What is it? A throwback to the stealthier days of Assassin's Creed.
Release date October 5, 2023
Expect to pay $50/£35
Developer Ubisoft Bordeaux
Reviewed on GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER, i9-9900KS, 32GB RAM
Steam Deck Unsupported
Link Official site
It's not often that a big-budget videogame feels like it was made according to my exact wishes, and yet Assassin's Creed Mirage exists. What was once destined to be an expansion for Assassin's Creed: Valhalla grew into a standalone throwback to the best of the series that valued stylish kills, freedom of movement, and stealth over quest logs and gear scores. Spiritually, it's a straight bullseye.
This is the purest stealth game Ubisoft has made in 15 years of AC, dense with rooftops, ziplines, and fluffy carts of hay in one of the most beautiful cities ever realized in a videogame. When I'm perched on a ledge studying guard routes, mentally noting hiding places, or plotting a risky climb, Mirage feels like Ubi at the top of its game. It's a shame, then, that the fluid stealth sandbox is dragged down by all the bad stuff it inherits from the last six years of AC RPGs—spammy combat, floaty character movement, and parkour that never quite flows as well as it's meant to.
I want so badly for classic Assassin's Creed to be back like I thought it could be, but in its full 20-hour dose, Mirage is more like a stepping stone.
Mirage must've been an interesting first lead project for Ubisoft Bordeaux—a young studio founded in 2017 that, until Mirage, had only assisted on bigger AC games and made Valhalla DLC. My mind boggles trying to untangle what exactly "classic" means in a series that changes so much from game to game. To some, classic AC means the Ezio era, where stealth was always extremely optional and chain-killing 15 guards was easy and fun. To others, classic AC is captaining a pirate ship, purchasing storefronts, or recruiting assassins to the brotherhood.
For its north star, Bordeaux chose the very first Assassin's Creed, a landmark game that was unique in 2007, but had simplistic stealth and repetitive missions. Mirage rewinds the clock a few hundreds years before the time of Altaïr to tell the origin story of Basim Ibn Ishaq, a central character from Valhalla who earned his stripes hunting the Order of the Ancients (the pre-Crusades name for Templars) in 9th century Baghdad.
The brilliance of Mirage is the way it marries Ubi Montreal's original vision of social stealth with a modern interpretation of what a good stealth level is: every mission is a small sandbox with multiple routes and guards that can be picked off, bypassed, or simply avoided with well-considered sneaking. With the added bonus of an eagle that allows Basim to scout out restricted areas from the sky, it's never been this much fun to actually be sneaky in an AC game.
It helps that Mirage's toolbag isn't just a carousel of different ways to kill people—Basim carries sleep darts, non-lethal traps, noisemakers, smoke bombs, and a few throwing knives for when it's you or them. When it's time to kill, Basim lets his hidden blade do the talking, which I found to be a refreshing limitation that encourages honest-to-god sneaking over the series' old idea of stealth that usually amounted to "shoot every guard you encounter with a gun or crossbow before they see you."
I'm a big fan of Mirage's streamlined gadgets. Each one serves a different purpose and can come in clutch at make-or-break-stealth moments, but I particularly love the sleep darts. Sending a guard to snoozeville is a lot better than sticking a knife in their head because a guard that discovers a dead body goes on high alert, while a sleeping guard just wakes up and goes back to their normal route.
"High alert" is often an underwhelming punishment for sloppiness in stealth games when the AI just kinda pretends they're looking for you slightly harder than before, but Mirage's guards really do step things up a notch. Alerted guards walk unpredictable routes, check hiding spots they'd usually ignore, and even learn how to look up.
For Mirage's biggest story assassinations, Bordeaux goes the extra mile with "black box" missions that offer a handful of different on-ramps to clean, cinematic kills similar to Hitman's "mission stories." These missions are in much larger locations than the rest of the game, and usually involve Basim having to social engineer a rendezvous with the target or, on a few occasions, don a disguise. Sometimes these moments were a little too hand-holdy for me, but the payoffs are cool. Black boxes aren't so grand and complex that I ever got the itch to replay them, but if I ever start a second playthrough I'd be curious to see how differently they can play out.
Mirage reimagines the series' social stealth offerings in clever ways, too: most compounds can be optionally infiltrated by blending into a crowd of concubines or a personal merchant escort. A heavily guarded front gate can be cleared by hiring mercenaries or tossing a coin to a nearby musician. In the old games, social solutions cost just a bit of in-game currency, but in Mirage, their services cost unique coins that can only be earned by completing side contracts for the relevant faction (merchants, scholars, mercenaries) or by pickpocketing, if you're lucky.
More than ever before in 15 years of this series, I feel like an actual assassin in Mirage, not a gladiator.
Take a stab at it
Nowhere does that hold true more than when stealth finally breaks. Mirage's combat is a strange reconstruction of the series' classic sword fighting—complete with a counter-kill that lets Basim instantly finish guards after a successful parry—with the same basic feel of Valhalla's mushy group fights. It's functional, but also very ugly. Enemies fail to react to blistering hits, animations awkwardly cancel between each other, and characters have a silly-looking glow when they attack. These are all design decisions that started with Origins in 2017, and I continue to think it's the worst part of modern Assassin's Creed. I'd take Brotherhood's dumbed-down chain killing that looked great but basically played itself, over this.
It doesn't matter as much as you'd expect that combat sucks, though, because I spent very little time using it. Basim is a glass cannon and goes down in a handful of hits, so I'd usually follow the loading screen's advice and run away if more than three guards surrounded me, or let them kill me and get a do-over from a generous checkpoint. The counter kill helped to make most of my fights brief, and I appreciate that breaking stealth with a few guards in an isolated room won't blow my cover everywhere else (that used to drive me up the wall back in the day).
Parkour has experienced a similarly awkward transition from the Valhalla engine. It's great that you can't just Zelda your way up the face of any flat surface anymore, and Bordeaux has captured some beautiful new parkour animations that help Mirage look like the old games. But it doesn't really feel like the old games.
Basim frequently stutters on the lip of an edge instead of jumping to where you obviously want him to go and leaps unnaturally high up walls in a way that's quick, but often mitigates any need to consider where you're climbing. Some buildings are spaced just far enough apart that Basim can't leap between them even if it looks like he can, which forces way too many cannonballs into the ground. You just don't have as much control as the good ol' days—side leaps from wallruns are gone, and Bordeaux decided not to bring back Unity's smart "parkour down" button that gave players much-needed input in automated freerunning.
There is a "go down" button in Mirage, but it only works if you're standing completely still and want to hang off a ledge. It also shares the same button with sneak mode, which led to constant unintentional crouches and more than a few bad words hurled at my monitor.
The round city
The saving grace of Mirage's parkour is Baghdad itself, which is so consistently gorgeous and alive that I never minded dropping onto the streets. Building facades are lavishly decorated with flowers, citizens carry entire conversations as you shop for weapon upgrades and outfits (mostly in Arabic, even when playing in English), and markets are lined with ridiculously pretty rugs that I jealously want to spruce up my boring office.
I've never played a big-budget open world game that's so clearly in love with the place it's depicting, and Mirage's greatest showpiece of that love is its "History of Baghdad" codex: an encyclopedia of dozens of collectible history bites spanning the region's economy, governments, and cultural contributions. The codex is surprisingly detailed, and the best touch is attached photos of actual artifacts (pottery, scales, linens, artwork) of the time that even note the museum where you can go see them for yourself.
I spent, conservatively, a fourth of my playtime hunting down and devouring every single codex entry I could find. An impressive feat for Bordeaux, coming from someone who had to routinely fight off sleep in history class. I did not expect to play Mirage and come away thinking about how it used to be a job to visit market stalls and make sure vendors weren't weighing down their scales to scam customers.
Honestly, I wish Mirage was interested in its original story as much as the period it's set in. The opening hours do a nice job of introducing Basim and establishing the central mystery around the creepy djinni haunting his dreams (and maybe the Animus), but that thread is quickly sidelined once you're let loose in Baghdad. The meat of Mirage's story is a handful of disconnected investigations into each Order member you're hunting. I was fine simply not caring about Mirage's barely-there plot until its ending, which was brief, inconsequential, and very confusing if you didn't finish Valhalla.
It's weird how closely this game's story is tied to an otherwise unrelated game. You essentially need to play Valhalla (or watch an explainer) to understand what Basim's whole deal is—in other words, it plays out like an expansion instead of its own thing. Assassin's Creed is famous for its bad endings, but this one is up there.
No time wasted
As promised, a Mirage playthrough will clock in around 20-25 hours. Even with a clear memory of when a 25-hour game was considered long, I can't help but feel like Mirage is a bit short. No doubt a decade of open world games chasing the 100-hour highs of Skyrim and The Witcher 3 has rewired my brain, but it's also true that Mirage's map is a little sparse for how big it is: if you're not pursuing a story mission or contract (which are just shorter story missions), there isn't much to do in the spaces between than open chests, unlock codex entries, and pickpocket collectibles.
It's making a lot more sense why Ubi decided to price Mirage at $50. I like that this is a focused adventure, and I think its distaste for open world bloat is an intentional move to separate it from the RPGs, but I admit that I actually miss some of that bloat, if only because AC used to do it pretty well.
Buying up property, collecting feathers, and managing an assassin brotherhood were simple, fun distractions from the main story that added texture to Ezio's stomping grounds, and Black Flag's sea shanties are still some of the best collectibles ever conceived. I wanted more excuses to keep on as Basim and comb over every inch of Baghdad.
Mirage gets so close to great that it's annoying, but also encouraging. It may not be the complete return to form that I imagined, but it's the best stealth game to ever have the Assassin's Creed name on it, and I hope Ubisoft sees this new "classic" branch of AC as something to build on. I'd love to see what Bordeaux can do with another at-bat—and hopefully more time to develop parkour, build another great city, and maybe rethink everything about combat.
I'm excited about Assassin's Creed for the first time in a decade, and it feels good.