An effective RPG is hard to do. It's an oversaturated market, and you have to work hard to get your game to stand out among the crowd. This hard work can show itself in many ways - world design, combat mechanics, plot progression. No matter what, you have to find some way to be unique.
I have never been a huge fan of the Assassin's Creed franchise. I've played them, because they are important games for someone like me to play. And over the years, I've watched them fall from greatness. Now, it seems to be making a real comeback. It's gone away from it's stealth-action days of yore, instead taking on the mantle of an action RPG. Was this change seamless? Was it effective for the series? Does it stand up to other RPGs of it kind? Let's find out.
Ubisoft Montreal dropped the ball a bit in recent years with Assassin's Creed. Unity released with a crap-ton bugs and poor controls. Not to mention it's poorly-handled gender controversy. They improved with Syndicate; the controls were better, the characters were likable - but it didn't feel as good. There wasn't that magic there that existed in Assassin's Creed II and Black Flag. And I can say, to an extent, the magic is back with Origins.
First things first. It's open world is amazing. It is larger, and it is freer. It is definitely better than the open world aspects of the previous titles. You to do things at your own pace and explore to your hearts content. The world is vibrant and full of life, and I could go on and on and on about how great these parts of the game are. But there are also problems - Ubisoft tried to mix these new elements with the old, and it wasn't always successful.
In every open world game I play, I always start out doing every side quest I can. Side quest are the back bone of these games, and if they suck - the game sucks. It's that simple. It's part of the reason games like The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild worked so well. The side quests were relevant and fun - they enhanced the experience.
And Origins' side quests weren't the worst. What they gave me was good, but it wasn't the best. The quests have a weight to them, usually, and you do feel for the characters (due to both the writing and the voice acting, which are superb). Still, there is a certain false variety. The stories change, but you're always fighting guards/bandits and retrieving something and blah, blah, blah. I've been playing the game for a while now, and the formula hasn't changed. The story of the quests are still enjoyable and they have a lot of emotional weight. And that is enough to do the job.
Early on in the game, I rescued a drunk man from crocodiles. After I retrieved him, he told me a lovely, drunken monologue about how got himself in this debacle. Despite the quest being a standard search and rescue, I had a good time with it. Another quest involved me retrieving a Book of the Dead for an old man, so he could reconnect with his dead wife. It broke my heart, and it made me care. The characters attached to these quests are well done, and they do their job. This should be standard, but even large titles like Final Fantasy XV make the mistake of oversimplifying side quests.
When side quests don't work, the main plot makes up for it. You're the last Medjay (an Ancient Egyptian police officer-type), Bayek of Siwa, who is out for revenge. This quest eventually leads him to become a key player in a political counter-coup. Cleopatra is trying to take her kingdom back from her brother, Ptolemy XIII. The story is grand, as they tend to be in this franchise. From it, you learn the origins of the Brotherhood and the Knights Templar, and you get a sensationalized view of the politics of the time. Is it super historically accurate? Of course not, but this is a video game, so what do you expect?
Still, the moments of historical accuracy add a lot to the experience, Why? Ubisoft did the homework. The characters aren't whitewashed, for one thing. This is another nice change to the open world RPG genre, which is generally very white dominated. (I'm looking at you Witcher 3.) And, you get to learn about Egypt as you traverse it. I can't say how accurate the information is. I'm by no means an expert, but it sounds right. You don't walk out of the game with an expertise in all things Egypt, but you have some random trivia for parties!
When you aren't learning fun Egyptian facts, you're taking in the meticulously crafted world. Very few worlds manage to do it this well. Sometimes, worlds are too barren. Others have too much flash and not enough substance. This game had a good balance. I played on my Xbox One, so it wasn't as amazing as it could have been. The game still felt so alive. This is due to both design and its amazing AI system. The NPCs feel like people. The world reacts to itself in unexpected ways, and before you know, you immerse yourself.
Character-wise, Origins brings a lot to the table. As a protagonist, Bayek is a little too righteous at times, but he's also tender. He loves children and his smiles are genuine - which is often missing from RPG protags nowadays. He is a fun character, who has been through a lot, but lives his own life. Yes, he is out for revenge, but that hasn't morphed him into some careless, revenge machine. As much as revenge drives him, he still feels an obligation to his people.
His wife, Aya, is something to behold. She is capable, having already killed a man before we even meet her. She is Bayek's equal in every way. The second I saw her, I wanted to know more. She plays an instrumental role in the plot of the game, and at times, you even get the opportunity to play as her.
The only slip up I can think of is Cleopatra, which Colin Campbell covered in more detail over at Polygon. However, this is a common thing with the ancient pharaoh, and while it's awful - it's not surprising. If you want to read more about it, I would suggest the article above.
These elements are wonderful, but they don't make up for the clunky, familiar gameplay. Don't get it twisted, I do think that the combat system has improved. But, the action-RPG oriented melee system works only works well when you're fighting small groups. The ranged fighting was good - I don't have any problems with that. Most of the problems rear their ugly head when you throw in the fact that you're supposed to be stealthy.
I was expecting a lot more from the stealth in this game, and that was a mistake. They sacrificed more of the stealthier elements to provide more room for action. Usually, that's not a bad thing. In this case, when you're doing a game about stealthy assassins, it sucked. It got a point where I stopped stealthing altogether. You can hide, grapple, and attack from above. But the games new action oriented combat doesn't mesh well - it's better to go in guns blazing. Bottom line, it's clunky and inconsistent, and a real let down for a game about master assassins.
The skill tree was generic at best. It offered some cool abilities, but ultimately, it was nothing new. Still, it was a big step in the right direction for the series. No matter how familiar a skill tree may be - it works as an incentive. And some of the abilities are cool - although I still get annoyed that you have to use an ability point to sit and wait for time to pass.
So, was the change seamless? No, it was not. Origins is still trying to figure out what it wants to be, but that's okay. Was it effective for the series? 100%, even though it's not perfect, this is an amazing move in the right direction for Assassin's Creed. Does it stand up to other RPGs of it's kind? Yes and no. It's no The Witcher 3, but it's definitely on it's way there. It's better than Skyrim, but that's not hard to do. Origins is an amazing first step into a new RPG world, that I hope Ubisoft continues to go in.
Shann Smith is a lover of video games and has played RPGs since he could hold a controller. He is a freelance writer, playwright, screenwriter, and also writes the Video Gay-Mer column on Popdust! If you have any RPGs you'd like him to unpack, hit him up!
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