Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t a full reboot of the long-running series, but because it’s set before the Assassins and Templars, it’s about as close as you can get without wiping the slate clean. Thing is, that’s exactly what Ubisoft should’ve done. It's all dead weight.
In the 40 or so hours I spent with Origins, it was painfully clear the series doesn’t know what to do with the increasingly convoluted story it’s been telling across games. Origins' biggest strength is the human tale of love, loss, and revenge experienced by Aya and Bayek. It’s set within a much more fantastical framework, one Origins tries very hard to pretend doesn’t exist, to the point that I have to imagine parts of Origins are confounding to anyone who isn’t familiar with the absurdism under the surface.
Do you remember what Assassin’s Creed is about? The series’ appeal has always been murdering people across points in history, thanks to magical tech that allows people, for reasons that don’t matter, to access the memories of ancestors. It was a clever narrative trick, selling people on a slice of historical murder by way of sci-fi. When Ubisoft was promoting the original Assassin’s Creed, they went out of their way to keep this a secret, calling the main character a “a medieval hitman with a mysterious past.”
Actress Kristen Bell spilled the beans in an interview, forcing Ubisoft’s hand, but it didn’t matter; it was a marketing gimmick. Towards the end of the game, the stakes escalate—and the mythology got complicated. As it turns out, the Templars had been searching for the Apple of Eden, a mysterious relic associated with an ancient, pre-human civilization on Earth. The relics granted its owner god-like powers, and helped explain why the Templars were able to remain in power. They had an advantage.
Assassin’s Creed II upped the ante, in one of gaming's most batshit endgame twists, when you stumble upon Minerva, a member of that ancient pre-human group, aka the First Civilization. Though technically dead, Minerva lives on as a semi-conscious holographic projection capable of speaking with the main character of Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio. She reveals humanity was created by the First Civilization as slave labor, but her species was wiped out by a solar flare. The survivors created vaults to hide their advanced technology, like the Apple of Eden. To humanity, their technology is magic.
As someone who unabashedly loves shows like Lost and The X-Files, Assassin’s Creed was speaking my language. The moment when Minerva turns towards the camera, and speaks to you, the player? Unbelievable. It was the right kind of goofy and self-serious.
Then, Ubisoft turned Assassin’s Creed into an annualized franchise. In the middle of Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood’s development, series creator Patrice Désilets left the company. Both events threw off whatever timeline Désilets had intended for the Assassin’s Creed storyline. (Some reports say six games, others suggest it was a trilogy.)
This is where the overarching narrative fell apart, as Ubisoft attempted to maintain the past/present dynamic—the historical storyline informing current events—and kept inventing new reasons for nothing to happen in the present. Things happened, obviously, but it rarely resulted in meaningful progress for a story that always seemed destined to have Desmond become an assassin in the modern day and try to take down the Templars once and for all. This never happened. Not much happened, really.
Instead, the meta story got more complicated. More beings from the First Civilization showed up, raising ancient fights between them. I dare you to read this summary of Juno, a being committed to ending humanity, in a single sitting. There was a mysterious former Antimus test subject. Oh, and Desmond began experiencing prophetic visions. That’s to say nothing of the tidbits dispersed between the spin-offs and novels, as if Assassin’s Creed’s mythology deserved that much backstory.
Ubisoft continued to miss the point. The “modern” sections of Assassin’s Creed were levels we struggled through, hoping to return to the past. This is a huge part of what lead Assassin’s Creed to ultimately crash and burn, requiring Origins to retreat to a place where it could feel fresh, freed from the complications of its own history.
Assassin’s Creed III, a flawed but interestingly ambitious sequel, both doubled down on everything the series built, while trying to move on—in the most frustrating manner possible. Do you remember Assassin’s Creed III’s ending? I do, buddy. I do. I was there. I sat through it. That was some wild shit, a nearly 10-minute exposition dump of gibberish nonsense being sold as a conclusion to a story kicked off five years prior. Desmond was never a particularly interesting character, but players who’d invested hundreds of hours into his story certainly deserved better than this.
The solar flare that eliminated the First Civilization had returned, and after discovering a key to allow Desmond to enter the Templar’s sacred chambers, Juno shows up, telling Desmond his “spark” will save the world. (At this point, Desmond doesn’t know Juno is evil, just another holograms telling him he’s The Chosen One.) In steps Minerva, who says Juno is a conqueror and presents Desmond with two options: allow the solar flare to hit and try to build a new, better civilization or unleash Juno, who will block the impending solar flare, but give probable rise to humanity’s enslavement.
Naturally, ol’ Desmond chooses to unleash Juno. (In his mind, this gives humanity a chance to take Juno down.) Earth is saved from the solar flare, yes, but Desmond is dead and Juno, a psychopathic hologram with unimaginable power, is unleashed.
“It is done,” mutters Juno, as he walks off to, presumably, do some world taking. “The world is saved. You played your part well, Desmond. Now it’s time that I played mine.”
You’d think future Assassin’s Creed games would do something (anything) with this massive development, but it’s largely been forgotten. Among Black Flag, Syndicate, and Unity—three major entries since Assassin’s Creed III—there’s been barely any movement in the main storyline with Juno. There’s good reason for that: it’s hot garbage!
Assassin’s Creed is hardly the only franchise to begin collapsing under the weight of its own mythology. Resident Evil 7 has almost nothing to do with the six main games that came before it, but it still takes place in that same universe. Capcom navigated the increasingly grandiose and uninteresting plot developments in the series by simply placing Resident Evil 7 far, far away from anything that could touch it. (My biggest worry with Resident Evil 8, whatever it is, will fall into the same traps all over again; the bad final hours of Resident Evil 7 suggested Capcom had not fully learned their lesson.)
Origins does something similar, slotting itself early early in the timeline, before the complications. But the fundamentals of Assassin’s Creed haven’t changed. There are still magical devices hidden around the world, and people in power want to use them for subjugation and domination. The big difference with Origins is how little the game tries to explain what’s even going on. If you aren’t already familiar with Assassin’s Creed, you might be wondering why there are high-tech caves in the ground and apple-like objects that allow humans to conjure grand illusions. These moments don’t appear until very late in the game, as if the writers figured they had to eventually shoehorn them in, but they also give them zero context or explanation. They exist... because.
Heck, most of it doesn’t even appear in the main storyline—it’s optional. If you want to know more about what’s happened (and the main reason for the “present” storyline) you can browse a laptop with files on people connected to the series. Mmm.
But why? Who’s demanding to know more about Juno, Minerva, and whoever else? I’m more interested in ya, Bayek, and the future of Egypt. If Origins is Ubisoft’s middle ground—keep the supernatural stuff to the bare minimum—I suppose that’s a step in the right direction, but I’d rather the series leaves the junk behind and focus on what’s always been its core strength: letting players be part of stories throughout history.
There’s plenty to be mined from Earth’s own past, instead of imaginary civilizations.
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