How often does the latest entry in a popular entertainment franchise promise to give you less than the one that came before it?
That’s the premise with Assassin’s Creed Mirage, the latest in Ubisoft’s video game franchise that throws players into different historical periods.
After multiple entries that pushed the boundaries of just how open an open-world game can be, Mirage promises to bring the series back to its roots for its 15th anniversary.
Perhaps most important is its length and scope: the game takes place in 9th century Baghdad. The main storyline should take about 20 hours to complete; if you take more time to play optional missions and find hidden treasures, that could stretch it into a 30-hour adventure.
It’s a dramatic shift from the last three games in the series — Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla — that boasted entire countries to explore and enough content to last up to 140 hours each.
The shift resurrected questions about just how long blockbuster-budget video games should be, whether creating a game with so much content can burn out even from a series’ most dedicated fans.
Mirage whisks you through the early origins of its main character Basim, who begins as a street thief in a small town near the outskirts of Baghdad.
Generous time skips and training montages see him recruited into the secret society known as the Hidden Ones, under the mentorship of veteran assassin Roshan (Shohreh Aghdashloo, who sci-fi fans might recognize from the TV adaptation of The Expanse).
You’re soon let loose to roam Baghdad proper like a pre-industrial Batman, conducting investigations to uncover the Order’s myriad plots. Unlike most Batmen, you’re then assigned to assassinate the Order’s highest-ranking leaders in gruesome fashion.
WATCH: Assassin’s Creed Mirage launch trailer
Scaling back the bloat
Reviews for recent Creed games have remained generally positive, but many critics noted that their consistent growth led to a sense of bloat and fatigue.
“It did get a little out of control for me. Like, I liked Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla; I don’t know if I ever made it to 50 per cent [completion] in any of those,” said Mike Minotti, managing editor of gaming news site Gamesbeat.
“So I was kind of yearning for going back to something a bit more city-based instead of country-based once again. So Mirage is kind of doing that for me.”
The smaller scope might prevent Mirage from fading into the background this year, as well. A handful of flagship releases — Starfield, Baldur’s Gate 3, and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom — can take 100 or more hours to play before you see everything it has to offer.
Video game length has long been a topic of heated debate.
With brand-new games retailing for as much as $80 in Canada, some corners of the gaming community have long argued that at such a high price, a game should provide as many hours of entertainment as possible — some even going so far as to posit an hours-per-dollar analysis.
“When I was young, I could really only look forward to playing one game a year. Games I could sink hundreds of hours into would have been a great investment for me back then,” said Jill Grodt, editor-in-chief at The Indie Informer.
“With the rise of subscription services like [Xbox] Game Pass and the overwhelming amount of ‘must-play’ games coming out in a year, I don’t believe many players are thinking in those terms.”
For creators making games with a narrative focus, keeping the length to something more akin to a feature film or a single season of television can make it “a tailored, purposefully designed adventure” that’s memorable for more than its sheer volume of content, she said.
“The lighter time commitment also gives players the viable option of rolling credits. With more people finishing a game, there are more people talking about that game.”
Does Mirage succeed or fade away?
All that said, Assassin’s Creed Mirage largely benefits from a narrower scope compared to its most recent predecessors. But Ubisoft’s dedication to tapping into the nostalgia of its earliest entries may make it puzzling to relative newcomers.
At its best, Mirage evokes memories of older games in the series: roaming the crowded markets and residential streets, clambering along rooftops, and stalking assassination targets.
It also retains some of the series’ old frustrations. Once in a while you’ll try leaping into a hiding spot only for Basim to jump on top of a building instead, alerting the guards you were trying to avoid.
Some enemy strongholds are guarded by a dozen or more enemies, all with complex and overlapping patrol routes. It can take a lot of time to scout and avoid them, lest you end up on the wrong end of a two-handed sword.
And while the briskly paced story avoids spending too much time with side plots, things move a little too fast for us to learn any more than the basic tenets of Basim’s character.
Despite the missteps and the writers perhaps leaving too much on the cutting room floor in the interest of a slimmer runtime, longtime fans should welcome Assassin’s Creed Mirage’s return to its roots. And players with busy lives can appreciate seeing the entire story without losing steam.