I spent two hours and fifty three minutes playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and I killed seventeen hippos.
“Hey, my name is Jackson, I’m from Kotaku. I’m here for the Assassin’s Creed event.”
The static snapped into a human voice, crackling like a fire.
“Come in, we’re on level one.”
I entered Ubisoft's Sydney office and sat on the couch, in front of a bigger-than-life-size Assassin in full flight. I declined the offer for any water or food and pulled out my phone, waiting, checking the time.
I was three minutes late.
Six minutes later, the Ubisoft rep greeted me.
“Hey, nice to meet you,” the smiling rep beamed, shaking my hand, before continuing.
“So, I’m really sorry – the Assassin’s Creed event is next week.”
I was a week early for the Assassin’s Creed Origins demo.
These are the facts: Assassin’s Creed Origins is a prequel. It’s set in Ptolemaic Egypt around the time of Cleopatra’s existence in 30BC. It’s protagonist, Bayek, is a Medjay, a sort-of ancient Egyptian protector of the peace and dispenser of justice.
It is Bayek who eventually establishes the Secret Order of Assassins and Origins looks to reveal the, uh, origins of not just the Assassins but the Knights Templar too.
It’s definitely as Assassin’s Creed game.
But this? This is a story about time.
That’s the amount of time that will pass between the release of Origins and the last major entry in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. It’s the longest amount of time between instalments since the gap between Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II.
How long was that gap?
Assassin’s Creed II remains the most critically-acclaimed of the series major entries – that two-year development cycle no doubt contributing to how refined the gameplay feels, how well-characterised its cocksure protagonist Ezio is and how seamlessly you navigate Renaissance-era Italian locales. It was huge in scope, bursting with points of interest, but remained engaging and never felt bloated like the oft-maligned Assassin’s Creed III.
In the time between Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Origins, consoles have become more powerful. Game engines have become more powerful, more malleable, more understood.
700 days have passed.
Will time itself return the series to those lofty heights?
Assassin’s Creed is renowned for being able to transport the player back in time, creating digital playgrounds from ancient texts and drawings. Personally, the key drawcard has always been the ability to inhabit ancient history and meet (kill) some of its most incredible figures. While the worlds have been carefully researched and designed, the gameplay has been lacking – it has become stale.
I was dropped into the demo en media res and the first thing I noticed was the sun beating down of Bayek’s skin but by the time I put the controller down, it wasn’t the reflective,sweaty surface of Origins protagonist that stayed in my mind, it was the combat system.
The combat system has always been a combination of button presses and scripted animations that make even the most brutal deaths look fantastic without asking too much of the player. There has never been a distinct challenge in combat – battles always felt like they were designed for flair, rather than finesse. They certainly never felt smooth.
Origins changes that, moving to a far more fluid combat system that brings a real weight to the weaponry Bayek wields. It’s a combat system built more accurately on timing and it’s critical to think about the way you approach an enemy more than it has ever been in an Assassin’s Creed game.
My first introduction to the combat system was during a hippo-slaughtering sidequest. I was tasked with retrieving bodies from the reed-filled riverside for a grieving family. In total, four bodies had to be collected and placed at the family members feet.
Standing between myself and the corpses were a bloat of hippopotamuses.
The hippos, those great-gas-trucks-with-teeth, are impressively rendered.
The purple-brown of their hides glisten with water, their barrelled legs pound the earth as they charge at you, mouth wide, teeth sharp. At one point, I asked the Ubisoft representative if the team actually went out into the field and studied hippos for hours on end. He didn’t know. But I feel like they must have.
The hippos look really good.
But they are enemies – and they have their own distinct movements and attack patterns.
It was this first battle where I really began to grasp how Origins changes the combat system. I took to the axe, the most powerful tool in my arsenal. In Origins, you use the front right shoulder button to perform a light attack and the back right button to perform a heavy attack.
What was immediately noticeable was the difference in speed with which Bayek wielded the axe, depending on the type of attack. The heavy attack was like watching Bayek move through molasses, drawing up the axe and swinging it across his chest in a slow, considered motion.
The light attack was faster, but as the axe is regarded as a heavy weapon, it still took time to complete the full swing of the blade.
Time you just don’t have when you’re fighting off hippopotamuses.
After struggling to kill the first two or three hippopotamuses, I began to get a feel for the timing of their attacks, the way they charged and the way they swivelled their huge bodies around to keep me in their sights.
But it was only when I switched to the Khopesh, an Egyptian blade shaped like a thin sickle, mid-fight that I realised just how different the combat system is. Immediately, Bayek’s attacks became quick, deliberate jabs. They were weaker – sure – but they sliced the charging whippomorphan to ribbons. Even the heavy attack was fast enough to hit the hippo and still give me time to dodge out of the way.
Before long I was executing far more attractive, exciting flourishes and dispensing with the hippos with ease.
I just needed some time.
Assassin’s Creed was a series running out of time. On the back of yearly releases, the fatigue had begun to set in – not only for fans but in the way it was built. It had begun to stagnate.
It needed some time off.
I was a week early to the Assassin's Creed Origins demo. Though it was an honest mistake on Alex's behalf (thanks, boss), I couldn't help but feel that twinge of embarrassment when the Ubisoft representative told me he had no demo for me to play.
It's hard to look back at this time last year and imagine the Assassin's Creed game that Ubisoft would have released had they not decided to take the year off, re-evaluate and assess their next title - like they've had the ability to here, with Origins. The franchise hadn't taken time off since 2009. A year ago would have been far too early to see yet another sequel.
And I know how embarrassing it is when you come a little early.