Last year, I wrote that "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" was the best game in Ubisoft's stealth action series.
That didn't last long.
The follow-up to 2015's "Syndicate," October's "Assassin's Creed Origins" arrives after a rare two-year layoff for the series. The extra time treated it well: "Origins" tops its nine predecessors in almost every way imaginable. From story and setting to stealth and combat, it's the most transportive and satisfying game in a series long plagued by buggy presentation and flustering controls.
That it took 10 games to achieve "Origins" speaks to a conservatism in not just "Assassin's Creed" but all AAA game design, one that prioritizes improvement over ideas, product over art. Indeed, the game raided others for many of the innovations it brings to the series. But it's otherwise hard to argue with "Origins'" consistently fun and absorbing results.
You play as Bayek, a medjay (elite guard) in Egypt circa 48 B.C. When his son, Khemu, is murdered during a kidnapping by an order of masked men, Bayek and his wife, Aya, swear revenge. As they kill members of the order, the two tangle with the knotty Mediterranean politics of the time. And, as always, their memories are cut with the present-day activities of the people reliving them.
The story is thoroughly "Assassin's Creed," from the motivating action of a loved one's death and hierarchy of guilty parties to the "Forrest Gump"-like sampling of historical figures like Cleopatra and Caesar. But "Origins" finds new life anyway. Bayek's voice actor, Abubakar Salim, may be the most charismatic lead in the series, and the game's writers give him a steady stream of winsome jokes, compassionate guidance and violent vows. The assassin's arc also transcends the "grieving dad" trope because it's so steeped in Egypt's polytheist spirituality, the most mysticism in the series yet.
The other reason Bayek's revenge is more than that trope is because it's Aya's revenge, too. The couple's reunion after they kill their first members of the order, their bloodlust wrestling with their regular lust, is as refreshing as it is sexy. And recurring scenes see Aya conquer on her own as she channels her grief into resolve to change the world that caused it. Meanwhile, as Bayek hunts his targets, he meets a memorable cast of Egyptian citizenry. His interactions with children are especially cute — except for one whose tragic end is depicted by Ubisoft with a surprisingly delicate touch.
Such side quests are bountiful and all but necessary in "Origins," which assigns levels to Bayek and his opposition. Without those quests, or other activities that grant XP like clearing enemy outposts and plundering crypts, Bayek will soon be outmatched by the soldiers and bandits he faces during his main quests. A rhythm sets in early: Travel to a new area, complete the main quest there, then mop up all the side quests and activities necessary to reach the recommended level for the next main quest. Sometimes, Bayek and Aya's revenge just has to wait for a farmer's tax problem.
The sweet spot — where the quests of "Origins" are most enjoyable — is one or two levels below Bayek's opposition. That's where his battles are most exhilarating, his stealth the most equalizing. Combat demands measured strikes and careful movement, otherwise Bayek will be chopped down in seconds. Or he can quietly dispatch most enemies with his hidden blade, save for one or two deadly commanders who will require some follow-up blows. Play a quest when your level is higher than that and combat can become a button-mashing bore, lower and not even stealth will save him.
An overhauled combat system makes that option more tempting than any "Assassin's Creed" yet. Where recent entries in the series mimicked the prompt-heavy "Batman: Arkham" games, "Origins" chases the messy hit box thrills of "Dark Souls." Bayek's weaponry ranges from rapidfire daggers to lumbering maces, and their weight affects his swings accordingly. Aiming them is easier with the ability to lock onto enemies, as is circling around ones with shields. Or he can dodge. Darting in and out of enemies' midst can spare him damage, which also staggers Bayek, exposing him to more. But it works both ways: Hitting Bayek's shield can leave enemies vulnerable. Their shields do the same, but Bayek can get past them with heavy swings and, if all else fails, backpedaling arrow shots.
Stealth is more familiar, but the enemy AI is sharper than even "Syndicate's." Soldiers and bandits have perfectly reasonable fields of vision and almost no blind spots. Sound is another story, as Bayek can put his blade through someone's skull or drop within a few feet of an enemy without detection. But the price of detection keeps your eyes peeled and your pulse raised anyway. Bayek can hide in what seems like an inordinate amount of shrubbery for Egypt, but that's not nearly as comforting as being able to maneuver him more smoothly than any "Assassin's Creed" protagonist.
Determining the lethality of Bayek's weapons is a progression system of looting, hunting and crafting that draws from too many progenitors to list: "Destiny," "Skyrim," etc. "Origins" even lifts the cursor menu style of Activision's juggernaut shooter. But its most novel change may be Senu, a Bonelli's eagle that replaces the X-ray eagle vision "Assassin's Creed" itself introduced a decade ago. Linked telepathically to Bayek, Senu can scout locations from the air, tagging objectives and enemies, and even stunning them with the right upgrades to Bayek's skill tree.
Senu's eye also furthers your appreciation of Ubisoft's massive Egypt, which is by far the biggest and best of "Assassin's Creed's" fertile period landscapes. It's certainly the most diverse, spanning mirage-inducing deserts, looming pyramids and sculptures, verdant crop fields and the majestic Nile Delta. And in the space between its sandswept villages and paradisal cities, Ubisoft depicts a great civilization in decline as Greek and Roman influences gain power. As that story unfolds through Bayek and Aya, it retains much more intrigue and stakes than the series' grander contemporary saga.
After "Origins," that saga will surely continue, as will "Assassin's Creed's" incremental changes and internalization of other games' systems. In a sense, those small differences define such a game, and so reviewing it can feel every bit as shallow as they are. But "Origins" has a soul in Bayek, and his Egypt. And without that spark, it'd be just another "Assassin's Creed" — not the best.
In the course of asking Ubisoft for a review copy of "Tom Clancy's The Division" back in March, I somehow wound up with a copy of November's "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" instead.
If you play
GAME: "Assassin's Creed Origins"
TL;DR: Taking an extra year off was good to "Assassin's Creed," as "Origins" bests its nine predecessors in almost every way imaginable — from the new kinetic language of its combat to the captivating diversity of its ancient Egyptian setting.
CONTENT RATING: Mature for blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, nudity, sexual content, strong language and use of alcohol
DEVELOPER: Ubisoft Montreal
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Windows and Xbox One)
PLAY: Single player
DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this game from Ubisoft and played it for approximately 30 hours prior to writing this review.