Assassin's Creed: Origins hands-on — bigger, livelier, and taking notes from The Witcher 3

By now, I’ve played about three hours of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and its shape has come into sharp relief. After a year off of the annual Assassin’s Creed release train, Origins is by now known as a refresh for the series, focusing on story and player progression over busying the world map with checklist activities and mission types. There’s plenty of that stuff in there too, but spread over an entire country instead of a city or two. The scale is incredible, even if what you do in the world doesn’t feel very new to the series. 

But with a focus on telling personal stories against a dramatic historical backdrop, Origins could be the most gripping AC yet. It could also be a lot more of what we’re used to, just on a much bigger map. Another hour with a new chunk of the game wasn’t enough to be conclusive, but it was enough to learn a few things. Here’s what stood out.

It’s a historical best-of from the era, starring Caesar, Cleopatra, and Ptolemy the Boy King 

First of all, as a man who was once a boy, who still is a boy in many respects, it would have been nice if public schools taught me anything about my former king, the Boy King. In Origins, he’s the pharaoh, but the puppet of a more powerful offscreen villain. Caesar and Cleopatra both want him gone, and the only reason they’re working together is because the Boy King screwed up by executing a Roman Caesar was after. Ptolemy thought he was doing the guy a favor. It’s a soap opera dramatization of history, giving renown figures Hollywood voice actors and side quests to hand out. Assassin’s Creed has always done this, but seeing Rome and Egypt on stage is particularly exciting.

New character Aya, married to Bayek, could be what holds the story together 

Allied with Cleopatra against Ptolemy the Boy King, Aya impresses immediately, and the relationship between the two is made clear and present in every scene they inhabit together—so far. Holding hands, expressing concern at the slightest risk, Bayek and Aya know and love each other deeply, but I wonder what kind of presence they’ll have in the scope of the entire game. Against a backdrop of historical heroes and villains, I hope their relationship takes center stage, reflecting social and political upheaval on an intimate scale. 

In the demo mission, Aya made it abundantly clear that supporting Cleopatra is important to her, so what if Bayek is pulled towards a conflicting allegiance later on? How will they filter their politics through love? If Origins is truly doubling down on storytelling, the stories must be more human than in the past. I’m all for murdering one cartoon villain after another, but this could be the first time I care to remember why they deserved to die in the first place. 

The map is bigger than you think 

So, I’m not allowed to show the final map size, but I can say it’s going to make every other Assassin’s Creed look puny by comparison. The Great City of Memphis region, which I’ll touch on in a minute, is already the size of a city from any other mainline Assassin’s Creed game, and then some if you include the surrounding desert regions, dotted with pyramids, temples, and farmland. Zoomed out, the whole map looks to be about 10 times the size of this region, but that's a rough estimate. I think one reason Origins doesn’t demo so well—it’s just very much Assassin’s Creed in a new setting and with some loot at first glance—is because its scope can’t come across until we can trek across the entirety of Egypt for ourselves.

While spaces between cities in previous games felt transitory, I get the feeling that the quieter, wilder spaces in Origins could be where I have the most fun. Side quests have an opportunity to characterize entire regions or tell strange, personal stories that wouldn’t make sense in the drama hubs (cities). Tombs and caves, wildlife and one-off NPC encounters—Origins could be the Red Dead Redemption, the Witcher 3 of Africa, and more than killing dudes in cool ways, I’m excited to see how Ubisoft treats such a large space. With the same dull melodrama as every Assassin’s Creed or with some newfound levity and breadth?

The Great City of Memphis sure is great 

It’s hard to understate how alive Origins’ locations feel. I keep making the comparison, but it’s fair, I think: The Witcher 3’s open world is one of my favorites, not because it’s brimming with stuff to do, but because it’s built to portray a real place. The landscapes don’t look like Level Design, they look real landscapes. It’s some of the most elaborate table setting a game can manage, and Origins’ Egypt is on track to do exactly that. Memphis is a great example. Not every inch of it is a hoot to climb around, but the architecture, the busy streets full of people at work, the irrigation canals with green reeds at the borders stretching out into farmland before terminating in the white hot sands of the desert—it all looks natural, and quite pretty. 

I love most of the settings in the series, and Egypt is the most lush so far, which makes it extra tragic anytime the garish UI gets in the way of my admiration. Anytime I run by a guard, and there are a ton, a big red health bar and “Assassinate” button prompt appear above their head. Similarly, when icons marking objectives appear on top of the world no matter where they are, it’s an eyesore, like someone slapped a jpeg on top of everything and won’t let me look away. I really hope I can turn that stuff off, even if it compromises how quickly and easily I can navigate the world. 

The pyramids have puzzles in them 

After I finished up a main story mission, I did what I do in every open world game: find something interesting on the horizon, and go there. Egypt has pyramids on its horizon, and as someone that grew up watching every dull Discovery Channel documentary that planned on finally revealing what’s inside those things, I had to see for myself. Physics puzzles, turns out!

To be fair, the secret bits just weren’t there yet. Everything was under construction in the inside, although it looked like things hadn’t progressed for a while. Using a torch, I climbed in almost total darkness, lit braziers, and weighed down platforms with heavy bundles of cords to make a route to the center of the pyramid. After a few rooms, I find some treasure chests full of loot (I got a powerful new axe), and read a plaque that instantly rewarded me a skill point. Neat, but I was hoping for something more surprising and unique. A light puzzle-platforming challenge leading to systemic rewards will be helpful in the long term, but I didn’t learn anything new about the state of the world or Bayek from one of Origins most curious landmarks. 

There are Witcher-3-esque investigation scenes 

OK, so they’re in every game now, and I know The Witcher 3 didn't create them, but it seems some of Origin's quests are roping in Witcher-like environmental investigation scenes, which I’m all for. I like it when action games take time to simmer, letting you closely observe a scene and, if you’re paying attention, piece together the plot just before it’s explained to you. In one, I had to find out the source of a sacred cow’s sickness by talking to a bystander and inspecting the cow’s fancy bedroom. In another, I attempted to solve a troubling case of arson. After finding oil at the scene, I bashed a rude, standoffish oil salesman standing conspicuously nearby with my cool new pyramid axe to get him talking. They’re the kind of scenes many players would totally gloss over, but I dig the slow study of a detailed scene, accompanied by an intriguing mystery. Hopefully the writing keeps up.

It has bugs 

Granted, this was still an in-progress build, but within an hour, I got stuck on the geometry several times and witnessed some horrifying physics glitches. In one instance, I swung my axe down on some poor guy to finish him off, but he was falling into some water while the animation kicked off. His bodied defied space, teleporting around and twisting into horrible shapes. 

None of the glitches compromised what I was doing at the time, but I can imagine a scenario where I’m chasing a guy (as you do in Assassin’s Creed) and becoming infuriated when the invisible boundary between a ledge and attached grass roof stops me in my tracks. But given how varied the terrain and geometry of Egypt’s cities are, combined with the massive scale, there’s a good chance this will be the Skyrim of AC—a bigger, technologically impressive machine, but possibly one with more points of failure.