After a trilogy of massive open world action RPGs, all I wanted from the next Assassin’s Creed game was a smaller, more condensed experience that was more in line with older instalments in the series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of fun with the Origins trilogy, but after three overwhelmingly large games, the series had clearly gotten to a point where it needed another reset. As a massive fan of the franchise’s earlier instalments, then, all I wanted from Mirage was for it to be just a straight-up old-school Assassin’s Creed game.
And that’s exactly what it is, nothing more, nothing less. It’s a smaller, shorter game, with a more condensed open world, and a core mechanical loop that completely eschews the RPG mechanics of recent instalments, and instead places renewed emphasis on stealth and parkour- and every single one of those reversions works out for the best. Though there was once a time when Ubisoft had managed to completely milk the old Assassin’s Creed formula dry, to the point where most people couldn’t stomach the though of another game built on that same framework, after the last half a decade, the hunger for another one of those games has increased dramatically, and Mirage, as such, lands triumphantly.
"All I wanted from Mirage was for it to be just a straight-up old-school Assassin’s Creed game. And that’s exactly what it is, nothing more, nothing less. It’s a smaller, shorter game, with a more condensed open world, and a core mechanical loop that completely eschews the RPG mechanics of recent instalments, and instead places renewed emphasis on stealth and parkour- and every single one of those reversions works out for the best."
Set several decades before the events of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Mirage stars a much younger Basim as its protagonist – who had a major role to play in Valhalla as well – and tells the story of how he joined and then rose through the ranks of the Hidden Ones while fighting against the Order of the Ancients’ widespread evil in the city of Baghdad. And as you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed game, that setting is really the star of the show here.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a single-city setting in an AC game, but Mirage shows yet again just how good the series can be when it’s that focused on a singular place. Baghdad is an incredibly realized city, boasting strong atmosphere and visual design, and most of all, an obsessive level of attention to detail, something that the series had once been known for, but had lost to a great extent with its recent, much more expansive offerings. Intricate and varied architecture, gorgeous natural landscapes, and authentic audio design combine to make Baghdad feel alive and immersive in a way that series veterans will find quite familiar. Like many of its predecessors, Mirage excels at transporting you to its location in the most thorough and immersive way possible.
But though I was always eager to explore more of Baghdad and learn more about the city’s rich history and culture, the story that the game tells is in itself nothing special. This is a series that has boasted some truly memorable characters over the years, but sadly, that’s an area where Mirage fails to impress. Basim, of course, is a character that Valhalla fans will find easy to get invested in, thanks in large part to the fact that he’s a known quantity, while Roshan is another solid personality, and voiced excellently by Shohreh Aghdashloo. Beyond those two, however, the game’s cast doesn’t make much of an impression, which, in turn, means that some of the story’s biggest conflicts and personal arcs don’t carry much weight.
The actual storytelling is also a bit sloppy. A large proportion of Mirage’s cutscenes don’t seem to have used motion or performance capture, which means animations for characters during key story moments often feel stilted, while things like clumsy dialogue, a few rushed developments, and poor voice acting for the vast majority of the cast don’t help either. Given Mirage’s more grounded setting and premise, I was hoping for another classic Templars vs Assassins tale that would keep me hooked until the end, and I was disappointed not to find that here.
"Intricate and varied architecture, gorgeous natural landscapes, and authentic audio design combine to make Baghdad feel alive and immersive in a way that series veterans will find quite familiar. Like many of its predecessors, Mirage excels at transporting you to its location in the most thorough and immersive way possible."
It’s a good thing, then, that Mirage’s Baghdad is more than good enough to bear the weight of that disappointing without buckling, even on the actual gameplay side of things. In terms of design, the city is helped massively by its more condensed size. Every location feels like it was painstakingly handcrafted, and there’s an impressive amount of variety in the things you’ll see and places you’ll visit in and around Baghdad. Thanks to its smaller size, meanwhile, the map also lacks the trademark bloat that has plagued the franchise for some time. Yes, there are plenty of side activities to hunt down, from side quests to collectibles and more, but it never feels like the game is going overboard with how much content it throws in your direction. Exploring that open world also always carries a certain level of threat that’s been missing in Assassin’s Creed for too long, thanks to the returning Notoriety system. Having to ensure that you don’t attract too much attention to yourself while moving through the open world lends a different flavour to Mirage that we haven’t seen in the series for a while.
The game adopts a similarly focused approach with its mechanics as well, and once again, in this area, it borrows liberally from its predecessors. Assassin’s Creed was once a franchise that was focused, above all else, on parkour and traversal, and that’s very much the case once again in Mirage. Where the Origins trilogy turned it into a combat-driven action RPG experience, Mirage de-emphasizes and discourages combat constantly, and instead pivots to a much more stealth-driven gameplay style. Enemies hit much harder, and Basim isn’t nearly as deadly in out-and-out fights as the likes of, say, Kassandra or Eivor. A lot of that is also down to the fact that the combat in Mirage feels decidedly clunky and sluggish, and yes, that is very much by design- but it’s still one of the game’s most frustrating elements.
In the absence of superhero-like combat abilities, however, Basim is instead forced to rely on his assassin’s toolset, and that toolset is a fairly simple one. Throughout the course of the game, as you progress further in the story, you gain access to about half a dozen weapons and items, and though there aren’t any surprises in here – barring some new tweaks like the Assassin Focus mechanic, which lets you chain together multiple assassinations – how you use that toolset is always immensely enjoyable. From blowdarts and throwing knives to smoke bombs and more, Mirage gives you tried-and-tested options to distract and hide from enemies, and finding clever ways to make use of those tools to successfully sneak through a heavily guarded area never stops being satisfying. Add to that the return of social stealth mechanics – like hiring groups to distract guards, or slyly assassinating a soldier while sitting on a crowded bench – and classic Assassin’s Creed hiding places – like veiled cupboards and rooftop gardens – and what you get is a game where there’s never any shortage of options for being sneaky.
"From blowdarts and throwing knives to smoke bombs and more, Mirage gives you tried-and-tested options to distract and hide from enemies, and finding clever ways to make use of those tools to successfully sneak through a heavily guarded area never stops being satisfying."
The missions themselves have also been designed very well to take advantage of the stealth-driven gameplay. The vast majority of them function as well-constructed stealth arenas that constantly encourage you to combine your stealth and traversal abilities in creative ways, and nowhere is that more abundantly apparent than in the black box missions. Making a return from Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate, these are big set piece missions where you’re given an ultimate goal in a large, heavily defended location, after which you’re free to decide how to complete your objective, with the freedom to choose one of several different available methods. These are the sandboxes where the game’s stealth mechanics really stand out, and there’s quite a few of them.
There’s plenty to be impressed with where the game’s traversal mechanics are concerned as well, as I’ve alluded to earlier. Ditching the “climb anywhere” philosophy of the Origins trilogy, Mirage instead goes back to the more precision-focused approach of earlier Assassin’s Creed games, which means you have to actually study your environments, which have been specifically designed around parkour. You’ll be looking for handholds, clambering over rooftops, walking across ropes, pole-vaulting over gaps, swinging around corners, leaping across stilts, and running through open windows. Of course, as was the case even with older Assassin’s Creed games, it’s still a pretty automated process, but it does demand at least some level of engagement, and thanks to the silky-smooth movement and excellent animations (many of which return from older instalments), parkouring through the city always remains fun.
Keeping in line with the focused nature of the open world and the stealth and parkour mechanics, Assassin’s Creed Mirage also heavily pares down its progression mechanics. Gone are the massive, intricate skill trees and loot and gear optimization of recent instalments. Here, you’re given just a single tree with a few upgrades spread across three branches, while the loot and upgrade mechanics are also implemented in the most fundamental way possible. I hesitate to call it a good progression system, largely thanks to how basic and limited it is, but that also kind of works out in the game’s favour, allowing it to remain focused on the things it wants to remain focused on, rather than being bogged down by unnecessary RPG systems.
"With Assassin’s Creed Mirage, you’re going to know exactly what you’re in for- an old Assassin’s Creed game made in 2023. And that is, by far, its biggest strength."
From a technical perspective, Mirage is a solid game, and is once again helped by its smaller scope. With a more condensed world and a less complex gameplay experience, this is a much less buggy experience than the series’ recent instalments, while visually, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Yes, characters and their faces lack the level of detail that would make them believable as humans (which isn’t light criticism by any means), but the city, its architecture, and the natural landscapes surrounding it are consistently a sight to behold, no matter how much time you spend with the game.
In almost no department, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is anywhere close to being refreshing, inventive, or even too complex- it’s a game designed specifically to be pretty much exactly like the Assassin’s Creed games of old, and it takes that edict to heart. On some rare occasions, however, a lack of originality and a slavish devotion to recapturing past glories can be a good thing, and this is one of those rare cases. With Assassin’s Creed Mirage, you’re going to know exactly what you’re in for- an old Assassin’s Creed game made in 2023. And that is, by far, its biggest strength.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Baghdad is an incredibly realized, richly detailed, and highly atmospheric setting; The open world's design is helped massively by its more condensed scope; A tried-and-true collection of stealth tools and abilities, used in a way that's consistently fun; Well-designed stealth objectives and arenas, especially in black box missions; Proper parkour makes a glorious return, and remains fun throughout the game; Looks gorgeous.
Bland story and storytelling; Sluggish combat; Characters' faces don't look great; Some might be disappointed by its lack of originality.