Assassin’s Creed Origins Hands-On Preview: Frustratingly Familiar [E3 2017]

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I just never got into Assassin’s Creed for some reason. I can’t identify any particular element that stood out as bad or a turnoff, so I just have to assume that — once I let the first few games get released without a second thought — I basically said “what the hell, I’ll never catch up at this rate.” (I’m aware you don’t really need to play the previous games to enjoy the later ones, especially the most recent standalone entries, but it’s one of those cultural phenomena that just feels like it passed me by.)

Despite my relative inexperience with the series, though, I’m still aware of the mark it has left on Ubisoft games and the open-world genre in particular, forging a path that’s now seen in some circles as a predictable framework for literally any “sandbox”-style title. In that regard, the newest entry in the series — the Egypt-set Assassin’s Creed Origins — only has its setting and themes to stand out as originals.

That’s not to say there aren’t any new ideas here, but as someone who’s frankly worn out on the same-old, same-old open-world formula, there wasn’t a whole lot in the preview that wowed me, even as a number of systems have apparently been revamped to make the game more interesting. Yes, the world is large and vast; and yes, there are a lot of little spots marked on the map that represent things to fetch, things to kill and places to unlock fast travel … along with, of course, NPCs who will inevitably tell you to fetch and kill things in other places on the map. To make navigating the world easier, the new lead character has a hawk he can send out to scout before he makes his move — one of the more admittedly helpful and exciting features this time around.

Also included as part of the package in an attempt to freshen things up a bit: RPG-style skill trees and combat with a bit more nuance (from what I understand, the AI in this game is far smarter than prior Assassin’s Creed titles). To that end, the second part of the demo I played was a gladiator-style arena mode. Since I haven’t played any of the other games, I can’t verify the claims about improved AI or greater complexity, but I will say it’s one of the better combat systems I’ve experienced in this sort of title. Real strategy and planning is required; this isn’t one you can just button-mash through, because you will die if you just swing your sword with indiscretion.

But I’m not really sure what else to say about the gameplay at large: for those who aren’t completely tuckered by checking off objective boxes in giant worlds, Origins will be satisfying. For the rest of us, it doesn’t seem to do a whole lot to stand out. Well, again, outside of its setting — which features some of the most inspired work done by Ubisoft’s art team in a while. Yes, the glittering sands and structures of Egypt look grand here, which is probably more than enough reason for some folks to pick up the controller and start exploring. And while I only got a snippet of one story mission, I’m sure some gamers will get a huge kick out of getting to interact with legendary historical figures like Cleopatra.

Assassin's Creed Origins Hands-On Preview: Frustratingly Familiar [E3 2017]

If it sounds like I’m sort of at a loss for things to say, though, it’s because I rather found myself at a loss for what to think while playing as well. On the one hand, I don’t want to bash the hard-working developers at Ubisoft for creating something that obviously took a lot of time and effort. At the same time, though, it’s clear that the publisher’s tight turnaround schedules leave precious little room for true invention whenever the series wants to “reinvent” itself in some way. By which I mean: if this is the best they can do in terms of “revamping” and “reinventing,” I implore the powers that be at Ubisoft to give their team more time to really bring this longstanding yearly franchise in a new direction.

Assassin’s Creed was an important part of the open-world genre’s development, but games like Origins honestly feel like they’re just going through the motions. Again, this is a preview, so take everything I say with a grain of salt — but given that I’ve never touched a single game in the series, I don’t think it’s a good sign that everything in this new entry felt so frustratingly familiar. If you’re still interested in exploring Ubisoft’s vision of Egypt, though, the game will be out on November 27 for PS4, Xbox One and PC.