I didn't expect Assassin's Creed Mirage to feel so good. It's been almost eight years since we tumbled across rooftops in the last 'traditional' Assassin's Creed game in Syndicate, and since then we've been to Egypt, Greece, and Viking England in a trilogy of RPG Assassin's experiences that looked to redefine what an Assassin's Creed game could be. Before we set off to Japan for another RPG adventure with Assassin's Creed Red, Ubisoft Bordeaux is tackling a more compact, more grassroots experience by telling the origin story of Basim Ibn Ishaq in 9th Century Baghdad. And damn it feels great.
With some 1000 odd-hours spent across Assassin's Creed Origins, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and Assassin's Creed Valhalla, I've certainly more than enjoyed how deep and rich an experience an RPG romp can be. Still, seeing the old prompt of "left analog stick + A" to freerun, made me realize just how much I'd been hankering for the Assassin's Creed of old. Watching Basim tiptoe across ropes, vault parapets, and trundle across rooftops took me straight back to the days of Ezio Auditore – especially when watching him swing around the corners of buildings on those excellently placed rope pulleys.
It does take some adjustment to remember that a return to classic mechanics does mean that you can't just climb anything anymore. Ubisoft Bordeaux tells me that the aim is to make climbing a puzzle again, and it shows. You're looking for handholds in window arches and doorways, ledges, and nooks to allow you to move up higher and usually away from more prying eyes, or to take you away from tracking guards you've managed to alert.
From hidden loot to hidden blade
Before he becomes an assassin, or 'Hidden One' as they're known at this stage in history, Basim is a thief, so staying in the shadows has always been a constant. This is a rags to riches origin story, where Basim moves from working with his friend Nehal to find their next meal to master assassin. Handily, a lot of the skills required remain the same throughout. Pickpocketing, completed with a quick timing-based mini-game that gets harder the more coin you could potentially steal, could be the difference between having enough to help out the local kids or managing to buy the Chinese hairpin your target wants for their collection.
Blending in with a crowd might help you slip into a guarded area unannounced, but equally paying off a boisterous musician could also provide just the right amount of ruckus to distract a guard detail. Diving underwater or moving through a thick crowd could be the ticket to shaking off chasing guards and evading raising the alarm further. These are familiar mechanics to anyone who's a series fan of old, but they're a welcome return and pulled off with such attention to nostalgia that it feels incredible to play.
Lore buffs unite
Assassin's Creed Mirage is also letting us go inside the Alamut, which by the sounds of it, will be filled with Easter eggs for ultimate fans to discover
That's not to say that Assassin's Creed Mirage is stuck in the past though. For one thing there's a new notoriety system that gives you a greater sense of this connected city of Baghdad. Get caught in one of the big main black box missions and it'll raise your notoriety level for the entire place. Ripping down posters or paying the right person off will help bring it down, but let it get too high and you'll get an elite guard hunting you down. Not what you want for a game whose priority is working from the shadows.
If you do end up having to take on any guards though, combat feels light, modern, and nimble, particularly compared to the slow heft of Assassin's Creed Valhalla's combat with its hammers and axes. The parry system is incredibly important, and you've got an array of gadgets that you can use like smoke bombs that can help you get out of trouble. Of course, those gadgets are also incredibly handy in stealth too, from blow darts and throwing knives to noisemakers and other traps.
But, your real skill is Basim himself. He's a Baghdad native and knows this city inside out. Not only do people recognize him but they want to help him too, opening up doors to new assignments and missions throughout. This was particularly true in one of the game's black box missions that we played, which involved trying to hunt down a target known only as The Treasurer. Tea trader Kong helped us get a ticket to a private auction we knew the target would be at, in exchange for releasing some of his stock from a guarded warehouse.
Once we were inside the market where the auction was taking place, I had to do some detective work to figure out exactly who the Treasurer may be. I sat on a bench near a couple of women talking about a particular perfume, eavesdropping on their conversation until I was able to get one of them alone to talk to properly. I broke into private rooms to rifle through drawers and find useful notes, and did plenty of other detective work before attending the auction myself to catch them in the bidding.
Don't forget your RPG
These expanded black box experiences allow for more of that RPG element to creep in. This is a linear story, Basim's story, so there are no dialogue choices but there are options to take in both your approach and to how these missions play out. For example, had I been a prolific pickpocketer I would have had enough coin to buy the aforementioned hairpin. Instead, I had to track down the buyer and steal it from him, before figuring out a way to get into the Treasurer's exclusive merchant's guild. To get that information I had to bribe a stall owner with a special token, which is one of the unique currencies for Mirage and really does open up new opportunities for both stealth and investigation.
It gives that same sense of satisfaction as completing a Hitman level. You know you've got the potential to explore every opportunity in that area to get to your target, but the route you inevitably take is up to you. Unlike Hitman though, the level doesn't end there, you're back out into the city and will sometimes have to deal with the decisions you've made elsewhere - something I found out the hard way.
With the Treasurer taken down, I chose not to engage their rightly pretty upset guards and instead just leg it out of the guild. In my escape, I accidentally ran straight through the warehouse where I'd procured Kong's tea chests just half an hour earlier. Cue more angry guards chasing me down, but this time for an entirely different crime. Thankfully shaking them off didn't take much more than diving into a nearby river and swimming upstream for a while, but it did leave a nasty mark on my notoriety meter.
I love how much you can do in Assassin's Creed Mirage, and the fact it feels like a game that's going to reward you the more you explore. There are small missions to be found just by talking to the people moving through or living in Baghdad or overhearing a conversation, which feels again like that RPG DNA sneaking into this more traditional experience. But, rather than feeling like a blurring of genres it just helps bring this amazing city to life.
The passion from the team at Ubisoft Bordeaux is clear - both for the series and the opportunity to lead their first game. It shines through here in that Assassin's Creed Mirage does so much to honor the series' origins without dismissing the journeys we've been on the last few years with Bayek, Kassandra, Eivor and co. From what I've seen so far, I can't wait to see what else Basim's story has to deliver us, particularly when it comes to the relationships he's building with mentor Roshan and the other Hidden Ones.
Assassin's Creed Mirage is dropping October 5 on PS5, Xbox Series X, PC, alongside PS4 and Xbox One.