Assassin’s Creed Mirage came along at a good time. See, I’ve been playing through the Assassin’s Creed series from the beginning. Stabbing people takes a long time to get old and I was enjoying myself, with Assassin’s Creed Unity being a surprise standout. I only started to burn out when I got to Assassin’s Creed Origins and everything went a bit too open. If this is the way Assassin’s Creed is going, I thought, then I might have to bow out.
But then Assassin’s Creed Mirage came along, claiming to be inspired by the early games in the series and boy was I aboard that train. Regrettably, it’s never as simple as that. Rather, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a combination of old and new. Bringing together the best parts of both is a fine thing but combination often necessitates compromise. Unfortunately, in this case, there has been a little too much compromise and the end result is something quite shallow.
Blood In Baghdad
There was a fairly standard format for opening the older Assassin’s Creed games. A young hero starts off with a reasonably happy life and an unexplained knack for parkour, and he enjoys this for about ten minutes before his teeth are stomped out by the boot of fate. Mirage’s boot-recipient is Basim Ibn Ishaq, in his younger form before the events of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. He begins as a simple street-thief with aspirations to become something more, until a botched robbery tears his whole life to shreds and sends him into the folds of The Hidden Ones, a secretive group of assassins.
These assassins start teaching him the tricks of the trade, which are mostly jumping and stabbing. Both of these elements work quite well. Ubisoft have had many a game to refine the parkour and the result is quite a fluid system. Basim generally went where I wanted him to but I also had to pick my paths carefully, or risk attempting to escape guards by scrabbling up a bare wall. Baghdad is a good place to parkour around too, with the right combo of tall buildings to scale and low buildings to hide on. It’s also pretty, with constant splashes of colour everywhere. There’s a bit of open world around it – courtesy of the newer games – but it’s a tighter map overall and is the better for it.
It’s also full of narrow corridors, low buildings and shadowy corners, which brings us to the stealth. In keeping with the older feel, the stealth has come back to the forefront of gameplay. The hidden blade is back to being an instant kill, huzzah! It’s no longer just a tiny knife that we have to lop a digit off to use. It’s used to best effect in the main assassination missions, where you have to locate ways to draw targets out and kill them without kicking the hornets nest. A highlight was infiltrating an auction and outbidding the city’s treasurer for a single hairpin. It was these missions where I had the most fun with Assassin’s Creed Mirage. I just wish there were more of them – but more on that in a moment.
An important part of stealth is when you screw up. If you’re me, that’s roughly eighty percent of the time. That leads us to the combat. This is more of a new Assassin’s Creed inspiration, as it requires dodges and parries, rather than just countering everyone to death. It works well, for the most part. Getting spotted in the early game can be almost harrowing, as you get surrounded by mace-wielding thugs. This is how it should be, assassins aren’t built for a frontal assault. That’s not to say it’s hard, though, as I didn’t die once. It’s a little too easy to power yourself up too much through skills and gear upgrades.
Despite a few nice ideas though, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is quite rough around the edges. Take the stealth. I spent one mission taking it slow, stabbing people silently and flicking knives into anyone that gave me a funny look, until I had taken down everyone. Flush with success, I walked back to the objective only to find a handful of guards had instantly respawned, thoroughly breaking the point of stealth. Perhaps it’s a compromise for the bone-headed AI, that get confused if you just run around a corner. The notoriety system didn’t help either – an unwelcome addition of old. If people see you commit a crime, you go up a level – too many and they send in the thugs. This means after every public mission, you have to wander around tearing down posters.
It doesn’t help that Mirage feels a little insubstantial. Take the ‘contracts’. These are a series of short missions that all follow the same format. Escort someone, rescue someone, stab someone. Copy and paste them a few times and off you go. Given the thoughtful, expansive nature of the main missions, I’d hoped for more. The ‘Tales of Baghdad’ have a bit more going for them – I enjoyed one that featured a graverobbing monk – but these are brutally short and feel like they could be used to explore our protagonist more. Even the special ‘collect-all-the-tokens’ gear set can’t muster more of a challenge than ten quick pickpockets. At least tuck them into a dusty tomb somewhere.
The biggest casualty in the meeting of old and new is the writing. Basim himself is the worst example. My measure of a good character is one you can imagine in their off hours. Having a pint down the pub; shouting at the TV. Basim offers us nothing but plot exposition and constant self-motivation. He walks in as an initiate and gets all the jobs handed to him because he’s the protagonist. I found it difficult to connect with him and, as such, it made it harder to connect with anything else. By the end, Basim was almost Disney-esque in his dialogue.
It might have been different had the plot put in much effort. The intriguing and historic city of Baghdad is used as a backdrop to a formulaic plot that we’ve seem quite a few times before. Our street thief evolves into a master assassin as he searches for purpose. A bunch of masked jerks are wreaking havoc and our hero has to sort it out in a very painful and pointy way. Basim just drifts from target to target, doing what he’s told. Then the only interesting part of his character – the dreams of a monstrous Jinni – bring back the bizarre nature of the Assassin’s Creed mythos right at the end. There’s no future element too, though those felt increasingly irrelevant anyway.
I didn’t expect to be so hard on Assassin’s Creed Mirage. The focus on stealth is very welcome and I like the smaller map, as it means less travel time between assasinations. The main missions evoke the excellent missions in earlier titles like Unity, and the city of Baghdad has a lot going for it. It’s just so shallow and awkwardly written. Come to think on it, I remember thinking similar about the original Assassin’s Creed. Perhaps we’ve gone too far back in time. Assassin’s Creed Mirage does a good job of tightening the gameplay bolts but the end result feels as insubstantial as the phenomenon it’s named after.