Playing Assassin's Creed: Origins is like catching up with a desperate ex-girlfriend. While at first you see all the cosmetic changes and notice the things she's been up to, you soon realize that a year apart was not enough time to change for the better.
Let's be honest, no one really finds the overarching narrative in these games interesting. After the death of their son, murderous couple Bayek and Aya set on a countrywide manhunt to find the people responsible. And since Bayek is the one featured on the game's box art, it is he who players control as he climbs pyramids, stabs Egyptians, and rides camels throughout the majority of the oldest tale in the franchise thus far.
I doubt the developers understand the plot themselves, but what gets players to relate to past Assassins, be they the roguish Edward or the fan-favorite Ezio, are their personalities and backgrounds. Bayek may be a medjay (a sort of Egyptian police force), but his quest for revenge becomes his sole driving force for most of the story. He isn't likeable or compelling - he just does things because he's angrier than a vegetarian who just got told they ate chicken. Also, because it's his job.
His wife Aya and the rest of the main supporting cast have the same problem. By being driven by either duty or revenge, the resulting story gets bland long before it evolves into the inevitable formation of the Assassin Brotherhood.
Gameplay as a whole has been largely unchanged save for two elements: combat and more emphasis on the leveling system.
Let's talk about the subtle changes first. Using only the left analog stick to free run is a welcome change but is not one of the hundred solutions needed to fix the series' notoriously clunky platforming. You still end up scaling the wrong wall or leaping to your doom one too many times.
To balance out this addition, stealth has been subtracted almost completely, as you can no longer blend with crowds of NPCs to access restricted areas. This forces you to risk platforming and use traditional methods of evasion, or fall back on the game's highly featured but questionable combat system.
Combat in Assassin's Creed used to involve doing the Cha-Cha with a single enemy while ten of his buddies idle in a circle as they wait for their turn. It wasn't the best fighting system out there, but in a series focused on social stealth and killing discreetly rather than brute force, it sufficed.
With the evolution of the series from the pseudo-stealth adventure genre to full-blown action RPG, Origins has added hitbox-type mechanics which include light and heavy attacks as well as blocking, parrying, and bow combat. Think of a clunky version of Dark Souls' combat and you aren't far-off.
While the movesets of the various weapons add weight and variety, taking on multiple enemies at the same time isn't as effective as it once was. These guys attack you simultaneously now so more often than not, the game's lock-on system isn't effective. And while this can be somewhat remedied by using wide sweeping weapons like battleaxes, the shift to an over-the-shoulder camera for combat makes it so Bayek eyes one specific opponent like he's going to ask him out on a date. There isn't any way around it either, as enemies almost always come in droves rather than be isolated for easy pickings.
As Bayek discovers locations, kills innocent wildlife, and assassinates the locals, he nets experience points which power him up like a freakish Egyptian superhero. Gather enough experience and he levels up - allowing him to use higher level gear and unlock new skills (more on those later).
Gear options evolve from standard bows, maces, and swords to bows, maces, and swords which light enemies on fire AND poison them at the same time. This is where the loot system comes in and is one of the things that will drive you to complete the game's many side quests.
The other factor which makes side quests mandatory is that enemies in certain areas of the map are as beefed-up as genetically-enhanced super soldiers. They don't necessarily carry better gear or have sneaky tricks up their sleeves, but the fact that a hovering number above their heads dictates they are stronger than you is enough to deter progress in that area until more experience and better gear is earned.
By scattering specific regions with enemies way too strong for you to take on, Origins forces players to retread past areas or go adventuring on some other part of its gigantic map. It puts a gigantic hamper on exploration in a game about... well, exploration.
But you will want to do these side missions anyway because apart from a very welcome decrease in collectibles (as was per usual in past titles), gaining more levels lets you spend more skill points on abilities such as animal taming, holding more weapons, and shooting your bow then controlling it mid-flight. Some of these are unique, such as that last one which turns you into a bonafide bow whisperer, while others are directly lifted from Ubisoft's other sandbox titles, specifically Far Cry: Primal.
And this is my biggest gripe with Origins: it feels too familiar and at times boring to play. I've done these things before in past titles and this one doesn't do much to stand out from the rest.
The game looks good, I'll give it that; but its enormous map isn't used effectively. Upon unlocking a new region, you set waypoints to synchronize viewpoints, kill animals for inventory pouches, and partake in side quests which mostly involve killing somebody or investigating an area before killing somebody. The weak narratives may be different but the quest objectives are more or less the same.
There are a couple of welcome additions to the series, such as the exclusion of the mini-map and a keener attention to world details, but both are hidden underneath so many floating icons you would think you were playing a horribly programmed version of Angry Birds.
Just like the ex-girlfriend I mentioned at the start of this piece, the new Assassin's Creed tries so desperately to win back your affection by boasting how much it's changed. But the changes made aren't the ones needed to get this series back on track.
Oh well, there's always next year. And the year after that.