Assassin’s Creed is a helix, and it always has been. The developers at Ubisoft have deftly woven the dual strands of history and science fiction together for the better part of 15 years now, and the results of this experiment have been as varied as they are diverse. Mirage – heralded as a spiritual reset for the franchise – had an impossible task from the moment it was announced: reform the brand, but keep everything that people loved about the behemoth RPGs Creed of recent years.
Mirage not only meets those expectations, it bests them. It manages to find the balance not only of past and present, but also of RPG and action, of narrative urgency and freedom, of expression and intent. Mirage is my favourite Assassin’s Creed game of the past few years, and by some margin. It demonstrates that with focus comes finesse, and that you can achieve in 20 hours what Valhalla struggled to achieve in 200.
The most unexpected victory of Mirage is in its role-playing – and it almost feels accidental. You succeed in imbibing protagonist Basim, not because of any of the scant skill-trees or vague progression systems, but because of how you’re railroaded into acting like he would act, approaching situations like the character would. Gone is the viking power fantasy, the channelling of Greek gods, the gunslinging pirate gravemaker; this is Assassin’s Creed refined, where skulking in the shadows and peeking around corners is required on the dusty streets of Baghdad.
Why? Because the combat is so horribly wet. Lock-on mechanics barely function, rock-paper-scissors mechanics for dodging, blocking and attacking are boring, and armoured enemies that fecklessly ping off your attacks are common. Combat is miserable. But it would be for an assassin, right? After all, the Hidden Ones are (in)famous for conducting their business from the shadows – beefing you up and allowing you to take on the Caliphate’s elites in one-on-one combat would be anti-historical, absurd, against the fantasy.
It’s definitely not intentional, but the appalling feel of Mirage’s combat makes you play the game like an assassin: don’t get caught, make liberal use of your smoke bombs, hop into hay bales and snatch guards off patrol routes. After frowning at Mirage in frustration one too many times during a forced combat encounter in the early game, I never intentionally instigated open combat again. I learned my lesson (as does Basim): have faith in your assassin training, it’ll get you far.
And from there, the game was a joy. An absolute joy. Whatever tinkering Ubisoft has done to its Anvil engine makes this world simply hum with life and intrigue and look absolutely divine. Because Baghdad is so small, it feels so dense. There are icons littering the map, yes, but few of them impact progress. There are towers you need to climb, sure, but you want to. It’s how Basim sees where to go, who to stalk, what to pilfer.
Pickpocketing is easy, rewarding, and fun; snatching purses from passers-by and using the stolen goods to bribe guards to let you pass? It’s a simple flowchart of standard gaming tropes, but goddamn does it feel satisfying. Mission flow is well directed and paced adeptly; finishing one mission and being a couple hundred metres from where you next need to go means that you wander around Baghdad with purpose, and rarely (if ever) resort to fast-travel.
And you want to see what happens next, too. There’s very little filler padding out Mirage, and the lean, gratifying story flies by at a breakneck speed compared to the saga of Valhalla or the epic of Odyssey. Each of the component parts (laid out nicely in an investigation tab of the menu for you to track) is self-contained, tidy, and thematic. This is a tale of Basim’s self-discovery, introspectively examining the muddyness between justice and revenge, of which we already know the outcome – at least for those of us that played Valhalla.
But that doesn't matter. Because the real story is in the lessons we learn along the way, or something. And Ubisoft wields that poetic irony well, using what we think we know against us, and making for some genuinely unexpected twists. The ending is a load of pants, if you ask me, but my tolerance for the ‘peak Assassin’s Creed’ moments in the franchise is meagre. But even when tale gets stale, at least the voice acting and direction is superb – Basim could win awards, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Roshan is one of the most compelling performances you’ll hear in the entire series. And that is really saying something.
Ubisoft manages to thread everything the series is known for into its open world setup with artisanal ease in Mirage, showing us why the template it set out 15 years ago is still valid. Why it still has value, and potential, as other developers have experimented with, and discarded, the same formula. And when it’s all realised with these gorgeous visuals and respect for Baghdad’s history – and the best Assassin’s Creed score since the second game – you can’t help but become intoxicated with this cultural hub.
Mirage represents Ubisoft at its best; fuelling historical intrigue with tight, uncomplicated gameplay systems that make puzzles out of environments, that breadcrumb you to fantastic treasures, that sucker punch you out of your false sense of security whenever you get too comfortable. The game comes undone under the pressure of combat, but that’s OK, because the options it gives you to tiptoe around it feel superb in the hands. Assassin’s Creed is a helix, representing Ubisoft’s future and its legacy, and Mirage is at the intersection of both – proving it’s possible for Ubisoft to deliver something focused and fantastic, even without that new-fangled RPG finish.