clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Assassin’s Creed Origins - Bayek scales a pyramid

Filed under:

Assassin’s Creed Origins is still the best game in the series

And it tells a heart-wrenching love story

Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

With all of its courtly intrigue, geopolitical turmoil, and millennia-spanning time travel, it’s easy to forget that Assassin’s Creed Origins begins with the death of a child. When protagonists Bayek and Aya set off on their interlaced revenge missions across Egypt, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula, the unimaginable has already happened. The rest is just details as they both do their best to cope with the loss of their son.

Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2017, two years after Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, marking the first break from annual releases since the gap between the original 2007 game and its sequel. Origins was nothing short of a tectonic shift: The series’ urban parkour and social stealth elements were stripped to the bone in favor of a sprawling world, a robust quest system, and a bona fide loot pool. The cynic in me recognizes these new design pillars as an effort to bring the series in line with “modern” open-world games; the optimist in me can’t help but marvel at the result. I returned to Origins recently to play it on Xbox Game Pass, and it’s as astonishing as ever.

Set toward the end of the Ptolemaic period, Origins’ Egypt is massive. I don’t mean massive in terms of scale — more in terms of scope. While most previous Assassin’s Creed games hopped between a handful of cities, the settlements in Origins are connected by an actual nuanced countryside. It’s a portmanteau of deserts, oases, eerie caverns, and azure coastlines. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag was enormous, yes, and its connective ocean played host to no shortage of exciting sequences. But the Caribbean cities of Havana, Kingston, and Nassau felt like mere stepping stones in service to the central storyline. In Origins, dozens of individual settlements have their own discrete, fantastic stories to tell.

Assassin’s Creed Origins - Bayek stands atop a sphinx Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

There’s Letopolis, the city slowly being swallowed by the desert, even as political subterfuge impedes Bayek’s quest for revenge; there’s Memphis, a city whose citizens believe it to be cursed after their patron bull is poisoned; there’s Cyrene, where the ruling Roman elite can look out from the city’s Akropolis over the colonized Egyptians. I linger in each of these places long after I’ve exhausted their side quests, because they each feel as detailed as Boston in Assassin Creed’s Creed 3, Paris in Unity, or Rome in Brotherhood.

In its urban environments, its quaint villages, and its bucolic landscapes, Origins thrives on its excess of space, specifically because it understands the intricacies of emptiness. While lesser open-world games have overburdened themselves with collectibles, quests, and things to do in their every nook and cranny, Origins has the confidence to let its world breathe. The craggy, desolate Black Desert near the center of its map is completely devoid of non-playable characters and treasure chests. It’s just there. But far from feeling pointless, it imparts a sense of quiet and loneliness that make the towns on its far side feel all that much more lively. Like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and this year’s Elden Ring, Origins is a prime example of how pacing is just as important in open-world games as it is in linear ones. And it’s a concept Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Valhalla didn’t quite grasp.

Origins is all the more impressive in how it draws the eye between points of interest with sightlines, silhouettes on the horizon, and color. (That color! Fuck me up with that color.) In a series all but defined by its games’ color palettes, the blues and golds of Origins’ landscapes, clothing, and architecture are all the more stunning. So too are the sudden blushes of red in a field of poppies, or the vibrant greens of an oasis (or is that a mirage?) in the distance. I still remember my breath catching the first time I saw the Erython Dye Workshops through the eyes of Bayek’s eagle Senu. It took the work of talented artists to make locations pop in Origins’ entrancing panoramas of gold, and pop they do.

Assassin’s Creed Origins - Bayek and Aya embracing Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

For all of its environmental mastery, all of its compelling side stories, and all of its layers of craft, Assassin’s Creed Origins is, above all, a potent love story. In the wake of the murder of their son, Khemu, the romance between Bayek and Aya is fraught and complex. Bayek, who, crucially, actually stabbed Khemu during a moment of confusion, copes with the loss by killing his way across Egypt. Aya, on the other hand, embraces the comfort of a higher purpose, aligning herself with Cleopatra, who has returned to Egypt after being exiled by her brother Ptolemy XIII.

Both are intent on exposing the Order of the Ancients — a group to which Khemu’s murderers belong — but their paths only occasionally intersect. They go for months, even years at a time before seeing each other, hooking up (they’re both babes, by the way), talking circuitously about their shared pain, and then parting ways again to continue the hunt. It’s hard to tell whether there’s any purpose to their mission, or if they’re just distracting themselves. It’s tragic.

It’s their complex yet enthralling relationship that grounds Origins’ tale of global politics and espionage, making it more approachable than any Assassin’s Creed before or after. The core story here is that of Bayek and Aya’s mourning, and I’d rank it among the likes of The Last of Us Part 1 and Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in how masterfully it explores the stages of grief. By the time they’ve accomplished their initial mission, and decided to form the Hidden Ones (the precursor to the series’ famed Assassin Brotherhood), they’ve grown too far apart to fully mesh again.

Oddly enough, I’m reminded of Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, traveling to The Grey Havens and leaving Middle-earth behind because so much bad had happened to him, and how could he explain it to anyone else? Bayek and Aya aren’t innocent in any sense of the word — Bayek probably killed more than 2,000 people during my Platinum playthrough — but the remorse surrounding them is potent nonetheless. They’ve both experienced the unimaginable, and while there may be a world in which they can fully cope with it, together, this is not that world. So they continue on their separate ways.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon