For those of us who can’t remember what a credits screen looks like, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a blessing. Since Assassin’s Creed debuted in 2007, entries in developer Ubisoft‘s historical action series have grown larger and taken significantly more time to complete.
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This year, Ubisoft has billed Mirage as a return to the earlier days of Assassin’s Creed, where games were shorter and more linear. Set in ninth-century Baghdad, Mirage follows protagonist Basim, a plucky rogue haunted by supernatural visions.
Our hands-on with Mirage starts with Basim working as a thief-for-hire for The Hidden Ones, an ancient order of assassins. Basim thinks joining The Hidden Ones will help his poverty-stricken community, but master assassin Roshan (played by the fantastic Shohreh Aghdashloo) is sceptical of his abilities.
Basim’s first task is to break into a nearby harbour and steal an important ledger for Roshan. The catch? Basim doesn’t have a weapon, and the ledger is kept in a locked building surrounded by armed guards. To get in, he has to employ every trick in the assassin’s handbook: hiding in haystacks, whistling to lure guards away, and using Eagle Vision to identify enemies and important items in the area. None of these features will be new to Assassin’s Creed fans, but one interesting change is that pickpocketing now has its own quick-time event, which we use to steal a key from the harbour’s unsuspecting captain and grab the ledger.
For the sake of preserving Mirage‘s plot, our hands-on skips to a later segment of the game. Basim has finally won over Roshan, who oversees his training and initiation at The Hidden Ones’ base at Alamut. After learning to climb, fight and conduct the assassins’ ritualistic leap of faith, Basim returns to Baghdad as a well-trained killer.
Bustling and colourful, Baghdad is one of Assassins Creed‘s most vibrant settings to date. Yet all is not well. The city’s treasurer has joined the evil Order Of The Ancients, and uses their position to seize goods and terrorise merchants. Basim has been ordered to kill them, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds – nobody knows who this treasurer is.
Basim doesn’t enjoy the same anonymity. The notoriety system has returned, meaning that you’re encouraged to be as stealthy as possible. Stealing, fighting and killing in public increases Basim’s infamy, which means he’s attacked on sight by guards. On several occasions, even regular citizens tried to alert soldiers to our presence. In a throwback to Assassin’s Creed 2, you’ll need to tear down wanted posters to keep notoriety low, though you can also blend in with crowds to move around without being recognised.
It’s a brilliant system. There’s a sense of vulnerability to exploring with high notoriety, which comes into play as we kill more Order lackeys across the city. More importantly, this means you’re incentivised to be stealthy – clumsy killers will find themselves constantly hounded if they don’t find ways to work discretely.
The centrepiece of our hands-on is at Baghdad’s Grand Bazaar, where we’re tasked with unmasking and killing the treasurer. To do so, Basim is given several clues to investigate. Through eavesdropping, we’re able to identify the treasurer as a woman named Ning, while helping a local merchant “recover” something from another trader reveals that she can be recognised by her beautiful Eastern-made robes. Ning is at the bazaar to attend an auction, which offers Basim the perfect chance to end her corruption.
Yet all of that detective work is rendered pointless when Ning arrives at the auction. The auctioneer introduces Ning by both name and title, meaning you could skip the 20-minute investigation and still know her identity. It’s a frustrating lack of payoff, and feels like Ubisoft is torn between fast-paced linearity or open-ended problem-solving that recent Assassin’s Creed games have thrived on.
When it finally comes to killing Ning, it’s over quickly. A quick thrust of Basim’s hidden blade brings the treasurer’s reign of terror to an end, and every guard in the bazaar swarms the assassin. Combat is reactive, and far more punsihing. There’s an emphasis on last-minute dodges and parries, and Basim is fragile enough to die very quickly when overwhelmed. Eventually we manage to fight our way through tight corridors and escape into the streets of Baghdad, bringing our hands-on to a close.
Despite its brief identity crisis, Assassin’s Creed Mirage has a lot that fans should be excited for. Basim is a charismatic protagonist and we’re looking forward to spending more time with him, while Baghdad is already shaping up to be another phenomenal setpiece from Ubisoft. But most of all? We’re just excited for an Assassin’s Creed game we have time to finish.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage launches on October 5 for Xbox, PlayStation, and PC.