Assassin’s Creed Mirage has me excited about the series again

Assassin's Creed Mirage key art

For years now, the long-running Assassin’s Creed series has lent heavily into triple-A RPG systems, beginning with the Ancient Egypt-set Origins. Beautiful and vast but exhausting to play, recent entries strayed far from what made the franchise popular in the first place. Assassin’s Creed Mirage looks to change all of that, favouring intimacy and focus instead of overwhelming scope.

Set in 9th-century Baghdad, Mirage follows Basim, a street thief with a strong sense of justice who enlists in an assassin’s order known as “The Hidden Ones”. Harkening back to the early Assassin’s Creed games, stealth plays a more substantial role than the fort-raiding, all-out attack favoured by protagonist Eivor in the previous entry, Valhalla. Developer and publisher Ubisoft is even positioning its latest game as a back-to-roots experience, seemingly aware of the demand for a less bloated game.

After a three-hour preview of Mirage, its tighter focus is immediately apparent. Ubisoft’s penchant for richly populated and culturally diverse worlds also shines through, yielding a strong first impression that seemingly bucks the industry trend of cramming as much content in as possible.

Sneaking your way to victory, one target at a time

Stealth is nothing new to Ubisoft, considering its rich history with the Splinter Cell series in addition to the early Assassin’s Creed games. Here in Mirage, hiding and biding your time has a renewed emphasis, and it feels a better experience for it.

Recent entries from the series focused on RPG levelling systems where you routinely gained levels and new equipment, incrementally upgrading your stats in the process. However, enemies also grew stronger the further you played, offsetting any gains you made while arbitrarily gating areas and encounters behind level caps. Frustration arose from dealing minuscule amounts of damage to relatively minor enemies purely because they were a higher level than you.

Assassin's Creed Mirage Baghdad exploration
Baghdad is a rich, well-designed setting to explore.

Fortunately, Assassin’s Creed Mirage does away with such a limiting system. You can fell enemies with a single plunge of the signature hidden blade, imbuing a strong sense of power to your actions. This is well balanced through open combat being a less-than-ideal approach. Enemies cut you down in a few well-placed slashes, meaning you can’t brute force your way through as a one-man army. By all means, you can certainly try to take down foes head-on, although it won’t be nearly as efficient as carefully planning out your approach and silently removing targets from the equation.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage’s upgrade tree is also substantially more streamlined over the sprawling menu seen in Valhalla, focusing on augments to your current skills instead of constantly overwhelming you with new abilities. Split into three nodes – Phantom, Trickster and Predator – skill upgrades improve your overall proficiency as opposed to adding an excessive amount of manoeuvres that you’ll inevitably forget exist in the heat of battle.

Plus, instead of swapping out your gear every hour, you accumulate materials to moderately improve your current weapons. Although Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Valhalla saw you assume a mercenary-like role where scrapping and scrounging for every weapon made narrative sense, Mirage smartly pares things back to focus on the hidden blade wielded by those in the order.

Thinking your way through Assassin’s Creed Mirage

Perhaps the most promising aspect of Mirage shown in the preview was the way in which you need to plan each encounter. Aside from freely exploring the winding streets of Baghdad, many of your quests involve infiltrating hostile fortresses where its occupants attack on sight.

While in previous games, mapping out your approach typically involved sending your avian companion skyward to locate and tag enemies, Mirage requires a more hands-on approach. Yes, you still have a bird companion – flanked by Enkidu the eagle this time around – but they don’t function as an instant recon companion.

Fortresses now include marksmen, bow-wielding adversaries that actively hunt for spying birds. Any attempt to use Enkidu with an active marksman nearby results in your eagle companion quickly scurrying back down to safety, accompanied by a flustered apology from Basim for sending Enkidu into danger.

In practice, this meant I had to treat the marksman as a mini-boss of sorts, whose takedown would further open up my infiltration possibilities. To take them out, I snuck around and observed patrols manually, carefully moving my way through an encampment so as to not raise the alarm. Like other Assassin’s Creed games, the locations in Mirage contain a great sense of verticality for you to approach from many different angles. After eliminating several guards and hiding their bodies in haystacks, I eventually reached the pesky marksman and ended their surveillance of the skies, enabling Enkidu to scout from above for my main target.

Assassin's Creed Mirage combat
Working your way up to a target and then completing the assassination is made more satisfying by the strategy involved.

This layered approach rewards your patience and uses stealth to great effect, making each successful exfiltration all the more satisfying. One of the carryover features from the RPG-heavy Assassin Creeds is the investigations component. This is where you collect clues to uncover major targets who play a larger role in the overall plot. From the brief preview session, it felt like the characterisation of these moments was more fleshed out than in previous games, which bodes well for the narrative.

Even the investigation component did away with a lot of handholding, giving you a densely populated space to operate in without breathing down your neck. Some of the organic discovery of clues through eavesdropping and player-led exploration reminded me of The Forgotten City, in that you receive enough information to get started, and then it’s up to you to figure out the rest.

More than anything else, it felt nice to blend into crowds once again like the Assassin’s Creeds of old and act like a virtual tourist in a game not bogged down by excessive RPG elements. That’s what has me excited for the first time in years about a new game in the long-running stab-’em-up series.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage is out on 5 October 2023 on PC, Xbox and PlayStation consoles.

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