The threat of bloat is real, and the Assassin’s Creed series is a prime example – its games have been getting bigger and bigger, culminating in the simply giant sprawl of Valhalla.
Its latest, though, reverses that trend, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Mirage is an Assassin’s Creed game for those who’ve been scared off by the commitment and plays like an homage to the series’ origins, for better and occasionally worse.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage
Mirage is an accessible throwback to when Assassin’s Creed games didn’t demand 100-hour commitments, and it’s a brisk fun adventure, too. Its story didn’t blow me away, but its gameplay loop is simple and satisfying. Platform tested: PlayStation 5
- Lovely intricate map
- Doesn’t outstay its welcome
- Combat is simple but that’s fine
- Controls can be janky
- Occasional bugs
Returning to roots
I’ll start with my hands up – I’ve skipped the last few Assassin’s Creed games, wary of their time commitment demands and growing slightly tired of their increasingly labyrinthine plots.
So, it’s a pleasure from that perspective to report that Mirage (at least initially) doesn’t demand too much familiarity with the series’ recent events. True, it stars Basim, a master assassin who plays a major role in Valhalla, but ignorance of those twists later in his life doesn’t impact things too heavily this time out.
You’re steering Basim through his ascent through the ranks of the Hidden Ones, from a street thief to a shadow-hugging killer and, for the most part, it’s the sort of plotting that Assassin’s Creed’s earlier outings stuck to.
That said, there is a distinct lack of personal investment when it comes to unravelling a conspiracy of masked evildoers at the heart of Baghdad’s elite in the ninth century.
Beyond an early brush with them in person, Basim’s motivation is more to just do what he’s told when he’s told to, and while a recurring dream sequence involving a scary spectre could help, it ends up feeling a little middling.
Then, in the game’s final hour, things are properly explained – if, that is, you are intimately familiar with Valhalla. Mirage pulls a bit of a bait and switch here, appearing clean and simple by comparison but then stitching itself into the series’ web of nonsense by the end of things.
Trying to figure it out after rolling the credits took me to fan-curated wiki pages talking about Basim’s alternate identity as a reincarnation of Loki, and from there I was basically completely lost – so if this is your first Assassin’s Creed game in a number of years, don’t hold out too much hope for a super satisfying one-off tale.
Still, at least for the majority of its runtime the city of Baghdad is a brilliant playground, the sort of urban environment that the series has missed in its more open-world incarnations – all alleys and rooftops.
Stealthy does it
If Baghdad is a throwback to the densely packed cities of the very first Assassin’s Creed, that’s a mirror for the feeling of playing Mirage even more widely.
This is a stripped-back and streamlined version of the modern Assassin’s Creed formula – you have a series of five major targets to assassinate, each with a tree of half a dozen missions to be completed in order to confirm their identity and location, before a larger set-piece infiltration to actually axe them.
Baghdad is a map that feels smartly designed – big enough (and with some surrounding open terrain) to feel like a really sizeable city, dense with life, but also undeniably small by the series’ new standards.
That’s a huge breath of fresh air, and its digestible pacing and scope are, without question, the best things about Mirage. Turning Assassin’s Creed back into a normally sized singleplayer adventure turns out to be a useful way to distil it back to its best bits.
The old thrill of free-running away from a crime scene, avoiding guards as you go, before a quick slink around the neighbourhood to rip down wanted posters and reduce the alarm level is just as fun as it ever was, and the climbable synchronisation points are similarly rewarding.
These map towers have become design icons for a reason, and moving around Baghdad, filling the map in feels satisfying in a throwback way. Similarly, combat has been rolled right back.
You’ve got a sword and a dagger, with no other weapon options (although you can find and upgrade variants of each), and fights boil down to parrying or dodging, with no held-down block button to protect you.
Parry a weak enemy and you’ll be able to dispatch them in one hit, so once you’re used to things you can become a quite deadly operator, just like when controlling Altair back in 2007.
In both combat and free movement the controls are still occasionally just the tiniest bit finicky, though, enough to throw you off – it’s still reliably frustrating to find Basim yeeting himself off a tower when you were pointing at an easy hand-hold, or focusing on the wrong enemy by a millimetre.
A sun-baked world
Part of the charm of moving through Baghdad and its environs is that it looks bloody great, in the vast majority of situations. There’s a 60FPS performance mode or 30FPS quality mode here, your typical options.
While the performance mode’s smoothness was lovely, I surprised myself by opting for quality and had almost no performance issues or stutters to speak of.
Loading times are relatively quick during fast travel, and probably the only area I was left feeling underwhelmed came in performance capture – Ubisoft’s facial capture isn’t quite up to the levels of some of its competition.
Basim goes through some emotional moments, as do his allies, and while voice acting makes this clear, it’s undermined a little by slightly waxy faces that don’t exactly move a huge amount.
Aside from that, though, Mirage is a lovely slice of visual fun, a teeming city where streets are actually full of people – albeit almost all of them generic and simplistic in their interactions.
It also does a really good job of differentiating the districts you’ll discover. Early areas are poorer and sparser, with fewer market stalls and opulent details, but by the time you’re closer to the heart of Baghdad’s circular strata, you’ll be running past beautiful mosaics and through covered gardens far more often.
Some areas are under construction or have been heavily damaged, while occasional jaunts out into the dunes around the city, or its lush irrigated farmland, offer really solid changes of pace.
Mirage is a really fun time, and while it’s not that clean a break in story terms from the last few years of relative confusion, its gameplay offering is massively stripped back – in a good way.
This is the digestible Assassin’s Creed I’ve been craving, and its evocative setting only helps to sell it. Some control glitchiness and a storyline that doesn’t quite land its punches stop it being a total reinvention of the franchise, but it’s still a really welcome throwback.