Assassin's Creed Origins review: making the old feel new again

Assassin’s Creed has always claimed that “history is our playground” but Assassin’s Creed Origins may be the first game in the series that truly captures that. 

Previous titles in the series have, unfortunately, tended towards feeling more like closed schoolyards than open playgrounds.

Open to explore though they were, these settings had strict schoolyard monitors and keep off the grass signs in the form of locked-off maps, inescapable repetitive missions and restrictive combat mechanics.

Assassin’s Creed Origins, on the other hand, throws open the school doors, hands you your hoodie and tells you to enjoy your free time in the way you want. Heck, run on the road if you want to. 

It’s a freedom that’s both daunting and exhilarating but it injects some much needed life into a series that was beginning to feel like a never-ending game of hopscotch.

Big and bold

Assassin’s Creed Origins is by far the biggest Assassin’s Creed game to date but though the world is open and free, there are some limitations. You can absolutely go wherever you want but you might find yourself subtly directed by the game's new levelling system and RPG mechanics. 

Levels aren’t a new thing in Assassin’s Creed but they’re much more obviously RPG-inspired and important in Origins than ever before. 

As Bayek you start at level one and increase your level by gathering XP, which you do by simply playing the game - so completing main and side quests, discovering new locations and items, and synchronising from View Points.

The limitations arise from the fact that all quests and enemies also have levels attached to them and if those levels are higher than your own you're going to struggle to win. Though it’s absolutely possible to win, it can be extremely challenging and frustrating.  

Most of the time your energy is better channelled into grinding up your level by other means. Not only does raising your level make quests more manageable, it also increases your health and gives you Ability Points to unlock new skills.

While this could be extremely frustrating, Assassin’s Creed Origins is so abundant in XP sources, it’s actually not difficult to get stronger at pace. 

This reasonable leveling incline, abundance of XP and freedom to challenge yourself makes it easier to appreciate, rather than resent, the game's attempts to guide you.  

Rather than coming across as an attempt to block your progress, it feels like the game is asking you to slow down and savor what’s on offer outside of the main story. 

This does, however, have the potential to strike the wrong chord with those who just want to power through the game's main story. To lessen the impact of level gaps and power through you can play on easy mode but the sense of challenge is greatly reduced.

Strike fast

It’s abundantly clear from its focus on freedom that Assassin’s Creed Origins is a game that wants you to have fun and this extends to the new combat system. It’s now far less like a rigid Regency dance, requiring you to be agile and sharp-minded. There's not quite as much rolling as Bloodborne but it'll give you flashbacks.

Switching between hidden blade, sword and bow is quick and easy but it’s using the Abilities you unlock in the new skill tree that makes things especially fun. It’s from this skill tree that you can unlock the ability to tame animals, perform slow-motion bow shots when in the air and wield two melee weapons. It really breaks up the monotony of hacking, slashing and crouching. 

Something I was particularly relieved by was the game’s crafting system because it’s simple and easy to understand. A gripe I often have with crafting systems in games with large open worlds and multitudes of quests is that they end up being complex enough to warrant their own game. 

Assassin’s Creed Origins, however, takes a more light and free-flowing approach to crafting. It's the difference between cross-stitching an existing pattern and making your own. 

In the gear menu you’ll find items you can craft to increase your ammo capacity, improve your health and make your hidden blade stronger. The resources you need for crafting are always reasonable in terms of quantity and though some are more rare than others they’re not impossible to find. Once you’ve gathered them you simply have to jump back into the gear menu and select the item you want to craft. That’s it. No schematics, no endless lists. Just streamlined simplicity.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed Origins seems to have found a nice balance with its RPG features - they’re key to gameplay and add a nice amount of depth without being overwhelming in terms of time-commitment or complexity. 

Weaving a tale

As a series, Assassin’s Creed needs a solid character to contextualize its setting and its story so it’s unlikely we’ll see a from-the-ground-up create-your-own assassin game any time soon. This RPG-lite system is a nice way to bring you closer to the character of Bayek and feel that he’s your own. 

As a character Bayek is very likeable. I sometimes wonder if we were spoiled by the roguishness of Ezio Auditore but Bayek has more personality than Assassin's Creed 3's Connor and less irritating flippancy than Syndicate's Jacob. 

Bayek is an ancient Egyptian Medjay for the region of Siwa. Basically a Medjay appears to be a kind of policeman, committed to helping the people of Egypt and keeping them safe. This is a perfect proto-assassin role and lends itself well to the side quests.

By and large, there's a believable balance between dutiful seriousness and warm humanity in Bayek that’s reminiscent of Edward Kenway from Black Flag and that’s perfectly fine by us. 

As far as the game’s main story goes, we’ll steer clear of any spoilers but suffice it to say this is the most interested and invested I’ve been in an Assassin’s Creed main storyline for a long time. 

The narrative is well structured and the transition from personal revenge story into something much larger is neatly done. It also makes a nice change to move away from the usual assassin and Templar conflict. What replaces it isn’t all that thematically different, don’t get me wrong, but it’s framed in such a way that it feels fresh. 

There is, of course, still a modern day storyline but at this point it feels more like it's up to you how much you engage with it. It's completely possible to go delving into computer files to find out more about the where and why of Abstergo at this point in time but you don't really have to. It is, however, nice to have the option.

Side quests aren’t quite at the same level as those you find in The Witcher 3 but they are woven nicely into the game world and sometimes feed into the main story. It's been said that every side quest in Assassin’s Creed Origins is unique and though this is to some extent true, don’t think it means there’s no repetition. 

Though the story-based side quests all have a different story behind them and introduce you to different NPCs, they do tend to require you to perform the usual Assassin’s Creed rituals of sneak, spy, fetch and kill. 

Variety is the spice of side questing

The fact that they’re wrapped in reasonably interesting stories does mean it takes much longer for them to wear on your patience. I’ve rescued a man from a hangover so bad he was literally surrounded by hungry crocodiles and 10 minutes later helped recover another’s treasured Book of the Dead. There’s enough tonal variety and historically accurate context in these quests to keep you interested. 

The scripted missions are balanced out by random encounters which offer a less narrative-heavy experience. It’s entirely up to you whether you engage with them or not but knowing that farmers are occasionally beset by wild hippos through no fault of yours effectively create the sense that the game world lives beyond you.

To instil a sense of friendly competition there are also leaderboard activities you can get involved in after you pursue the side quests that open them up. These are the Arena and the Hippodrome - the former is for those interested in proving their combat skills while the latter allows you to get involved in some chariot racing. 

You won't sink hours into these activities as they can grow somewhat stale but they break up the open world nicely. They also charmingly showcase the influence of Greek and Roman culture on Egypt at the time. 

Unsurprisingly, the playground Ubisoft has built in Assassin’s Creed Origins is visually stunning. It always is. There’s a real sense of life and place in this ancient Egypt. In a single play you can find yourself on water, in a swamp, wandering a barren desert, picking through rich farmland or exploring a bustling city. 

Having played the game on the Xbox One X and on my own PlayStation 4 I can say that though the game looks great on both, it does benefit visually from HDR and additional console power. On the standard PS4 I encountered a few more instances of dipping in framerates and uneven textures which did detract from the game's visual impact.

The world is more like Black Flag in terms of the move away from city-focused play but the cities you do explore are wonderfully reminiscent of Florence and Rome from the earlier games in the series.

Ubisoft has re-created a real country here and the transition between locations is utterly seamless with minimal loading screens. The level of detail is also astounding, from the fireflies and crickets in the warm evenings, to the historically accurate fishing baskets that line the Nile, and the NPCs who go about their lives more convincingly than ever before. 

It’s rare that I pay attention to Assassin's Creed NPCs but this time around I enjoyed stopping in the streets to listen to their conversations. The discussions in the bath house are particularly funny - "I think he just comes here to ogle naked boys." "Yes, well, don't we all."

More than passively alive, this is also the most interactive an Assassin's Creed world has ever been. Pretty much everything is climbable, including cliff faces, and you can swim as deep in the ocean as your lungs will allow. You can interact with stray cats, explore hidden tombs and sunken ships and even use flaming torches to set your arrow heads alight.

Let there be life

However, while details are rich they’re inconsistent. I have yet to encounter any mind-boggling bugs in Assassin’s Creed Origins but there are distracting inconsistencies in facial animations and voice acting. 

Main story cut scenes tend to be very well done and across the board these are the most natural body animations I’ve seen in an Assassin’s Creed title. However, in side quests faces and voices sometimes lack expression. 

The fact that side quests sometimes leave you feeling like you’re talking to a potato with drawn-on eyes somewhat undermines the narrative efforts that are being made. These facial inconsistencies are a problem Assassin’s Creed games have always had and it’s a shame they’ve not been more ironed out here, particularly given the increased focus on story-driven questing. 

Final verdict: play it now

This actually feeds neatly into how Assassin's Creed Origins feels overall - simultaneously new and familiar. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

You know without a doubt that you’re playing an Assassin’s Creed game with Origins but while previous titles tended towards being oceans disguised as puddles, this one has a little more depth. Rather than standing sadly with soggy socks, you'll at least find yourself paddling.

It’s like when Ubisoft itself changed its logo earlier this year - it was still recognizably Ubisoft but it was indicative of the publisher's intention to move forward and change. Less reboot, more re-invigoration. 

As an increasingly fatigued fan, Origins has rekindled my interest in the direction of the Assassin’s Creed series. While it's true that absence makes the heart forgetful, Assassin's Creed has improved in many ways for this outing and it feels genuinely fresh.

The series didn’t need to completely change or disappear, it just needed to pause for a moment and regain a sense of purpose. By taking this time, Ubisoft has created the series’ best and most fun title in a long time.

Assassin's Creed Origins was reviewed on the PlayStation 4 platform. The game is available to buy for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.

Emma Boyle

Emma Boyle is TechRadar’s ex-Gaming Editor, and is now a content developer and freelance journalist. She has written for magazines and websites including T3, Stuff and The Independent. Emma currently works as a Content Developer in Edinburgh.