It is a bizarre reality of pop culture that the most exacting reproductions of our past lie not with historians, podcasters, or reenactors, but a video game studio writing a franchise about ancient aliens and vast hidden conspiracies. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is famous for its exacting, careful reconstruction of Renaissance Italy, Victorian London, and seemingly every era in between, salting lots of historical information amid a plot so goofy even the History Channel wouldn’t dignify it with a “documentary.” And Assassin’s Creed Origins brings this contrast into sharp relief because it’s almost more fun to just wander around looking at things than to actually interact with them.
Finally giving fans the ancient Egypt setting they begged for, Origins follows Bayek, a Medjay (think an ancient Egyptian FBI agent) who, in the midst of Cleopatra scheming and Caesar deciding he’d just help himself to that Nile Delta farmland he loves, stumbles over a vast conspiracy and becomes the first Assassin. Like every Assassin’s Creed game, it’s thrilling to play but completely silly on paper, and you will ignore it almost completely in favor of, it turns out, not even screwing around collecting loot and side missions, but just exploring the vast breathing world Ubisoft Montreal put together.
The game has some technical glitches, which is to be expected at this point, but what’s impressive about it is just how absurdly detailed it all is. You can plant your butt on a post and watch fishermen go to work, wander through temples rendered in exquisite detail, and listen to voice acting that idly explores the day to day life of Egypt. Is it a documentary? No. But if you know anything about Egyptian history, it’s like being sucked into a history book.
That’s kind of the whole problem. The story, as much as we tease, is uncommonly good, thanks in part to Bayek being as clueless about the overall plot as the player, and it helps that the game has made some surprising mechanical changes. The “eagle vision” from previous games is gone, replaced with an actual eagle you can fly over installations to spot enemies and weak points. The carefully scripted animations of the fights have been done away with in favor of hitboxes, making combat both much smoother and much tougher. The missions have a lot of variety. And you no longer have to climb to the top of things to unlock the map. Now you’ll do it just to see if you can catch a glimpse of a pyramid.
But still, this is some polish on something we’ve seen before, across ten games on consoles across a decade. In fact, just a few weeks ago we basically got the fantasy version with Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War. Yeah, we guess we could infiltrate that base and advance the story, but any gamer has a dozen games you can do that. Exploring the world is a lot more interesting. Is that a flaw or a benefit, that the game’s setting is almost more compelling than the game itself? Good question, but whether you’re a history nerd or a long-time fan, Assassin’s Creed Origins is worth playing. It’s just a question of what you’ll get out of it.