An assassin and his bird.

Going Back to Basics, Assassin's Creed Mirage Loses the Essentials

Cameron Kunzelman

The lore of the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been building for 15 years. Across that time, through third-person action games, 2D side scrollers, comics, a movie, digital short films, mobile games, a Facebook interactive experience, and more things so weird that they cannot be properly summarized in a list, Ubisoft has been making this massive world. For all that time, the story has been relatively simple: In the deep past of humanity, we were created by a precursor species called the Isu as a slave species. Their species collapsed; ours lived. Two factions, the freedom-loving Templars and the control-hungry Templars, have fought under those names and others to determine the path of humanity. Sometimes they fight over Isu artifacts, and they rumble.

However, in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, it was revealed that there was a wrinkle in this relative simplicity: Some of the Isu are in us, uploaded into our DNA so that they might live again. As we learned that information, we discovered Basim Ibn Ishaq, a ninth-century proto-Assassin hailing from what is now Iraq. Valhalla gives us Basim as a villain, perhaps one of the greatest video game villains of all time, although his treachery is buried behind 50 hours of gameplay that many might not have gotten to. He’s clever, he’s dedicated, and he’s (for all purposes) a god in man’s clothing, a creature with the memories of an Isu and a desire for revenge.

So when I realized that Mirage was meant to be a story about Basim’s rise from street thief to Master Assassin, I became excited in a way that I rarely am about a video game. The opportunity was there for something explosive, threading together the loose ends of Valhalla and connecting broader franchise questions about the emergence of the Assassins in the time before the setting of the original Assassin’s Creed. I’ll shortcut it for the busiest among you, but it doesn’t work out that way.

In the run-up to Mirage’s release, I kept hearing through official and unofficial channels that it would be a game that took us “back to basics.” I spent months wondering what that meant. Would we get single-kill assassinations again? A focus on free running and simpler mechanics? More footraces? Bureaus?

It became very clear within the first few hours of Mirage, a game that you can complete in maybe a dozen hours and 100% in around double that time, that the "basics" mostly concerned slicing off supposed complications. The game map is small. There is no longer a complicated leveling system, but instead, a short skill tree that you fill out with skill points primarily collected through story completion. There is a limited set of gadgets, weapons, and armor, and they mostly all function the same way with little variance. The mechanics of assassination guide every interaction: sneak and assassinate, but fight if your life depends on it. Mess any of that up, and it might be better to reload from your last save.

A screenshot of Asssassin's Creed mirage depicting a hooded assassin in conversation with a man wearing ornate clothes. Roshan is saying, "A blow from one of us is a blow for all of us. Or does your ego demand the honor?"

It's frankly shocking how small the conceptual world of Mirage is, from its mechanics to its locations and story ideas. The Assassin’s Creed games have spent more than a decade dedicated to the most embarrassing maximalism, with bloated game worlds filled with too much activity wrapped in a story that brought in all of human history, along with some creator species to boot. It became a massive, sprawling mess, only understandable due to the massive fan labor of wikis and explainer videos. Whatever your perverse gaming desire, whether it be Animus fragments, The Truth, fighting Legendary ships or riding Syndicate’s extremely neat train, the Assassin’s Creed games exist to feed it to you. These are the motors that spit out gaming power, and they need you in there helping with the machine. 

So what does a game like Mirage get from stripping all of that away?

In Mirage, Basim's journey is shortcutted in the most bewildering ways, and it's what I would call "unearned." Mirage just stares you right in the eyes and says “Look, you get it. He becomes a big important guy. This is a time in his life when he had problems.” It's so simple that it's almost insulting, as if we’re all here to pass the time rather than engage in the robust world that Assassin’s Creed has given us before.

Look, I'm not saying that each entry in this franchise needs to be sprawling, bringing back characters, ideas, and magical implements from previous games or expanding on the world in huge ways. I just expected something more substantial about the most interesting villain from the entire series, to actually sit with him and his feelings in a serious way. Instead, we are provided with the series' greatest hits, which pull beats right out of Rogue, Black Flag, and Unity to bludgeon us over the head about the dangers of orthodoxy and the power of the human spirit to rage against authority, even if it’s an authority meant to save that very human spirit and preserve it against the forces that would assail it.

This is the real problem with Mirage, a game that goes down easy and contains very little to form an opinion about, let alone a strong one. By paring the game back to “basics,” the creators made a judgment call about what players care about and what is extraneous, and it made the game weaker and less interesting. It ultimately robbed Mirage of its ability to really engage with both its in-universe fiction and the broader real-world history that it treats as its playground.

A man swaddled in bandages kneels while another man toys with a bizarre looking metallic contraption covered in strange sigils.

Take, for example, the decision to return to the original Assassin’s Creed’s bureau system. In the first game, it was a way of dispersing quests and obligations from city to city or district to district. You go to the bureau, you meet with the weirdo who works there, and you get down to the business of overhearing conversations, stealing Gatorades, or whatever Altaïr was up to that day. In Mirage, the purpose of the bureau is to introduce you to a short questline in one section of the city, grounding you in a specific struggle and, ultimately, leading you to one of the handful of Big Bads that you're pursuing across the game's plot. 

What’s gained here is a compelling way of making it clear that Basim is part of an organization, something that has basically been abandoned over the last three entries. However, what's lost is a sense of a cohesive whole, or even a coherent story about Basim himself, who flitters back and forth from cause to cause without a sense of time or place between them.

In Origins, we lost the Assassins as an organization but were stuck with Bayek for so long that we got a sense of the blow-by-blow development of his character across a few dozen hours. With Basim, we get a dilettante who eventually gets treated like royalty, with not enough connective tissue between those two points in his life. We spent what feels like a short amount of time with him, and every development for him is not about his character but instead about his goals. At the end of the game, what I can tell you about Basim is that he is a guy who killed some people. I do not know what he loves and hates, loathes or celebrates. He is merely an excuse for gameplay actions to occur, and to go from his ending in Valhalla to his beginning here and to learn, essentially, nothing about him is one of the biggest disappointments I've had in a video game in a long time.

A kind way of putting this is that the Assassin’s Creed formula has been stripped down; a less kind way is saying that it has been stripped for parts, reassembled, and presented with a yearning enthusiasm where satisfying character development used to be. 

A gameplay screenshot depicting the assassin following behind his interlocutor who is saying, "No normal man. But look at me. I obey no one. I am ruled by no one. I am free."

I might have weaker opinions here, or at least say them in a more roundabout way, if I thought it didn't matter. But Mirage is the first game in the series to return to the Middle East since the initial Assassin’s Creed, which was set during the Crusades and presented the Assassins and Templars as the “real” struggle happening beneath the surface conflict between European crusaders and Saladin. The lore adapted there, and brought in as the foundation of the franchise, is based almost entirely in occult conspiracy theory and Orientalist rumors. The legends of the zealous Hashashin, Hassan i-Sabbah, and the Old Man of the Mountain, who promised young adherents paradise in exchange for complete and utter loyalty unto death, moved out of their original historical contexts and infected European imaginaries with tales of mystical assassins risen from sand-blown keeps for hundreds of years, returning again and again.

Broadly, I'm sanguine about Assassin’s Creed’s attachment to history. History is its playground, and I have no expectation that historical dramas will be 100% accurate. However, in this case, the Assassins — really the Nizari Isma'ilis — are an actual religious group, often persecuted through the medieval period, and they still exist today. A return to the “simpler times” of the first game is also a return to its original decisions, which turned to the legends about the Isma'ilis as little more than an engine for the adventure gameplay. It feels so odd, in 2023, to continue down this path without having a more robust conversation about the actual history of the period in which the game is taking place.

I’m in it for the fenders, the shiny chrome, the subtle hue of the headlights. If all you’re giving me is a motor, there’s not enough to keep me dedicated to the road.

This is made more difficult because it's clear that an immense amount of care has been put into depictions of ninth-century Baghdad. Religious rituals are properly depicted, the political situation of the Abbasid Caliphate drives the broader plot, and parts of the game even take place at an under-construction religious stronghold in Alamut. There is a real dedication to getting details right but a seeming unwillingness to re-engage with some of the broader contexts that the Assassin’s Creed games have taken as gospel since their creation and which this game could've spent time addressing or, in the least, reworking.

However correct the visuals, the audio, and the level design are, the general vibe around the use of history here feels “stripped for parts," especially in the section centered on the Zanj Rebellion, a long-running slave revolt that extended across decades. Historically, the revolt is contested: some hold it was a revolt specifically of East African slaves that made up a portion of the war-fighting and laboring population of the Arab medieval period; others hold that it was closer to a class-based revolt based on a series of related issues. Wherever you stand, Mirage is barely able to make the revolt coherent as something that occurs, making it look as much like a cult of personality as a concentrated, mass movement of rebellion for change. 

By pulling all of the storytelling out of the game, and by ensuring each questline only sustains for an hour or two, Mirage takes its world-historical events and makes them look like footnotes to somebody else’s banal story. I cannot imagine how it's possible to make the story of the largest slave revolt in history up until that point boring, but Mirage makes it not only possible but executes that banality perfectly.

The watchword of the game bleeds through all of these plot events, big and small: back to basics. Stripped down. Ripped apart.

A hawk is seen swooping over a valley bordered by white-capped mountains. To the left a crumbling masonry temple or fortress stands towering above on a bluff.

Mirage is a fine game overall. It plays well, and there is an audience out there for a 15-hour Assassin’s Creed experience. However, in stripping itself down to the bare chassis, it reveals its own inner workings, and it turns out that the core of the franchise might not be enough to sustain a new game. It certainly revealed to me where my pleasures lie — I’m in it for the fenders, the shiny chrome, the subtle hue of the headlights. If all you’re giving me is a motor, there’s not enough to keep me dedicated to the road.

The worst victim of all of this is Basim, the great villain, reduced to a random Joe Schmoe who is essentially robbed of any kind of revelation around his truly interesting character. He’s the victim of a storytelling trick so awful that it has worked approximately one time in cinema: Rule 1, do not do this. Rule 2, do not do this. And yet Mirage goes there, inadvisably, and creates a relentlessly hollow ending. 

As a fan of these games, I can’t help but think that the game’s unwillingness to delve into its own history, to treat the previous games like they are radioactive waste that needs to be avoided for the good of the game, just fundamentally makes it dull. It dims the whole enterprise, and by the time Basim delivered his final monologue and merely hinted at the developments that we know will come later in his life, through the experience of Valhalla, I wondered what and who the hell all this was for.

Cameron Kunzelman writes about video games and culture. His first book, The World is Born From Zero, is about science fiction games. He podcasts about books and collective imagination at Ranged Touch.

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