You don’t have a whole lot of friends in Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
It feels like you're on your own in that sandy Egyptian civilization, and it’s impossible to travel more than a hundred yards without getting assaulted by lions, hyenas, hippos, and incredibly skilled enemy soldiers. From what I experienced playing Ubisoft’s latest entry in their blockbuster series at an event in San Francisco, the combination of these dangerous enemies and the sandy landscape I trekked across made me feel like I was a zealous cowboy riding through the Wild West.
It was a great change of pace from the usual feeling of invulnerability in past Assassin’s Creed adventures, where I rarely felt a challenge no matter where I ventured on the map. And while the full game will allow you to level up at your own discretion, you’ll still have the option to take on tougher challenges at a lower level, which is better than every challenge being a breeze to start with.
This goes for main story missions, side missions, and regular old exploration, too. Traveling across the map felt like a series of trial and error; if I cut through the brush over a series of small hills I’d get ambushed by lions and I’d be lucky to escape them on foot; if I travelled along the main path, one misstep could set off the guards just up the road. Neither of those situations were negatives, I had a lot of fun with the surprises they both provided.
But the Wild West isn’t all fun and games in Origins, with the confusion and craziness extending to the UI for all the wrong reasons.
Ubisoft, seemingly following in the footsteps of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild , decided to create a simpler and more limited layout for their interface. The biggest change inspired by this decision is the removal of the mini map, with its absence forcing you to take in all the gorgeous sights Assassin's Creed Origins lays out ahead of the player. However, where Origins doesn't mimic Breath of the Wild is in its continued use of various on-screen prompts and symbols, so instead of forcing players to actually learn how to interact with their surroundings, the game instead clutters the screen with directional cues and generic symbols. This made the removal of the mini map somewhat pointless, as I was still scanning the screen for these icons, trying to figure out where they were and what they meant.
From this preview session, it seems that Ubisoft has attempted to find an uneasy balance between stripped-back minimalism and a confusing, comprehensive approach to its user interface. Instead of committing to a new philosophy, Origins attempts to occupy the best of both worlds but winds up with the opposite; I had to use the map markers for missions to find anything, which is counter-productive when the game clearly wants players to explore its world for themselves.
From what I was able to play, I could tell Origins has taken a lot of confident steps away from the established Assassin’s Creed model, offering an actual challenge that encourages free form exploration. However, it also takes some steps in the wrong direction while trying to craft a compelling open world environment, ultimately leaving me sceptical that Assassin's Creed's year off has truly revitalized the series. Hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised when the finished game releases on October 27.