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Assassin’s Creed Mirage review - the best since Brotherhood

Everything old is new again in our Assassin’s Creed Mirage review, but Ubisoft’s intimate scope and rosy retrospection are brought up short by clunky parkour.

Our Verdict

Assassin’s Creed Mirage delivers a renewed focus that trims the fat from its predecessors to commemorate the very best bits of the series, but familiar parkour problems and anemic combat hold it back from true greatness.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage launches me unceremoniously into a Marvelesque smash-cut of assassins, culminating in a blazing ‘16’ couched in the series’ enduring insignia, and I have never felt so old. In sixteen years, Ubisoft has attempted to reinvent the wheel of Assassin’s Creed multiple times. We’ve seen the series lose itself, find itself, and then lose itself again, as Ubisoft chases gaming trends and new mechanics to bring to the table. This constant iteration is in part responsible for the series’ endurance, but also for its massive bloat. In this milestone entry into the series, Ubisoft Bordeaux goes back to basics with a nostalgia-tinged return to the Middle East – this time to Ancient Baghdad, to tell the origin story of wild-card assassin Basim Ibn Ishaq.

Basim may not be an all-new character, but Assassin’s Creed Mirage is an excellent entry point to the action-adventure game series. Instead of reams of clunky exposition, returning characters Basim and Roshan pick up the thread from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla into Mirage. Wider context and easter eggs can be found in flavor text that strikes a fine balance of satisfying long-time fans without miring newcomers in sixteen years of lore. Perhaps most importantly, there’s no moment in which I’m rudely ejected from the historical simulation to play catch up with an overcomplicated modern-day storyline. Instead, Ubisoft leaves Mirage’s core narrative with room to breathe, and there’s no point in which I’m forced to get off that ride.

Ubisoft has always taken an immersive approach to Assassin’s Creed’s environmental design, but Mirage’s magnified focus on the city of Baghdad is a welcome return to form after the overinflated scale of Valhalla and Odyssey. Women recline on riverbanks; cats worry flocks of chickens; friends sit closely together on rooftops, and foes argue on street corners. Each NPC, from the servant scrubbing mosaic floors to the merchant peddling wares at a market stall, coalesces into a populace that generates its own interiority.

Baghdad’s reactivity is multifold, but it’s best exemplified in the Tales of Baghdad – emergent side missions that appear as you explore the city. In one chance encounter, I retrieve a dying man’s treatise on the heavenly bodies and uncover his wish to reconcile with his estranged son; in another, I help a warrior priest dig up the bones of his Christian saint. These brief interludes are few and far between, but they’re more memorable for their scarcity. I often find that minor points of interest often lead to these more meaningful experiences. Rather than consulting a veritable flood of icons on a map, Basim’s world unfolds naturally around me.

Above all else, Assassin’s Creed Mirage feels achievable. I might take a detour to loot a chest or pickpocket an artifact, but the number of collectibles is pleasantly supplementary in comparison to Valhalla’s deluge. By keeping the to-do list of each district to a manageable number, Mirage skirts the classic open-world nihilism that arises when collecting stuff just for the sake of reaching the lofty heights of 100% completion. Equally, while Valhalla’s map was so large that I was constantly fast traveling to save time, I find that the majority of my objectives in Mirage are within walking distance, and the ones further out give me a good excuse to hop on my camel and take in the sights. Unfortunately, Mirage’s HUD is also incredibly busy. Quest objectives, map icons, skill points, guard markers, even a recurring tooltip prompting me to upgrade – HUD elements crowd in at all sides of the screen at any one time, and all of it works together to give me a severe case of tunnel vision that disrupts the gorgeous view and, frankly, my sense of immersion.

Mechanically, Baghdad is a highly curated parkour paradise that harks back to the pre-Unity era of Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2. Mirage’s restricted scope allows for a richer freerunning experience overall, and I derive great satisfaction from taking in its skyline of platforms to map the strategic routes across market squares and palatial grounds. However, scoping out a building to infiltrate requires a bit more work. Doors and windows are often barred or locked, and through the eagle eyes of Enkidu, it’s sometimes difficult to identify which points of entry are interactable and which are purely decorative.

Unfortunately, Mirage is also subject to the same parkour issues that have plagued the series since its inception. Whether it’s wall-running beside a perfectly serviceable ladder, snapping onto crates, or leaping off a building instead of hopping onto a nearby clothesline, Basim is by turns unresponsive and flighty, and navigating the city can quickly become an exercise in frustration. Sometimes, Basim drops from a ledge with the gentlest nudge of an analog stick; other times, I have to wrangle him to do the most basic movements. These inconsistencies have been a throughline for the series as a whole, and the fact I feel the same frustrations that I felt sixteen years ago towards such an integral system is frankly inexcusable. If anything, it’s even more egregious in Mirage, where breaking cover and alerting guards feels closer to a failure state than the hack-and-slash approach of Odyssey and Valhalla. Thankfully, Mirage is incredibly generous with autosaves, but it’s cold comfort when the instances where I’m drawn into a fight are typically a result of losing a fight with the stealth game’s controls.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Basim has quite a bit of weight to him. While he’s certainly built like a tank, I’m pretty sure he has the same size turning circle as his horse, and he sprints like he’s in an anxiety dream. This idiosyncratic movement continues through to Mirage’s pared-back combat system. In contrast to the plethora of weapon varieties and movesets like in Valhalla and Odyssey, Basim has a modest selection of swords and daggers at his disposal, each with their own unique combat modifiers. Instead of hacking and slashing, I trade neat blows with my opponents, punctuated by a parry here and a dodge there. Parrying is extremely forgiving and is often successful long after the initial reaction window has passed. Combat in Assassin’s Creed has always been hit-or-miss, and this latest iteration is blandly serviceable, though hamstrung by an inconsistent targeting system. However, these short bursts of action are by no means Mirage’s focal point, so the simplicity is perhaps forgivable.

It’s also not lost on me that many of Mirage’s missions serve to showcase different mechanics that have been introduced across the series. It’s an excellent method to celebrate sixteen years of iteration without dredging up sour memories of mechanics that weren’t well received, such as Black Flag’s tedious tailing and eavesdropping missions. Instead, each mission mechanic introduced across the series gets its own time in the sun. They also never outstay their welcome, lending Mirage a satisfying degree of mission variety. There’s even a nod to the flying papers that frustrated players in Valhalla, though it’s far less rage-inducing here.

The investigation loop of the very first Assassin’s Creed also makes a long-awaited return, this time integrated with the assassination board introduced from Origins onwards. Instead of a laundry list of targets to cross off, this ‘red-string’ board tracks connections between Baghdad’s populace, as I piece together clues of my targets’ identities from snippets of conversation and incriminating notes. This investigative approach furnishes Mirage with a clever layer of Holmesian intrigue that goes beyond ramming a knife into an unsuspecting NPC’s neck. It’s also highly effective at keeping track of the wider political ramifications as I untangle the corrupt web that the antagonistic Order weaves around Baghdad.

On that score, Assassin’s Creed has led the charge for the musealization of history in games since its inception. The assassination conceit at the heart of the series has always been a vehicle for exploring historical movements, culture, and landmarks, and this design philosophy continues in Mirage. Major missions are intricate, stealth-driven set pieces that give me the opportunity to investigate book burnings at the House of Wisdom, or take part in an auction at the Bazaar. I even take a break from exploring the wilderness beyond Baghdad to climb the Ziggurat of Dur-Kurigalzu, an experience that evokes an echo of scaling pyramids in Origins. Equally, the series’ educational Discovery Mode is now fully integrated into the experience as a player-built historical codex, which I complete by visiting historical sites for supplementary information within the context of its subject.

However, the politics surrounding the Zanj rebellion is where Mirage’s commitment to history stalls. While historical figure Ali ibn Muhammad features prominently in Mirage’s plot, Ubisoft Bordeaux falls short of depicting the enormity of the Zanj rebellion. While I had high hopes that Ali might reach the nuanced heights of Leonardo Da Vinci in Assassin’s Creed 2, the rebel leader feels remarkably two-dimensional. In fact, Ali’s most interesting moment – a coy debate with Basim concerning freedom and duty, held on horseback as they gallop along the dusty road to a Zanj-occupied Jarjaraya – is entirely in service to Basim’s own character development. Admittedly, not much is known about the real-life Ali ibn Muhammad, but I can’t help but feel he’s somewhat wasted here. Nevertheless, I appreciate Ubisoft’s efforts to throw light on an important moment in Iraq’s history that’s often overlooked by the West.

Basim himself feels like an amalgamation of the most prominent of his predecessors. He is introduced to us imbued with Ezio’s boyish arrogance, later tempered by Altair’s sense of duty and a touch of Bayek’s solemnity. As an Assassin’s Creed protagonist, he’s familiar, but not inherently derivative, and I’m impressed with the extent of his character development by the time the credits roll. This evolution is in part attributed to Mirage’s cut-back cast, which affords Basim meaningful connections. I have a vested interest in the people closest to Basim – namely fellow street thief Nehal and stern mentor Roshan – as well as secondary characters like Beshi and Fuladh.

However, it’s Basim’s enduring relationship with Nehal that drives Mirage’s major point of tension. Previous installments of Assassin’s Creed have flirted with an interrogation of its eponymous creed and the hypocrisies therein. However, Mirage introduces an intriguing new facet of life as a Hidden One, as Basim’s familial connection with Nehal is put at odds with the brotherhood he has pledged to serve. Against the backdrop of the Zanj rebellion, Basim is forced to reconcile freedom versus slavery alongside duty and rebellion. While I won’t spoil anything here, it’s an emotional arc that has colossal implications.

Unfortunately, the PC version of Mirage is not without its technical problems. Over the course of my playthrough, I experienced no less than five abrupt crashes to desktop, as well as a recurring bug after I close the world map that causes Basim to momentarily T-pose over his camel and refuse to dismount until I load a previous save. I also clock several instances where Mirage initiates a loading screen multiple times, which seems excessive when I’m only going half a mile up the road. However, outside of these glaring issues, Mirage is smooth even at ultra-high settings, with no significant framerate dips.

I leave Mirage not only satisfied with my experience but also with a renewed love of a series that once lost me under the weight of its own bloated legacy. Mirage not only successfully transports me to the streets of Baghdad, but also Damascus, Venice, and all the other cities I remember fondly from my memories of earlier installments. It doesn’t break new ground – and it’s impossible to overlook how it suffers from congenital issues with core mechanics and geriatric systems – but given the desperate attempts at innovation and terminal feature creep that’s dogged the series in recent years, it’s refreshing to see Ubisoft Bordeaux trim that fat to prove why Assassin’s Creed has stood the test of time. Mirage is not only a solid entry in its own right, but it stands as a commemorative homage to the series as a whole. Now if Ubisoft could just explain where all the severed fingers go, I’ll be satisfied.