LOS ANGELES – Believe it or not, the first Assassin’s Creed game came out ten years ago, and a decennial is as good an occasion as any to shake things up. Assassin’s Creed Origins winds the clock back to ancient Egypt, long hinted as one of the pivotal eras for the Assassin Brotherhood. More than just a new chapter in the story, though, Origins represents the first radical combat overhaul in the series.
I went hands-on with Assassin’s Creed Origins at E3 2017, and played through two different missions: an open-world adventure where I got to experience exploration and stealth, as well as an arena mode where combat comes first and foremost. For both modes of gameplay, I took control of Bayek: an Egyptian Assassin of Medjay (Nubian) descent.
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My open-world exploration took place in the Fayoum region of Egypt. One thing I didn’t know before starting the demo was that the game doesn’t actually wind the clock back to the golden days of the Egyptian empire. Instead, Bayek’s adventure takes place in 49 BCE during the reign of Queen Cleopatra. Egypt is under Ptolemaic (Greek) rule and just on the cusp of Roman hegemony. It’s an exciting period, where three of history’s greatest cultures intermix and clash, and seems like fertile ground for a conflict between the Assassins and the Templars.
Bayek came across a novice priest of Sobek being beaten by his superior over the supposed theft of two golden crocodile statues. When the novice proclaims his innocence, Bayek to search for the statues. One of them was aboard a lavish barge; the other was at the bottom of the Nile. Retrieving them gave me a good opportunity to experience how streamlined the gameplay has become.
Rather than holding down the shoulder buttons to perform parkour, Bayek will run and scale obstacles just by approaching them and pressing a face button. This helps the overall pace of gameplay feel faster – especially since Bayek can mount horses and board boats, which have similar control schemes. Traveling by horseback is no longer an ordeal, as horses can jump over fences without prompting; likewise, boats move forward the same way Bayek himself does.
Once I got the hang of the boat controls, I dove underwater – the first time diving has played an important role since Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Retrieving the first statue was easy; the second was tougher. I called upon a trained eagle to scour the map for me and track down the statue on an ostentatious barge, replete with trained guards. Once I made a note of the guards’ locations and movement patterns, I sneaked onto the ship, assassinated one from above, grabbed the statue, and dove back beneath the waves without raising an alarm. While Ubisoft was quick to highlight Origins’ more refined combat, stealth is still very much the ideal way to play Assassin’s Creed.
Still, the new combat system is considerably more fun than the old ones. Ubisoft remapped light and heavy attacks to the right bumper and right trigger buttons, respectively, leaving the face buttons free for dodges and parries. I took on a hulking brute called the Slaver in the combat arena segment of gameplay, and it was much tougher than the usual “counterattack one-hit-kill” from previous titles.
To best the Slaver, I had to pay attention to his attack patterns, dodge when possible, then counterattack in order to stagger him. At that point, it was possible to either push him into a deadly spike trap or follow up with a special attack. The battle was difficult, and much more video game-y, for lack of a better word, than the more straightforward, realistic(ish) combat from previous games.
Still, stealth purists need not worry too much; the gladiatorial arena is an optional mode, divorced from the main story. While your stats and equipment will transfer between the two, if you prefer to tackle Ptolemaic Egypt with finesse instead of brute force, you’ll still be able to.
I’ve generally enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed series, but I wasn’t sure where it had left to go after Syndicate. Origins may explore an earlier period in history, but its gameplay sensibilities are much more modern. While I’m concerned that the increased focus on combat may make the stealth feel secondary, that will be hard to judge until we get a more extensive hands-on with the game. Assassin’s Creed Origins will be out on Oct. 27 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC.