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After a shaky pivot to RPGs initiated with Origins, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is the series trying its hardest to recapture the past. A return to its roots – stealthy assassinations, anonymous skulking through crowds, and nimble tight-roping between rooftops. Gone are the XP levelling system, the virtual walk-in wardrobe’s worth of gear, the gargantuan maps crowded with icons, and the 100+ hours of filler. Instead, it’s far more focused, fully digested in under 30 hours – main story, side quests, and collectibles all accounted for in that uncharacteristically (at least for old Ubisoft) short playtime.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage unravels in 9th century Baghdad and a crescent moon-shaped slice of wilderness around it. After mapping out the Aegean Sea and the better part of England, Ubisoft has drastically toned down the scale, a bit like substituting a dragging cruise swamped by lobster-skinned tourists for a snappy boat ride on the Tigris. It’s all for the better, as Ubisoft has crafted one of its most intentional and convincing cities in a long time with exquisite mosaics and minarets, bustling markets, backstreets dressed with latticed windows, and artisans going about their work.
You’ll hear passing chatter brought to life in melodious consonant-truncating Arabic, grapple up architectural marvels like the House of Wisdom, and bump into reminders that Baghdad was the centre of the world at the time – astronomy, literature, trade, and much more. Then you start to notice that it feels like you’ve seen similar NPC models before in Origins, or was it Odyssey or Valhalla? Recycled assets coated in that familiar baked AC filter start to grate. A few hours in the stock Ubisoft collect-a-thon takes shape. You’re soon entrenched in a samey loop, hopping between the open world and heavily guarded garrisons. Remember those movable shelves that need shifting to reach loot? Those are back. Then, you peek at the in-game store drooping under the heft of additional cosmetics. Despite paying homage to Arabic culture and the region by piggybacking on what drew fans to the series in the first place, there’s nothing all that substantial or innovative in Assassin’s Creed Mirage. True to its name, then.
In keeping with Ubisoft tradition, the main story, which chronicles Basim’s rise from petty thief to master assassin, is as safe as they come, almost disposable with a few twists thrown in, but wisely does away with the animus blather despite an ending that’s more knotty than conclusive. It’s divvied up into investigations, little clusters of clues and cases that lead to an assassination target. Little nodes on the investigation screen branch out as you hone in on the main villain through visits to mosques, harams, and bazaars. Put in the groundwork, take out a middle-person, then go in for an assassination attempt in a restricted zone often styled as a mini puzzle. You’ll need a key to open a door, pickpocket an item, eavesdrop, or hunt down clues in a mazy interior. Even though each restricted zone has a unique layout, the anaemic range of enemies is identical – and predictable – and the buzz of chaining parts of your stealth tool kit (throwing knives, smoke bombs, traps, chained assassinations, and sleeper darts) while shuffling between bushes and hiding spots to methodically take them out never evolves beyond just that. The effect is that the initial spark of creativity in how you approach restricted areas soon gives way to a desire for efficiency bred by repetition.
It’s a fun loop nevertheless, though a tad uninspired, and very much an activity that pairs well with a podcast or some easy TV. With enemies ganging up on you when you’re detected and the sketchy parry system occasionally having a mind of its own, the game quickly weans you off open combat and almost forces you to use stealth. The satisfaction of a well-timed leap to assassinate a target never wanes, though. That is if you can stomach the sometimes obtuse quest progression requirements. Nothing quite saps the thrill of infiltrating a heavily guarded garrison than spending five minutes Eagle Vision scanning every damn inch of the place to find a letter you won’t actually read.
When you’re not out assassinating, you’re free to roam Baghdad and beyond. It’s all very pretty and well-realised, and riding a grunting camel over sand dunes with the sun setting low on the horizon musters up something quite special. Any excesses of violence tarnish you with notoriety, a three-tier system similar to those in GTA and the spruced-up Cyberpunk 2.0. Enemy patrols become more alert, and the locals happily rat you out, culminating in the big-boy elite guard chasing you across rooftops. The only way to lower your notoriety is by tearing down wanted posters that spawn at random or bribing a town crier to bark your innocence. In theory, it’s a fun little mechanic to keep you on your toes, but in practice, bribe tokens are hard to come by and scanning every few steps for a poster while trying to evade guards tilts tedious pretty quickly.
The tokens are particularly annoying and a shame given they’re intended to add flavour and spice to how you access restricted areas. They are currency for additional help from different factions. Musicians will strike up a tune to distract guards in exchange for a token, or mercenaries will jump in to fight for you. But acquiring them is a faff. You have to complete contracts, bite-sized assassination, escort, and thieving missions, pickpocket for a chance of getting a token, or hoover up collectibles and hand them over to an NPC on the other side of Baghdad. It’s often simpler to revert to generic stealth, though you’ll miss out on some of Mirage’s more creative elements.
My biggest gripe with Assassin’s Creed Mirage is that it never quite makes the most of its setting. There are historical landmarks to uncover, but these aren’t sufficiently contextualised and instead are presented as objectives. You can also tick off side quests known as Tales of Baghdad, hasty little vignettes about half a dozen of the region’s inhabitants that take no more than five minutes to complete. There’s an encounter with a Christian monk and one where you need to help a dying scholar. Too short, they are a teasing glimpse of what could have been, ever so briefly highlighting the juxtaposition of beliefs and cultures the city sheltered. More of these would have brought Baghdad to life in a more meaningful way.
Fortunately, Assassin’s Creed Mirage reworks the series formula for the better in some respects. Much of this is down to the major downscaling. Each district of Baghdad and the outskirts are sided by a list of collectibles, activities, and whatnot when you open the map. But rather than your head dropping at the sheer volume, it’s all rather manageable and easy enough to track down. As above, you can squeeze in everything the game offers in under 30 hours. Mirage is careful with your time. The spread of gear and weapons matches that minimalist approach despite a minor upgrade resource grind, mainly because you’re limited to a sword and a dagger. Similarly, the skill tree, which you upgrade using points picked up during the main story and a few optional quests, is lean and streamlined with abilities and buffs to amplify certain parts of your stealth kit.
Despite its faults and playing it very safe, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a step in the right direction for Ubisoft, an exercise in concision and a solid attempt to rekindle what made early AC games memorable. It’s quick and easy fun, but it’s hard to brush off the sense that there’s maybe very little left to squeeze out an IP that’s nearing 20 years old now, one flogged and bled dry into a stale, drooping husk over thirteen mainline entries and nearly two dozen spin-offs.
Reviewed on PS5. Game provided by Ubisoft.