Assassin’s Creed Mirage hands on: gently pushing you back into the shadows

By Julian Benson, Contributor
"Murderer!" A woman in the crowd shouts after me as I walk past. She recognized me from a wanted poster—no doubt put up after I made a mess of infiltrating the customs house, killing all the guards in a noisy brawl in the process. I have a reputation on the streets of Baghdad, and it's doing me no favors. I scramble up the wall of one of the clay brick houses that shoulder the street and sprint away over the rooftops before she can fetch the city watch.

In Assassin's Creed Mirage, your mistakes leave a choppy wake. If you murder guards in plain sight, you gain notoriety. At first, you simply become more recognizable, with civilians alerting soldiers if they see you. If you keep messing up, however, you'll find archers posted to the rooftops lining the streets, ready to turn their bows on you as soon as someone raises the alarm. Ruffle enough feathers, and the ruling Caliph's elite guardsmen will begin patrolling the city. As a member of The Hidden Ones, it makes sense that you should keep your kills in the shadows.

It's not that I've been a member of the secretive group for long. At the start of Assassin's Creed Mirage, our protagonist, Basim, is just a street thief, getting by picking the pockets of unwary merchants in the market. After spotting his aptitude for keeping out of sight, The Hidden Ones take Basim to the mountain fortress of Alamut to teach him to cut throats as well as he does purses.

Like his fellow Assassin's Creed heroes, Basim kills with a higher purpose than your average murderer, only snuffing out the lives of the leaders of The Order and its acolytes. This authoritarian group operates in darkness, worming its way deep into Baghdad's upper society, taking over its harbors, markets, and city guards. So, while the woman on the street may see a murderer, you’re simply using your blade to sever The Order’s grip on the city.

A return to the beginning

Ubisoft has made no secret that Mirage is a return to the original vision for the series. When the publisher launched Assassin's Creed in 2007, the key phrase used in its marketing was “social stealth." Original protagonist Altair isn't a killer who hides in the shadows; he wraps himself in the world. You could walk undetected through crowds of civilians, closing the gap on your target in plain sight before slipping a blade in their back and making a hasty escape.

In the years since, there have been 12 mainline Assassin’s Creed games, each expanding the vision for the series. The development teams added ships, settlement management, a loot system, giant battles, and many more features besides. While the series has grown in ambition, it has lost its focus, and Ubisoft wants Mirage to recapture it.
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Once again, you can hide in the crowd, using clusters of similarly robed characters to slip past guards and get closer to your targets. You can now also use tokens to pay groups of mercenaries to cause trouble, distracting any wary watchmen. In some missions, you have multiple ways of reaching your target: winding your way through throngs of civilians, or climbing and sneaking your way into their private chambers. Of course, you can always try a frontal assault, but that's not necessarily in the spirit of the game.

Ubisoft hasn’t taken the loud approach away from you, but, as with the notoriety system, it makes it more challenging. With a gentle hand, the developer is pushing you to approach Assassin’s Creed Mirage as the social stealth game that the series was originally supposed to be. Yes, you have a sword and dagger that you can wield in hand-to-hand combat, but—following in the footsteps of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla—your health will not regenerate automatically, so extended battle can see your life bar whittled away to nothing. You can down elixirs and eat food you discover in the world to restore your health, but these are rare enough that you can't always rely on them.

Combat is more straightforward than the recent games in the series, taking a step back from the multi-disciplined approach that first arrived in Assassin’s Creed Origins. At no point in the demo did I have the option to swap to an enemy’s spear, axe, or hammer; Basim apparently sticks to the weapons given to him in his Hidden One training—a sword, a knife, and a utility belt stuffed with throwing knives, smoke bombs, and enemy-distracting noisemakers.

Basim can perform a light attack by tapping the right shoulder button on your gamepad and a heavy attack by holding it down. If you can parry an enemy’s thrust, they will flash gold as they lunge at you; tapping the left shoulder button will deflect the swing, leaving them open for a counter swipe, or even a killing blow. If the attack is too strong to parry, your enemy will flash red, and you can tap a button to dodge out of range. This straightforward approach makes tackling a single enemy efficient, but multiple attackers can quickly become overwhelming. Again, this gently reminds you not to assault groups of enemies head-on.

A stripped-back approach

Recent Assassin’s Creed games took the series in a direction similar to The Witcher 3. These games feature a vast array of armor pieces and weapons to be found in crates throughout the world, bought in shops, and earned in battle against bosses. In Assassin’s Creed Origins, Odyssey, and even the simplified Valhalla, you would spend a lot of time in an inventory screen assessing the merits of different loot, weighing up if you wanted the boots that had softer soles for sneaking or the ones that gave you more armor at the cost of stealth. While the approach gives you the freedom to build an assassin that plays to your strengths, it also takes you further away from the original vision for the series. Assassin’s Creed Mirage's gear system has been stripped back to the essentials, returning you to that first focus.

While there are different outfits to acquire through Assassin’s Creed Mirage—including some Ubisoft will sell through microtransactions—they are purely cosmetic. You enhance Basim’s abilities not through gear but through the tools, skills, and upgrades you unlock as you progress through the street thief’s story. As he uncovers and assassinates the members of The Order who hold Baghdad in their grasp, he grows stronger.
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Each of these tool—throwing knives, smoke bombs, and noisemakers, to name a few—are effective when first unlocked, but can be upgraded with materials you find in chests, completing contracts, and pickpocketing unsuspecting characters. You can, for instance, extend the range of your throwing knives, making them more effective for assassinating guards at a distance.

As you complete missions, you will also unlock skill points to invest in Basim’s skill tree. While this is similar to earlier games, it’s telling that relatively few of the skills enhance your hand-to-hand combat. Ubisoft clearly is pushing you to embrace the secretive nature of the Hidden Ones. One skill, for instance, allows you to chain assassinations together: you can either stab two guards standing next to each other or throwing a knife at a distant guard immediately after slitting the throat of one near you. As you can imagine, if you’ve upgraded your throwing knives, you can chain-assassinate guards at a greater distance. In this way, the narrower focus on tools, skills, and upgrades supports a stealth playstyle instead of the diffused approach of recent Assassin’s Creed games.

Perhaps the clearest sign that developer Ubisoft Bordeaux wants you to take a soft approach is the new “Assassin Focus” ability. If enemies haven’t detected you, you can highlight a string of targets and watch in slow motion as Basim instantly assassinates each in turn. It’s practically a superpower, but you can only recharge it by silently killing enemies.

Slender, not starved

While Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a smaller game than the likes of Valhalla and Odyssey—both in terms of feature set and sheer geography—the city of Baghdad is a dense metropolis filled with activity. Market stalls line the streets where people barter for food and cloth, town criers shout out your recent exploits to anyone who will listen—and, for a bit of coin, will also sing your praises, which lowers your notoriety level—and men and women cluster around fires cooking and talking. Ubisoft has spent years perfecting the art of making lived-in cities, and Baghdad may be one of the best of them.

It’s not all surface-level, either. Threaded through the city are the members of The Order you must uncover through investigation missions; then, of course, there are the main story missions, as well as Contracts, which have returned from previous Assassin's Creed games. This system for side missions lets you take on jobs at the Hidden One safe houses dotted through the city. These tasks offer more than just another target to kill. Some will see you escorting an ally of the Hidden Ones, or stealing an item from a well-guarded manor house. The contracts will often have an optional objective, such as completing the mission without being spotted, or harming anyone other than the target.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage may not be a mainline title, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a minor spinoff. It plays like a soft reboot for the series, and it shows that Ubisoft hasn’t lost touch with what captured our attention in 2007.

You can pre-purchase Assassin’s Creed Mirage on Epic Games Store now.