When it comes to “Assassin’s Creed,” sometimes less is more. That’s how I felt over the past three iterations of the series that covered the Egyptian, Greek and the Viking civilizations. They were sprawling epics that pushed players to explore leagues of rolling hills, seascapes and deserts. They also required an inordinate amount of time to complete.
Those titles took upward of 80 hours to see everything. In an effort to provide an open-world experience comparable to CD Projekt Red’s “The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt,” Ubisoft lost sight of what made “Assassin’s Creed” distinct. The latest entry, interestingly enough, began as downloadable content for “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” but grew more ambitious into a standalone title.
Planned for the 15th anniversary of the original’s launch, the setting could somehow tie into the first game and the beginning of the series. That’s how “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” came to be. It follows the origin of Basim Ibn Ishaq, a pivotal character in “Valhalla.”
EARLY LIFE OF BASIM
In this entry, he’s a street thief who grew up on the streets of Baghdad before moving to Anbar and becoming obsessed with the Hidden Ones. An effort to prove himself to the assassins throws his life in turmoil and he ends up separated from his best friend and falls into the path of an assassin.
In many ways, “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” is a throwback to what made the early titles so good. As in other chapters, it follows the growth of an outsider into the Assassin Brotherhood and wraps that development around a singular city. In this case, Basim explores Baghdad and surrounding areas during the Abbasid Caliphate.
The combat and core gameplay is again revamped and refocuses on stealth. Whereas “Odyssey” and “Valhalla” let players jump into epic battles, “Mirage” is restrained. It focuses more on urban exploration and parkour. Players have to rely on stealth first and use familiar tricks from past games.
OLD AND NEW TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Players can hide in bushes and whistle to draw in the curious for a quiet death. They can toss noisemakers and sneak by guards to reach a new area. They can eliminate lookouts from afar with the well-placed toss of a knife. Tools play an important part in mission success. Ubisoft Bordeaux also adds little twists like environmental hazards that can send puffs of spice into the air and cause hacking fits.
Each stealth kill also raises a meter with which Basim can cash in via an Assassin Focus attack, in which players freeze time and mark several enemies and eliminate all the adversaries at once. It’s helpful in crowded rooms where maintaining stealth is important.
If Basim does enter a skirmish, the team simplifies the combat to the bare bones. Basim just uses a sword and dagger and he has the standard array of heavy and light attacks as well as a dodge and parry. The team does keep a stamina bar, so players have to use their attacks sparingly, turning confrontations into a more reactive fight in which players look for the right defensive answer to defeat foes.
TURNING A CITY INTO A STRENGTH
Armed with these skills, players will find plenty of work as Basim has to help establish bureaus in Baghdad after the Brotherhood discovers an impending crisis that threatens Alamut. The group wants to eliminate the threat, which is linked to the secretive and rival Order of the Ancients.
“Mirage” uses Baghdad’s districts to create distinct locales around the central ringed city and its surroundings. Each investigation takes place in a new Baghdad section, which has its own bureau and antagonists. This way, it builds a mystery that players solve while learning the complex layout of the municipality. It’s a natural way to ease newcomers into the gameplay and missions.
Some missions will take Basim to the outskirts and deserts but even then the map of “Mirage” is never overwhelming. It’s mostly traversable on foot or on horseback while players can navigate small rafts around the city or coast.
GETTING THE MESSAGE ACROSSAll of this creates a focused narrative that’s refreshingly focused and captivating through its shorter 17-hour campaign. It’s a title that doesn’t slavishly retry to remake elements of the original but smartly takes parts of the newer games that worked and incorporates them into the formula.
“Mirage” has less focus on loot and gear management. Players don’t have to constantly look for the next best thing but rather look for gear that complements a certain playstyle, like quieter footsteps or a boost to attacks after a parry.
The developers constantly encourage players to pickpocket to grab items called tokens that can be used to open rare chests, get clues from others or cause a disturbance that can help Basim infiltrate a warehouse. The constant thieving is one of the Basim’s quirks that makes this version of him distinct from his predecessors.
After six years of grand adventures, “Mirage” is well-done change of pace that reminds players of what “Assassin’s Creed” can offer when it just gives us its best without the bloat.
‘Assassin’s Creed Mirage’
3½ stars out ouf 4
Platform: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, iOS (coming in 2024)