This month, Assassin’s Creed Origins will get a stripped-back, passive exploration add-on. Discovery Mode turns Ancient Egypt into a massive, dynamic museum, and Ubisoft worked with historians and Egyptologists to produce a series of in-game tours around the world. “Discovery Tour is another way to enjoy the beauty of the world we’ve recreated” said creative director Jean Guesdon. “It’s clearly focused on education and on bringing to people actual facts, more academic knowledge”.
This is a first for the series, and undoubtedly an exciting development. And while I loved the game in my review, I can’t help but wish that more of that education was weaved into the main game. It already does the work to ground me in a believable physical space, but it doesn’t quite go that extra step in organically teaching me about it. Ubisoft themselves describe it as “a dedicated mode separate from the main game” and that’s exactly the problem.
That goes for the previous Assassin’s Creed games, too. There’s a meticulous historical detail to every entry, but they too often rely on long form exposition dumps in place of an emotional or tangible connection to the world. I’m glad that Guesdon and the team at Ubisoft Montreal are embracing the educative potential of the series, but as I passed the halfway point in Origins, I was hit with a realisation:
The game is a web that spins into webs that spins into webs. Mystery follows Bayek’s every step on his journey for vengeance. No single assassination is an end, and few problems go unsolved without repercussions. But the game doesn’t trust me to engage with its mysteries, or just doesn’t want me to. Instead, it feeds you all the information I need on a conveyor belt. I wanted it to be more like Sherlock Holmes. I wanted it to bridge the gap between the word, the lore and the mechanics with a bit more finesse than a series of tooltip popups and retrospective cutscenes.
Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments was a thoroughly flawed game—but in broad strokes, it made me feel like a detective. Yes, it pointed me toward the available facts in much the same way that Origins does, but everything beyond that felt like it was up to me. It let me screw up, but it also dripfed just enough information to keep me out of the deep end.
In one of Origins’ mid-game side quests, Bayek stumbles across an illegal tannery that is slaughtering crocodiles, considered by the Egyptians to be holy animals and manifestations of Sobek. After investigating various clues around the blood-soaked hut, he concludes that the corpses are being transported by boat, and that there must be a dock nearby. I did not conclude this, but I would’ve liked to.
At this point, Crimes & Punishments would’ve thrown up a jigsaw of clues and potential conclusions, leaving the actual deductions to me. It’s here that the game shines, as it challenged me to adopt Holmes’ logical wit. Origins’ myriad side quests and odd jobs could be far more engaging if the game got creative with its characterisation and how it presents its investigations.
And part of the reason why Origins couldn’t propagate that feeling of problem solving is its failing to place me in the role of Bayek with the right eloquence of perspective. Bayek sure knows a lot about the world and what is happening to it, but its much too hard to pick up as an outside observer. I’m not, as a player, mechanically invested in the investigations.
The game has plenty of information, but information is cold and inaccessible. Character and involvement are what really sell a player’s own place within a game world, and that’s where Origins fails. I feel a lot like Layla Hassan, witnessing this slice of history from the comfort of a computer and exerting only a surface-level agency over the actions of my “avatar”. I’m reminded of why we got mechanics like Eagle Vision in the first place: to replicate the senses of a digital character.
Surely, then, it wouldn’t be too daring a leap to strive for more control over the thoughts and conclusions of the characters we control? Perhaps I’m being too picky, expecting too much control over the tiny details in a game that spans tens of hours and a few hundred kilometres of Egyptian land. But Ubisoft have been delivering scale for years, and it often feels like it’s coming at the expense of the smaller things.
Origins got so much right about Egypt, stretching from the detail in its pockets of civilisation to the writing of its characters. Ubisoft have finally, successfully recaptured the magic they found with Ezio’s trilogy, but that magic is subdued in its most engaging moments—the times where the line between game and narrative blur.