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Basim speaks with two other Hidden Ones in an interior space in Baghdad in Assassin’s Creed Mirage Image: Ubisoft Bordeaux/Ubisoft

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Assassin’s Creed Mirage feels like more of a throwback than it should

Sleuthing work returns, but not without its hitches

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

Considering the massive worlds, endless side activities, and propulsive “numbers go up” progression systems of recent Assassin’s Creed games, it can be easy to forget that the series began as a detective game. Assassin’s Creed Mirage seems hell-bent on reminding us.

Touted as a return to the franchise’s roots in social stealth and investigation, Mirage also strikes me as a reset, maybe even an attempt at a course correction, before whatever comes next. I played two and a half hours of Ubisoft Bordeaux’s upcoming release, and while much of it served as a pleasant reminder of Assassin’s Creed’s past, just as much reminded me why the series evolved to begin with.

My time with the game was split between three non-consecutive chapters. In the first, I explored the streets of Baghdad as Basim Ibn Ishaq, who many players will remember as their mentor in Valhalla. Being a prequel to the Nordic adventure, Mirage casts Basim as a talented street thief — so talented, in fact, that he draws the attention of the Hidden Ones (who later evolve into the Assassins we all know and love). As Basim, I run a few errands, pick several pockets in bustling markets, and dart along the rooftops of a gorgeous, if a bit homogeneous, Baghdad.

Basim observes the rafters in a bazaar in Baghdad in Assassin’s Creed Mirage Image: Ubisoft Bordeaux/Ubisoft

Although Ubisoft asked me to avoid initiating any side quests during my preview of Mirage, I still took the time to interact with Basim’s neighbors, fellow thieves, and the city’s cats. (You can not only pet the cats, but also pick them up so they can rub their furry scent glands all over your face.) As someone who cites Origins as the best entry in the series, I couldn’t help but appreciate the local, intimate feel of these opening chapters. If I hadn’t been moving through the demo at such a brisk pace, I suspect I may have gone down several more alleyways just to witness more people living out their little slices of life. Although I only saw a small fraction of the game’s map, which centers on Baghdad but includes several outlying provinces and unsettled areas, I got the sense that I may actually be able to see all of it once I fully dive into the full game. Mirage will take around 20 hours for completionists to beat, according to lead producer Fabian Salomon.

The second section of my demo covered Basim’s initiation into the Hidden Ones, the forging of his first sword, and, naturally, an introduction to Mirage’s combat system, which I would describe as extremely simple. It looks flashy, don’t get me wrong — Basim dual-wields a sword and a dagger, giving him some bespoke choreography that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the series. But by and large, melee interactions came down to the same old attack, dodge, parry, counterattack, repeat routine that marked a litany of third-person games in the 2010s.

In the third and longest chunk of my demo, Ubisoft Bordeaux threw me directly into a multi-step mission. The objective: Assassinate a powerful merchant who has come to Baghdad under suspicious pretext.

Basim leaps at a city guard on a rooftop in Assassin’s Creed Mirage Image: Ubisoft Bordeaux/Ubisoft

While tracking down targets in recent Assassin’s Creed games has largely been a matter of traveling from one location to another in a sprawling world, Mirage harkens back to the days when Altair, Ezio, and Ratonhnhaké:ton had to gather intel on a local level before hunting down their prey.

As Basim, I meet up with a trusted source (read: a trader who also deals in stolen goods) who needs me to retrieve a valuable item before he’ll offer any info. His greed sated, the source directs me to an encampment of the city guard, where he assures me I’ll find useful info in my hunt for the merchant. I retrieve several documents, which direct me to a local harbormaster, who points me to an upcoming auction at the bazaar. Throughout the mission, Mirage emphasizes Basim’s role as a detective, even a Robin Hood-esque figure, whose most powerful asset is his connection to the people of Baghdad — the city’s criminal elements, but also its ordinary citizens and working class. In that spirit, Mirage absolutely feels like a throwback to Assassin’s Creed’s early days.

But here’s the problem: It also feels like a mechanical throwback. I frequently climbed walls I didn’t mean to, and jumped to ledges I wasn’t aiming for. Stalking the harbormaster was particularly frustrating. I tried to infiltrate the area by picking off guards near the docks, before diving back into the water to reposition myself. However, Mirage’s traversal mechanics seemed to desperately want me to stay on dry land: Basim was all but magnetized to boats and wooden posts protruding from the water, pulling him out of aquatic hiding places despite my not touching any input besides the analog stick. Finicky parkour across the city is one thing — frequently revealing myself during tense stealth sequences is another.

From horseback, Basim looks up at Alamut, the home fortress of the Hidden Ones (Assassins) in Assassin’s Creed Mirage Image: Ubisoft Bordeaux/Ubisoft

Per the embargo guidelines, I’m not allowed to mention specifics about the assassination. But generally speaking, in the course of playing through it, I misinterpreted a vague cue from enemy AI and unintentionally aggroed every soldier in view, including my main target. After allowing Basim to die in order to reset everything, Mirage loaded me back into the mission, only to reveal that it had auto-saved after I had already triggered the panic. I was only able to complete the mission by reloading a much earlier save and sticking to a much more rigid route toward Basim’s prey.

After three hours with Mirage, I came away excited for it in theory more than in practice. I rave about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate to anyone who will listen, and Mirage already reminds me of the former’s focus on methodical stalking through bustling city streets. It’s also possible that my frustrations are the result of a pre-release demo build, and they may be mitigated by the state of the final game when it’s released in less than a month. I’m hopeful that’s the case; Mirage has tons of promise, and it’d be a shame for so many mechanical frustrations to get in the way.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage will be released on Oct. 5 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.

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