How Ubisoft Bordeaux Built Assassin’s Creed Mirage’s Golden Age Baghdad
Assassin's Creed Mirage brings players to 9th Century Baghdad during the city’s Golden Age. More specifically, the year 861 is when protagonist Basim Ibn Is'haq's journey begins in this city, the technological and cultural epicenter of the region at the time. After playing more than two hours of Assassin's Creed Mirage in developer Ubisoft Bordeaux's France-based office, I was impressed with its take on Baghdad.
I love the open-world RPGs of the series' recent years, especially Assassin's Creed Origins and Odyssey, but I’d be lying if I said I was a fan of their respective cities. It's not that I didn't enjoy them, but they weren't memorable in the same way Assassin's Creed II’s Florence or Assassin's Creed Unity's Paris was. And that's because these cities were inserted into gigantic maps I’d eventually wholly explore. In Mirage, the majority of the game happens within the city walls of Baghdad and already, I can see how well the team has built it to be a parkour playground and a narrative hotbed for Basim’s Hidden Ones training.
It feels like, for the first time in years with this series, I'll be able to know a city intimately, learn the best parkour paths, and master movement across it, both from the ground and its rooftops. It's refreshing and aligns well with the spiritual connection between Mirage and the first Assassin's Creed, which Mirage serves as a 15-year celebration of. I spoke to Ubisoft Bordeaux about how it built Baghdad, especially in light of learning this Baghdad was destroyed by Mongol invasion in 1258.
"It’s true, nothing's really left," Mirage artistic director Jean-Luc Sala tells me. "But at the same time, Baghdad was not the only city. There were some older cities around like in Sumatra. We went to expert historians and started to investigate and rebuild [Baghdad]."
Sala says the team looked at writings of people documenting the Mongol invasion, writing about their travel to Baghdad in years past, and understanding their descriptions of this city. He says the team doesn't have physical material of this Golden Age Baghdad, but a lot of literature on it (and much of that literature was scattered around the office on various bookshelves and desks). With him leading the visual charge of Mirag's Baghdad, he also pulled a lot on his time living in the region.
"I grew up on the other side of the Tigris River before the [Iranian Revolution in 1979]," he says. "It was really, really intimate for me to know that I was going to work on this kind of setting. It's not a setting I know, because I'm not old enough to have been in the 9th Century, but the sun, the light, the people [...] I knew them and I wanted to be true to that kind of memory. For me, it's a paradise lost. We lost the city, but I also love this part of my life and it had an emotional impact on me – the feelings, the smells, stuff like that."
Sala says he and the team are especially excited to shed new light on a city that, today, is likely better, albeit unfortunately, defined by its place in America's war in Iraq and the surrounding region, as well as media tropes and cliches.
"When you work on Vikings, everyone has an idea of what the Viking Age should be," Sala says, explaining the training everyone went through to better understand 9th Century Baghdad and the region's culture. "It's hard to find some real truth to what [Baghdad] was. Every time, it's just idealized or cliche-esque in a way, so it was a really nice challenge to find […] something fresh and true for people."
As for actually building the city in-game, Sala says the team focused on density. The studio's first project it led, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla's Wrath of the Druids DLC, was about massive landscapes in Ireland. But, honing in on one city brings the focus back to traditional Assassin's Creed parkour.
"It was not a choice for us," Sala says. “It was just like, 'We want a city to go to.' It felt like saying, 'The boys and girls are back in town.'"
Creative director Stephane Boudon says the team knew it should start with the city from the beginning of development. "The fact was that the background of Basim was already there with Baghdad at the center and when we started to do research on Baghdad, we discovered so many materials to create a wonderful story and immersive city."
Sala says building Baghdad also made for an easy spiritual connection to the first Assassin's Creed. Mirage gives the team an opportunity to bring back a Middle Eastern setting like the one that started the franchise, and doing so brings with it the region's unique architecture and city layout that's great for a parkour adventure. He says Baghdad gives you a familiar feeling to Assassin's Creed's Jerusalem while also feeling unique.
"Everything was already there," he adds, noting that Baghdad feels perfect for an Assassin's Creed adventure.
After my hands-on time with Mirage, I'm impressed with Baghdad. It feels lived in, fun to explore, and most importantly, like a city I can memorize as Basim would. I only visited two of its various districts, and I didn’t get to go into the Round City at the heart where a massive palace resides, but I can't wait to do so next month.
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