In the same year as the release of the first iPhone another significant cultural shift occurred: the debut of the inaugural Assassin’s Creed game, met with mixed reviews. While not everyone embraced Ubisoft’s approach to stealth and action, it was widely acknowledged that the game had struck a chord. Over the past 15 years, its numerous sequels have evolved, trading stealth for grander and more flamboyant elements, yet drifting away from the original essence. Assassin’s Creed Mirage takes significant, albeit imperfect, steps towards returning to its roots. Though it doesn’t introduce any groundbreaking elements, its dedication to briskly-paced missions and stealth-focused exploration caters to a longing that the RPG-based entries couldn’t quite satisfy. While it may not be the most ambitious game, it rekindles the hope that there’s still room for an Assassin’s Creed iteration we haven’t seen in nearly a decade.
Sneaking is back
Stealth once again reigns supreme in Assassin’s Creed Mirage. This instalment does away with XP and character levelling entirely, meaning that every adversary is just a concealed blade strike away from their demise, provided you play your cards wisely. Most areas offer various options for remaining hidden, and the returning eagle scouting feature assists in surveying the surroundings before making your next move. It’s a refreshing change to approach a scenario and weigh your options based on its intricate components rather than simply considering whether the loot justifies a mindless rampage. Strongholds, like heavily guarded prisons and coastal fortresses, often feature numerous guards with staggered patrols and overlapping fields of vision. Particularly early on, the prospect of confronting multiple foes simultaneously is so daunting that using the shadows, precise timing, and the environment becomes a necessity to progress toward well-defended objectives. More so than in the pre-Origins games, I’ve had to make extensive use of precarious hanging dock supplies or conveniently placed sacks of spices to sow enough chaos to achieve my objectives.
Faceless in every way
That being said, Assassin’s Creed Mirage, while enjoyable, isn’t without its flaws. Having experienced all the DLC expansions for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I must confess I never once thought, “I’d like to know the origin story of Basim,” the enigmatic ally of Eivor and Layla Hassan. I’ve now spent nearly 20 hours delving into his backstory as he takes centre stage in Mirage, and the narrative hasn’t significantly altered my perspective. Basim’s transformation from a plucky pickpocket with a heart of gold into a vengeful assassin feels rushed, lacking the depth and complexity of previous characters in the series. He is, for the most part, an agreeable and amiable character, consistently making morally sound decisions with little inner conflict. While he’s fine, he fails to captivate, leaving me curious about how he evolved into the scheming triple-crosser we met years ago.
Nevertheless, Basim’s story is more linear and concise compared to the recent Witcher 3-inspired games. The main tasks are presented on an investigation board, a network of leads and clues that ultimately point towards the primary targets. Resolving smaller issues, such as identifying a local rebel leader or halting a string of abductions, frequently leads to significant revelations, thus taking you closer to the heart of the overarching conspiracy. While the board creates the illusion of a more open-ended experience, most tasks are essentially mandatory. However, this approach greatly benefits the game’s pacing, offering a clear and concise structure. Despite its focus, Basim’s quest is somewhat lacklustre compared to other entries in the series. His journey into the world of assassination, driven by a thirst for revenge and a higher calling, has been explored in more captivating ways in previous games. The villains and their henchmen, though straightforward in their evil intentions, lack depth, leaving one yearning for characters as complex as Haytham Kenway or as extravagantly villainous as Rodrigo Borgia.
The same criticism applies to Basim’s allies, who mostly fall into the familiar “conspirators with noble intentions” archetype found throughout the Assassin’s Creed series. With the exception of Basim’s mentor, Roshan, portrayed admirably by Shohreh Aghdashloo’s distinctive, smoky voice, the supporting cast in Mirage offers merely serviceable characters and performances.
One of the standout features of Mirage is its representation of the city of Baghdad and its surroundings. The various districts, from the bustling heart of the Round City to the dusty slums in Karkh, exude a vibrant, lived-in atmosphere reminiscent of earlier entries in the series like Unity or Syndicate. The streets teem with people to blend in with, and the city blocks feature open homes that you can dash through while evading pursuers – a skill you’ll frequently need due to Mirage’s notoriety system. It harks back to the days of Ezio and intensifies the challenge by increasing the efforts to capture you based on the chaos you cause. With the ruling caliph’s iron grip over the city, guards are omnipresent, making it challenging to escape their vigilant gazes simply by running. When you can’t find refuge, removing wanted posters and bribing town criers can help clear your name. The game places a significant emphasis on evading capture, but it provides a variety of options to meet this challenge.
While I cannot attest to the historical accuracy of Mirage’s real-world locations, the focus on discovering historical sites appears to be more prominent than in recent entries. Although there are no singular landmarks that leave a lasting impression like the Great Pyramids in Origins or Athena’s Statue in Odyssey, the golden rolling dunes and tropical oases are visually stunning. The city and its suburbs offer numerous alleys and nooks to explore for those inclined towards collecting. Ubisoft’s renewed focus on a smaller region has allowed for a more detailed world, enriching the overall experience. Your tools, which can be seamlessly integrated into combat but are invaluable for stealth, truly shine in Mirage. Upgrading them to expand their effectiveness or add unique effects enhances the gameplay. One of my favourites disposes of the bodies of enemies killed with a throwing knife, erasing all traces of the deed. While not realistic, it proves to be highly practical. Basim also possesses a special stealth kill combo ability, akin to Red Dead Redemption’s Deadeye, allowing you to mark multiple targets and eliminate them stylishly and somewhat unusually. This ability is excellent for clearing rooms of guards that would be challenging to separate otherwise or for eliminating priority targets when direct confrontation is inevitable. It’s a powerful ability, but it’s balanced by the need to charge a special meter through quiet, discreet kills and its activation only when you remain incognito.
The locations you infiltrate in Mirage may not be more intriguing than those seen in recent entries. If you’ve navigated through a fortified location in an Assassin’s Creed game before, you’ll feel well-equipped to handle the corridors, underground docks, and fortified walls here. Guards remain relatively easy to manipulate and display a lack of self-preservation skills when they discover exposed corpses. Nonetheless, it’s appreciated that there are new and returning methods to infiltrate and weaken fortifications. For instance, bribing a merchant to pose as one of their helpers delivering goods offers an engaging way to gain access to a restricted area. In another section, various groups gather in the courtyard of a wealthy target’s mansion, and aiding a group of indentured individuals in a riot against their captor creates enough commotion to draw the main target into your grasp. This approach contributes to the world’s sense of vitality and authenticity, drawing inspiration from stealth assassination games like Hitman.
Simple but effective
When combat becomes unavoidable, it proves to be limited yet challenging. Basim employs a single combat style, wielding a sword and dagger to execute swift and heavy strikes in short combos. Various types of swords and daggers can be switched between, each offering distinct combat abilities that can be mixed and matched. For instance, a dagger may slow down time when parrying attacks, while a sword could deal increased damage with each successive strike. While the differences between weapons didn’t significantly alter my playstyle, some weapons, when fully upgraded and endowed with their most potent effects, may become essential at higher difficulty levels. Mirage’s combat stands apart from its predecessors with its slower and more deliberate pace. It prioritizes counters and dodging incoming attacks, as enemy attack patterns can be erratic, and their melee strikes are remarkably potent. Attackers do not wait for their comrades to fall before launching their own assaults, making it necessary to avoid multiple strikes simultaneously. Engaging more than two or three guards at once can be challenging.
Mirage introduces few enemy types: regular soldiers, heavily-armored soldiers resistant to direct damage, and elite hunters dispatched when your notoriety reaches its peak. However, these enemies can vary slightly depending on the weapons they wield, which adds an element of strategy. For instance, a heavily-armored soldier equipped with a mace poses a different threat than one with a greatsword. This diversity keeps the challenge engaging, and I never found myself wanting for new adversaries. In a game that often feels like a nod to earlier entries in the series, the combat is the most significant change unique to Mirage, and it’s a change I thoroughly enjoyed.
Mirage’s streamlined ability tree significantly impacts your playstyle. The tree consists of three branches focusing on killing, scouting, and gadgets, each containing seven skills with substantial effects. Some skills enhance existing abilities, such as improving your ability to pinpoint objectives and targets. Others feel like features that were previously default in older games, like the ability to roll over enemies to change your facing. I didn’t regret investing in any of these upgrades, as they all enhanced my abilities. Moreover, the ability to respec these points for free at any time allows for quick experimentation with different character builds.
A return to form
Assassin’s Creed Mirage returns to the series’ stealthy roots, and while it may not get everything right, each aspect of the game feels purposeful. This results in a shorter game with a smaller map, fewer collectibles, reduced combat complexity, and a limited gear selection – a welcome departure from the potentially overwhelming scale of 100-hour games like Odyssey and Valhalla. It also results in a narrative that is straightforward and characters that are mostly forgettable, but it compensates with clear quest progression and a fast-paced experience. Although there may not be a standout “wow” moment, the portrayal of Baghdad is striking, with an inward focus on detail and history that brings the world to life. Mirage is a recommendation for those who may have drifted away from the Assassin’s Creed series, as its return to the fundamentals is a promising first step towards recapturing the essence of the earlier, genre-defining games.