The Assassin's Creed franchise has come a long way since we first got our hands on the fairly disappointing tech demo that was the original experience all the way back in 2007. Yes, pals, that really was 16 years ago already.
The core concept behind AC has always a strong one, and the first outing was undoubtedly a real graphical tour-de-force, but the ideas behind its gameplay mechanics, although solid in theory, came off as half-baked, shallow and repetitive in the extreme. Of course, over the years that followed Ubisoft has been very clever with this series, managing to tweak and evolve it from its somewhat rudimentary origins to the likes of the all-encompassing triumph that is Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Along the way, the most controversial aspect of this evolution has been a shift from the purely stealth-focused stabby good times of the early games to the enormous open world action extravaganzas that have become a mainstay since Origins added in an RPG-lite layer. It feels as though there's a fanbase divided here between advocates of the new action-heavy behemoths we've had since Bayek's 2017 adventures and the older stealth-tastic games. This particular writer has mostly preferred the newer, bigger adventures on the whole, mainly because their parkour and combat has seen so many improvements, but with Odyssey and Valhalla it definitely felt as though Ubisoft was beginning to push the limits on how big a game could be, how packed full of distractions it could get, before it was all a bit too much.
And so, enter Assassin's Creed Mirage. Here we have a reboot of sorts, a return to the origins of the franchise that sees the many layers that have accumulated over the years stripped back to reveal the stealth heart still beating away at the core of it all. This feels like a return to that very first game, a touching base that gives us the graphical tour de force once again - although it's impossible to deploy the same shock and awe in terms of looks these days - this time sat alongside mechanics that actually work, gameplay that feels slick and smooth, and ideas that have been properly realised and put into action.
Mirage whisks us away to 9th-century Baghdad and into the sneaking shoes of Basim Ibn Ishaq, a character who first appeared in Valhalla, as he rises from common street thief to a member of the Brotherhood of Fancy Assassins. The focus here is on more linear gameplay that's 100% concentrated on stealth, and a narrative that keeps you within a far smaller world map than we've seen in recent entries. Make no mistake, it's still fairly big, this is still a modern open world game with its fair share of secrets and collectibles to find, it's just nowhere near the insanity of the likes of Odyssey's sprawling land masses. And this is a downscale that's reflected in the game's price, which has seen a bit of a knockdown as a result of the smaller adventure on offer.
This all makes for a very tidy and manageable Assassin's Creed experience, somewhere around the 30 hour mark if you take your time, and honestly it feels like a refreshing relief when compared to the 100+ hour commitments we had to make to see Eivor's story through. As it turns out, this is one of the game's biggest selling points, really, a stripped back slice of old-school AC action that respects your downtime and leaves you wanting for more, giving you all the action without the excesses. It's also a rather timely blessing given the sheer number of enormous games vying for our attention right now. Mirage is something you can definitely finish over a week or so without too much trouble.
The scaled back world and story also lets the devs go to town on the finer details, and in Baghdad we've got a fantastically well-realised virtual playground that's dripping in historical accuracy and atmosphere. On this note, it's nice to see that there's lots of the Arabic language deployed across the game, with main characters and NPCs using lots of greetings and other phrases, and there's nothing more atmospheric than hearing the call to prayer echo around these evocative environments as dusk settles over the region and Basim perches on a viewpoint high over the city.
There's a juicy codex of historical facts and figures to digest too, real world sites to visit and plenty to take in about a fascinating period in time. Granted, even with the biggest of AC games, the commitment to historical accuracy and education has always been top-notch, but here it all feels that little bit more manageable in terms of quantity, and this in turn feeds more directly into the sense of time and place that informs your adventures in Baghdad. We learned stuff, is what we're trying to say.
But what about the actual gameplay itself? Well, for the most part, when following along the main narrative path, Basim is charged with investigating the shadowy Templar Order, and the game gives you a handy investigations tab in its menus where you get to go all Sherlock Holmes as you choose which thread/mission you want to follow next in order to unravel the identities of your assassination targets. It's not particularly freeform, but it's nice that you can choose which targets or story aspect you want to focus on next, even if all roads are leading to the same blood-soaked place.
Mirage brings back the series' boxed off assassination missions that give you a high profile target to take out within a set area during its big story beats. You'll need to find a way into a fortified building or enemy camp, use your eagle vision (and bird pal, Enkidu) to tag patrolling guards or items of interest, then get busy stabbing and sneaking your way to the Order member that's currently needing shivved. You can also use collectible tokens to pay bandits to make a violent distraction, hide in crowds and blend in by simply sitting down - something we've tried to do several times in real life with zero success.
Basim has access to all of your old favourite assassin's tricks and toys too; smoke bombs, sleep darts, poison traps, throwing knives and so on, and these gadgets, alongside the actual mechanics of stealth - the parkour and enemy alert systems and cooldowns - feel as though they work better than ever here. A huge plus is that you can also now get caught by a guard, have that guard and a few of their pals attack you, make a whole bunch of noise, and not alert the entire camp. Going loud is still not advised, as the actual combat aspects here have been scaled back and simplified, but when it does happen scraps can be contained, you can wipe out alerted adversaries and continue the infiltration without needing to exit the area and wait until everybody forgets.
These refinements make for a game that excels when you're just chilling out and messing with its systems, toying with guards, building up your all-new Assassin Focus gauge to pull off ultra-cool multikills and deciding how best to drop the big baddies. Skill trees have been simplified and refined too, and there's a nice simple flow to the upgrades that slowly give you more control and mastery over how you go about your murderizing.
All told, what you've got in Assassin's Creed Mirage is a return to pure stealth that feels far more polished than earlier games in the franchise. It doesn't do anything new, it's small in scale and sticks to stealth without any real surprises, but what's here is a great time for fans of sneaking around and pulling off hits without getting caught, one that also does away with almost all of the most infuriating aspects of older entries in the franchise. Almost.
Yes, some niggling issues do remain, and they're mostly related to how Basim moves around and interacts with his environs. Parkour is fine for the most part but there is still a clunkiness, specifically around detaching yourself or climbing down from buildings, that can be a bit infuriating. We've been caught by guards simply because we couldn't get ourselves off a wall quickly enough more times than through any fault in our own planning. We've also had some problems in interacting with NPCs, with shopkeepers in particular requiring perfect placement before a prompt arrives to allow us to chat. Small issues, for sure, but niggles that can begin to grate over time.
We also found that, although the narrative is fine for the most part, it does drag a little in the mid-section, we definitely began to lose interest slightly as Basim was sent from one target to the next with the same objective of simply killing over and over again. It picks up towards the end, for sure, and fans will enjoy some of the twists and there's a definite lag in the middle as the game settles into its repetitive rhythm.
Beyond these issues though, we've come away impressed with Assassin's Creed Mirage overall, to the point we reckon the series should just ditch the bloat going forward and stick to streamlined skulking around. There's a lovely focus to everything here, from the smaller scale of the story and world, to the stripped back RPG systems and side activities that makes for a wonderfully cohesive experience. That feeling of being completely lost that sometimes crept over us in Odyssey or Valhalla has been fully vanquished.
Indeed, even the infamous Ubisoft blanket of countless icons on your world map, although still numerous, now feels as though it mostly leads you to stuff that feels fun or useful instead of mere filler. The streamlined loot system, new costumes, weapons and upgrades also ensure that every shiny treasure chest on your radar is worth seeking out, and this feeds into giving you a reason to explore every corner of a world that you can now actually see all of without having to sacrifice several years of your life.
On a quick performance note before we wrap up, we've tried out both quality and performance modes and we reckon sticking to performance is your best bet here. Quality does look a little nicer, as expected, but the 60FPS is more than worth the drop in eye candy as it makes for smoother traversal of Baghdad's streets and rooftops.
And so, in the end Assassin's Creed Mirage makes for a successful return to the series' roots, bar a few small niggles here and there. This is a highly entertaining stealth-focused effort that gives you lots of toys and tricks to play around with in a setting that's bursting with fine details and atmosphere. Basim makes for a solid protagonist, Baghdad's an evocative setting, and fans of the classic entries in this franchise will no doubt love every second of what's on offer. Yes, there's nothing here that's particularly new or unique, but it fully delivers on giving us the game we thought we were getting when we first booted into Desmond Miles' virgin adventure back in 2007.
Assassin's Creed Mirage is a successfully stripped back return to the roots of this long-running franchise that ditches the bloat and enormous scale of Odyssey and Valhalla in favour of a very manageable romp that doesn't waste any of your time. Baghdad makes for a fantastic setting, Basim is a likeable protagonist, and the pure stealth gameplay has been tweaked and refined to provide the slickest sneaking experience this series has seen to date. There are a few niggling issues regarding repetition and some sticky parkour controls, but overall this is a fine adventure that more or less gives us the game we'd hoped for when we took our first leap of faith back in 2007.