Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Review
The Mediterranean isn’t the most expansive body of water, but the wealth of stories it contains puts it directly in competition with the rest of the world outside of it. The clash between Perseus and Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur, the twelve labors of Herakles and the tale of Jason and the Argonauts are some of those to name a few and these are only the famous, mythological ones. Prominent writers and philosophers of the time spoke to the tragic and comedic elements of everyday life while also making some of the earliest and greatest strides in placing ourselves in the world around us. Greece, at it’s height, marked a turning point in history, a fact that Ubisoft cheekily exploited to transform Assassin’s Creed during its latest installment. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the eleventh mainline installment in the series, places you as a misthios, or mercenary, who is navigating Ancient Greece in the midst of the political turmoil caused by the Peloponnesian War. The game does this while also trying to embody every trope of modern game design and just about every famous talking point of the time.
I missed last year‘s Assassin’s Creed Origins, which was meant to serve as a revitalization or the series, as the game marked the first time since 2009 that there wasn’t an annualized release in the stagnating franchise. Even though the game came hot off of a particularly rough transitory period for the series, it was met warmly since it evolved the franchise into an open-world action-RPG – a template that’s helped many of the biggest games of the last two generations reach the heights they have. Origins, anecdotally at least, seemed like a breath of fresh air, apparently distancing you from the overbearing trap that is the series‘ mythos and focusing on a more intimately told story, narrowing the ambitions but simultaneously honing in on what was immediate and worth a damn. Odyssey takes the next step in this evolution, growing your range of abilities, implementing a dialogue system that offers you choices and features the series’ most expansive and vibrant world yet. The result is a game that often feels too big for its own good but nonetheless feels like a representation of the version of Greece I’ve grown with, a fact equally worthy of merit and derision and that complicates the identity of the series and the tones it strikes even if it is a whole bunch of fun when it does work.
Perhaps the most stark change comes at the start of Odyssey, which prompts players to pick their gender. You can choose to be either Alexios or Kassandra, two Spartan siblings who brusquely get torn apart by forces beyond their comprehension, setting off a chain of events that they could never see coming but that you might. In my case, I chose to make Kassandra a sympathetic mercenary who often fought for the little guy while desperately trying to bring her family back together and being more than willing to shed some blood to make it happen, aligning her more with the Ezio’s and Edward Kenway’s of the series. Her and Alexios make for the right kind of middle ground that allows the story to be a little all over the place while also allowing you to imprint on them. She was a little charismatic, a little bit of a rogue, a little bit of a hardass that hated waxing philosophical with Sokrates, making for an inconsistent but fun character to mold and play. The actors voicing both Kassandra and Alexios do as great a job as they can in bringing these sort of amorphous characters to life enough for you to care for them, even if you don’t care for what’s happening around or to them.
Choice most heavily factors into Odyssey in its story and its approach to it. In the broadest sense, it allows you to pick between three stories to chase at any given point once they’re unlocked. All three intersect at some point or another but are mostly divorced from each other and strike clashing tones which leads to an alarming disconnect despite the quality of them all being generally up to snuff. The primary story for example is an often light-hearted romp through Greece aptly titled Odyssey, whereas the second story concerning the hunt for the Cult of Kosmos plays more to the politics and cloak-and-dagger that you may be familiar with from the series. While the main story isn’t bad, it’s ultimately a messy affair that detracts from the main point enough to make the second and more direct story a more compelling one. It’s subject to terrible pacing as it builds to a climax and then makes you spend the next 10-15 hours jumping through hoops just to move a couple pieces close enough together for the final act. It was more akin to a series of events that justified sending me to the furthest stretches of Greece than anything else. On the other hand, the third story transcends the simulation of reality to peel back the mythological layers and pit you against creatures you never thought you’d find in Assassin’s Creed. It’s the shortest and wildest arc and just serves to show how far from reality the series has come and how incredibly here for it I am.
Dialogue choices you make in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are pertinent as they alter characters‘ perception of the player-character, the ending they’ll get, and will open up new avenues for you to explore throughout the mission at hand. Remembering what someone said to you could be the difference between a fight, a negotiation, or even an interrogation. Choosing to go off the beaten path to find a side activity that ties back into the main plot can color the story an entirely different way, though these interesting choices usually come around during side stories more than they do in the main one and are actually better conveyed there, too.
For example, my favorite story in the game comes from the island of Mykonos, an out of the way place you’re never mandated to go, where a rebellion is trying to find its footing against a tyrannical ruler. The leader of the rebellion employs both you and a spartan general who respond at the same time. Both of these leaders agree something should be done but can’t agree on how, so picking between them spells the difference between stealthy missions and all out brawls. A sub-side quest though will give you key information that could change the way a certain character views the situation at hand, complicating their once simple goal. As you continue prepping for the final fight, you can grow closer to either, picking up on a romanic tension between them but also between your player character and them, allowing you to pursue a romance in the middle of a small war and permanently affecting their relationship with the other. The end sequence leaves you to make dialogue choices that alongside the intel you gathered and the potential love triangle can spell the difference in making the story a greek drama or tragedy. It’s not a revolutionary bit of storytelling but it works incredibly well and shows how much nuance is capable of conveyance in these new systems.
By comparison, a late game dialogue choice in the main story that seems obnoxiously close to another makes all the difference between the “good” and “bad” endings, the latter of which was the one I received. Up to that point, every choice had been so black and white and lacking in nuance that I very easily checked off every box to get the desired ending, only to be thrown off the one time it demanded it. These aren’t the only parts lacking too. Romance, a new part of this game that comes packaged with the dialogue system, is as simple as selecting every dialogue choice with a heart, even if it feels really forced. So while the mechanic is occasionally put to good use and I understand it as a way to allow the player more agency over their character, across what ultimately matters, it feels superfluous.
Under the Influence
What became most evident playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was the influences of other games, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt being the most obvious. Side quests dot the map, the world is mostly wide open during your first few hours and on top of it all you can make dialogue choices that even bring to mind the exact UI used in The Witcher. Much like it, Odyssey boasts a significantly improved and active combat system, which in turn encourages a lot of gameplay that you might find unfamiliar if you missed Origins last year. Encounters and missions revolve much more around open combat that shows off your incredible new agility and acumen, turning you into an aggressor rather than a defender. This time around, the skill tree also provides a good balance between active and passive abilities that let you build up a gallery of techniques that you can point in one direction or balance out for all types of approaches. I preferred playing stealthily and at range so I built up my Hunter tree (bow and arrow) and Assassin tree. This let me supercharge arrows for ranged takedowns, take down multiple foes with a deadly scattershot while occasionally being able to close the distance, distracting someone with a lieutenant I’d recruited and throwing my spearhead into their back in order to rush to their position and get a quick kill in. For the more battle ready folks, yes, there is a spartan kick to utilize and yes it feels particularly fantastic to knock someone right off a cliff. While every game under the sun has skill trees that function similarly in theory, it’s most comparable to The Witcher, where building up combat over magic, for example, was a conscious choice that changed the approach you took to any scenario and the ability to remap your skill points at any given point encouraged me to frequently redistribute them to try a challenge again.
The influences don’t just end with that immense game. Odyssey comes complete with a hybrid of open combat and stealth in an open world that feels lifted from the lunacy of Metal Gear Solid V. It’s got camps of enemies waiting to be eliminated much like the design that Far Cry 3 helped shepherd into the mainstream and has more expansive versions of those in forts much like Far Cry 4. A bounty system and a network of mercenaries that chase you around the world, allowing you kill your pursuers and climb the ranks, is Ubisofts response to the Nemesis system of Shadow of Mordor. Nations are subject to your whims as you locate and assassinate political leaders and eliminate their resources, crippling them until you can toggle a Conquest Battle, a mission that drops you onto a battleground littered with friend and foe in order to flip the political leader of the region ala Mafia III.
As you are hopefully beginning to understand, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is massive, pushing on the boundaries of most open world games and drowning it in content and opportunities for play while heaping systems atop it all that help disrupt the flow should you begin to feel comfortable and like your progress has flattened out. Sometimes that can be a lot. Mercenary disruptions and naval battles can be fun until they throw more than one at you and the shit hits the fan. Conquest battles lose their luster fairly quick and the game forces you down that particular route on more than enough occasions to make it a tiresome inevitability. Content can feel incredibly overwhelming around the midpoint of the game and that’s sort of the time where it should start building upward rather than outwards, shooting the pacing of the game in the foot as you’re forced to take on the occasional side quest or seven in order to make progress. It’s a game that screams regulation and curtailing but actually lacks it, which leads to a lot of bloat in the form of throwaway quests that don’t amount to much except running between two characters for minimal gain. In order to hold that much content, Ubisoft built a world worthy of journeying through.
The Name’s the Game
Whether it be Makedonia in the north or Messara in the south, Greece feels and looks like what I’ve always thought it would. Some lands are abundantly green and beautiful, others have an arid desert feeling to them and my favorites feel positively autumnal. Cities are separated by mountain ranges or bodies of water, just like my sixth grade teacher taught me, but they importantly don’t feel worlds apart. Carving through the sea to your next objective or riding horseback to the other side of the country tends to be the most effective and therapeutic palette cleanser. On these journeys you’ll come across the charred remains of villages caught in the crossfire of war, seaside ports, regal cities such as Olympia and Athens and even occasionally just completely desolate islands. Wherever you go, there is something to do, someone to see and a naked statue to climb. Impoverished towns play host to characters like a shady kid giving you a “tour” of their town that ends in a dimly lit cave while Athenian and Spartan generals alike encourage you to go behind enemy lines to tick goals off their wartime check list.
The greatest thing about exploring the Greek world is not that the world feels lived in, a turn of phrase I’ve exhausted myself, but that the world feels in line with the people who would’ve populated it. Young boys want to grow up to die in the service of their country and become hollowed out soldiers foolishly seeking glory over happiness, women are beset on all sides by an overtly patriarchal society and reclaim what power they can, and maybe most important, everyone wants to have sex. It’s the rare AAA game shockingly upfront and no nonsense about its politics, especially in regard to the sexuality of a lot of its cast. All the familiar shakers and movers are present and I can confirm that Ubisoft ran with the “rumors” of promiscuity and made everyone horny and very very queer without being showboat-y about it (Shoutout to freshly minted bisexual icon Alkibiades). What this all contributes to is a vision of Greece that remains a beautiful, outspoken land that plays home to a series of diverse people but with a lingering history of awfulness and a shade of personality that explicitly sets it apart from most other Assassin’s Creed locales and feels more realized than its predecessors.
Part of that is the characters and part of that is the construction of its world. Assassin’s Creed has always been obsessed with meticulous detail but whereas that used to be utilized for immaculate recreation, Odyssey, and likely Origins before it, have turned that around to fuel the incentives of the game world. Tombs mark a dramatic shift in tone from the open world shenanigans and are randomly chanced upon while out on your countless journeys and just about every uniquely named place has some sort of objective waiting like killing an Alpha Animal, clearing a bandit camp, or diving off the side of your ship to plumb a shipwreck. Regardless of its depth, the series environment has shifted from one satisfying to look at to one satisfying to play in, a move I wholeheartedly can get behind.
The problem remains that it’s all a little too much though. Clocking in at over 70 hours, I’ve yet to complete side quests that I found in the occasional village or five and have trouble justifying my returning to them. There are whole islands and landmasses that I’ve still not explored and don’t even get me started on the mercenaries I haven’t beat or the forts and camps I haven’t even glanced at. I don’t think the game handles this scale well all the time. A sizable enough amount of the content that I played through just prompted me to question why it was worth putting in the game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sometimes comes across as a whole game that was copy and pasted time and time again until they landed themselves a big enough playtime and world to ship and last a casual player a month or two. Games in the AAA space always feel like they need to be big but working my way through Odyssey (with this in mind particularly) just made me think that this work can’t be sustainable. It’s draining on me as a consumer and infinitely more so on the people who worked on the game to fill it to the brim with content that despite their hard work is just not as fulfilling, well implemented or meaningful as the best the game offers. It begs the question if we should clamor for games like this to be made.
At the end of my time with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I can’t remember if I heard the Templars and Assassins invoked five or seven times nor can I remember how few times I leapt from a rooftop to plunge my blade into an unsuspecting target. Yet despite that, I loved its retooled approach to combat, its focus on choice, the ability to interact with the world beyond my blade and its abundantly populated and lovingly realized world. However, it’s also a game so divorced from what it used to be that I’m not even entirely comfortable calling it by its whole name. More than anything it feels like a checklist. Open-world? Check. Action-RPG? Check. Dialogue choices? Check. Layering of systems that interact with each other in occasionally messy ways? Check. It’s a good game, even a standout one in it’s lineage, but its firm lack of commitment to any one thing, its overindulgence and lack of regulation also points to a game that is often a formula for success trying to meet a standard than it does an audacious game striking out on its own, which at the end of the day is exactly what this series started as.