Assassin's Creed Origins has exceeded our expectations by some distance. After the disaster that was Assassin's Creed Unity and the solid but unremarkable Assassin's Creed Syndicate, it was clear that Ubisoft needed to take a step back and reassess its sandbox property. Fortunately, the company made the right call when it decided to keep Origins in the oven for an extended period, because the Egyptian instalment is easily one of the strongest entries in the entire series.

Things do start off a bit cold, though. This latest historical adventure thrusts you straight into the action as protagonist Bayek, who's busy murdering members of a mask-wearing cult. It's a good few hours before you're really clued in on what's happening – only then are Bayek's motives fleshed out sufficiently with flashback scenarios and cutscenes.

But it's important to stick with Origins through its potentially confusing opening act. Once you're free of Siwa – the starting location and Bayek's hometown – the game's open world expands dramatically, and you soon come to realise just how vast and beautiful this virtual recreation of Egypt actually is.

Without a doubt, the game's greatest asset is Egypt itself. Ubisoft has crafted a truly phenomenal open world here, absolutely stuffed with detail, personality, and atmosphere. The effort that's gone into making the title feel alive is staggering: wildlife is everywhere, from flocks to flamingos to roaming lion prides, and big cities heave with people and dynamic events. Assassin's Creed has always managed to entertain with its sandboxes, but Origins has the best of the bunch. In fact, we'd go as far to say that it's one of the best open world maps that we've ever explored.

However, for all of its strengths in design and attention to detail, Egypt still adheres to your typical open world formula. The map's peppered with question marks and quest markers, and there'll be times when you find yourself tediously hopping from one point on your map to the next in search of adventure. The sheer openness of Egypt ensures that Origins doesn't fall into the same map marker hell as something like Unity, but if you're sick of the the usual sandbox structure, then Origins won't do much to relieve your genre fatigue.

Ultimately, it feels like someone at Ubisoft spent a long time playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and decided that Origins had to follow in its supremely successful footsteps. The release is far more of an action role-playing game than its predecessors, complete with loot, skill trees, static enemy levels, side quests, and a completely new combat system. Thankfully, this shift in direction works out very well. The loot is enticing, there's a thrill to be had in taking on higher level opponents, and for the first time in a long while, the combat feels focused.

Gone are the days when you press a button to counter an enemy and instantly kill them and all their friends. Contextual actions are out, replaced by a far more engaging system that falls in line with the likes of Bloodborne or the aforementioned Witcher title. You make use of light and heavy attacks while soaking up blows with your shield, and dash away from danger when you see someone winding up a swing. There are a bunch of different weapon types to master – each with their own strengths and weaknesses – and for long range encounters, you've got a set of bows. In short, the changes mark a large step forward for the series.

Having said that, the controls are a little clunky, and, on rare occasions, they can feel frustratingly unresponsive. Attacks have a satisfying weight to them and the finishing animations look great, but there are times when certain enemy attack patterns seem overly cheap, and the lock-on system can feel unwieldy to say the least. In other words, the combat's a bit hit and miss when it's at its worst, but overall, these annoyances aren't quite enough to overshadow what it gets right -- and it gets a lot right.

Speaking of things that aren't quite perfect, the main story and the game's many side quests do stumble now and then. Starting off with the plot, we'd say this is one of the better tales that Assassin's Creed has given us. Bayek's an endearing lead – somewhat distant at first but he has a believable humanity to him. His story is one of vengeance and there are definitely cliches dotted throughout, but systematically wiping away Egypt's evils is compelling as you assassinate one bad geezer after another. There are certainly some bright spots here as well: Bayek's relationship with his wife is intriguing – both of them consumed by revenge – and several creative dream sequences really help set the tone of this often mystical Egyptian adventure.

But Ubisoft had to go and bring back the bloody modern day rubbish, didn't it? Fortunately, the rare stints of modern day story that are forced upon you aren't exactly lengthy, but they still tear you away from the much better half of the experience. Outside of Bayek's memories, you play as Layla, a forgettable Abstergo field agent who drops internet memes into her research notes. It's woeful stuff, and, as always, it all feels so unnecessary – especially when you just want to get back to wandering deserts and delving into ancient tombs.

Meanwhile, the title's side quests aren't as bad as you might expect. Sure, some of the weaker tasks do boil down to go here, kill this, go there, find that, but there are some genuinely interesting smaller stories weaving their way through Egypt. One quest in particular sees you journey in search of a ritualistic killer, with Bayek examining bloodied remains and piecing together the culprit's goals. Egypt's history is steeped in superstitions and strangeness, and many of these quests bring those elements to the forefront in entertaining ways.

It goes without saying that Origins is a big game. Open world activities are piled on top of an already lengthy story, and optional time sinks such as chariot racing and colosseum tournaments can keep you busy for a lot longer than you might think. And as if that wasn't enough, you've also got freeform activities like hunting and plenty of treasure chests to seek out and crack open. Is there an argument to be made for Origins being too big? Perhaps, but we found Egypt to be such an incredibly well realised setting that we never grew tired of exploring it.

Before we hit the conclusion, we have to at least mention the game's microtransactions. In a very similar case to Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Origins' in-game purchases simply feel unnecessary. It's crap that they're included at all in a single player title – we get that – but why you'd stump up real cash on loot boxes when the title already supplies you with an abundance of effective equipment is beyond us.

Conclusion

Without a doubt the best Assassin's Creed game since Black Flag – and right up there with the best entries in the entire series – Assassin's Creed Origins is a top notch open world title. Egypt itself is the star of the show, Ubisoft having meticulously crafted a stunningly detailed and varied landscape, but outside of the setting, a parade of gameplay and design improvements make this the roaring return to form that the franchise desperately needed.