Assassin’s Creed Mirage goes back to basics — and ends up basic

Assassin’s Creed Mirage lives up to every aspect of its name.

The last handful of Assassin’s Creed games had gotten away from the assassination part. Yeah, you killed people — a lot of people — but with the recklessness of Kratos instead of the finesse of Ezio or Altair. AC Mirage represents Ubisoft’s return to the franchise’s origins, with a greater emphasis placed on stealth kills, avoiding detection, and skills that support those activities. It’s also a mirage, offering the illusion of an engaging story and complex stealth action combat before dissipating into a generic experience with technical annoyances, facile combat, and a story easily ignored.

In Mirage, you play as Basim Ibn Ishaq, a street thief who gets caught up in the world of Assassins, known as Hidden Ones in this game, and their eternal enemies the Templars or Order of the Ancients. One of the first enjoyable aspects of Mirage is Basim’s hardcore parkour abilities. In the city of Baghdad, buildings pose no threat to Basim’s ability to get from one point to the other, as he’s able to vault, climb, and slide over virtually anything in his way.

I also enjoyed how the game simply refuses to compromise its authenticity for English speakers. As you walk through ninth-century Baghdad, NPCs carry on full conversations in Arabic, for which there are no subtitled translations. When Basim speaks to people, the dialogue is littered with Arabic words and phrases, which are translated. While I cannot speak to the accuracy of the language used and the culture on display (here are some thoughts from folks who can), I love when games have cultural elements that simply aren’t for me. They are for who they are for, and this game was clearly made with appreciation for Arabic language and culture.

I was hopeful Mirage would offer me an experience less bloated by the kind of “go anywhere, do anything” mandate — the assassin’s creed, if you will — that had become the standard in games like Origins, Valhalla, and Odyssey. That handful of recent games had, to my mind, become more like the collect-a-thon games of my youth, featuring a thin, barely coherent plot stretched over a sprawling environment filled with seemingly endless amounts of collectibles and points of interest that you just have to see to satisfy the brain’s incessant desire to mark off a checklist. Not the most enticing offer for $60.

This game was clearly made with appreciation for Arabic culture

Mirage rewarded that hope. Yes, there is still a giant map filled with things to do, see, and collect, but it is far less overwhelming, and the activities you can get up to feed into the game’s central thesis. In Mirage, the things you can do aren’t there just for the hell of it; they feel like they actually support the idea that you are a member of a secretive order of Assassins meant to protect the innocent and punish the wicked.

There are contracts you can take in the game. Initially, I thought to ignore them since a review needed writing, and I had limited time (consequently, I haven’t finished the game, only clocking 10-11 hours total for a game whose main story was billed as being around 12-15 hours long). But I gave one a shot, and I really enjoyed it. I appreciated how there are different contracts that are suited to your style of play. They focused on combat, stealth, or a mix of both, each with special optional requests that are more challenging to complete.

My favorite job involved stealing from a bathhouse, and for an extra reward, I had to complete the mission without killing anyone. It’s extremely easy (and fun!) to assassinate people in this game. Hide in a bush and whistle, and guards flock to you like rats to the pied piper to be grabbed, stabbed, then hidden. To complete this mission and get extra goodies, I had to use a bit more cunning, whistling to lure guards away from doors so I could sneak by instead of just outright killing them. I had to think more like how a true assassin would.

I also really enjoyed how Basim’s different skills and abilities work together. I didn’t use my pet bird, Enkidu, very much in the beginning. I didn’t see the need for him beyond telling me where all the guards are. But once I figured out how he’s supposed to be used, he became indispensable. One really great aspect of AC Mirage is that it emphasizes the fact being an assassin also means being a detective who must bring all their training and tools to bear when given a task.

One of my contracts involved escorting a gossipy poet to safety, protecting him from a powerful lord and his hired goons. I was frustrated that when I got close to the quest marker, it disappeared, forcing me to search the area for my charge with no guidance. On the verge of giving up, I called Enkidu and realized I was supposed to use his eagle vision to search the area. I had no idea that the big golden circle that sometimes appears on the UI when he’s called is essentially a beacon that points you where to go; the smaller the circle gets, the closer you are to your target. That discovery made me appreciate how well-considered Ubisoft’s approach was to making this game more like the Assassin’s Creeds of yore. I felt more like a true assassin, relying on cunning and specialized tools rather than sheer brute force.

I had to think more like how a true assassin would

But while I appreciated feeling like a real assassin, technical issues considerably marred my enjoyment. Playing on my Series S resulted in a lot of crashes. I don’t know if that was a symptom of the pre-launch version of the game or something else, but I experienced a crash at least once or twice each gaming session. Combine that with the fact that the game does not allow you to manually save during missions, and I had a lot of forward progress stymied because the game just decided to stop working.

Dungeon design is hilarious — but in a bad way. Mirage’s core gameplay loop involves infiltrating a restricted area to find information, items, or people. In these areas, there are a lot of doors that are barred from the inside, forcing you to find your way to the other side and open them. Unbarring a door, then, should be a reward for successful exploration — kinda like in Bloodborne and other soulslike games. When you successfully navigate the harrowing experience of exploration, you’re rewarded with a shortcut to make subsequent trips easier. But in my time with the game, I either could not find my way to the other side or, when I did unbar a door, it didn’t lead anywhere or to anything.

In the game’s first big dungeon, a prison, I had the damndest time trying to figure out where to go. I had been everywhere, killed just about every guard, but I kept walking in circles like, “How in the hell am I supposed to get to the bowels of this prison?” When I found a door that I could unbar, I thought my successful infiltration had been rewarded, only to have that door open right into an impassable gate, kinda like the doors in hotels with adjoining rooms. I was pissed — all that wheel-spinning and walking in circles was for nothing.

NPC AI is similarly hilarious in a bad way and inconsistent. In the early hours of the game, you’re introduced to baskets all around the city from which you can take things like crafting materials and items to sell for cash. There was nothing that indicated such pilfering was bad, like the game does with a big red icon when you attempt to actually pickpocket someone or steal from a chest. So, naturally, whenever I saw a basket or a pot, I took from it. Imagine my surprise when suddenly guards started brandishing swords. Maybe I incorrectly mischaracterized that action from the beginning, and it’s always supposed to be an arrestable offense, but I’ve taken from baskets in front of guards numerous times, and it’s always a crapshoot for when they aggro.

Another example of NPC AI gone wild happened in the prison. Once I saved the target, he followed me around… until he didn’t. I could still hear him giving me instructions as though he was right behind me, but he was several rooms away, just standing there. It sucked because there’s a point during that quest when I was mobbed by guards, and having a helping sword would have meant the difference between life and death. I had to lead fights to him because I couldn’t get him to move beyond a specific spot even though he had followed me before. Also, enemies are just dumb, frequently getting stuck on geometry or on infinite loops of climbing up and down ladders trying to chase me. Enemies are minor inconveniences that can easily be thwarted by ankle-high patches of grass or pressing the assassinate button somewhere in their same plane of existence instead of dangerous, consequential threats to work around.

Wait, that actually makes my job as an assassin easier, so forget I said anything.

Combat is also not great. That might be a sacrifice of this pared-down, return-to-its-roots style of Assassin’s Creed, but combat is just not complex enough to be interesting. Guards go down in a few hits. The game emphasizes that larger enemies need to be taken down from behind, but whenever I got into a fight with them, I just circled around them infinitely. Circling an enemy as one nibbles at their health doesn’t look fun from the outside, nor was it fun to actually play.

I’m not an Assassin’s Creed girlie. I previously dabbled with the Ezio trilogy and Assassin’s Creed: Freedom’s Cry. (There is no reason on earth that this DLC spinoff is one of the scant handful of games in which you can kill chattel slave owners. Get your shit together, video games industry.) But while I don’t have in-depth knowledge of the last 15 years of Assassins’s Creed lore, I know I’ll enjoy anything with a well-told story.

I’m sure folks who’ve enjoyed other AC stories will enjoy this one, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Basim’s assassin mentor, Roshan, was a delight to my ears, but there’s nothing about this story or its characters that made me want more. Basim was a generic “every-man forced to take a stand” protagonist, and the general plot of “we are the righteous assassins who hide in the shadows to take down a centuries-old evil cabal” is so overdone by this point in Assassin’s Creed storytelling that I just skipped the cutscenes, able to understand the story beats well enough without them.

Though there were elements I enjoyed about Mirage, I wish there was more I could say about this game. I wish there had been some moment that punched through its “perfectly fine-ness” to make me sit up and lean forward. Frustrating technical hiccups aside, it’s not a bad game. It’s just not special. You go places, you do things, then you fall into conspicuously placed bales of hay. Repeat ad infinitum. Mirage is just what it says on the box: a distant shimmering promise of a good time that quickly evaporates into the reality of a decidedly average experience.

rana00

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