The Assassin’s Creed series and I have a rich history together. As a fan of the first hour, I have stepped into the shoes of countless assassins to help the Brotherhood eliminate the various megalomaniacal madmen of the series. In doing so, I must admit that I often did so with pleasure, conviction and the requisite lack of sleep because the controller was almost glued to my hands. But sometimes, unfortunately, with frustration because I got a bit fed up with the well-known overkill of icons and the corresponding repetition.
In that respect, my love for the series is a bit of a double-edged sword. I always get totally absorbed in the story. I enjoy the – as far as possible – historically accurate setting and cool characters the games feature. But the magic of Assassin’s Creed 2 – my personal favorite – the many games after that never really lived up to it. Fair is fair, some games came dangerously close and also introduced cool new mechanics, but so far nothing has topped that first adventure of Ezio.
With the last three mainline titles in the series, Ubisoft also took a completely different tack. RPG elements were introduced in these games that impacted the play style, but the scope also became considerably – maybe even a little too – large. Although I really did enjoy the adventures of Bayek, Kassandra and Eivor, I secretly felt that this felt like it detracted from a game series that revolves around an assassin guild. In Valhalla, I was a Viking armed to the teeth, not someone who is particularly shy of a solid game of brawling. Whereas in an Assassin’s Creed game, I seek the challenge of infiltrating a heavily guarded fortress undetected, neutralizing the target and then escaping without being seen.
So you can understand my immediate interest when Ubisoft made the announcement for Assassin’s Creed Mirage. After all, this game would go back to the roots of the series. The emphasis would be on “old-fashioned” intelligence gathering and then sending the target to the eternal hunting grounds unseen. So far only nice expectations, whether they are actually fulfilled you can read below.
Welcome to 9th Century Baghdad
Assassin’s Creed Mirage tells the story of Basim, who at first glance is a street thug, but the observant gamer knows the same character as Assassin final boss and also advisor to Eivor in Valhalla. Mirage thus tells the origin story of Basim. This interesting story is told in beautiful 9th century Baghdad. How Basim eventually comes into contact with the Hidden Ones or what his motivations are for embracing the life of an assassin are details best experienced for yourself as you play, of course. As such, I will not give this away in this review.
The presentation of the story does feel like old times. There are evil people with nefarious intentions plaguing the population. It is up to Basim and the Hidden Ones to unmask these individuals and thus, step by step, wipe the corruption from the city clean. Unmasking Basim does this by conducting research. This investigation consists of gathering information in various ways. For example, by infiltrating a building undetected to gather evidence. But Basim is also only too happy to dive into the dressing-up box to get as close as possible to certain persons and make sure they speak out.
All of this is fairly linear, as in Mirage these “questlines” are not presented to you with unnecessary complexity. You follow the steps using an investigation menu and markers on your map. In this, you are free to choose in what order you tackle certain steps, but you do follow the story step by step. Personally, it didn’t bother me one bit to be a bit more hand-holding, but I can understand that this is quite a contrast compared to the wide range of quests you were presented with as a player in, say, Odyssey or Valhalla.
The sword serves as a fallback
That contrast is also heightened when looking at the gameplay. In Mirage, the emphasis is really on the Stealth roots of the series. If you really knock it flat, the emphasis in the main missions is on the one hand on detective work to identify the target and on the other hand on infiltrating unseen, taking out the target and preferably escaping unseen. Mirage certainly has combat, but nowhere near as large a scale as the battles we know from Odyssey and Valhalla. No, the battles here are much more grounded and realistic.
Basim is good at his thing, but has no divine powers at his disposal. An inadvertent encounter with a trio of guards, for example, already feels particularly spicy in the first few hours of the game. This already forces you as a player to prefer stealth over combat a bit more. After all, you’d rather avoid poor Basim taking a beating and have to start your infiltration all over again.
The combat is also not rocket science. It consists mostly of timing. The game is quite forgiving in 1-on-1 combat with clear signs when it’s best to perform a dodge or parry. In addition, I there is plenty of progression in Basim’s arsenal. There are several fine weapons and armor to be found and you can also upgrade them with materials found in chests. In addition, you can also unlock tools such as the familiar throwing knives that support Basim in his battle.
Still, it pays to take a stealth approach. The game also has a notoriety meter and it is not exactly lenient. If Basim kills a guard in plain sight, it already grows one step. When the notoriety meter is full, Basim cannot walk down the street without being recognized. As a result, passersby then start screaming as soon as they see Basim, which is particularly annoying if you don’t want to be noticed by the guards. Of course, you can lower the notoriety by pulling posters from the walls or bribing speakers, but this is annoying during a mission because it does break the flow a bit.
So far, Mirage really looks more like a “newfangled” Assassin’s Creed game. The gameplay and presentation feel very nice and familiar, but with modern techniques, the game looks a lot better and certainly plays more refined. Still, Ubisoft couldn’t resist making you climb a few towers again to synchronize a viewpoint. Fortunately in Mirage there are nowhere near as many as previous games, but I would have liked to see this mechanism finally replaced with something else. You also have an eagle at your disposal in Mirage so you don’t really even need the viewpoints that much. The fast traveling could be solved just fine by using certain iconic buildings once you discover them.
Another beauty flaw, for fans of the series, I fear is an old one. I’m talking, of course, about the parkour controls. I think all of us in an Assassin’s Creed game had unintentional arguments with the controls while climbing a building. To keep the flow as optimal as possible, Ubisoft decided to bundle the parkour controls under one button and use the analog for direction. Often this works well and you actually climb in the right direction without too much effort. Unfortunately, there are times when your assassin decides to make a jump in a completely different direction, causing you to fall down. This is often because the camera was not centered quite right and the game misreads your prompt.
As a rule, Assassin’s Creed games often go wrong for me when I’m fleeing and the game wants me to climb as optimally as possible on the one hand, but keep me in combat on the other. Because of the fiddling with the camera and different situations, your assassin then doesn’t even feel like a professional anymore, but more like a clumsy clown who, for example, runs into the same wall 3 times in a row to no avail. Unfortunately, Mirage has also adopted these roots 1-to-1 so this sulky frustration is also present at times when you don’t want it.
Mirage seems like a love letter to fans of the first hour, the game has clearly taken influences from the earlier games and modernized them as best as possible. Newer players, on the other hand, will also be fine with the game, but expect a slightly more linear adventure. Recently, the game’s compact length – I reached the finish line at about 19 hours – does not fall short of a full and complete Assassin’s Creed adventure. I found it familiar, yet refreshing to once again enjoy one of my favorite game series in this way.