Review: Assassin's Creed: Mirage
So here’s what is going to be a kind of odd confession: I was biased against Assassin’s Creed: Mirage basically from the moment it was announced. And to explain that, we’re going to have to take a step back.
If you’ve been reading my reviews here for a while you know that I do not have some deep-seated animus toward the Assassin’s Creed franchise or anything of the sort; indeed, my review of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was glowing and I stand by it. While there is some jank to the series and there’s reasons to have some resentment toward them in terms of long-term gaming impacts, these games are generally good, sometimes amazing.
And Assassin’s Creed: Mirage is meant to not just be a trip back to the series’ roots for the 15th anniversary… but it’s also focused on a period of history and a space that I find fascinating. A game set in Baghdad in the late 9th century? What could possibly deter me from that? Well… the fact that the game is a much more stripped-down experience could. Rather than mirroring the open nature of its immediate predecessor, Mirage is more classic in many ways, not an action-RPG with stealthy elements.
So how does it manage in the shoes of Basim, the master thief-turned-assassin who players met in Valhalla? That’s what we’re here to discuss as the game is out on October 5th on PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Epic Games Store. The PS5 version was played for this review.
The Vast and Level Sands
As I mentioned, Mirage follows Basim, a supporting character who meets Eivor during Valhalla who now gets his own full-on prequel. Sort of. A bit of research turns up that originally Mirage was going to be DLC that got expanded into its own game, but that also does something to explain why the game is more… constrained. But that is also fairly true to the series history, sort of a half-step between what the game was in its original incarnations and what it has become.
Basim, at the start of the game, is not an Assassin (or a Hidden One as they are known at this point in the game timeline). He’s just a thief on the streets of Anbar, outside of Baghdad, but he has done some errands for the Hidden Ones and hopes for the chance to be elevated into their order. To that end, he knows that they are pursuing a black chest into the palace of the caliph, and he has the bright idea of sneaking into the palace with the aid of his best friend Nehal. Surely this will all go fine and…
Okay, yes, it’s not actually a spoiler to say that things go wrong even though Basim obviously winds up joining the Hidden Ones (because otherwise we don’t have a plot) and he gets plunged into… well… the exact sort of plot that a lot of prequels stumble into, wherein if you’re aware that this is a prequel there’s not a whole lot of places that things can go. Like, we know who Basim has to be by the time Valhalla happens. We know that any other characters are expendable, and by the end of the introduction sequence you can probably guess the fates of several of them just because… like… otherwise why are they here?
That’s not to say that the plot is bad, per se. It’s definitely made with care. But it has some pretty strict limitations that you know it has to follow, and it struggles to really make you feel like the stakes are real simply because it’s clear where everyone has to be by the end. To an extent, this has always been the case insofar as several games take place before others, but in most of the games there’s more wiggle room. Eivor can’t lead to the destruction of the Hidden Ones because they have to be there later, but you have a lot of other plot mechanics specific to her story and the Hidden Ones aren’t her main focus. Here, the future is an oncoming freight train.
The Shimmer on the Horizon
So the plot is a little bit lackluster, but that’s not a damning problem. After all, if you didn’t like going a-viking in Valhalla, you could still entertain yourself by raiding chapels and stabbing random English guards in the neck for several hours at a stretch. The game can survive on being fun to play, in other words. So how does it do in that department?
Mirage is, in many ways, Valhalla-light. It’s not an RPG-style experience because you don’t have levels per se, but you do get skill points that you can invest in trees… but they’re all very small trees, so it never gets overwhelming. You get several weapons, but you don’t get a choice of combat styles; Basim fights with a sword and a parrying dagger, and the various other weapons serve as options with different passive abilities rather than being wild shifts. You do upgrade your weapons and armor, but it’s only across a few levels. You get the idea.
The focus of the gameplay is very much about stealth here, bringing you back to the series roots once again; those expecting trees where Basim just says “screw it” and runs in to smash everyone will be disappointed. Guards are dangerous and your goal is to avoid combat; when it becomes unavoidable, parrying and dodging based on the flashing indicators are vital, unless you like dying and reloading. It even has a minor notoriety system requiring you to tear down wanted posters if Basim becomes too visible, so don’t do that.
Of course, your stealth options are a bit expanded as a result. Maps feature lots of places where Basim can use well-placed thrown knives to alter the scenery, and that’s just his earliest tools; blowdarts and smoke bombs are my personal favorites, especially when upgraded further. The chain assassination ability returns in your skill tree as well, allowing you to sometimes turn one perfect target into a flurry of kills. It’s not bad.
But it does feel… well… basic. The mechanics here are all solid, and I enjoy that it added extra features like Basim pickpocketing people on the streets of Baghdad. (It’s a very light minigame that’s just involved enough to feel fun and engaging, and the rewards make it worthwhile when possible even though there’s risk involved.) The problem is more that if you’ve enjoyed recent entries because of other options, you don’t have them here. No ranged combat for you, no option to brute-force things, and the like.
That is, of course, entirely more in keeping with the franchise title. If you like stealth games – which I do – this is not something horribly unfair. But it does mean that the game feels… lesser because of it. Instead of moving onward and upward from its prior installment, it’s stepped back and lowered what it aspires to.
The Dunes at Night
Graphically, the game is built on the same engine as Valhalla, so you know what to expect in broad strokes. That’s a good thing, and the game absolutely makes use of the different setting to be visually very different. Baghdad is gorgeous, and I will freely admit that I spent an awful lot of time just dancing across rooftops and admiring the area because this is a portion of history I adore. Everything is rendered in loving detail, and it all works well with the bulkier crowds compared to Valhalla’s wider stretches of wilderness.
Unfortunately, while the game looks gorgeous, the cutscene direction feels… stiff. It’s hard to explain it without seeing it in motion, but during several conversations there’s an odd jitter, and the fluidity of movement from scene to scene doesn’t feel like it’s entirely there. This might just be me, or it might be a product of the engine having aged a bit, or maybe it’s just a coincidence… but when I can think of at least three games I’ve played this year that have really broken new ground with cutscenes, it stands out here.
Also not helping matters is that some of the English voice actors seem to struggle with the Arabic accents and vocabularies. “Caliph” is a word that gets a few different pronunciations of variable accuracy, and while every individual actor is consistent, the inconsistency is a bit jarring especially for a word you will hear a lot. I laud the commitment to historical attention to detail and injecting non-English phrases, but it does have some drawbacks here.
That’s not to say the voice acting is bad by any means; it’s quite good for the most part, even if it lacks some of the crisp flow from Valhalla. It’s just hard not to notice little things like that which detract just a bit from the gestalt… and that’s kind of the story of the whole experience, isn’t it?
The Pale Glint of Water
What I keep seeing with Mirage is not a game that is, in any way, bad. I want to stress that. The compromises it makes in terms of story and in terms of gameplay mechanics and in terms of voice acting and graphics and… well, everything? They’re all understandable. This was originally a piece of DLC that got expanded and became its own thing, and I definitely don’t feel like it was rushed or lacking. But it is a product of compromises, lowered ambitions, and it feels… lesser because of it.
And that was where my bias had fell from the beginning. After two impressively open games in a row that felt like they were really pushing the boundaries of the series and what it could be, Mirage feels like it plays it safe and just plays the hits. Which is fine as far as it goes, but for a game set in one of my favorite places and periods of history it’s just… frustrating. There’s nothing wrong with a game playing it safe, but why play it safe here and now?
I reiterate many times that the real question should not be what a game is about but how it is about it, and to a certain extent, it’s unfair to mark Mirage down because it’s trying for a solid base hit. But I do think it’s fair to mark it down for not just playing it safe but playing it way less than it could be. I characterized Valhalla as a game well worth playing even if you aren’t generally fond of this franchise, but Mirage? It’s just another Assassin’s Creed game with no ambitions of being more. Far from feeling like a loving tribute on the anniversary, it feels like coasting.
If you’ve loved this franchise since the first game, you’re going to have fun with Mirage. But just like its namesake, there’s less here than there appears to be, and beneath the surface it’s lacking. Not enough to be bad, but enough to be just rote. And that, ultimately, is a letdown even if the game can play the hits well.
Review copy provided by Ubisoft for PS5. All screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft.