arenas to individuals you'll have no trouble recognizing.
The world is beautiful to take in - and hugely vast, too, spanning around two dozen distinctive regions, each with their own incredible sights and hidden depths - and navigating it is a much greater pleasure than recent installments, thanks to a well-refined movement system. Parkour moves are simplified and channeled through a single button, while the architecture is much more generous with handholds and footholds to let you climb freely, and the old, infuriating problems of snagging on things as you try to move quickly or your character jumping in the wrong direction seem to have been mostly eradicated.
It's not quite The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in terms of freedom of exploration, but climbing feels more boundless and slick than it ever has in this series, with climbing puzzles generally saved for specific locations or areas of great elevation.
The movement overhaul is the tip of the iceberg in terms of mechanical renovations, because while the broad strokes of how you play Origins are familiar, the detail is often very different. Take combat, which finally dispenses with the old block-and-counter-kill system in favor of something inspired by the current fashion for dodging.
You now raise your shield with a shoulder button, which can deflect most blows except for well-telegraphed guard-breakers, and can dodge incoming blows with one of the face buttons. This then allows you to land a flurry of blows or open up with your own guard-breaker. Once you reach the last sliver of enemy health, you automatically go into a flashy finishing animation where Bayek executes his adversary. It's not exactly Dark Souls or For Honor in terms of depth, but it's definitely an improvement, and means that combat isn't the horrendous chore it often became previously.
Of course, Assassin's Creed began life as a stealth game. Stealth has often descended into combat whether you wanted it to or not, and at least now it's more fun when that happens. Should you wish to continue skulking in the shadows more than you let fly with scintillating dodge-and-slash combos, however, then Origins is also pretty solid in this regard. Virtually everywhere you go is full of places to hide, whether it's convenient networks of dense, knee-high grass, endless climbable buildings or the ubiquitous shacks and haystacks. Stalking your prey without alerting enemies and then dropping down for a one-hit kill with your hidden blade is still great fun.
One thing that really helps now is the addition of Senu, Bayek's eagle, who you can call into action at any time to circle the area and mark targets and items of interest. You control Senu during these moments and then jump seamlessly back to Bayek. The ancient Egyptian equivalent of a drone in a modern war game, Senu also helps justify the famous 'synchronization' vantage points, where Bayek climbs to some tall location and then takes in his surroundings, populating the map with activities. Now Senu swoops around him as he sits there drinking in the scene, before he launches into the traditional dive into the hay hundreds of meters below.
Perhaps the most significant systemic change to Origins though is the overall levelling system. Inspired by games like Destiny - whose interface designers will certainly be flattered by Ubisoft's approach - you now gain XP for all the things you do, from discovering new areas and completing missions to killing enemies and finding collectables. When you level up, you earn ability points that you can pour into three strands of a large ability tree, unlocking stealth, combat and tool-based perks to suit your playstyle.
Leveling up also means you're able to cope with tougher enemies, and the huge world map helpfully signposts the suitable level ranges for each of the game's many regions, hinting at how you'll zigzag across it on your quest, keeping you from straying into immense frustration and, of course, gating content in a way that means you're still finding amazing new stuff after 30 hours. It feels a bit artificial and sometimes holds you up, but unless you're anxious to finish the main quest in a hurry it probably won't ever bother you.
Origins also stratifies weapons and gear in new ways, borrowing the color-coding and naming conventions from games like Destiny, so when you pick up an enemy's skull-cracking mace early on it's probably only a simple clubbing weapon on a blue background, but later on you might find a more exotic and powerful yellow-background mace that has on-hit perks, critical chance modifiers and all the rest.
We're not sure whether Assassin's Creed really needed to borrow so heavily in this area - it still feels strange watching giant yellow damage numbers jump into the air when you strike an enemy - but there's no denying it has some sort of psychological effect, because we quickly came to crave the more valuable, multi-faceted tools and weapons that we could only obtain through special missions, crafting and the game's own equivalent of Xur, the weekend vendor. We're certainly not complaining about enjoying our tools more, either.
We only hope Ubisoft avoids the urge to go 'full loot box' with the next installment of this series, because the signs are there. In the meantime, at least, there are boosts and unlocks available to buy with real money from the in-game store, but they're entirely optional and the presence of the store is largely unobtrusive.
Assassin's Creed Origins has all the constituent parts it needs to be a solid game, then - slickly overhauled mechanics, a decent script and characters, and beautiful locations - but the one criticism we could have had is that Origins lacks a big innovation to call its own. Everything we've described so far is either an iteration of a previous system or something borrowed liberally from other Ubisoft open-world games or one of its many triple-A rivals.
In the end, though, Origins gets away with this because the whole feels greater than the sum of its parts, and that's down to Egypt itself and the way Ubisoft has put it together. If everything else in the game stands ably on the shoulders of giants, Egypt is evidence of Ubisoft's own mastery. Not since the original Assassin's Creed and its Crusades-era Middle Eastern cities, or perhaps Assassin's Creed 2 with its astute recreations of Florence and Venice, have we really felt the magic as we do moving through Origins' Egypt.
Part of that is because exploration is more fun. Side missions have character, locations have their own hidden mysteries for you to discover, and so taking a detour to paddle out to that big island in the middle of the lake probably will be worthwhile: you'll find treasure, battle with surprisingly vicious wildlife, and uncover hints to things you didn't anticipate. But the other big part of it is that ancient Egypt feels vivid and fresh, a place where history and mythology dance around each other in front of you so that every moment is shot through with some kind of novelty and intrigue.
The result is easily our favorite Assassin's Creed game since Black Flag. This is now an absurdly long-running series - by our count this is the 10th major installment, excluding all the mobile spinoffs - but it recaptures what made Assassin's Creed special in the first place, and in doing so earns the right to position itself in front of all the others with that 'Origins' title. We'd love to see the next Assassin's Creed push the boundaries of open-world systems again, but in the meantime Origins brings us to a special place, full of interesting people we want to spend time with, where we're never far from something we'll enjoy doing. We're more than happy to settle for that.