The wind blows, the dunes rumble, the sand sings, and the sweet melody of criticism that accompanies the release of an Assassin’s Creed rises to our ears.
“It was better before, Ubisoft forgot the first players, the RPG turn killed the license.”
Far be it from me to contradict this fringe of the community. The fact is that the Odyssey and Valhalla episodes, released in 2018 and 2020 respectively, began a real disconnection between original fans and newcomers, although this split had already begun to operate as early as Origins.
The studio founded by Yves Guillemot may well have forgotten what made Assassin’s Creed so promising in the first place: a game centered on the Assassin sect, featuring social infiltration, exhilarating combat and a clear historical context. These elements have gradually disappeared into the sand, in favor of the sacrosanct RPG formula, which has taken up more and more space.
This is not to say that it’s a bad thing. If this RPG formula has worked in the past, and still does, there’s a good reason for it. Rather, the objective here is to question why such a return to basics is necessary, six years after the release of Origins.
Because, yes, in this more than complicated context for Ubisoft, both creatively and in terms of its hierarchy, comes Assassin’s Creed Mirage. The first trailers almost give us the impression of a remake of the first opus. This is the promise of a real return to basics, with the emphasis on parkour, infiltration and exploration of a single city.
So is this promise being kept, or is it just another illusion, a mirage that Ubisoft is dangling before our nostalgic eyes?
Let’s get straight to the heart of what has been a grain of sand in Ubisoft’s shoe for far too long: metahistory. Assassin’s Creed is a license in which you are projected into the past via a machine called Animus. It’s via this narration anchored in the present, a pillar of the first opuses, that we embody multiple protagonists across time.
While the latter was somewhat revived with Valhalla, don’t expect this opus to continue to rekindle the flame. The whole thing is extremely sketchy, starting with a short introduction by William Miles arguing that the memories you’re about to experience have long been hidden, but we don’t really understand why or how.
Not even a protagonist to enter the Animus, a semblance of context, nothing, which would seem profane to some fans of the license. But never mind, as I said, this aspect has long since ceased to be the lifeblood of the franchise, and the gamer in me wants only one thing: to be quickly plunged into 9th-century Baghdad to slit throats with a secret blade.
You play the role of Basim, a young pickpocket clumsily trying to attract the attention of the Unseen, the Old-Gen Assassins. For those who missed the Valhalla episode, Basim is also Loki, the Norse God (or Isu in this universe), and the game plays on this duality to weave a common thread throughout the adventure. It doesn’t go very far, and feels a little like an “Look, we talked about it!” excuse, but the atmosphere of these winking references has its effect.
One thing that really impressed me in these first few hours is that Ubisoft (and in this case Ubisoft Bordeaux behind this opus, cocorico) finally seems to have understood that dialogue in a video game isn’t just about putting two characters face to face with a line of text.
The characters are much less static, moving around during discussions, and the camera shots are more varied. As a game like The Witcher 3 clearly shows, a dialogue with beautiful music behind it changes everything, and Ubisoft Bordeaux seems to have put its heart and soul into immersing us in this story. This is also thanks to an engine which, although very old, is now perfectly mastered.
The game is beautiful, yes, magnificent even, and Ubisoft remains the absolute master of historical reconstruction. The city of Baghdad is lifelike and alive, and no doubt could just as easily be used for educational purposes, as it has been in the license’s past.
As for the technical side, while the game is very stable and virtually bug-free compared to its predecessors, it suffers from the comparison with today’s Next-Gen standards. As I said, this is down to the Anvil engine, which is no longer up to the task (facial animations are as dated as ever).
Scenario in quicksand
It’s a pleasure to experience Basim’s beginnings and his progression among the Assassins (and it’s been a while since this happened). He will then be tasked with tracking down the members of the Order of the Ancients (the boomer version of the Templars), in a scenario that will take you some twenty hours to complete, and which never quite reaches the summit, although I did have a rather pleasant time.
The problem is that it’s all a bit bland, with no surprises. Basim is a character sorely lacking in depth and nuance, which is a shame when you consider his personal history. This dual personality, linked to Loki’s influence, could/should have been an opportunity to delve into his psyche, his doubts, his angers. And it’s only in the last quarter that this scenario begins to take off, but in my view, far too late.
The same is unfortunately true when it comes to the more secondary characters, especially the targets. A light thirty-second introduction introduces a background, and poof, you forget it as quickly as you murder it. It would have been wise to develop the influence of these targets on Baghdad even further, in order to involve the player in Basim’s actions.
In a way, Ubisoft Bordeaux has also rekindled a pseudo-debate about game length. One of the main negative points made about Valhalla was its inordinate lifespan, approaching 60 hours in a straight line. In a particularly busy 2023, with October in the form of a traffic jam, it was a good idea to offer an adventure lasting no more than 30 hours. Let’s not be naive either: this is not necessarily a real choice on Ubisoft’s part, given that Mirage was originally conceived as an add-on to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
And it’s not that gamers are fed up with long games, but rather that they want the hours spent on them to be qualitative. Not everyone has the talent of CD Projekt with The Witcher 3, or Bethesda with Skyrim, capable of maintaining a consistent level of quality over hundred-hour adventures, and making the whole thing deeply addictive.
Perhaps the point is for Ubisoft to accept that this is simply not in its vein, that its talent lies elsewhere, and if Mirage can somehow open its eyes, everyone will come out a winner.
The infiltration oasis
Well, we all know why you’re here, and you’re keen to know if infiltration is really back. To my great surprise, and whereas it was just a label waved in front of the nostalgic fan in Valhalla, Ubisoft Bordeaux hasn’t laughed at us and offers a title designed around infiltration.
This notion is no longer simply a selling point, but the keystone of its gameplay. Everything in Mirage is geared towards this objective: to encourage you to remain discreet. First and foremost, the enemies, who, once spotted, will be aggressive and numerous, draining your life bar in the space of a few shots.
Beyond that, you can feel the desire to make this opus a cuddly game, in which you take your time and enjoy the atmosphere of the city. Basim is deliberately very slow, with the same heavy, organic animations as Valhalla, but this time perfectly adapted to what the game wants to offer.
Parkour is REALLY back, and this is obviously due to an adventure set in a single city, Baghdad, something that hasn’t happened since Unity and Syndicate. You’ll no doubt see me alluding to Unity again, so close does the philosophy of this episode seem to be (which is just as well, it’s my favorite Assassin’s Creed).
Gone are the endless moors of England, Baghdad is deeply vertical and constantly invites you to move along its rooftops. Not twenty meters pass without you coming across a hoist that will propel you to the heights. That’s not to say you won’t have to descend among the lower classes from time to time, if only to visit the souks and convince a recalcitrant merchant.
Yes, social infiltration has also been given a facelift: sit on a bench to listen in on a conversation, start a tail or hide among the crowd, accompanied by highly effective and discreet animation. This social infiltration is based on a system of tokens, which you glean from secondary missions or by robbing a wealthy passer-by. These tokens can then be used to hire the services of a merchant or bribe a town crier.
There’s also a reputation system: if you’re caught stealing, or murder guards in broad daylight, your reputation rises. From level 2 onwards, guards start patrolling rooftops, which is likely to complicate your travels. As in the old days, you’ll be able to rip the wanted posters off your head to get out of trouble.
I found all these mechanics very judicious, and overall I haven’t felt an Assassin’s Creed so coherent in its gameplay systems since Unity. The link with this episode is obvious, as Mirage takes up the Black Box assassination mechanic, with several infiltration opportunities presented to you. Would you rather bribe the cook to open a locked door, or hire mercenaries to distract the guards?
Unfortunately, the approach is much shallower and will always lead to the same result and a very scripted assassination. But more than once, I’ve found myself preparing for an assassination sequence by replenishing my stock of knives or completing a little side mission that would earn me tokens. These tokens could then be reinvested to facilitate the assassination of my target.
So thank you Ubisoft Bordeaux, for making me feel things I haven’t felt in an Assassin’s Creed for over ten years. Even if everything isn’t perfect, that palpable feeling of playing an Assassin, planning his assassinations, is very much present.
The Lite-RPG’s aridity
I was just talking about the token system and my stock of knives. Perfect, since that’s going to allow me to move on to the tools and gadgets at your disposal. Fans will be brushed aside, of course, but throwing knives and smoke bombs are back, along with sonic decoys and explosive traps.
While the progression of these tools is fairly well managed, since you’ll need to upgrade them to make them really effective, I find that they tend to make the stealth approach too easy. Knives and smoke bombs alone would have done the job just fine, and tools like soporific darts simplify an infiltration that was more than enough on its own.
Just like the power Basim quickly acquires, enabling him to teleport from one target to another in no time at all. Inherited from the chained assassination feature in Odyssey, this power will make those resistant to any form of fantasy in Assassin’s Creed cringe. In this case, I’m inclined to agree, as it once again spoils an infiltration that really didn’t need it.
Incredibly, this is thanks in part to an AI that I found, FOR ONCE, convincing. The guards are rather insistent and reactive, reacting to the corpses of their colleagues left along the way, which prompted me to hide them as often as possible. The developers have pushed the detail so far, that if you steal an object near a guard, the latter will hear you and you’ll be spotted.
Enemies can then chase you for a very long time, and depending on your notoriety, passers-by may alert them and flock to your wanted posters, adding to the immersion and consistency.
Rest assured, this is still an Assassin’s Creed, so there are always funny situations where you assassinate a guard two meters away from another without him hearing you, or where you whistle at 5 guards in a row in the same haystack.
As for the RPG aspect itself, Mirage takes up the approach begun with Valhalla, which was already inspired by Unity, i.e. a Lite RPG reduced to the bare minimum. Rather rare weapons and equipment can be upgraded up to 3 times depending on your resources. Simple, yes, but more than enough.
I also greatly appreciated the disappearance of any leveling system: you still earn skill points, but your success is no longer conditional on having 10 levels more or less than the enemy. There’s still a threat indicator based on the region, but it’s discreet and simply designed not to make you go to the center of Baghdad too soon (although it’s quite possible).
Your eagle, present since Origins, is no longer an invincible radar drone, although it can once again be used to mark enemies from high ground. It’s a pity, because I’d have liked to see the game go as far as it could and, like Valhalla, turn it into a simple tracking device, without marking targets and adding icons everywhere.
Because if there’s one element inherited from the new formula that Mirage just can’t seem to shake off, it’s the omnipresence of its ATH. So much so, in fact, that I invite you to run to the Game Options to remove anything that isn’t essential: skill point indicators, pop-up windows for rewards, resources or the database.
Ah, now you can really appreciate the beauty of Baghdad. That’s better, isn’t it?
In love with Baghdad
One of the things I missed most about Assassin’s Creed in recent years was the Database. A real database, that is, not a three-line speech like in Valhalla, or the Discovery Tour of recent episodes (although I have nothing against this feature, by the way).
But in Mirage, the quest for knowledge isn’t done via a button in the Main Menu, it’s directly integrated into the game world, via little fragments you can pick up, which tell you more about the place you’re visiting. So I didn’t hold back my pleasure, spending most of my time devouring all these elements of history, and particularly rich descriptions, always accompanied by an illustrative image: artwork from the studio, or even photos directly from various museums.
What shines through in Mirage is this absolute respect for the era being dealt with, and the culture associated with it. My hat’s off to the studio, for example, for offering dubbing entirely in Arabic, which is personally the version I chose to play, so much more immersive.
When, in preview versions of the game, players complain about dialogues being triggered during prayer, the studio reacts and immediately fixes the problem. We know how to shoot Ubisoft when it deserves it (and we’re not done yet), but we also need to know when things are well done, and even very well done.
Beyond that, it’s really Mirage’s highly intra-diegetic approach that caught my attention. If we forget for a second the invasive ATH, we can feel that everything has been thought out to fit into a certain coherent universe, and the quest board is one of the main witnesses to this.
Moving away from the classic “Target Panel” of the Odyssey and Valhalla episodes, AC Mirage opts for an approach that reminded me more of the adventure journal of a Deathloop, revealing itself as you investigate, and going off in several directions. As you’d expect, it’ll never reach the depth of such a game, but it leaves you free to do things in the order that suits you. I appreciate the movement, and the attempt.
Aside from that, the skill system does the bare minimum and has three branches in which you can spend your points: Ghost, Ingenious and Predator. Again, it’s very simple, and won’t change your way of playing much (infiltration, infiltration, infiltration).
What about ancillary content? Mirage is still very much a classic game, but it does offer a number of things: assassination missions, disconnected from the main quest, and on which I was pleased to see the return of optional objectives, which will push you to play in a certain way. Assassinate the target without being seen, or by causing an accident, not killing any guards for example. An extremely welcome Hitmanesque approach.
Mirage also takes up the principle of Valhalla’s very short narrative quests, here called Baghdad Tales, which invite you to do a favor for an NPC in trouble. For the rest, it’s all about collecting collectables: books, artifacts, fragments of Eden. Nothing exceptional, then, but an addition that will keep you busy for a few extra hours between two main quest targets.
I also took pleasure in completing a few quests around Baghdad, forcing you to leave the city for a more desert-like atmosphere, on camel or horseback, which will bring back fond memories of Assassin’s Creed Origins.
The Fighting Souk
Unfortunately, this return to the basics and pure infiltration is detrimental to other aspects of the gameplay. At the top of the list are the fights, which, although very rare, prove to be extremely disappointing. Although the game does its utmost to encourage you to avoid them (and it’s easy to see why), there are certain passages in the main story where combat is unavoidable. In these cases, you’ll be treated to very limp, repetitive skirmishes that feel a little like fighting with two left hands.
It’s a pity that the weak point system introduced in Valhalla (where you could aim your bow at bright areas on the enemy’s body to stun him) wasn’t used, which would have made the whole thing more dynamic. Especially since this was perfectly feasible with the throwing knives.
The incoherence of these battles reaches its climax when you realize that once you’re surrounded by five enemies, all you have to do is throw a smoke bomb to kill them all in a row with your secret blade. Believe me, when I realized this, I was left dumbfounded in front of my screen.
Regrettable, insofar as Assassin’s Creed isn’t just an infiltration license. It’s first and foremost an action-adventure game, in which combat has to be at least a little interesting.
We’re slowly coming to the end of our stroll through the dunes of Baghdad, and if you’ve been following the thread running through this article, you’ll have understood that I consider Assassin’s Creed to be at a turning point, a crossroads. It remains to be seen which direction the license will take.
Will it capitalize on what I consider to be the good, albeit imperfect, foundations laid by this opus, or return to the classic RPG formula of recent years? Let’s not be fooled, given Ubisoft’s communication, everything leads us to believe that what is currently called Assassin’s Creed Red, which will take place in Japan, will return to the formula initiated by the Origins-Odyssey-Valhalla triptych.
This is understandable, given that Valhalla was a financial success according to Ubisoft, despite a mixed critical reception. But let’s put things into perspective: is the success of opuses such as Odyssey or Valhalla really due to their RPG aspect, or rather to the period depicted, be it Ancient Greece for one or Viking-occupied England for the other?
As I said earlier in this article, Ubisoft has shown that it’s not cut out to offer this kind of hundred-hour open-world RPG. Mirage depicts a studio geared for shorter, more paced experiences, leaving room for much more advanced staging, and incidentally, fewer bugs.
This is also true of a company with no fewer than twenty thousand employees worldwide. The coordination required for development such as Valhalla, which monopolizes fourteen studios in addition to Ubisoft Montreal, pales in comparison to Mirage. When it comes to coherent storytelling and mechanics from one opus to the next, the question also arises.
What happened to the pioneering Ubisoft that took risks and inspired other studios? The one that gave birth to Rayman, Splinter Cell or Watch Dogs, real propositions, both artistically and in game-design. From being a forerunner, he has become an imitator, clumsily trying to copy a formula that works. Shouldn’t its commercial results allow it to take such risks, rather than searching for the next successful Battle Royale?
Let’s push the infiltration envelope even further, correct the imperfections and explore all the social aspects that a vibrant city like Baghdad has to offer. I don’t find it utopian to imagine that the sales and returns behind AC Mirage could somehow influence the development of its sequels in the right direction. Wasn’t Ubisoft ultimately experimenting with this game, testing the pulse of the nostalgic fan to see if he was still breathing?
I’m dreaming, you’re probably thinking, yes, maybe I am. But isn’t this the result of the Thousand and One Nights of happiness that Assassin’s Creed has given me? Distant nights…