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Pop CultureNovember 17, 2017

Assassin’s Creed Origins: time for Ubisoft to chuck it all in?


Ten years of Assassin’s Creed games is a long time to run around stabbing things. In this hybrid review/chin stroking musing session, José Barbosa wonders if it’s time for the Brotherhood to fall on its own sword.

There’s a moment in any ongoing creative endeavour when one reaches the precipice of one’s efforts; this is probably as good as it’s going to get. Everything’s worked at peak efficiency, it all came together magically with little resistance and the finished product is honed to a gleaming jewel. This is how I’m experiencing Assassin’s Creed Origins right now.

The game is probably the purest iteration of that particular AC experience that’s brought in millions (if not billions of dollars) of revenue for Ubisoft. It’s always been a heady mix of fetishistic history, long winded dialogue, pleasing assassination setups and grinding fetching quests all played out in stunning open world environments. The series has groaned under the weight of expectations and gathered more than a little fat along the way. Unity was a sprawling mess – although not an unapt situation considering its Parisian setting – filled to the gunnels with quests and all manner of items and just unnecessary guff. One could spend hours wandering around protagonist Arno’s house, every nook and cranny filled with objects and things to do. I know, one shouldn’t begrudge copious content like that, but it bogged down everything.

Origins, perhaps because of its mostly desert setting, seems less encumbered. There’s still side quests to do but it’s not enough to stifle you with options. One of the necessary evils of open world games is that tension between the main quest and all these bubbling side quests. If the main quest line is so pressing, it seems weird your character would be so keen to find the innkeeper’s daughter who went missing while washing at the well or hunt 5 pelts for a helmet from the haberdashery guy in the village. That’s always stuck in my craw a little bit.

Bayek’s story doesn’t feel like that. It’s a standard revenge plot – Bayek is after the men who lead to the murder of his son – but because the targets are many the quest feels like one that might be years in the making. Bayek’s working methodically to his goal and that allows for natural feeling deviations.

Quick nitpick: Sometimes, however, the main quest lacks some sense of weight or real stakes. There’s a section where Bayek is ambushed, stripped of clothes and weapons and left to die in the desert. It should be an intense survival situation, you should feel Bayek’s struggle to return to civilisation and retrieve his gear. Instead it’s over very quickly in what feels like a low level encounter and stealth mission. You’re back on your camel/horse in what feels like in a very short amount of time. Why have the interlude at all if you’re back to business in a blink of the eye?

The main take away is this is the best, most polished version of AC we’ve yet seen. The orange has been squeezed dry, but what’s the next step after you’ve slurped up the yummy golden pulp? It’s a bit like what I felt after playing The Last Of Us, namely that what I was playing was probably the best that type of mainstream, third person, action adventure, survival hybrid game will get. Putting aside huge tech advances like proper immersive VR – I’m assuming we’ll be controller bound for at least a few decades more – what’s left to innovate with? What’s left to surprise the audience with?

The answer is, of course, story. And in the conclusion to The Last Of Us we were given a reason to want to come back to that series, and it wasn’t the promise of a new mechanic or improved graphics.

So what then for the Assassin’s Creed franchise? The problem is AC only has one story: that ages old conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. As others have pointed out Origins manages to feel reasonably fresh because it’s about the beginnings of the conflict, a conflict that usually has to be explained over and over in each chapter of the series.

However, it’s a trick you can play only once. And for Ubisoft it leads to a very scary question: should they just stop making Assassin’s Creed games? That means putting considerable investment behind a different property without all that brand recognition guff and it means coming up with something new. To my mind the most successful instalment in the series has been Black Flag and mainly because of the inclusion of ship battles which were immense fun, but not the hand to hand sneaky killing that made AC so popular.

It’s a bit like the old James Bond problem. In a review of one of the forgettable Pierce Brosnan films, critic Kim Newman lamented the things he’d never see in a Bond film: a period piece set in London in the 1950s; a film where Bond snaps under pressure from years of killing and so on. Newman’s point was that there are so many places to go with Bond, but none of that will ever happen. There are just a list of things a James Bond film must have and, apparently, you screw with that at your peril.

Assassin’s Creed is much the same. The series could completely drop the mostly unnecessary modern day interludes which seem mostly to be about reading documents, the series could venture fully into 20th century scenarios and so on. But it won’t and that’s a defensible position: there’s a guaranteed player base who will buy every game as long as it has Leaps of Faith and assassinations and people in hoods and that stabby arm thing. And it must must feature this central conflict.

This means we only get slight variations on a theme. Is AC really worth my time when there are so many other stories out there to fall into?

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