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Assassin’s Creed Mirage Review

Sands of time and time again

Crafting a piece of franchise media to specifically cater to broad fan desires almost never works. It should also almost never be done, if we’re being honest; giving fandom spaces direct access to the creators of the media they’ve built a personality around has historically been a bit, well, shit. An inevitable breeding ground for entitlement and a projection of vocal minority expectations, bending art – even when it’s been produced by some of the largest machines in the business – to fit a fan’s idea of it is incredibly risky business. It’s something of a minor miracle then that Assassin’s Creed Mirage is as good as it is. An explicit callback to Ubisoft’s behemoth quasi-stealth roots, Mirage has been posited as the game that fans have been asking for since the series’ hard pivot to open-world action RPGs with 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins.

A labour of love out of Ubisoft’s Bordeaux team, the developer’s first major project following a string of well received DLC expansions, Mirage is aptly named. A warbling, heat-induced vision comprised of equal parts desire, hope, and anxiety, the game reflects the series back onto itself with largely successful results. It calls to mind the best of where Ubisoft has been with the hooded killers of old, replete with enjoyable enough character work and a strong focus on considered stealth and free roaming gameplay. But in basking in its own reflection, Mirage can sometimes forget to be truly present, its eyes so firmly on what fans think an Assassin’s Creed should be it never stops to wonder what the series even could be.

Mirage is frequently beautiful

You play as Basim Ibn Ishaq (voiced by Lee Majdoub), loosely following the events that lead him to the Hidden Ones, Mirage’s Brotherhood in its earliest days. Under the guidance of his master, Rashan (the immaculate Shohreh Aghdashloo), Basim is dispatched to a golden age Baghdad, the multicultural hub currently in the grips of a cruel, self-serving network of masked figures. Cutting out this rot sees Basim take on several assassinations, each with its own investigation process and playable in any order. The game adopts a reverse hourglass approach to flow, its opening and closing acts being quite linear while the interim fifteen odd hours are guided by player choice. This forefronts the narrative, the entire first act dedicated to understanding Basim’s street thief youth and subsequent training with the Hidden Ones, while still gesturing toward the freedom most modern Assassin’s Creed players have come to expect from the series.

It’s also, fortunately, one of only a few instances where Mirage tries to engage with the core tenets of the newer titles. Instead, Basim’s time in Baghdad is remarkably focused, trimming away the broader feature creep of the genre and concentrating on stealth-first mission design and relatively small-scale storytelling. There are undoubtedly echoes of franchise continuity and canon here but Mirage’s tale is far more insular, spending time on Basim’s personal politics, the systemic function of wealth and inherent privilege of knowledge, and how these worlds collide with disastrous results. These rich ideas are somewhat muted by the game’s moment-to-moment writing, a pendulum swinging between gorgeous prose and clunky exposition-laden underlining for the audience, but it’s of a piece with the broader franchise and seems keenly interested in at least trying to say something.

The player-driven flow of the assassinations also runs interference on the game’s pacing and escalation, but the scale and vibe of these Black Box Missions is worth the rub. The concept being that after a series of smaller infiltration and investigation missions linked to a central target, Basim will enter into a highly detailed, discreet assassination in an elaborate location. These massive set-pieces are far and away the best moments in Mirage, synergising its stealthy ambitions with its obvious adoration of Baghdad as a setting. Historically significant locations are flooded with NPCs and potential playthings for Basim, fully utilising a toolset specifically designed to rework this once combat-heavy series into something more akin to Hitman.

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Basim is often found in rafters and hideaways throughout Baghdad

Basim’s little belt of tricks form a comprehensive and arguably essential complete set. The earliest hours of the game will have you slowly unlocking each tool and are subsequently the weakest in terms of raw fun and engagement. Rooting around in his robes you’ll find an assortment of offensive and defensive tools, like throwing knives and smoke bombs, and venturing into missions with just one or two feels incomplete. The game’s streamlined skill system allows for a relatively speedy unlock process and once you’re fully kitted out, Mirage absolutely sings. Enlisting the aid of Enkidu, Basim’s eagle, you’ll plot out guard and key item locations, methodically understanding a space before slinking into it and severing some arteries. There’s an organic flow to much of this, calling forth a unique kind of power fantasy and fully engaging with Mirage’s limited, but refined, tool set.

You can still cock it up, of course. If Basim is spotted and you’re unable to quickly dispatch the nosy guard, you’ll be forced into open combat, Mirage’s weaker system. Equipped with a generous parry and dodge, Basim isn’t built for long bouts of swordplay, becoming quickly overwhelmed as the game’s animations compete for priority and the framerate hitches. In smaller skirmishes it’s inoffensive, and the game even throws a few mandatory combat sequences your way, but I would always rather avoid these encounters. It’s not impossible to re-enter stealth after being seen but the time it would take for the guards to de-escalate, combined with the time it already took to scope the joint, would occasionally lead to instances where I would have killed for a quick rewind feature to mitigate the sunken cost.

Combat is never ideal but at least looks cool

There is some time fuckery in Mirage though, the game introducing a Splinter Cell style ‘mark and execute’ system that allows Basim up to five free kills. While undetected you’re able to highlight enemies and have Basim glitch through reality to instantly close the gap and silently assassinate the target in a move that is both overpowered and utterly delightful. During one of my many roams through Baghdad I came across an insurmountable high wall before noticing a guard lazing about on top of it. I was able to just barely bring him in range of the Assassin’s Focus and used it to warp reality and place Basim atop the wall with a knife clean through the guard’s neck. It ruled, the kind of system-driven exploration the series should lean into fully. Parkouring makes a triumphant return too, with smoother animations and (mostly) responsive movement.

Broadly speaking, traversing Baghdad and its surrounding countryside is a treat. Much ado has been made about Ubisoft Bordeaux’s commitment to a historically accurate (and respectful) recreation of Baghdad and Middle Eastern culture and the results speak for themselves. Cohesively designed to feel of a piece with each other, the different sectors of Baghdad are gorgeously rendered and carefully brought to colourful life here. The studio has been vocal about not wanting to fall into mainstream media cliches around how the region is represented, moving away from washed out yellow filters and leaning into the vibrant flora, varied ecosystems, and culturally diverse inspirations for Baghdad. It hums with life, an undercurrent of immaculate audio design and Brendan Angelides’ utterly unique score elevating it even further.

Final Thoughts

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Despite (or maybe because of) some awkward dialogue and combat, Mirage achieves an almost pitch-perfect reverberation of the idea of Assassin’s Creed. With a clean refinement of stealth options and a retooling of the franchise’s runaway RPG systems, it takes its newfound (rediscovered) focus and spotlights one of the series’ best historical recreations. Baghdad is magnificent, and Basim’s journey through it is a welcome reminder of what large-scale game development can produce when it’s not tethered to unrealistic goals. Satiating fan expectations is a losing game and Mirage will undoubtedly only serve to whet appetites further, but in an ideal world both Ubisoft and its legion of thirsty followers will look to Mirage as a soothing, well-earned respite on the journey toward a new horizon.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Assassin’s Creed Mirage Review
More than meets the eye
Assassin's Creed Mirage is a gorgeously crafted love letter to the memory of the franchise, establishing a vibrant new world but coming up a little short on ideas to match it.
The Good
Stunning recreation of Baghdad
Fun core stealth loop
Best soundtrack in the franchise
Compelling antagonist concepts
The Bad
Character writing is a bit weak
Plays it safe mechanically
Combat is janky
8
get around it
  • Ubisoft Bordeaux
  • Ubisoft
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC / iOS
  • October 5, 2023

Assassin’s Creed Mirage Review
More than meets the eye
Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a gorgeously crafted love letter to the memory of the franchise, establishing a vibrant new world but coming up a little short on ideas to match it.
The Good
Stunning recreation of Baghdad
Fun core stealth loop
Best soundtrack in the franchise
Compelling antagonist concepts
The Bad
Character writing is a bit weak
Plays it safe mechanically
Combat is janky
8
get around it
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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