Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a well-intentioned, mostly well-executed return to franchise roots. Its only weakness? Lackluster parkour. Everything else on offer here makes for a true, focused AC game. From a revamped notoriety system and social stealth to eavesdropping and a focus on investigations in its narrative, it’s a true throwback to the original Assassin’s Creed.
The Ubisoft franchise has come a long way in the 13 years since its inception. The original game focused heavily on linear storytelling, stealth gameplay, and delivered on its promise of providing a (mostly) accurate historical backdrop for players to roam around in. 15 years and 12 mainline titles later, the franchise has become the go-to scapegoat when complaining about the bloated modern open-world game design. As time went on, the franchise has only grown in size and scope, losing its sense of identity in its hopes of reaching a larger audience outside its core fanbase. The last entry, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, was a bloated mess that was too long and too overstuffed for its own good, hiding the truly fun aspects only for hardcore fans to find and appreciate. I’m well known for having raised my voice against Ubisoft’s decisions with the franchise, and if there’s one thing I want Mirage to succeed in, it’s proving to Ubisoft that investing in pleasing its core fanbase is still worth it.
Mirage, thankfully, is a direct answer to the prayers of the original trilogy fans - it’s focused, smaller in scope and retains the parts of the franchise that its hardcore fans like. I really liked this game, and as time goes on, I think it will end up in my top 5 for the franchise. It’s a good mix of the old and new gameplay styles.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage follows the origins of Basim Ibn Ishaq prior to the events of Valhalla. Set 20 years before the events of that game, Mirage covers the primary years of Basim’s life in Baghdad, from his early days as a street thief to master assassin. Basim was by far the most interesting character in Valhalla, partly due to the fact that he was one of the only 2 actually Assassins to feature in that game. Nevertheless, being a reincarnation of Loki was a nice twist while keeping Basim’s core values as an Assassin intact. In Mirage, we see the hero grow and learn from his mistakes while struggling with his identity, and given we know how important he is going to be for the franchise from Valhalla’s ending, it made sense to see his origins fleshed out in a stand-alone game. It also helps that Lee Majdoub’s performance as the character is magnetic, perfectly following in the footsteps of Carlo Rota’s performance as the older Basim in Valhalla.
9th century Baghdad is an excellent setting for the game and the only one besides the limited amount of time you spend at Alamut. It harkens back to the early games in the series, where world exploration was often centred around just a few major cities and not entire countries like in the last 3 games. The city is roughly the size of Constantinople from Assassin’s Creed Revelations and, for its roughly 15-hour main campaign, is perfectly scaled for meaningful exploration. The city and its various districts don’t hold a candle to the variety of biomes previous games like Valhalla offered, but that’s perfectly fine by me as the economic and societal structure of Baghdad is explored well enough through the main story.
What compliments immersion in Mirage’s world are its systems, particularly those focused on the inhabitants of the city. Mirage comes with a revamped notoriety system harkening back to the original games. You have three levels of notoriety that shift depending on what actions you perform in front of the public eye. At the lowest level, citizens are vaguely aware of your actions and will call out guards to your location unless you keep moving. You reach this level when performing high-profile actions of violence in front of people, so killing guards while people are looking or lingering around after pickpocketing someone. It surprisingly caught me off guard multiple times as I was called out by citizens while minding my own business, prompting me to go find wanted posters to take down or, if I had the required tokens, bribe town criers.
But why avoid guards if you’re such a badass assassin? Well, Mirage shifts the focus back to stealth while “nerfing” combat. Personally, I love it. While Valhalla and *Odyssey *were focused on giving players a power fantasy to chase with their various superpowers, abilities, and multitudes of weapons, Mirage doesn’t want you to take on 15 guards at once. The combat mechanics are a direct descendant of the original game, with it being a mix of hitbox and paired animation systems. Combat usually follows the same pattern - you wait for guards to attack, you see the indicator, and you either parry them to go for the killing blow or dodge out of the way. Once you’re locked in combat, your tools aren’t of much use unless you’ve upgraded them to unlock different variations. If you’re like me, who likes beelining the main story, you won’t have much time for resource collection, which in turn means you probably won’t upgrade your throwable tools often. The most effective way to win any fight is to lower the body count before the fight begins, so stealth. Sneaking around a combat area, usually a guarded fort, picking off enemies one by one with throwing knives and blowdarts is the ideal approach. There is one ability, the Assassin focus, that can level the playing field with too many enemies, but you have to use it before getting into a combat mode.
Baghdad is a well realised playground, roughly the size of Constantinople from Revelations. Its various districts, surrounding wilderness and moody ambient music offer a smaller but more refined open world. pic.twitter.com/NjESrfJVIo— Rahul Majumdar (@darthrahul) October 4, 2023
The franchise has always boasted a fairly decent variety of weapons to acquire, but things were blown out of proportion with the switch to RPG looter design in Origins. Odyssey and Valhalla took it a step further, offering virtually dozens of weapon styles and animations with dozens of special abilities. While this resulted in more options for player approach, it always felt like it was offering more for the sake of more and it diluted combat encounters since they had to accommodate various play styles. It also didn’t help that the levelling system in recent games turned most enemies into giant damage sponges. Mirage vaults over it with finesse, with no direct levelling system and a very select amount of customisation options. As you play through the story, Basim will get promoted through the Assassin ranks, and Baghdad’s various zones have different suggested ranks. This means that you can technically roam a zone labelled for the “Master Assassin” rank, but you’ll have to be careful around guards, especially if you don’t maintain your notoriety level. Customisation options for weapons and armour are sparse, and while I’m happy with it since that means the overall quality of the experience is more balanced, I would like to point out some minor inconveniences. You can switch up your outfit’s colour, but you can’t preview them before buying from a merchant. Similarly, while technically you can switch to different costumes while wearing other outfits, it’s nowhere close to the transmog system in Odyssey. This means that if you choose to equip a certain inventory for its stats, you’re stuck with it with no way to change its look.
On the topic of combat, your arsenal of weapons is surprisingly limited. You get one primary sword, one dagger, throwing knives, blow darts, smoke bombs, noisemakers, traps and, of course, the hidden blade. Each of these, except the hidden blade, can be levelled up through various ranks with stat modifiers, and I like that they’re not of the boring “+15% headshot damage” type. For example, if you decide to invest your resources into the blow dart, you can choose modifiers, turning them into poison darts. However, what I don’t like is the physical interactions your blades make with the enemy. While there are paired animations for beautiful finishers, getting to that point can be tricky as enemies don’t always react viscerally to your attacks. You can sometimes mistake a miss for a hit since the indicators for a successful attack can be skipped over by the game. This decreases the overall momentum of an encounter, and parry timings are also quite flaky.
Resource management in Mirage has been scaled down to be scarce but meaningful. You’ll want to choose wisely in terms of upgrading your tools or investing skill points into an ability. It also plays well into the light RPG mechanics, where depending on whether you find rare merchant favour tokens in the world, you can get discounts from specific vendors or gain favour from NPCs in main quests.
The main story puts the focus back on the rivalry between the Assassins and the Templars. It’s a simple but effective story with a linear progression of stakes that prioritises building out the societal hierarchy of Baghdad rather than focusing on major historical events. For once in a long time in its narrative, the Assassins and Templars are on near equal footing - a welcome sight given in the last 3 games, we’ve barely had any Assassins! Speaking of the titular group, Assassin bureaus are back! I was extremely happy to see such a small but meaningful structural change. Each major district of Baghdad houses a central bureau from where you can get reports on side missions and upgrade your tools. Each of these places is distinctly built and offers a safe haven for the hidden ones. It’s not that deep, but seeing other Assassins roaming around in the bureaus offers a sense of community.
The new investigation board makes it easier to keep track of objectives with a clear visual design that distinguishes main missions from side objectives. Mission designs follow the foundations set by the original game, with a welcome amount of tailing missions, eavesdropping and my favourite - the black box missions. First introduced in Unity, the black box mission design, which is at the heart of every major assassination in the game, gives the player multiple options to approach a main target. You could do a favour for a group of mercenaries so they’ll distract a main entrance, or find a hidden path into the guarded locations, or use social stealth to get close to an important guard to steal the keys to the main offices of the target. You still have access to your friendly aviator pet, but this time certain locations will have rooftop archers who will shoot your eagle. This prompts the player to actually explore the environment to find new opportunities, and I like that your eagle isn’t an overpowered drone. Another reason you have to explore your environment is the addition of manual climbing points to structures, so you can’t magically scale the side of a wall. Each climbable structure has a certain path carved around it, so you have to be aware of what side you approach it from. While parkour is still quite rudimentary, built on the bones of Valhalla, it still offers more flexibility than the RPG trilogy. It also helps that Baghdad is built for rooftop traversal, something I’ve sorely missed ever since we abandoned the wide city designs used in Unity. You can’t perform manual wall ejects, but you don’t have to touch the ground if you don’t want to while moving across the city.
Assassin Focus rules.— Rahul Majumdar (@darthrahul) October 4, 2023
It’s a neat ability that lets you quickly dispose of multiple enemies in succession, so entering brawls with larger groups easier. It's much more effective here than in past games where it was a superpower.
Here you have to use it tactically. pic.twitter.com/JIC01WeXtO
Before moving on to other sections, I have to appreciate the inclusion of online rendered cutscenes. The last three games have become notoriously meme-able due to their rigid animation rigging in cutscenes, where facial expressions and body language are skipped over in favour of providing boring exposition, complimented by uninspired directing. Mirage still uses the base automated animations for its usual cutscenes but with actual, motivated direction. And then there are the fully rendered cutscenes that add an extra cinematic flair at major points in the story, with superb art direction and attention to detail.
One of my favourite things from past games that aided in my immersion was the ambient music. Walking the streets of Venice, and listening to the beautiful tunes by Jesper Kyd, while watching the various citizens go about their day made some of my fondest memories with this franchise. However, the same signature music has since been bastardised by Ubisoft, with ‘Ezio’s family’ milked to death by the company, remixed for nearly every single release. Thankfully, Mirage doesn’t rely on this low-hanging fruit that only exists to make people feel nostalgic for games that were better in the years past. The new original score by Brendan Angelides feels original and suited to the medieval Arabic period, with a good variety in tonality to support Basim’s inner conflict throughout the story.
PC performance is very solid.— Rahul Majumdar (@darthrahul) October 4, 2023
Here's the benchmark at 1080p, all settings on very high on a Ryzen 7 3700X and RTX 3060 Ti.
Ignore the minimum here - an anomaly during bench.
Actually gameplay soars around 90fps on my system, with DLAA (DLSS @ native res)#AssassinsCreedMirage pic.twitter.com/Nj7PJp0mGv
Finally, let’s talk about performance and stability. I played the game on my now 3-year-old PC, equipped with an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, Nvidia Geforce RTX 3060 Ti and 32 GB of DDR4 RAM at 3000 MHz. All components of my system are now technically a generation or two old in their respective departments, but it’s still quite a powerful system, especially given we’re only now getting out of the cross-gen development period. Mirage is also a cross-gen game built for the PS4/Xbox One generation of consoles at its base, and I’m happy to report that it runs beautifully on PC. On my system, I turned up every setting at its highest preset, and the game was averaging 90fps at 1080p. Now sure, 1080p is a relatively lower resolution for my GPU, but I’d rather play at that with a high refresh rate monitor than push for more pixels. At 1440p, I could still get a smooth 60fps experience. Mirage is the first AC game on PC to support resolution scaling features from all 3 GPU vendors - Nvidia’s DLSS, AMD’s FSR and Intel’s XeSS. I ran the game at 1080p with DLSS set to native resolution (also known as DLAA), which resulted in a clear, sharp image with no artefacts. I could drop it down to DLSS ‘Quality’ and still get a good image, but I didn’t see much in the way of performance improvement with that setting. Given how well the game already runs on PC, I think you’ll only need to use DLSS/FSR/XeSS if you’re running at 4K.
Throughout my 15-hour campaign, I only witnessed 2 crashes, and that was during the week before the game’s official launch. Right now, the game is extremely stable with a few occasional bugs. While it runs well on PC, what I still don’t like are the keyboard and mouse controls. Ever since Origins, AC games on PC have had a very awkward control scheme since they’re built with a controller in mind, now more than ever. I played the game using my Xbox controller and only switched to KBM maybe twice, that too just to test it out. Speaking of, there are some weird issues in the UI where exiting to the main menu from the inventory was only possible with a controller plugged in.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a step in the right direction. The smaller scope and strong focus on stealth-based gameplay is a fun throwback to the original game that started it all before becoming a bloated franchise, and I hope Ubisoft learns the right lessons from it before delivering what is sure to be another pandering, trend-chasing 100-hour time waster with the Infinity platform.