Thanks to Xbox for the code for this one!

Ancient Egypt

A heady shimmer of haze rises from the edge of the Giza Plateau, the heat of the midday sun is almost oppressive through the screen and I'm left wondering just what this game is going to be like upon the Xbox One X next week. For now, I'm here in Ancient Egypt in the shoes or sandals of Bayek of Siwa, one of the very last Medjay in Egypt, ancient protectors of the Pharaoh and later the people of Egypt. Right out of the gate I can tell you that Egypt lives and breathes here, this is the largest and most detailed world that Ubisoft have ever constructed, and for me it's one of the most engrossing games I've played in the Assassin's Creed series since AC IV: Black Flag.

The game runs beautifully on the Xbox One and delivers an extremely vibrant, immersive, and interesting world at every turn where there's always something to see and do. There's a lot of content in the game and it would take a huge review to spotlight the whole thing, because this is Assassin's Creed, but not as you know it and the year off to concentrate on the revitalisation of the franchise has paid big dividends as far as I'm concerned.

Like many of you I was suffering from series fatigue, the endless yearly cycle of a franchise I really liked had begun to set in and whilst I liked Syndicate it was too formulaic and reminiscent of AC: Unity to set it apart.

Something had to change if Assassin's Creed was to survive.

Enter Ashraf Ismail and his team, the genius' behind one of my favourite non-Assassin Assassin's Creed games, the aforementioned Black Flag. Just after Black Flag concluded development Ismail didn't rest on his laurels, he got right back in there and they proposed an ambitious game that would change the way Assassin's Creed played. Five or so years later I can finally say that Ubisoft and Ashraf's gambit paid off, this is the reborn Assassin's Creed, the story of the Birth of a Brotherhood and the shift towards an RPG style game for the series.

Assassin's Creed, but not as you know it.

There are numerous changes to Origins that take the series in a new direction, whilst still keeping the story of an assassin alive. Whilst the Brotherhood has yet to be formed, the seeds are there and as you play through the game's 20+ hour story you'll discover all sorts of tie-ins to the lore of the games that came previously. I'll leave you to work all those out for yourself and see the many surprises the game has to offer.

Mechanically though, I'll talk a little bit about what's altered and what that means for the game as a whole through my eyes.

Levelling Bayek

Bayek of Siwa is a pretty capable fellow to begin with, and as you play through this expansive, vast, open world Assassin's Creed RPG you'll get a ton of Xp from virtually everything that you do. Eventually you'll level up and you'll gain more health and damage. These are added automatically and you're not distributing stat points. What you also get is a single ability point to spend in the game's skill chart or web. Split between three core disciplines, that of the Warrior, Hunter, and Seer.

Warrior has skills that help with the combat system, help you perform better blocks, to parry and to shield charge and so on.

Hunter is focused mostly on the bow aspect of the game, opening up the ability to guide Predator bow arrows slightly and to slow time when jumping down whilst the bow is pulled.

Seer works well with tools, giving Bayek the ability to poison bodies, sell stuff at shops for more money, and tame animals (amongst other things).

Some abilities cost 1 point, some 2 and others 3. You'll get a trickle of points as you start the game and you can make a hybrid or focus just on one aspect.

Each branch as a Master node, this node can be upgraded constantly and boosts that particular aspect by 1% each time.

The game does a good job of telling you what level is recommended for a particular quest, or activity, as long as you're within a few levels of it - you should be good. If you see red skulls on enemies though, be prepared for a really tough fight and one you may/may not survive.

The massive map also tells you what level each region is best suited for, there's nothing stopping you from going there, but if you do - again - expect serious opposition from high level bad guys and angry fauna. Just zoom out fully and you'll see the level range clearly listed.

Keeping up with the Siwan's

AC: Origins divorces gear that you wear from the levelling system. You can buy and find outfits throughout the game, there are various weaver shops that will sell them, and they'll sell different outfits in many of the game's regions. These are cosmetic items that change Bayek's look, but have no in-game mechanical benefit attached to them. Thus freeing you from the problem of requiring new gear every few levels.

Instead there's a simple crafting system that lets you collect materials and when you get enough you'll be able to upgrade one of Bayek's gear pieces. Breastplate, tool bag, bracer, quiver and so on. These feed back into the game's RPG systems and boost things like Bayek's health, his melee damage, his ranged damage, number of arrows he can carry.

This way you're not worried about swapping armour or a dozen other bits of equipment and you can concentrate on being that dapper Medjay you always dreamed of!

Weapons of War

When you revamp a combat system, you need to revamp the way the game deals with those tools of war. AC: Origins has completely changed the gear system to a RPG one. There are common items (blue), rare (purple) and legendary (golden) rarities and a slew of about 160+ weapons with various stats and abilities spread through categories like normal swords, sickle swords, spears, heavy blunt weapons, shields and more. There are various classes of bows, from the rapid-fire light bow, to the warrior (shotgun 5-arrows) bow, and the amazing sniper-class Predator Bow which is a long range murder machine.

These weapons can have numerous affixes, such as bleed on hit, poison on hit and more. There's a weapon for every occasion and some pretty neat hidden weapons too.

But what if you really like a weapon, what if you land on that regular sword that has poison on hit, a great damage potential and also causes your adrenaline gauge to build faster. It was a great sword at level 5, but now you're level 10 and it's not doing so well.

Do you sell it, break it down for crafting materials?

No, you take it to one of the many game's Blacksmiths and get that sucker upgraded!

AC: Origins features a system I've wanted in a RPG for a while, the ability to pay some money to a shop and level my weapon with me. I can take all my favourite weapons and upgrade them to my current level. It's expensive, but in the long run, so worth it!

So with a huge swathe of weapons to choose from, a great upgrade system that keeps your favourite weapons current AC: Origins has really managed to revitalise that part of RPGs for me.

Quests

When you create such a big open world as AC: Origins, you're faced with a big decision and rather like CDPR did with the incredible Witcher 3, Ubisoft has taken the road of Quests and Side-Quests for AC: Origins and again, it's paid off.

Quests are big multi-stage things that span the game's story and have some pretty amazing moments of emotion and revelation in them. Side-Quests are smaller affairs, they can last from 10m to 30m and some of them have various stages that must be completed before you can move onto the next part. Some are simple, some are investigations where Bayek must examine a crime scene and gather the information Batman-Arkham style before he can piece together what happens.

CSI Witcher did this, and AC: Origins couldn't have borrowed from a better game.

There are numerous elements to these quests and I'm not going to spoil any of them with any kind of in-depth explanation. Play the game, that's the only way you'll see.

Quests reward loot, cash (drachmas) and XP.

Putting a Quest system into the game means that there's a lot more variety and a lot more you can find when exploring. The game also takes into account those of us who find a quest item before we get the quest, so at one point I actually handed in a quest after the guy had asked me to help him. Bayek chuckled and said, "I believe this is what you were looking for, I found it earlier."

I appreciate things like that.

You can also dip in and out of Quests at any time, there are no fail-states in this game. It's not game over if you're detected by someone you're shadowing, or fail to catch during a chase. The old AC irritants are GONE. If you're detected, it might become a chase, fail the chase and your quarry will go to ground in a fort... now it's a sneak in and murder mission. Get detected again, it's hit and run, or fight time.

There are NO fail states at all barring desynching when you take too much damage. Thanks to the game's generous checkpoint system you'll never loose much progress either.

How Hard can it Be?

AC: Origins is as hard as you want it to be, you can pick your chosen difficulty (for the first time ever) and play a more story driven experience or go for a more 'rip your hair out' harder experience. If you find it too hard or too easy you can change difficulty at any time.

AC: Origins is a game that wants you to have FUN.

Fight Fight Fight

Bayek can get into fist fights, sword fights, axe fights, stave fights and more during the course of his adventure. You can keep the game's controls as they are, or opt for a slightly easier method and activate Legacy Controls. X becomes light attack, Y heavy, B dodge and so on. Bayek is nimble, he can dodge around out of trouble (but only 3 or so times before he needs to take a little break). He can lock onto foes and freely switch weapons/melee/ranged at any time during the fights.

Gear can be swapped out during a pause and you can ensure you have the right murder-implement for the job.

Combat is hit-box based compared to the old paired animations of previous AC games. This means that it feels weighty and impactful. Bayek swings a weapon, someone's going to get hit if they're in the way. If there's no one in the way then he'll swing at thin air and possibly open himself up to a counter attack or reprisal. Enemies no longer politely wait to fight you one on one either, you'll get swarmed, ganged up on, attacked in various ways and the AI ensures that animal and human attackers behave in a fairly realistic manner.

Big guys will wade in and use their heavy attacks, whilst their nimble friends will run interference and attempt to flank you. Ranged attackers will put distance between you and them and then fire their bows or throw their spears/javelins. Those with shields will use them to block and parry you and those with powerful special moves will use them to put a serious amount of hurt onto Bayek.

Gone are mid-fight heals with medicine pouches etc. You can heal during combat if you buy the correct skill, but otherwise you're going to need to disengage, break line of sight and find a place to rest up before you come back in.

Physics plays into the combat system nicely as well, big weapons hit hard and they'll send you and enemies flying. Shield shoves can knock weaker foes off cliffs and to their demise.

Just remember: Loot the bodies when you see those dropped pouches. You might get a few drachma, or a crafting material, new weapon and so on. It's all down to the fairly forgiving RNG gods.

The new combat system does take some getting used to, but never be afraid to experiment with it, run away, try a new tactic. Switch to a Warrior Bow and shotgun some bad guys, before you switch to a Light bow and send a hail of arrows their way. You can perform combos with your weapons and build up adrenaline to allow you to unleash weapon-specific Overcharge attack. These are powerful attacks that can deliver a lot of damage, some just do a one-hit brutal attack, others put Bayek into a rage mode where he can act faster and hit harder.

There are other things you can try, like smashing jars of oil near a fire, or lighting your arrows on a brazier/fire/your torch to put some flame hurt on the bad guys. Experiment.

Sneaky Sneaky Medjay

It wouldn't be an AC game without sneaking and the stealth in Origins is solid. Enemies don't automatically know where you are once one becomes aware and there are various tools to help you in your Seer path. You can drop smoke bombs when attacking or dodging, throw sleep or poison darts, and auto-loot assassinated/killed enemies for example. The AC: Origins AI is so fair that even if you start a fight in one part of a camp, the guards elsewhere won't come investigate unless they hear the commotion or a guard runs to tell them.

Be warned, once a camp goes on full alert they'll do their best to hunt you down. They won't know where you are though and you can play a glorious game of cat and mouse with the AI in that regard until you clear the zone.

Even if you are spotted you have a few seconds to act before the guards become fully aware.

They have several states. At first they'll investigate what they think might be something out of the ordinary, which is a white indicator, yellow means they're really suspicious and you'll know when you've been spotted, because the hunt is on!

Break line of sight, find a new hiding spot and they'll search around the area they last saw you. If you don't show again, they'll go back to their original patrols and so forth.

They will be more vigilant from now on though.

Open World Exploration

The game is huge and each region is massive, there's hundreds of side quests and I've spent over 32 hours with it so far. I'm no where near done either. I've seen enough of the major changes and mechanics to make an informed choice and decision for the review though. There are very few loading screens and the load times in that regard are quick.

Open World Egypt though is fascinating. There are hundreds if not thousands of tiny details, the world lives, it breathes. The AI has their own day-night cycles and lives, they'll engage in various things during the day. Animals have their own ecosystem, hunting, ambushing, lying down and sleeping and running away if things get too tough.

You can open Eagle Points to allow for fast travel, point out interesting things on the World Map and increase Sennu's perception.

Who or what is Sennu?

Sennu is Bayek's Eagle buddy and perhaps the greatest mechanic invented for a game yet. This is the birth of the Assassin's Eagle Vision, it allows you to see through the eyes of the eagle and explore the world like never before. Sennu can tag enemies whilst in hover mode, scout out locations and do various cool things like harass bad guys as you're fighting them.

Best buddy ever!

Sennu can also fly pretty far away from Bayek, so she makes the perfect scout companion and she's much more personal than a drone.

You can go everywhere on foot and climb virtually everything thanks to the revamped parkour system that replaces hand-holds with scalable surfaces. The joy of exploration in AC: Origins is packed throughout the game and climbing big mesa-structures is an incredible feeling of freedom.

You can travel on water via boat and for the first time in AC, you can dive beneath the waves to explore. You can fight underwater, you can shoot your bow from the surface and you can even hitch a ride on NPC boats. They'll actively come to pick you up if they see you swimming around.

Then there's your mount, every one has a little story and they're all pretty cool. You can ride, fight from horseback, shoot your bow from horseback and you can do all this whilst telling your mount to Follow Road (A on Xbox One). Bayek's mount will then travel along that road and free you to use your bow to shoot at bad guys ahead or behind. You can set a custom marker and the mount will travel there, allowing you to do the same thing.

Switch to Sennu, pick a bad guy as a marker.

Switch to Bayek, Follow Road (A), Press LS in to activate Custom Marker Follow. Now you're following the guy you want to murder.

Sit back and shoot arrows from the comfort of your saddle.

You can also scout with Sennu whilst Bayek rides to a destination via the Custom Marker.

Sense of Wonder

AC: Origins has lots of secrets and systems running inside the game, under the hood, on the surface. There's a real sense of wonder here and Ancient Egypt is the perfect setting for this kind of game. The first time you enter a tomb or a pyramid is a pretty special moment. There's a feeling of atmosphere and a tangible feeling of claustrophobic excitement as you delve deeper, each new passage, each new secret draws you further and further beneath the shifting sand.

That's what it means to be a Game of the Year and that's exactly what I'm calling AC: Origins. Like Witcher 3 before it, this year, AC: Origins is my Game of the Year and hopefully when you get to experience it, either on Xbox One or One X you'll see why I've come to that conclusion.

There are a few minor issues and the game takes some getting used to, but for the most part this little things have been so minor as to not detract from the experience.

Beauty in History

The Xbox One version of AC: Origins is no slouch, there's a heck of a lovely game here with some breathtaking vistas, incredible draw distances, very little pop-in and no applicable frame-drops. The aesthetic and visual side of the game is pretty jaw-dropping and the lighting is some of the best I've seen, especially when you delve underground.

Unsheathe the Blade Within the Voice

The voice work for the game is solid, with the main characters, especially Bayek coming across extremely well. Bayek is a likable character and very driven, this comes across in his performance. Aya, his wife, is likewise extremely passionate and yes, you can play as her. It's the one spoiler I'll allow, since Ashraf did reveal you could do that in an interview recently. How and when, you'll have to find that out for yourself.

Sweeping Sand and Sound

The sound for the game is nothing short of incredible too. Again, when you delve into the pyramids and tombs, it's really eerie and there's a lot of ambient sound at work there that really brings the whole thing to life.

Musical Journey

Sarah Schachner has done a marvellous job of capturing the majesty and beauty of this region, with great themes and stirring solo pieces that really do bring Egypt to life. The score is great, reactive and it kicks in just when it needs to.

Photo Mode

You just need to click both sticks in and then you can take the perfect photo. The camera can be moved far away from Bayek and allows you to capture action shots, vistas and more. You can add filters and the game automatically showcases other player's photos on the world map.

A perfect example is shown here from my game, where Bayek meets and pets cats.

GotY right there!

Heka Loot Man!

The game has micro-transactions, reminiscent of Black Flag. There are Helix Credits to buy, which can be exchanged for various things. Yes, you can buy in-game coins if you want, but honestly, the game throws that much loot at you from various enemies and chests you don't need to. These really are for people who can't be arsed playing that side of the game.

Heka Chests are a thing, they're a random loot box, you get them for 3000 drachma and they're not obnoxiously placed. You can get a free one from Reda if you do his daily quest.

They're not a blind box either, you'll always get something good out of one.

So to recap, similar to Black Flag, not really intrusive and Helix Credits buy timesaver packs. Helix Credits are given in-game from time to time and you can buy more with cash, just like Black Flag. It's about the nicest way I've seen this thing handled. Nicer than say, Ghost Recon: Wildlands which was a total rip-off for what you actually got.

Saved?

Do I think this is the game that's saved the franchise, yes I do. It needed a shot in the arm, the corpse of Assassin's Creed was starting to shamble around and lurch like a mummy rising from Sneferu's Tomb - AC: Origins is the best thing to happen to the series for a long while and I'm going to keep my eyes on what Ubisoft does next with the game.

The future is bright, shimmering, like the heat-haze over the Pyramids of Giza. Only it's not a mirage or a false dawn, this is a new breed of Creed and the change was right on time.