When I watched the first—the very first—Assassin’s Creed trailer over 10 years ago, I drooled at the fantasy of a historical setting I'd never seen before in a game, propped up to be a deep assassination sandbox. I’d dance along the rooftops and sneak through bustling marketplaces, taking out my targets in plain sight, then disappear into the crowd.
And then I played the damn thing. The controls were only a suggestion to Altair. He’d jump where he wanted, often to his death. Worse, the sandbox was shallow, a series of bench-sittings and frustrating chase scenes. Subsequent Assassin’s Creed games never quite steered back to the creative assassination fantasy, piling up systems on systems to compensate. More mission variety made them more fun, but they never lived up to my imagination.
After playing Assassin's Creed: Origins at E3, I don’t get the impression it’s a perfect knife-in-the-dark simulation, but after a much needed year off, Assassin’s Creed is finally getting back to the point: killing jerks in cool ways. Here’s how:
You can fast forward through time
Just press a button and the camera zooms out to frame the landscape in a nice panorama, and hours pass in seconds. Clouds fly by, light spills out and fades with the sun—it’s an amazing tool. If I prefer the low light of night for stealthy infiltration, I can just speed up to nighttime and get to knifing. If I prefer to hide in plain sight among the busy crowds of a marketplace, I can fast forward to the busiest time of day just like that. It's a great way to play with, and within, the simulation.
Every NPC has a schedule
Every visible character in the world has an agenda. They’ll eat, go to work, sleep, and so on. The Ubi reps wouldn’t confirm anything, but I asked if that meant we could trace the routine of a particular assassination target for a particularly opportune moment. I didn’t get a definite answer, but it seems like a no-brainer to me. Is Assassin’s Creed: Origins taking a page from Hitman? I hope so, because: yes.
A few hours in, the map opens up completely
After a three to five hour stint in a smaller part of the world, you’ll be able to explore Egypt at your leisure. Certain areas of the game will have high level opponents, so the potential for a great challenge and great reward is almost always going to be there. I like the idea of throwing myself at a tough fort early on to get a crazy piece or armor or weaponry and taking it with me through simpler areas of the game.
The demo was definitely from one of those simpler sections. I didn’t get spotted until I tried to, but I was using a character from 15 hours into the game. My favorite stealth game memories are from when I’m backed into a particularly treacherous corner and have to dig into my pockets and wit to find a way out. An open map with high level areas could be the perfect place to put myself in that position at will.
The mini-map is a bird
Removing the mini-map forces me to study my surroundings more closely, and taps into the same geographical curiosity as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The eagle still highlights points of interest with icons, which is something a very boring, nerd eagle would do. The eagle probably has a very shitty personality. I hope we can turn off icons completely and navigate the world via landmarks and curiosity.
Either way, Senu is a powerful tool, nearly cheating I’d wager, because they let you study a given enemy fort or camp from tip to toe before setting foot inside. That said, a good assassin should have that kind of knowledge.
The controls and animations feel better than ever
Running, climbing, swimming, and contextual stealth kills feel smoother than ever, like playing out an elaborate animation is less of a priority. That isn’t to say it looks bad in motion, but actions feel more immediate than I remember from past Assassin's Creeds. There were no misplaced leaps in my hour with the game, which made stealth play a cinch. Everything I intended was executed perfectly on screen. I felt swift and smart, not at odds with the game itself.
With fire propagation and beast taming, it's basically Far Cry now
God bless you, Far Cry 2. I touched an arrow to a flame then shot it at an oil jar, expecting it to flame up and fan out quickly. Half the fort I stood in caught fire. The guards were swallowed up in no time. Arson: it’s good.
With enough skill points invested in the right places, you can tag wild animals with sleep darts and tame them. If it’s applied across the board, you bet I’m clearing that game with crocodiles only. Get at me speedrunners. Enemy encampments will have caged beasts hanging out on occasion too, so if you let those poor bubs loose, you can likely guess what happens.
(Far Cry happens.)
Make poisonous corpse traps with the new skill tree
Taking a page from Bioshock Infinite and Dishonored, you can make corpses deadly. Kill a dude, poison the corpse, leave him in plain sight, and wait until a foolish guard gets curious. If he gets too close, it’s lights out.
The skill tree enables more than just poisonous corpse play too. It’s split into three specializations: combat, hunting, and special skills like poison corpse traps. Others skills let you tame animals, dual wield weapons, control the direction of special arrows in mid-air, hold your breath underwater for longer, and more.
Combat is a viable (and fun) option now
Swords and boards have been completely revamped and now combat is less of a responsive animation reflex test, and much more immediate. There’s a lock-on that lets you circle an enemy, a light and heavy attack, and a dodge. It only looks like Dark Souls, but with unlimited stamina, you can be as aggressive as you want. Get in, slash, and dodge to your heart’s content. The catch is that you’ll face a lot of enemies at once. Managing their positions while flicking between targets and dodging all the while gets hectic and takes some getting used to. Get enough consecutive hits in and a meter will fill up. Use it to unleash a special that instantly kills whatever poor guy you’re locked on to.
The gear, baby!
First off, the inventory menu is right out of Destiny, circle cursor and everything. It’s an unwieldy menu interface for gamepad users, but it’ll feel right at home on PC, I’m sure. Loot is split into three rarities: common, rare, and legendary. Common equipment has one unique trait, Rare items have two, and Legendary items have three. I’m not sure what the breadth of those traits are, but with enough variety, I’m hoping we can make some super strange assassin builds. At the very least, it’s motive to specialize towards a more stealthy, tanky, or ranged build and makes me want to murder dudes in the ways that are most fun. Stealth will definitely be my thing, but when shit gets raw I’ll have whip out a massive axe. They’ll whisper tales about the big-ass axe in the night.
Also, horses are loot. Like, there are Legendary horses with unique traits, so even if the story does nothing for you, there’s your motive for taking out the bad guys.