Do its mechanics actually make it a good RPG?
A hiatus from its traditional annual release schedule has proven a resounding success for Assassin’s Creed. The franchise is back with aplomb, earning praise from critics for its impressively crafted Ancient Egyptian open-world, and for giving its aging gameplay, which had remained virtually unchanged since the series’ inception, a much-needed shakeup. Where previous Assassin’s Creed games introduced only surface-level iterations, tacking on updated features in incremental steps, Origins’ new mechanics are a quantum leap by comparison. At the very center of these fundamental changes is a new emphasis on role-playing mechanics, which sees the player earning experience points (XP), leveling-up, and shaping main protagonist Bayek’s abilities via a skill tree.
For the most part, the manner with which Origins deftly balances the series’ stealth-action roots with a competent role-playing system is highly impressive. But the synergy is by no means perfect. In trying to simultaneously check both boxes, coupled with a few perplexing design choices, the ability for players to shape their experience and role-play does occasionally suffer. So it begs the question: judged purely as a role-playing game (RPG), next to other similar games in its genre, does Origins really measure up?
Ubisoft has been careful to choose exactly which RPG elements to adopt in Assassin’s Creed Origins. There’s no branching narrative or dialogue wheels here; player choice and role-playing is strictly limited to the progression and combat system. A skill tree specializes Bayek’s abilities across three different classes: Warrior, Seer, and Hunter. In addition, weapon damage is now governed by the sort of buffs one would expect to see in a game of the genre, such as burn, poison, and bleeding, and weapons are categorized into different classes according to their item rarity. This all works well in tandem with Origins’ revamped combat system; there’s added strategy and depth on top of its much more tactile feel, even if most encounters largely boil down to which item does the most damage. Stealth also benefits, not only because of some cool stealth abilities via the Hunter tree but also because higher-level enemies offer an extra challenge when sneaking into enemy outposts.
Unfortunately, though, you’ll only ever be taking on enemies two or three levels higher than you at most, and this is where Origins’ RPG systems start to wobble. It totally blocks off progress if it deems you to be at an unsuitable level. Enemy difficulty scales steeply according to level and stealth assassinations are no longer possible, and there’s a big jump between level requirements for each main quest. That means you need plenty of XP, but the problem is that there’s no decent XP to be had outside of side quests. As a result of this imbalance, side quests aren’t an optional distraction; they’re a mandatory grind. That’s a real shame because I would have much preferred to choose which quest I wanted to engage with, instead having the option to grind XP via combat, exploration, base infiltration, hunting, or discovering treasure. But the XP reward for those activities is so meagre, and since most sidequests have you do them anyway, I found myself rushing from quest to quest, not for wanting to engage with story-telling, but simply to rack up necessary XP.
Indeed, where other RPGs clearly define the differences between classes or builds, shaping gameplay around player choice and playstyle, Origins is comparatively shallow. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, for example, allows players to build a stealth or aggressive character, but you can’t really be both at the same time. As a result, there are consequences to investing ability points into one particular skill set: you can’t possibly take on four guards in a gunfight as a stealth-build. Yet playing Origins on its hardest difficulty with almost all of my ability points invested in a stealth, Hunter build, I found myself frequently butchering multiple enemies with ease.
Continuing with the comparison, Mankind Divided’s entire design caters to each playstyle, too: whole sections of levels are cut off to those without hacking skills; choosing not to invest in lethal augmentations denies players stunning weapons and abilities; and the thrill of sneaking undetected past a whole floor of enemies can’t be achieved without a cloak. The extent to which character builds shapes player experience is taken to the extreme in Deus Ex, but that concept can be seen across many traditional fantasy RPGs too. Consider a mage build versus a tank-style warrior in Skyrim or Dragon Age. Foolish is the player that attempts to shield damage and melee using a mage in Bethesda’s epic; the entire Templar story-line of Dragon Age Inquisition would be unbeknown to a mage build.
I would love to have seen Ubisoft fully commit to character builds in the same fashion, both with respect to gameplay and story. Instead, the developer wants you to play Assassin’s Creed in the same way you’ve always played it, and experience the story in the way they want to tell it. Except now there’s an addictive level and loot grind akin to popular MMORPGs such as Destiny 2.
I can’t help but consider, however, how much more entertaining the role-playing experience would have been if the stakes were higher. What if a warrior could unleash a devastating torrent of attacks that could obliterate entire waves of enemies? Or a master-Seer could call upon Egypt’s Gods to unleash deadly spells, or influence the disposition of NPCs Fallout charisma-style? Or perhaps a Hunter could wall run, double-jump, or temporarily become invisible to enemies and animals? And what if ability points were hard to come by and irreversible (save for a system, say, whereby during the end game a temple can be visited and all ability points reset)? Building a character would present difficult choices, playstyles would have a genuine impact on gameplay, narratives would play out differently: these would be the hallmarks of a true role-playing experience.
Instead what we get is a diluted version: role-playing molded to suit Assassin’s Creed, rather than the other way around. That’s not to suggest Origins doesn’t feel like a welcome change, because it certainly does, but perhaps there was an opportunity to alter the game’s foundations even further. We’ve already seen countless franchises incorporate western role-playing systems into an open-world game design this generation. Clearly, the mechanics are hugely popular, adding new layers to gameplay dynamic, and presumably executed in the hope of investing player attention for longer. Yet I feel certain that if Ubisoft had implemented these mechanics beyond just adding a satisfying progression loop and bucket loads of different-colored loot, a more committed approach could very well have turned Origins from a great game to one of the definitive titles of this generation.