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Assassin’s Creed Took a Year Off to Find Itself

Perhaps nothing was odder in the odd year of 2016 than this: There was no new Assassin’s Creed game. The annual release of a new sequel in the history-spanning open-world series from Ubisoft has a sort of death-and-taxes status in the delay-plagued world of video games. There’s been a new Assassin’s Creed every year since 2009, when the blockbuster Assassin’s Creed II was published two years after the first game in the series.

Assassin’s Creed is one of my favorite series, in part because of its focus on reconstructing historical environments that wouldn’t otherwise exist in virtual space. Using a sci-fi conceit that lets people revisit the memories of ancestors embedded in their DNA, you play as a member of the shadowy secret society of Assassins, engaged in an eternal struggle against the Knights Templar. As one assassin or another, the series has moved from Crusades-era Jerusalem to Renaissance Italy to colonial America to revolutionary Paris to London in the throes of the industrial revolution. Its open-world structure means the player can parkour around the mostly accurate cityscapes and landmarks of, say, 16th-century Florence and Venice. This is a series that is at once committed to general historical accuracy — you meet a lot of historical figures — and yet also features a climactic boss fight against the pope in the Sistine Chapel.

That same structure also means a fair amount of slight technical hiccups that, at this point, captive by video-game Stockholm syndrome, I would describe as charming.

The clockwork release schedule of Assassin’s Creed is something that only an immense international operation like developer and publisher Ubisoft could pull off, in part because of how large these games are. Other games on annual release cycles are a bit more focused in their subject matter. Call of Duty is always focused on shooting; Madden is always focused on football. Assassin’s Creed, like other open-world games, needs to re-create a city (or a country) from scratch, while iterating on mechanics or creating entirely new ones for each iteration. With studios spread around the world and a development team of thousands, Ubisoft has a lead team on each game supplemented by a legion of support groups. One studio might work on the multiplayer, or one specific section, while another fixes a graphical glitch. It means that for the last decade, the company has been putting out Assassin’s Creed games at a relentless pace, while also experimenting and changing the formula and experimenting with new systems. Maybe there’s a naval combat system in one game, multiple protagonists with different fighting styles in another. No Assassin’s Creed game feels like a cut-and-paste job. I’ve played all ten of them.

A decade of Assassin’s Creed games at their annual pace is, needless to say, a lot. Ubisoft’s announcement that it wouldn’t release them in 2016 didn’t dismay too many people. But without the pressure of an annual cycle, it was interesting to speculate about what the company might do, how it would take the extra time to go in other directions and try new things.

The result of this is Assassin’s Creed Origins, which is out later this month. While each past game has moved the series forward chronologically, Origins is the earliest in the series, set in Ptolemaic Egypt 30 years before B.C. turned into A.D. You play as a man named Bayek. “We decided pretty early that we wanted to do the whole country. It’s not only cities like Alexandria or Memphis, it’s also about the Nile delta with its vegetation, the deserts, and the mountains,” explained producer Julien Laferrière. “We wanted to capture this ancient civilization with its tombs and its mysticism. We knew it would be a huge scope.”

The choice of time period can seem like a bit of a jolt after the last game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which was set in the mid-1800s, complete with a number of technological flourishes real (a railroad system) and imagined (a grappling hook that let the player ascend stories in seconds). The good news is that, despite boxing the series into its most primitive period yet, Origins is still very much an Assassin’s Creed game, and it’s very fun (which I say as someone predisposed to like it). The lead team on this, the same one that produced Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, has found ways to both change up the series formula and skirt around problems with ancient Egypt’s, well, ancientness that might otherwise prevent quality-of-life gameplay improvements. There is, for instance, an eagle that always shadows the player that can be accessed at any time. Taking control of it highlights points of interest nearby, whether they are human targets, animals to hunt, or mission objectives. In effect, it’s a drone, scouting out locales in a function similar to another Ubisoft property, the Far Cry series.

The new setting has also forced the series to reevaluate its various systems. Combat, for instance, used to be a locked-animation system. Put plainly, your character would make a move, and the target would react in a preplanned way. In previous games, you could stand surrounded by enemies, and wait for them to attack one by one. The new system works using hitboxes, meaning that if the player swings their sword wide and has the reach to hit multiple enemies, the game will register that, instead of just a single target. Combat has also been remapped on the controller, to the shoulder buttons, a bit like Mirror’s Edge. It takes a few minutes of getting used to, but it eventually clicks.

The series has retained its RPG-lite qualities. There is a skill tree to add abilities to, and you level up by completing quests and side quests. The system isn’t particularly rigid, however. The play session I attended was set up so that I’d have to do a few side missions before hitting the main story, but I was running low on time and went for the main thread anyway. I was under-leveled and still had combat mastered to the point where I was able to complete the mission with little problem. Ubisoft also says that every non-player character has a specific day-night cycle (think Majora’s Mask), so a target might be easier to get to depending on the time and place.

There are two big issues that I can see being a problem for Origins, and they’re only problems depending on what you’re looking for in an Assassin’s Creed game. The first is story. The franchise has always had decent writing, mainly thanks to strong and well-drawn protagonists. The so-called Ezio Trilogy, Black Flag, and Syndicate all had strong lead characters, but Origins’ Bayek seemed flat in what little narrative I saw. To counter this, the game seems to have a lot more writing compared to previous games. Side missions, the namesake of which literally implies unimportance, all have relatively lengthy cut scenes to intro and conclude them. Main-story cut scenes in my demo ran even longer. The verbosity can drag on — I’m not really playing this series for the narrative. But Laferrière also gave small examples of new writing tweaks, like dialogue that acknowledges actions already undertaken by the player.

What I play Assassin’s Creed for is the setting, running along rooftops and cityscapes of historical importance, as opposed to another generic bombed-out war zone. This is where Origins, with its early civilization trappings, could stumble the most. Assassin’s Creed III, set in colonial America, was rightfully derided for its flatness — short buildings, few tall landmarks, not a lot of variety or spontaneity in its cityscapes and countrysides. Origins has sidestepped this concern in a number of ways. With a map that covers a (condensed) version of the entire country at the time, there are plenty of gargantuan landmarks to scamper up and down. But outside of that, Ubisoft has tried to sculpt the world in a way that encourages curiosity. “Instead of having this verticality, we played with the horizon,” Laferrière said. “We tried to tease the player with landmarks or stuff that will block his vision, and he’ll be tempted to go over that to see what’s next. We’ll play with hills, with dunes, with walls that block the player’s vision.”

An extra year of development time meant that the stewards of Assassin’s Creed could step back and take stock of where the series was going and what it should focus more effort on. For better or worse, it is still very much an Assassin’s Creed game. The jank is still there, the faintly sluggish movement is still there, but the commendable historical minutiae and attention to detail still is as well. It’s a substantial reevaluation of the series’s core values, but from what I’ve played, old fans will find much that remains familiar.

Assassin’s Creed Took a Year Off to Find Itself