There’s no doubt that Origins will be the biggest revolution in the Assassin’s Creed franchise since the iconic second installment. Yes, Black Flag happened along the way, and it almost toppled the long-standing premise of the conflict between Assassins and Templars, but it was the adventures of Ezio Auditore da Firenze that set the brand’s course for years to come. The gameplay premise that could at least pretend to be fresh in 2009 (although the developers were clearly inspired, among others, by… the Grand Theft Auto franchise) was inevitably getting old, culminating in the release of Syndicate. It all went downhill from there.
Luckily, Ubisoft came to their senses and dropped the yearly development cycle, giving their devs some time to think about the future of the franchise… and borrow some new solutions from the competition. This allowed Assassin’s Creed to return this year in a whole new form – the changes implemented by the developers are so significant that after Origins we may have to rethink the franchise’s genre classification. Based on the released information and promo materials, we can easily assume that Bayek’s adventures have more in common with RPG than action game (as the series is usually labeled). Not convincing enough? Let’s take a look then.
Is that an RPG?
Let’s start with defining a good RPG. Our gaming dictionary suggests several obligatory elements: extensive, multi-threaded, and non-linear (though the latter is not required) plot; main character described by a number of numerical stats; presence of experience points and/or level-based character progression mechanics; extensive combat system, either turn-based or real-time; and finally, story quests and side missions given to the player by NPCs.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Bayek of Siwa is not the only main character in Assassin’s Creed Origins. The protagonist will be constantly accompanied by Senu, his eagle, who’s able to provide unlimited air reconnaissance. Not only can Senu spot mission objectives, but also points of interest – if we notice something interesting when scouting a faraway region, we can freely “teleport” Bayek to that spot using the fast travel option. What’s more, we will also occasionally play as the protagonist’s wife, Aya.
As it turns out, the new work from Ubisoft Montreal already possesses most of the aforementioned elements. The adventure in Assassin’s Creed Origins will allow us to witness the birth of the Assassin Brotherhood. As early as during the 2017 E3, Ashraf Ismail, the project’s creative director, assured us that it will be about something more than “somebody putting on a hood” – there’s to be a complex plot driving the story, pieces of which we will discover throughout the game.
Another prominent RPG element are the character stats, but we won’t find them in AC: Origins. Instead, the game offers three extensive skill trees – allowing the players to create their own Bayek. The Master Warrior tree will focus on talents that are useful in melee combat; Master Hunter will enable you to improve your stealth skills, but also to master your bow and develop your bond with Senu; finally, Master Seer will offer proficiency with various tool, such as bombs and sleep darts. But before you say “A-ha, gotcha!”, remember the attribute screen (you know, strength, charisma, etc) in The Witcher 3? You don’t? Well, no wonder since it never had one like this. And yet nobody would dare call the adventures of Geralt of Rivia a, pardon my French, action game.
Before Assassin’s Creed: Origins was even announced, we knew that it would feature experience points and leveling. After all, there had been rumors flying about for months before Ubisoft revealed ancient Egypt to be the setting of their new Assassin’s Creed installment. There’s no point discussing this aspect of the mechanics any further – suffice it to say that experience points will be given for elimination of enemies, as well as for completing quests and other side activities. In fact, the protagonist will not be the only element that will develop along with subsequent levels – the same goes for his equipment. Our armor will absorb more damage whereas our weapons will inflict more of it.
There’s only one trait of a typical RPG left to check; I’m talking about more or less extensive combat mechanics. In the previous installments of the series, we were treated to a system based on animations – once we pushed the attack key, we would trigger a scene depicting how our character dispatched his enemy (I know how this sounds, but those are the facts).
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Unlike the earlier installments, the quests we accept in Assassin’s Creed Origins will not act as instances. Which means that we can “pause” a quest in any moment and return to finish it when we feel like it. Of course, assuming that we have better things to do – the developers will have to make sure to provide enough engaging activities to keep the player from completing mission objectives.
This time, the developers were impressed mostly with the combat movements from Dark Souls, and this fascination yielded a most positive result – the combat mechanics in the new AC are based on hitboxes, and Bayek will be able to swing his weapon regardless of whether there’s an enemy in front of him or not. Admittedly, it’s a far cry from the “dance of death” provided by From Software, but you will surely agree that Ubisoft is going in the right direction with their latest solutions.
As you can see, Assassin’s Creed Origins can be, with a certain degree of tolerance, classified as an RPG. For those of you who snorted with laughter hearing such “heresy”, I’d suggest you answer one more question.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Innovation is a nice thing, yet the players who miss the old, proven solutions will be able to switch back to the previous combat system. Unfortunately, the developers have yet to show its actual implementation. Admittedly, I find it hard to imagine how the old system would incorporate the shield carried by the protagonist, or even blocking mechanics; I’m not saying it’s impossible though.
If not an RPG, then maybe at least an action-RPG?
I’ve mentioned the third Witcher for a reason. The developers were so impressed by the story of the white-haired monster hunter, that apart from some mechanics they also “borrowed” from it several interface elements, such as the experience bar visible in the right upper corner of the screen.
One thing makes it easy – as it turns out, Assassin’s Creed Origins matches the dictionary definition of RPG down to a T. A “role-playing game” is a broad term used to encompass a variety of productions, and it cannot be reduced to a single “typical” genre representative. Arguably, It only needs to feature character progression – check, real-time combat – check, and prominent narrative layer – check.
So why do the developers avoid statements such as „role-playing game” or even „action RPG”, instead limiting themselves to ambiguous descriptions like “Assassin’s Creed Origins will feature extensive RPG elements”? The best answer would probably come from either Ashraf Ismail himself or Ubisoft top brass. Unfortunately, the matter was never touched upon in interviews, which leaves us to solve this puzzle on our own.
As in every respectable RPG, the enemies we defeat in Assassin’s Creed Origins will drop more or less interesting loot; the same goes for the chests we encounter. The loot is to be generated randomly, which means that revisiting a location and defeating the same guard twice will yield us different pieces of gear.
If you’ve closely followed the reports from other industry fronts, you’ve certainly noticed the announcement of Middle-earth: Shadow of War. In contrast to the previous installment, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the latest work from Monolith Productions is described as, that’s right, an action RPG, while its predecessor was just an “action game with RPG elements”. On the other hand, Horizon Zero Dawn was hailed as action RPG from the very beginning, even despite its plot, linear from beginning to end, and a typically arcade combat system.
Does it mean that Ubisoft employees simply lacked courage? Well, perhaps the developers want to avoid having an inconvenient label stapled on their work – making an action RPG out of AC: Origins would put it among such big-shots as the aforementioned Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, or the Mass Effect franchise, some of which could possibly outshine the adventures of Bayek of Siwa, mainly due to underdeveloped character progression mechanics and simplified gameplay in the latter.
Or maybe the entire genre will become something else?
Cliff Bleszinski, the man who gave us the Gears of War franchise among other things, once said that RPG is the future of shooters. Considering how the genre fares right now, he was spot on – after all, we won’t find a decent shooter game without even a slight trace of RPG. Heck, Far Cry 4 even has non-linear-ish plot. Not that it entitles it to stand alongside Baldur’s Gate or anything, but it certainly provides a patch of common ground for both titles. A bold statement, I know, but since we’re referring to definitions either way…
Perhaps we should consider a different scenario – perhaps in the future the entire genre will change and Assassin’s Creed Origins is a herald (not the first one, admittedly, but the most prominent one) of change that the RPG genre will undergo in the following years. Look at the facts – how many allegedly pureblood RPGs have given us illusory choices that led to the same ending? How many iconic titles have reduced the number of dialogue options to the bare minimum only for the dialogue with a plot-relevant NPC to end up in the same, predefined spot?
Wouldn’t it be better in this case to simply drop some entire RPG-associated gameplay aspects and focus on what can yet be reasonably expanded? After all, number-based character stats were reasonable when most of the adventure took place in the player’s mind or was presented using more or less arbitrary visuals (think pen&paper).
Today, when near-photorealistic visuals are a common thing, it’s simply hard to believe that the skinny weakling we’ve created in the editor (as the character will keep that look in most cases) is able to train his strength and charisma high enough to be able to outfight or outtalk a two-meter tall strongman. And when it comes to dialogue? Well, we could sure get by without the “talking heads”, which remain a distinctively RPG feature, executed with varying degrees of creativity.
The above paragraph applies to a broader issue, which we may pick up on some other occasion. For now, let’s try answering the question raised in the introduction.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Bayek himself is anything but a weakling. The protagonist is the last remaining Nubian warrior (called a Medjay) serving the rulers of ancient Egypt as desert scouts and field agents protecting areas of interest. You could say they were acting as the police, or perhaps city guards, of the era. Now, however, the agent of the old order needs to adapt to a new reality, where Greek influence begins to dominate Egypt. Another piece of the “new world” will be contributed by the Romans, also present in the game, and the Templars will have a role to play in the events we will be a part of. It is most likely that the latter will be presented as the Order of the Ancients – one of them could be seen on the trailer (the masked character).
The information revealed by the creators, as well as the released promo materials, prove that Assassin’s Creed Origins may not be a typical RPG, but it may be a representative of a “new wave” or role-playing games.
Of course, there’s always the risk that the whole thing was just smoke and mirrors prepared by Ubisoft’s PR specialists and developers, and all we’ll get will be another carbon-copy installment, only camouflaged in seemingly new solutions. As Fox Mulder said, “I want to believe”. So let’s believe that the developers have come to their senses and are better than pulling a fast one on their fans – otherwise this distinguished franchise may be lost forever. Luckily, for now nothing suggests that the latter may happen – which I hope pleases the developer team and players alike.