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Assassin's Creed Mirage returns to its roots
★★★★ | Baghdad to the future
Assassin’s Creed Mirage does absolutely nothing new with the franchise.
In fact, for the most part, it feels like a spin-off that could just as well not exist. It has low stakes, it barely connects to the big picture, and there’s constantly a sense that this is a one-off palate cleanser before something else comes along.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I can’t stop playing Mirage. It is one of my favorite games in the vast Assassin’s Creed series.
Set in 9th century Baghdad, it tells the coming of age story of Basim, a lowly thief turned assassin. His rise from the streets to an ancient battle with the Templar order is mirrored in the historic events that shaped the destiny of an entire nation. On paper, it sounds like the kind of adventure yarn I would instantly love.
In practice, it’s the worst part of the game.
Thanks to clunky dialog, atrocious pacing, and some deeply questionable othering, it’s a testament to every single bad choice Ubisoft has made with their games in the last two decades.
Hang on, I hear you say, if the story is bad and the game feels like a spin-off, why then the high score and praise?
It’s simply because this is the first Assassin’s Creed in years that doesn’t feel like a chore to play.
While the other games in the series boast massive worlds—which are beautiful, but painfully empty—Mirage focuses on one city and the surrounding wilderness. It’s a purposeful throwback to the first game in the series, and it pays off massively.
Baghdad is a sprawling, meticulously designed and polished reality that is a joy to explore. Its history is preserved with loving detail, with vibrancy and nuance. Even if you’re not interested in the main story, as a pure journey into history it’s entirely worth the visit.
For numerous hours into my play through—the story takes around 12 hours to complete—I specifically avoided anything resembling missions. I just walked around, took in the sights, and read the detailed histories you can uncover through exploration.
In short, I vibed, and I love Assassin’s Creed Mirage for it.
This approach highlights everything that Ubisoft has done well in the past two decades. Their historic research division has set the bar for all other games to follow, and they haven’t been bested yet.
The focus on a single area serves the game in other ways, as well. Even though the city is packed with the usual Ubisoft tropes (towers ahoy!), the sharp emphasis on one place never allows the big picture to spin out of control. Knowing the borders of your playground is more liberating than an endless span of fetch quests.
When it finally came time to assassinate someone, I relished the opportunity because I had the city embedded in my spine. I knew these streets. I could anticipate the escape routes. Nothing felt like a scramble because I had spent the last who knows how many hours just figuring out where each alley led.
It’s that kind of immersion that a massive sprawl can’t afford. Eventually all fields blend together.
The gameplay loop has barely changed over the years. You still hunt your targets, perform minor missions that require sneaking and assassination, and between that you upgrade gear in preparation for more difficult areas.
But the newfound freedom of a smaller gameplay area brings with it a focus on superbly thought out fortresses and infiltration missions. Not since the first two Assassin’s Creed games have we seen such fun side content. And because it all feels finite, there’s a sense that you’re actually making progress each time you complete a mission. I love it.
The pared down skill system is also an improvement. The series began to feel swollen by the time it decided to be both an action adventure and a role-playing game. Now, the skills are simple and to the point. That’s all they need to be. Their closes relative is the Arkham Knight series. Your most reliable skills are the ones you develop as you play.
Combine all of this with a slightly more refined fighting system and a game engine that runs without a single hiccup, and it’s no wonder that Mirage is an easy game to recommend.
Like comfort food, you know exactly what you’re getting, but that’s kind of the point. By now, you’re not buying an Assassin’s Creed game for something experimental. You’re buying it to return to a specific point in history for free roaming adventures. On that front, Mirage is easily among the best in the series, and a welcome throwback to the first years of the franchise.
If you’re a fan, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re new to the series, this is a perfect place to start the journey.