The worlds of Assassin’s Creed games are expansive simulacra, gleeful condensations of historical domains ranging from Renaissance Rome to Victorian London. While the stories that sit atop these lands are often laden with clunky characterisation and cookie-cutter quests, the places themselves are lush with detail, built from the painstaking research of hired historians.
Assassin’s Creed Origins presented a vast version of Ptolemaic Egypt, encompassing a highlight tour of ancient cities and monuments. The adventure of protagonist Bayek was a memorable romp, but the real star of Ubisoft’s game was the meticulously crafted environments of Alexandria, Memphis, and umpteen other settlements. A new mode from the game’s creators aims to squeeze more juice from these efforts, turning the game’s playground into an educational framework for budding egyptologists.
After a few hours with Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour, I can say that Ubisoft has done an outstanding job at hoisting its gameworld into a new purpose, offering a surprisingly broad range of bite-size lessons about Ancient Egyptian life. The big hitters are here; the great pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx both get plenty of attention, but it’s the tours centred on quotidian aspects like farming, beer and burial that really illuminate the world of the game.
There are 75 tours split across five categories, each of which is a self-contained diorama spread across a small part of the game’s map. First you choose an avatar from 20 options, including a heap of Bayek variants, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, random citizen models and modern-day characters (I went for the latter, all the better to seem like a time traveller). These no difference in content depending who you choose, although it’s amusing to see Caesar care so much about grain production.
The ‘tours’ are dotted around the world map, structured around pre-existing setpieces that have been tweaked to include extra details and make them easier to access. I’m told that the game’s version of Memphis, for example, has been made simpler to navigate. The idea is that the educational mode is accessible by everyone, and doesn’t hinge on a certain level of skill. As well as a free update to the main game, the Discovery Tour is also available on uPlay PC and Steam as a separate product US$19.99; useful if you’re a teacher that wants to bring Ubisoft’s game into the classroom.
“We tried to understand the need for teachers, but not replace them,” Maxime Durand, resident historian for the Assassin’s Creed franchise, tells me. “We know that, in the end, most people that will play this will be the players. They’ll move from the main game to this, and it will transform their experience. In the main game you don’t take the time to look at things the way you do in the Discovery Tour. Teachers are welcome to use the tool with their students if they feel it is appropriate, but we never meant to replace them.”
Is there a tension between a mode that aims to educate players about a period of history, and a game that is fundamentally built around the concept of killing people in said period of history? Perhaps, although the line between the two experiences is made clear by Ubisoft’s decision to let players choose their own avatar, and the lack of any combat while in Discovery Tour mode. Rather, the mode’s emphasis on paying attention to small environmental details, and the success of that approach, made me hanker for an Assassin’s Creed game that offers a totally different type of experience: a Memphis-set detective adventure, perhaps; or a Gone Home-esque exploration of the pyramids.
Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour makes great use of its source material, and also peppers in a few interesting tidbits about game-development decisions. Here’s hoping Ubisoft make it a staple for future entries into the series – presumably that will depend on Ubisoft’s hunch that players as well as schools will care about the world they’ve carefully created.