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Assassin's Creed Mirage preview: A throwback in the best of ways

Ubisoft may have actually made a AAA game with minimal bloat.

Ubisoft

I waved goodbye to Assassin's Creed Valhalla after 12 hours. I took my time to do everything I could in the opening area, then spent a couple of hours in the main part of the game. After yet another side objective that Ubisoft jammed into this bloated game, it dawned on me — nope, I can't go any further.

Ubisoft's tendency to overstuff its games coiled around AC Valhalla, squeezing much of the fun out of my time with it. I could tell early on that the world was too big with too much to do. I had a similar problem with Far Cry 6, another recent open-world Ubisoft game I endured for around the same length of time.

Assassin's Creed Mirage is blessedly billed as a return to the series' leaner early days, when Ubisoft was restricted by PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hardware. After a few hours of hands-on time split across three sections of the new game, it feels like that's the case, but it's hard to say for sure given the curated nature of the demo.

I started out with a brief prologue and a time skip to a training segment, the latter of which included an appropriately weighty initiation ceremony, the critical moment in which Basim, the protagonist, became a Hidden One and received the iconic hidden blade. It also featured the incredible voice of Shohreh Aghdashloo as Master Roshan, Basim's mentor.

I was then able to spend 90 minutes or so in the open world. After I loaded into this section, Basim appeared on a perch and I was told that there were new points of interest to check out. I immediately opened the map and was pleased to see there weren't a million icons that threatened to pull me away from the main objectives. There were 15 or so, which feels far more palatable than the overwhelmingly busy maps I’ve seen in previous games.

Mirage largely takes place in ninth century Baghdad, a couple of centuries before the Holy Land setting of the original Assassin's Creed, but around the same time as AC Valhalla (Basim made his first appearance in that game). Ubisoft has crafted a rich, lived-in world that's full of detail and is said to be around the same size as Paris in Assassin's Creed Unity. Most importantly, the bits I played were dense with structures, so it was far more about parkouring across rooftops than sailing on Viking ships with raiding parties. It reminded me of exploring Venice in Assassin’s Creed II.

There were some key things to try, such as tearing down posters to reduce my wanted level, a returning mechanic from previous games. That was essential to avert unwelcome attention after I executed every single person responsible for stealing tea from one of Basim's associates (there's no forgiveness for such a crime). Pickpocketing was also an important part of Basim's toolkit, as a means of procuring valuable items to bribe contacts for information. Still, I had no trouble focusing on the missions instead of getting distracted by, say, a nearby eagle feather.

A hooded man climbs a building. Below, a red mist appears on the ground.
A hooded man climbs a building. Below, a red mist appears on the ground. (Ubisoft)

The last section of my hands-on time centered on an investigation. Ubisoft's approach here is a callback to the black-box format of games like Unity: You'll need to discover information about an assassination target before you can take them out by completing smaller objectives. You can take these on however you like.

One involved infiltrating an enemy camp to find intel. It took me a few attempts to find an approach that worked here. Sending Basim's eagle companion Enkidu to scout out bad guys' locations was a big help, but it all inevitably fell apart when I failed to account for one goon whose buddy I executed right in front of them. I learned to be more careful in my later attempts, and not to rush through the encounter despite the time limit on my demo.

The enemy AI seemed smarter than before, too. During the prologue, I messed up (intentionally, of course) an attempt at pickpocketing, which used a timing-based minigame. It took a few minutes of fleeing over and around buildings to finally shake my foes so I could return to my task. I also had to account for more intelligent adversaries that seemed wise to some of Basim's tricks during my foray into the enemy camp. I died a few times, but eventually found a way to complete my task.

While you'll be able to unlock new abilities and level up Basim's weapons and tools through skill trees, it seems Ubisoft has pulled back on some of the RPG elements that have seeped into the series in recent years. I didn't need to worry about finding armor to boost a certain stat, for instance, and I was very thankful for that.

Mirage feels like a throwback in the most positive of ways. It's a return to a format that feels fresh rather than dated. Basim's movement feels fluid and he has enough tools at his disposal to give you a lot of strategic options for enemy encounters. Stealth-based combat and the return of social blending are welcome. However, I completely forgot to try Basim's chain-assassination ability, which looked cool whenever Ubisoft showed it off.

A hooded figure perched on a rooftop looks out at ninth-century Baghdad at dusk.
A hooded figure perched on a rooftop looks out at ninth-century Baghdad at dusk. (Ubisoft)

I think we need more AAA games that are smaller in scope, rather than the enormous blockbusters that can take more than 100 hours to complete. Cutting out bloat could reduce developers' workloads and mitigate the need for crunch as well. After reading some Starfield reviews suggesting that game doesn't really get going until around the 12-hour mark, I'm far less interested in checking it out (though I inevitably will).

Assassin's Creed Mirage is an entirely different game than Starfield, but I'd like to see more projects going in this direction. There will still be plenty of room for games that will take months to fully complete, but major publishers and studios stand to benefit from offering more intimate experiences in their key franchises — or at least different ones.

It remains intriguing that Ubisoft has decided to charge $50 for Mirage, rather than the typical $60 or $70 that AAA games cost these days. The publisher may be wary of criticism over charging “more” for "less" purely in terms of game length: Mirage is expected to ship with about 30 hours of content.

On one hand, the pricing decision devalues the work of the development team that created Mirage. On the other, Ubisoft might be very wary of bad press after years of thudding body blow after thudding body blow. That said, there's still an in-game store where you can buy cosmetic items if you wish, so some old tendencies remain.

This is one of Ubisoft's first steps in a grand plan to bring its tentpole series together as part of a project called Assassin's Creed Infinity. Based on my first few hours with Mirage, the company is moving in the right direction, which may involve scarpering up the side of an exquisitely crafted structure.

Assassin's Creed Mirage will arrive on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC on October 5.