Assassin’s Creed Mirage Review: Nostalgia Hits So Good

By admin Dec12,2023

Not to be harsh, but I was never fond of Assassin’s Creed’s little detour into the endless open world meta in recent years. A series that was once lauded for its clinical stealth-based killings had slowly morphed into a reckless RPG with greater emphasis on quest hoarding, gear system, and heavy-handed combat. The new Assassin Creed games carried such little resemblance to the early titles in the franchise that if Ubisoft were to strategically rebrand it, no one would raise questions. Sure, they fared well commercially, but with time, the formula got stale and a desperate need for a refresh was never more apparent. And so, the studio’s solution is to revisit its glory days and create a familiar Assassin’s Creed experience that caters to loyalists by turning a once-destined AC Valhalla DLC into a standalone experience — a throwback set in the dusty but vibrant locale of ninth-century Baghdad.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage review: Story and character shortcomings

Assassin’s Creed Mirage spares no time in establishing its stakes, with a quick introduction of its lead Basim Ibn Ishaq, an expert street thief who aspires to become a hooded assassin and work from the shadows. Growing up an orphan in the streets, his desperate attempt to get noticed by a bigger calling often comes across as pathetic, presenting his talents in the brashest fashion with a childish lack of care for his life. That’s until he’s faced with a predicament early on when a palace robbery goes wrong with brutal consequences. At the palace, Basim runs into the Order of the Ancients, an enigmatic and dangerous masked cult that preceded the Templars, and manages to steal an Isu artifact, putting him on the same path as the Hidden Ones clan. Despite the heavy personal cost and a bounty on his head, Basim gets what he had long wished for — to be taken in by the Assassins — and oddly, he seems to take pride in it. The game paints this as his way of channelling fear and vengeance, but the brisk pace of the narrative gives no room to grieve over his loss.

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Sacrificing character development in favour of turning Basim into an assassin hurriedly might’ve been ideal if it simply served as a gateway to action. However, the writing remains lacklustre, portraying him as a generic yes-man who always makes the right decision. There are no flaws in how he handles interpersonal relationships and by the time the end credits rolled in, I was struggling to find a discernible trait about him. A little after establishing himself as an adept assassin, there’s a sombre scene of Basim reuniting with an old friend, which completely lacks emotional weight due to how calmly, almost casually, the exchange is depicted. There is no awkwardness you’d expect between two old friends who are now different people, no dissonance in the way the two greet each other and no tension or turmoil in their rhythmic back and forth, which is only worsened by the fact that the rushed sequence is over in less than two minutes. Throughout my run, I couldn’t help but notice the abrupt pauses between sentences, giving the impression that the voice actors probably weren’t even in the same room when recording their lines.

Characters never talk over one another and sometimes, their status is entirely forgotten when a certain action is triggered, forming a disconnect between the gameplay and the cinematics. One memorable scenario has you infiltrating a heavily guarded prison to save a rebel leader, locked deep within and being tortured close to death. The game oversells this mission’s urgency in spades, having you silently kill guards and flip over muddy-brown underground cells smeared in blood and piss — leading to a lame face-off with the jailer. But what really bugged me was the break in immersion when the survivor stood up totally unscathed, ready to fight. There were no wounds or bruises on his body, no sign of exasperation in his voice, and for someone who’s been hugging the floor for hours, his attire was spanking clean. With the NPCs lacking humanity and depth, the only thing that prevented me from skipping through dull dialogues was the looming mystery of a shapeshifting nightmarish Djinn wrapped in tattered bandages, haunting Basim in his dreams during cinematic sequences.

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I found Basim’s nightmares to be the most compelling plot thread in the game
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

Besides that, I can only think of franchise veterans being invested in Basim’s origin arc, just to see how it all ties into the Nordic themes of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, where the Middle Eastern assassin served as a crucial side character. Sadly, that development is fitted in at the very end of AC Mirage, using yet another long-buried Isu Temple as a plot device and meddling with otherworldly elements, in ways that feel entirely detached from the events preceding it. It’s almost as if in its original DLC stage, we were meant to jump between seminal points in Basim’s life through time skips. But when developer Ubisoft Bordeaux was then tasked with turning it into a full-fledged adventure, they filled in empty spaces with fluff and made all villains cartoonishly evil for the sake of it. It’s such a shame because once you get past the slog, running around rooftops and stabbing people is genuinely fun.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage review: Smaller scope complements immersion

Some of the disconnect is attributed to how poorly the missions are structured, as they branch out into separate ‘Investigations.’ The idea is to hunt down a smaller lead or two, before unravelling the location of the real puppeteer involved in the corruption of Baghdad — usually an Order member — and executing them. Unfortunately, these assignments function like self-contained stories that are very loosely — we’re grasping at straws here — tied to others, and we barely get to know the big bad before puncturing their skulls with our hidden blade. It’s quite anticlimactic and our assassin never evolves as a character over the course of the game because these missions can be tackled in any order. Heck, if the choices you made in an earlier encounter were reflected in later missions through dialogue or as a smooth payoff, the disjoint wouldn’t be so obvious — but here we are, stuck with the familiar Ubisoft compartmentalised mission design.

The selling point of Assassin’s Creed Mirage was its promise of a classic approach that harkens back to hallmark assassinations from earlier games. Mirage is also supposed to be a departure from endless open-world bloat of its immediate predecessors, narrowing its scope as a sort of standalone adventure. And to that effect, Ubisoft delivers a 16-hour affair that costs Rs. 2,499/ $49.99 and doesn’t overwhelm you with dialogue trees or a sprawling map with icon barf to explore. The open-world trilogy — Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla — focused on quantity over quality with countless DLC additions, making it hard for both newbies and regulars to keep up with the lore.

Whether you like it or not, these large-scale adventures are the future of the franchise, though I desperately hope AC Mirage isn’t simply a one-off diversion. Without a doubt, running through the bustling streets of Baghdad will instantly trigger your long-repressed muscle memory, as you hood up and blend in with chattering crowds or sneak behind them to steal bulging coin purses. The latter is governed by a timed button-press that lets you cleanly get away with the pickpocketing. Fumble that, however, and the person will publicly call you out and make a racket, causing any nearby guards to race over to your location.

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Handling Basim during parkour feels incredibly smoothflowing
Photo Credit: Ubisoft

Misdeeds, whether small or eyewitness testimonies of violent killings, do stack up and raise the notoriety metre — a returning feature from Assassin’s Creed 2, which brings a sense of realism to the world. I hadn’t realised how much I missed this until the crimes I committed started having adverse effects, with the general populace reacting differently to my presence. The bar fills four levels of growing hostile intensity, where at the lowermost level, we might only get recognised by an occasional unfortunate soul before we fade into the noise. Meanwhile, level 4 turns you into a wanted criminal, with every bystander in the city yelling and pointing fingers at you, forcing us to stay hidden or leap across rooftops, which are lightly guarded. Truth be told, some of us are just bad at laying low, so the heat can be reduced by tearing down wanted posters or by paying special tokens to the local Munadi. I really appreciate how this feature urges me to be cautious with my work, like a bonafide assassin, in addition to taking me on a trip down memory lane of how much I once adored this series.

Sadly, nostalgia bait is all Assassin’s Creed Mirage has going for it gameplay-wise, as Ubisoft once again refuses to innovate on its core mechanics. Don’t get me wrong; as a return to the franchise’s roots, the moment-to-moment play is incredibly fun, with the studio leveraging new technology to create a smooth parkour system that lets you easily slide into crevices, shimmy along tight edges, and climb tall buildings. It’s not perfect — Basim still frequently gets stuck when cutting around corners and might come to a complete halt after jumping off heights, but the overall controls are quite tight and responsive. I often kept wishing I could lose all memory of the past Assassin’s Creed games and experience this as my first because of how smoothly Basim handles — easily the best in the series.

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The city of Baghdad is brought to life by its clamouring crowds, merchants, and flowerbeds
Photo Credit: Screenshot/Rahul Chettiyar

Of course, adding to the immersion is the city of Baghdad, a cultural playground brought to life by its clamouring denizens, be it the merchants hollering at the bazaar, the street performers lining the lanes, or the stray cats strolling around and begging to be pet. Baghdad feels rich and lived-in and the fact that pretty much everyone has full-blown conversations in Arabic makes Mirage feel located in a way previous games did not. Oftentimes, you’ll notice some redness in the waters — fearing that it’s blood, you rush over, only to find the tracks leading to a cluster of clay houses held together by wooden pillars. Inside, we’re greeted by the sight of sweaty workers tending to dyes of numerous shades, toiling away and dodging hung-up fabric which would soon turn into beautifully handcrafted carpets. There’s an entire story unfolding through the intricately designed chaos of the ancient city.

Shrinking the scale to a single location though makes it difficult to differentiate between Baghdad’s boroughs, with parts of the city lacking distinct flavour. This lack of variety pervades other aspects of Mirage, too. Sure, there are some distinct landmarks or places of interest that pop up when exploring on foot, but the general tone never shifts throughout the playthrough — no new enemy types, no stores exclusive to a region, nor any visual variety, besides some lusher greenery or an oasis here and there in the outskirts.

If you’ve deeply explored one section, you’ve pretty much experienced it all, urging me to summon my trusty camel and rush to the next objective. That said, in searching these areas thoroughly, one might stumble upon codex entries, yet again continuing Ubisoft’s long-running tradition of serving up history lessons through Assassin’s Creed. During moments of calm, I found it rather illuminating to just sit there and pore over descriptions of real-life physical structures and how art, science, and religion matured in Baghdad over time.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage review: Stealth, combat, and tools of trade

All the assassination tricks you honed from older games still work in Mirage, with the necessity of stealth being severely amplified. It’s a quieter affair, forcing you to stick to the shadows and bushes and whistle over guards to kill them with a quick stab of your hidden blade — exposing some inconsistencies in the enemy AI, as they’d never question or be overly worried about their missing fellow soldiers. It’s the same-old tale, so it’s frustrating when the game never challenges you in any way by throwing in new foes or creating environmental challenges that ruin your original plan. Even 10 hours into the game, the core gameplay loop stayed the same, but with the added benefit of some specialised tools that bring some variety at the cost of turning it into easy mode. In fact, the only reason I even relied on those toys was because I was bored by the monotony of the stealth scenarios, rather than using them to overcome hurdles in creative ways.

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The assassination tools are all variations of each other and feel rather optional
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

There are five such assassination tools, all of which are minute variations of one another. I vibed a lot with throwing knives, which let me one-shot guards from short to medium distances, in addition to exploding spice bags into a plume of red smoke that would fill their eyes and nostrils with unbearable pain — enough time for me to sneak in and slide my blade into their orbital sockets. Every other item felt severely overpowered or just straight-up useless to me. Non-lethal blowdarts put enemies to sleep so I can slip right past them; but if I already mastered the art of hiding bodies, or hell, surveyed the entire fortress from above using my eagle, why would I pick it over my standard throwing knives?

Similarly, there’s a noisemaker for distractions, proximity traps to knock soldiers out, and a smoke bomb to escape tricky situations. A noisemaker is just a more flexible whistle, whereas the traps perform the same action as sleep darts while making a loud noise. Do you get what I’m saying? These devices were too attention-grabbing for my liking and felt like a wildcard out of botched stealth missions, which I’m assuming was Ubisoft’s way of balancing the nerfed player character. You later unlock a supernatural ability — akin to Red Dead Redemption 2’s Dead Eye — that lets Basim blink around the arena and chain-kill guards, which I found to be quite immersion-breaking when considering the grounded theme. Thankfully, this feature was entirely optional, so I never had to touch it again.

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Getting surrounded by enemies in Assassin’s Creed Mirage is pretty much a death sentence
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

Circling back to Basim’s raw power, it is realistically narrow because his strength lies in stealth and methodical killings. Head-on combat is simply a last-resort option for when you screw up and as such, ambushes feel extremely clunky and overwhelming, especially when surrounded by more than five enemies; one of whom is usually a tanky bastard. While the controls are fairly simple — light and heavy strikes and a parry mechanic — getting distracted leads to fatal consequences, partly owing to the stamina bar that limits how much one can spam the dodge button. Personally, I loved this unreliable style of combat for encouraging me to be more meticulous with my hit jobs and knowing when to flee, so I don’t max out my notoriety metre.

Obviously, this might not bode well with modern fans of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, who are used to blasting magic spells and specials to dispatch or stun large groups of enemies at once. One thing I did find jarring though, was how the enemies rarely react to getting hit in real time. My attacks would cause them to bleed and lose a chunk of HP, but there’s no resulting impact or animation conveying that stance break. They just stand there in an offensive position and tank it through until I land the killing blow.

All of this ties into the progression system, which no longer relies on a grindy XP-based levelling approach. Instead, Assassin’s Creed Mirage features a very basic skill tree, focused on killings, gadgets, and predatory scouting, which can be learned by dumping in skill points. In my opinion, unlocking these essentially serves as a god mode, making an already straightforward stealth loop even easier. Sure, they’re convenient and the chain assassinations look cool, but the game never presents challenging enough circumstances for it to be used effectively — or in simpler terms, it never warrants an upgrade.

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Skill upgrades essentially function as god mode in this game, diminishing any element of challenge or strategy
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Rahul Chettiyar

For instance, the ‘Knife Recovery’ perk lets you dislodge thrown knives from corpses so you never run out of them, which negates the need for sleeping darts in my inventory. So, I can just sneak around and hurl these blades into unsuspecting heads throughout an entire legacy dungeon, without being forced to think up a new strategy. Similarly, some of the latter abilities in the Predator class makes it easy to track enemy movements and even enable wall hacks, which diminishes the suspense.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage review: Verdict

While not groundbreaking, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a leaner, brisker, and fun little nostalgia ride for the old schoolers. It doesn’t revolutionise the franchise in its approach to stealth but heavily cuts down on the bloat from previous entries to deliver an intricately designed Baghdad that’s thrilling to parkour around and bask in its dry sunlight. It is a stunning recreation of a historic city that lets you soak in the rich culture, the prosperous trade, and the magnificent art of the times. With a smaller map also comes a concise story, which I personally found to be lacking in depth due to Basim’s character being an aimless goody two shoes.

The threadbare narrative is punctuated by a disconnected mission structure that stalls for time. Full-frontal combat is realistically clunky to inspire sneaky tactics, though it might not impress fans of the RPG-style, combat driven AC titles. This back-to-basics approach truly captures the soul of an Assassin’s Creed game and I really hope Ubisoft doesn’t give up on this route. Despite its flaws, running around the rooftops in Mirage with my hidden blade out for blood remains just as fun as it was before, proving that the original AC formula works. Ubisoft need only breathe new life into it.

Rating (out of 10): 7

Assassin’s Creed Mirage was released October 5 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.

Pricing starts at Rs. 2,499 for the Standard Edition on Epic Games Store for PC, and EUR 49.99 (about Rs. 3,499) on Ubisoft. Meanwhile, the PlayStation and Xbox versions are priced at Rs. 3,499.

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