Oh I have been looking forward to this one for a long time. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is just around the corner as of time of writing, and though I know I’m not terribly likely to play it on release – such a thing is the antithesis of the patient gamer ethos after all – it is nice to feel caught up on a franchise for once. So, was the long wait – not to mention the hours spent playing and reviewing the many, many Assassin’s Creed games worth it?
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Stadia, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2018 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
It seems we are back to yearly releases. Assassin’s Creed: Origins released 2 years after its predecessor and that seemed very necessary at the time; Assassin Creed games were flooding the market with a rigidly adhered to yearly release schedule and audiences were clearly tired of them. The longer release gap allowed Ubisoft to drum up a bit more interest and support, as well as throw some fuel on the fires of invention and come up with some new ideas. It’s a shame then to see that Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey came out only a year after Origins, and frankly it shows.
I shall preface all this though by pointing out I have definitely enjoyed my time playing Odyssey. That said, it seems unavoidable to me that throughout the majority of my playthrough I was struck by the sense that almost everything was already done better in previous entries, especially Origins.
Naturally for an Assassin’s Creed title, the game world is vast and brilliantly detailed. It seems a bit unfair and jaded, but at this point I’m not that impressed by that; Ubisoft have always prided themselves on creating rich and vibrant worlds for this franchise, and this deep into the series I find myself being affected most by moments that seem alive more than the graphical fidelity on display. The hubbub of Renaissance Rome, the grim reality of public executions in Revolutionary France, and the roar and rush of trade on the Thames all stuck with me during this journey through the games. The meticulous detail in the everyday life of Egypt wowed me during Origins, and Odyssey offers much the same look at Peloponnese Greece.
Similarly, the variety of landscapes to see seems diluted when compared to its predecessor. Origins might have begun in the rolling, golden sands of the desert but Bayek’s journey took us through bustling oasis towns, the throng of Alexandria, and the sickly streets of Memphis. Deserts gave way to the marshlands surrounding the Nile and to desolate, red-rock valleys, while Cyrenaica featured grassy mountains and the looming shadow of Rome. Much of Odyssey’s Greece resembles this latter locale, with hills and grasses a constant companion in contrast to the diverse land of Egypt. There are some different places, naturally; rosy autumnal forests, barren volcanic shores, and of course the vast cities that formed the centre of Greek culture such as Athens, but it all feels of a type. Stunningly beautiful, and often illuminated gorgeously by the marvelous lighting engine, but somehow it feels a mite less engaging than Origins
Much of the gameplay is lifted and adapted from Origins’s shake-up of the series. Combat is largely identical, with the addition of abilities that can be activated to give you an advantage during fights. As in Origins you can lock onto enemies, dodge, parry, and perform light and heavy attacks, all the while building up a power meter, which can be expended to use your new abilities. I will admit it’s undeniably fun to perform Leonidas’ famous “This is Sparta” kick from 300 and punt enemies over cliffs, and other abilities are indeed useful; many foes are shielded and being able to rip their protection from their hands and fling it away helps a lot with that, and obviously it’s cool to set your sword on fire and swing at people. The problem is it’s difficult to say exactly what this adds to the combat in Odyssey; rather than a concrete improval over Origins’ system, it’s more just an additional step having been added to it.
These abilities are tied to Odyssey’s upgrade paths, which again are a feature reprised from its predecessor. Though both games feature ability trees split into 3 different pathways, Odyssey’s are a bit more focused, linked specifically to Warrior, Hunter, and Assassin skills. There’s nothing forcing you to focus though; I found my playstyle necessitated bits from all 3. In theory this is to further cement the series’ RPG credentials as the franchise moves farther from its action-platformer-stealth roots and towards the kind of action RPG that is currently en vogue. Like a lot of AAA attempts at this, it’s mostly surface-level but I feel like that’s mostly the level it ought to be; it leaves it accessible without falling into the kind of number- and stat-crunching that I love and that saner people balk from.
Bloated maps remain a consistent criticism of Assassin’s Creed and it’s not without merit. While playing Odyssey however I started to feel like it’s not exactly a problem of Ubisoft’s making however but instead an issue with the vast majority of modern-day open world action-rpg titles. Obviously players have an expectation of content when paying so much for games and the typical response (and one which Ubisoft embodied for many years) was to simply pepper the map with the same recycled and familiar activities. They are getting better though; Origins saw the introduction of more meaningful sidequests with solid narratives and mission structure and Odyssey continues this trend. Players can find plenty of solid sidequests throughout Greece, plus the freely released Lost Tales of Greece add in several multi-stage quests with somewhat longer plots. The map is naturally still absolutely plastered with the same ever-repeating elements though to fill up players’ time; viewpoints to scale, bandit camps to clear, and animals to hunt are the regular recurring busywork activities that Assassin’s Creed has to offer. I appreciate the effort put in to try and give a bit of differentiation at times; for example, sometimes camps aren’t merely bandit camps but belong instead to specific named groups, such as the Daughters of Artemis or the Sons of Xerxes, but all this really results in is a different skin on the enemies.
Some camps are military encampments, which ties into one of Odyssey’s more thematically appropriate elements. The game is set during the Peloponnesian War and so Athenian and Spartan armies can be found locked in combat across Greece. Each region of Greece is under one faction’s control and by completing activities in it control can be swayed to the other. These activities are essentially more of the same busywork; killing key leaders in the area, looting national treasures, and burning military supplies all lower the power of the dominant faction and eventually a special battle can be triggered. Taking part in it can secure victory for the defenders or the aggressors and should an invading force win the camps change hands and are repopulated, while the player is handsomely rewarded for their efforts with exp and loot. Other than at a couple of points in the narrative, there’s no reason which necessitates your involvement with the war, and I kind of like this. There’s a bit of scope for roleplaying here; you can approach it as a pure mercenary or take a stand and try and secure Greece for a chosen faction, though doing so is largely for the purposes of achievement hunting or personal satisfaction.
Loot is another part of Odyssey which has been expanded on from Origins. The latter featured a loot system that allowed players to hoover up tonnes of different weapons, which could be equipped or sold; Odyssey takes it a step farther by having loot include armour pieces. Each bit of loot is visually represented on your character – call me old-fashioned but I’m always excited by this – and in a really good twist to the system, players can freely change the appearance of their armour. This means that you no longer need to deliberate about equipping a better piece of equipment just because it looks crappy; instead you can equip it and then change its appearance back to one you’ve already acquired. It sound inconsequential but that bit of customisation was something I really enjoyed; having that bit of control over your character’s appearance is a feature I hope to see repeated in future titles.
Origins introduced the concept of philakes, powerful mercenaries who were dotted about Egypt and if nearby would converge upon Bayek and often promptly kill him. They were minibosses, with an associated quest to track down and defeat each of them in difficult fights. Odyssey takes this idea and runs with it. Our main character – either one of the sibling duo Kassandra or Alexios – is a misthios or mercenary and Greece has no shortage of competitors for mercenary work. If the player wreaks havoc by killing civilians or stealing in plain sight, fellow misthios can be hired to kill them, and will hunt them down across the map; others can often be found simply roaming the land looking for work. Either way other mercs are an infinite source of miniboss battles and defeating them leads the player to climb the ranks to become the best misthios in Greece. It is essentially an adapted form of the Nemesis system from the Shadow of Mordor games, but far stripped back. Mercenaries can have attributes like being afraid of fire or a resistance to arrows but never anything more substantial.
One feature that makes a belated return to Assassin’s Creed is sailing. After a hiatus from the series – and a brief return for a handful of missions in Origins – Odyssey puts the player in command of the Adrestia and lets them loose upon the high seas. It makes sense; much of the Greek states were spread across the Aegean archipelago and getting between them would be a bit tough if you didn’t have a ship. The sailing will of course be quite familiar to any veterans of Black Flag, Freedom Cry, or Rogue though here it’s a bit less complex. Your ship can be sped up to ram enemy boats and volleys of javelin and arrows can be fired at opponents; an early upgrade also unlocks fire arrows and javelin to inflict more continuous damage. Once an enemy is damaged enough they can either be boarded and the crew slaughtered which refills the Adrestia’s health, or they can be rammed and cleaved in two, sinking them and spilling out precious loot. As with Black Flag, sailing and nautical warfare remains a surprising joy and time-sink and upgrading the Adrestia can take up a fair bit of your playtime.
I realise I’ve been very into the mechanics and the nitty-gritty of playing Odyssey and mentioned barely anything of the story. After a thoroughly gripping opening that lets us play as Leonidas himself at the Battle of Thermopylae – you bloody bet I kicked enemies galore off the cliffs – we resume as either Kassandra or Alexios, a Spartan exile making their career as a misthios on the island of Kephallonia. A chance rescuing of a captain sees our character given command of the Adrestia and a shady individual named Elpenor gives them an assassination contract, and our character sets sails into the wide world of Greece and straight into the Peloponnesion War.
These games are set much earlier in the Assassin’s Creed timeline and unsurprisingly can’t focus on the conflict between Assassins and Templars due to neither party existing yet. Like Bayek in Origins our characters quickly run afoul of a secret organisation that is influencing the world from the shadows. For Kassandra and Alexios, the Cult of Kosmos become a powerful threat; an extensive and anonymous organisation, the Cult seek to manipulate the war and Greece to their own ends and they quickly make an enemy of the player. This extends into a wider and long-running quest to eradicate the Cult. As a small note, I love how this is presented in gameplay, with clues given about a small handful of Cult members. You’re then expected to track them down and assassinate them, leading to more clues to yet more members with the final aim of taking down the Cult’s leadership. Like Origins, this game is a lengthy action-rpg – perhaps the longest yet in the franchise – and players can expect to invest a significant amount of time into beating it. Completing the campaign can still leave you with a fair amount of Greece left to discover, so you’re certainly getting bang for your buck.
It feels good to have finally reached here. Barring the expansions to Odyssey I’m all caught up with the franchise, and Odyssey has been an eventful and enjoyable way to reach it. I admit I’ve grumbled at points, but neither the endless comparisons to previous titles or the revelation that it’s just not quite on par with them should obscure the fact that Odyssey is a fantastic game. It’s densely packed with meaningful content, charming and witty banter between the cast, and core stealth and combat systems that have been refined well over the many years the franchise has been going.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.