This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
For whatever reason, I never managed to get round to playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins (2017). It is the immediate predecessor to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (2018), which I have played and written about extensively. The game was recently on sale and I finally picked it up. Now I realize that I really should have played this game earlier.
New entries in the Assassin’s Creed series were published on a yearly basis before Ubisoft decided the series needed to change to stay fresh. They devoted more time and resources to the development of Origins, resulting in a gorgeous game – in a series where all entries look excellent – with more freeform gameplay, lots of quests (main and side missions), and the introduction of various progression mechanics familiar from role-playing games.
While the subtitle of the game – Origins – isn’t very original, it is nonetheless an accurate description. It details the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood that forms the focus of attention in the series. As such, it is set far further in the past than any Assassin’s Creed game before it. It treats a number of Assassin’s Creed ideas as given, such as the pseudo-scientific concept of “genetic memories”, the age-old war between the Assassins and the Templars, and the company Abstergo.
Those last few trappings of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which I personally don’t care about, often hinder the game more than it helps. Newcomers to the series might also be a little lost initially. But as would be the case in Odyssey, you can play Origins mostly as a historical game and skip a lot of the modern-day nonsense.
A feeling of déjà vu
Assassin’s Creed: Origins is set in Ptolemaic Egypt. It starts in 49 BC and then follows, in broad strokes, the historical events of Cleopatra VII’s accession to the throne. Naturally, it includes a bunch of conspiracy guff and science-fiction nonsense that the series is known for. As usual, my interest is mostly in the historical stuff, which is thoroughly entertaining if not, of course, perfect.
Set in the Late Hellenistic period, a few decades before Egypt was turned into a province of the Roman Empire, the architecture and art represented in the game is more or less as you would expect. The houses of the wealthy are large and sprawling, the statues are often modelled after known examples from the Hellenistic period (although sadly unpainted!).
Playing Origins, I was struck by how much was familiar to me from having played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which now comes across more as a modification of its predecessor rather than a completely new game. Most of the game’s systems are identical, as are many (most?) of the character and animal animations, and even lots of assets.
For example, Odyssey features the large and sprawling townhouses of Origins, despite the fact that the former game is set in the fifth century BC – about 400 years earlier than Origins! – and houses were, by and large, smaller. Some of the temples and most of the statues from Origins, which are by and large fine for the Hellenistic period, were also ported over to Odyssey, where they are simply out of place. Similarly, Odyssey features stone theatres, but in the fifth century BC, most theatres featured wooden benches.
Developing these types of games is no doubt expensive, so costs have to be recouped one way or another. As Origins was the series’ first venture into the ancient world, and with development taking longer than most games in the series, I would imagine it was terribly expensive to make. Re-using as many assets as possible seems like a sensible thing to do, even if Odyssey’s Greece is sometimes drier and dustier than you would expect, and features loads of palm trees and other (Egyptian) vegetation that shouldn’t be there.
Now that I am finally playing Origins, I understand a lot of the decisions that the developers made with regards to Odyssey a lot better. And I should stress that a lot of what’s in Odyssey was clearly made specifically for that game, such as the wooden temples, the Mycenaean and Minoan ruins, lots of new character models, and so on. It’s still a game worth playing, but perhaps only after you’ve checked out Origins.
A superior experience
Having finally played Origins, I have come to the conclusion that, compared to Odyssey, it offers a superior experience. It is a more focused game, with less grind than Odyssey, even if some of the side missions aren’t very interesting. It is also the rare game where I actually enjoy the crafting mechanic. In many games, you need to gather various resources in order to create new armour and weapons, or food, and so on. I usually find it unnecessary busywork. Here, though, the crafting is streamlined: you gather materials from the world, such as hide from animals, to improve certain aspects of the player character.
The setting certainly fits the epic ambitions of the developers better: rather than a war between different Greek city-states and their alliances, Origins’ Ptolemaic Egypt features Egyptians, Greek mercenaries, settled foreigners, Romans, and everything in between, set against the machinations of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and others. It is a highly diverse world that seems much better plugged into the wider Mediterranean world than the almost provincial experience offered by Odyssey.
As the player, you take control of Bayek of Siwa. He is referred to as a “Medjay”. The Medjay were originally a people from Nubia (Sudan), associated with the “Pan-Grave Culture”, and may have worked as mercenaries. By the time of Egypt’s New Kingdom, say the second half of the second millennium BC, the term was used to refer to a kind of Egyptian police force, who may also have been used as scouts. However, the Medjay disappear at the end of the second millennium, long before the start of the game, and so the presence of Medjay in the game is anachronistic – there’s a nod to this in the game as they explicitly make Bayek “the last of the Medjay”.
Of course, this isn’t the only anachronism in the game. My favourite are the many Attic black-figure pots that are strewn around the place, centuries after black-figure pottery has fallen from use! And naturally, a lot of the armour and equipment are often fantastical or anachronistic. Greek mercenaries and some bandits, for example, often wear Corinthian helmets, which had all but disappeared completely by the fourth century BC at the latest.
Still, by and large, the developers have done a good job of evoking the splendours of ancient Egypt. Since Egypt, unlike Greece, had a more or less continuous history ever since the founding of the earliest dynasties, many structures from the earlier periods remained not only visible, but often continued in use. The setting enabled the developers to combine the pyramids at Giza with Roman troops and the political manoeuvring of one of ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers, Cleopatra VII.
Ancient Egypt offers monumental architecture and statuary on a scale unlike anything seen in the Aegean. While I don’t constantly want to compare this game to its successor, it’s clear that for Odyssey the developers felt that Classical Greece was perhaps a bit too small for the purpose of their game, and hence they incorporated massive, Hellenistic-style temples, sprawling underground ruins, and huge, Clash of the Titans-like statues to offer more variety to players.
As Bayek, you’ll travel, on foot or by camel or horse, across vast deserts and canyons, along the edge of the river Nile, through small villages and larger towns and massive cities. You’ll fight crocodiles and avoid hippos, explore ancient underground tombs, wander through busy streets and markets, and admire the architecture of ancient temples. Despite some copy-paste work with certain textures and columns, the attention to detail is admirable; dirt, detritus, and some disorder to how things are arranged in streets and in buildings make the world feel alive.
The game’s story features some of the silly Assassin’s Creed stuff that we’ve come to expect by now, and as always I’d love for these games to simply embrace their historical setting fully, without recourse to conspiracy nonsense or advanced beings – the so-called “First Civilization” (ugh!) – who ended up being worshipped as gods.
Fortunately, the player character, Bayek (voiced by Abubakar Salim), is a sympathetic and human protagonist, and I liked his interactions with other characters, including his somewhat underwritten wife Aya (voiced by Alix Wilton Regan). He is also friendly towards children, and any cats you happen across will happily follow Bayek wherever he goes – a nice touch that adds a softness to someone who is at first blush a ruthless mercenary.
Initially, I was afraid that Bayek’s story was essentially another man-seeks-revenge plot. Near the start of the game, we learn that in a scuffle with members of the nefarious “Order of the Ancients” (cue conspiracy nonsense), Bayek accidentally stabbed and killed his own son. While revenge is an overused plot device, it was handled reasonably well here. It led Bayek and Aya to found “the Hidden Ones”, which would eventually evolve into the Assassin Brotherhood; hence the subtitle Origins for this entry in the series.
As is usual for Assassin’s Creed games, Bayek comes across a variety of historical characters, most notably Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy XIII, serves as the game’s antagonist. You get experience points (XP) by destroying statues of Ptolemy, where he is depicted holding the severed head of Pompey the Great, Caesar’s rival. Funnily enough, these statues exist from the start of the game (49 BC), a short time before Pompey’s death (48 BC)!
While the main game sees you running, climbing, and fighting across Egypt, there are also a few other types of activity. Early on, you gain access to the hippodrome, where you get control of a four-horse chariot and can take part in races. I enjoyed these. You will also take control of warships at certain points and engage in naval battles: these are essentially identical to the naval battles from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the game’s world is huge: it features a themepark-like rendering of Ptolemaic Egypt and some adjacent territories. Distances are compressed so that you don’t have to spend too long traipsing from one place to the next. Compared to Odyssey, the world is a bit more structured, probably because you never have to cross large(ish) expanses of sea to get to the many different islands that characterize the Aegean.
I also feel that Odyssey is perhaps packed with too much stuff. Especially when crossing the seas, you could never go far without running into some pirates who wanted a piece of you. In Origins, you can travel across a stretch of desert on your camel and never see a soul; you can safely take a boat across the Nile without running into nefarious characters constantly. These lulls in the action allow you to soak in the atmosphere of the place to a greater extent. Where Odyssey seems intent on always having you do something, Origins isn’t afraid to let you just wander around.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins offers a fascinating look at life during the twilight of Ptolemaic Egypt. It’s not a perfect game, of course; mistakes are made and the conspiracy plot and science-fiction elements get in the way of the historical experience. But the historical bits feel authentic, giving us some idea of what life might have been like back then.
Of course, like other instalments in this series, Origins is dripping with violence: in Assassin’s Creed games, true to their title, you interact with the world mostly by stabbing, cutting, and shooting large numbers of humans – and acquiring resources for crafting means you’ll have to murder a large number of virtual animals, too. There are plenty of quiet moments, but the core of the game revolves around violence.
If you prefer a more relaxed experience, Origins offers, like its successor, a “Discovery Tour” mode that allows you to wander around Ptolemaic Egypt at your leisure and explore the various sights, without fear from attack by bandits, mercenaries, or predatory animals. The information presented herein, as in Odyssey, is generally okay, if often outdated; such is the fate of popular media that it generally lags behind academic research by several decades, and often ignores debates entirely.
While I haven’t finished the game yet – it’s huge and I may never have the time to actually complete it! – it’s definitely been a worthwhile experience so far, and one that I would recommend. It’s probably too late at this point, but if you can, please don’t make the same mistake I did: play this one before you play Odyssey. The decisions made by the developers for the latter game make a lot more sense if you play Origins first.