Assassin’s Creed really is an institution at this point, isn’t it? With eleven main series games in the eleven years since its inception (over twenty if you count the handheld and mobile entries) and a plethora of extended content of questionable canonicity, such as books, comics and short films to name but a few, it’s safe to say Assassin’s Creed has done just about everything at this point. Oh, and there was that movie. Hmm… I’ll give you the “terr,’ and you can attach the “ible” or “ific” as you please. So with that legacy on the table, we come to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Aside from a slightly botched reveal (a keyring of all things!) Odyssey hit the ground running and climbing and hasn’t stopped since. As soon as the review copy arrived, I jumped right in.
There can be no doubt when it comes to any video game series that some kind of evolution is inevitable. It’s almost impossible to continue any sort of creative endeavour without altering it in some way, though that can often lead to a mixed bag of results, and Assassin’s Creed is no different. Sometimes the innovations are brilliant (Black Flag’s ships), while at other times, they suck so much the game itself only requires you do them once (Revelation’s tower defence). The same points can be made for Odyssey, both good and bad.
“Yeah, I forgot why I climbed up here, but hey, the view is nice.”
Before I get into the genuinely nitty gritty bits of my review, I want to state that I don’t dislike this game, just a lot about how it’s been put together. Despite the colour of that box at the bottom of this page or whatever I say after this, I spent over two hundred hours hitting 100% in this game and I don’t regret it. Everyone who worked on this game has done such an absolutely phenomenal job, it’d be cruel just to dismiss all that, stamp my feet and cry “This isn’t MY Assassin’s Creed!” like I’ve seen others already do. That being said, for the eleventh main game in the series, Odyssey is the most removed from any sort of Assassin’s Creed history. Origins showed us where the order came from, so why, four hundred years earlier, are we already climbing and assassinating like the best of them? Nobody else in the game acts as we do. We don’t even get the hidden blade, despite Origins mentioning that it was the blade that killed Xerxes. In Odyssey, we haven’t gone that far back, as our character is the grandchild of Leonidas. Maybe it’ll get added in DLC, but I’ve already finished the game without it, so why bother? The only reason we’re doing Assassin’s Creed stuff in this game is that the series expects us to, not because it has been established or serves the story.
Okay, the story. Odyssey is at its core, a game about family. A strong narrative exists here, even though the open world and levelling system continually conspire to delay your progress. The family thread running from start to finish has suitable payoffs and some surprising emotional depth, at times. Add to this a new aspect for the series, namely being able to choose specific responses and actions, and the narrative can actually shift, ending up anywhere from very happy to quite bloody. I’m not going to praise this as something groundbreaking, as really, games have been doing this forever, but I will say it was interesting to see it make its way into this series. While I like that my choices allowed me to feel more responsible for my decisions and ultimately feel closer to my character, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense given that we’re reliving the memories of someone else. I guess your choices are what you make them, but don’t expect them to affect the conclusion of the story, just how you get there.
“Bring me all their money pouches first and then you can have their eyeballs, deal?”
Another nice inclusion, fully implemented after its prototype inclusion in Syndicate, is the ability to now play the entire story as either a male or female character. While this is purely an aesthetic choice, I’m pleased that the typical character tropes have been discarded here. Alexios may be quite chiselled and impressive, but he has a face like a rusty frying pan and sounds like he’s been gargling vinegar, while Kassandra is buff and rough, and speaks with confidence earned from experience. The both of them are covered in scars too. It really feels like they’ve grown up in the world they live in. I hope this dual character thing is something that continues for the series. No excuses, no pandering, just do it. It’s been a long overdue inclusion, and it improves the world immensely.
That brings me to my biggest issue with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the world. These games have always featured huge, detailed worlds, and being full of lush colours and rich, varied lands to explore for hours on end, Ancient Greece is no different. Drawing from Breath of the Wild’s toolbox, you can also climb just about anything now. This makes traversal of this gorgeous world a lot simpler, though as-the-crow-flies pathing to an objective, or quick travel, might make you miss a lot of the more beautiful details. The juxtaposition between Athens, with its clean white statues, temples and worship, to Sparta, with it’s darker bronze monuments to heroic dead warriors and fire braziers everywhere, it really sets the mood. On the other hand, it’s not such a bad thing when you realise that aside from this initial theming in the two main areas, the rest of the world is so damn big and full of nearly endless copy-and-paste filler.
“Oh hey… um… can you tell me where… the… uh… Pantheon is?”
I totally get that making a game of this size and complexity is probably about as hard as reading War & Peace in your lunch break, but come on. Take for example the military encampments scattered everywhere. Every single one of them is one of two identical designs, down to the same rock, fence and tent placement. After about ten of these, I ran them pretty much on autopilot, and there are probably close to a hundred, if not more. The same can, unfortunately, be said for all the tombs in the game, as well as the caves, not to mention small villages, leader houses, temples and so much more. All cut and paste rearrangements of the same elements. Filling a game like this is lazy and uninspired, and honestly, I haven’t seen this much glaringly obvious asset reuse since Dragon Age 2, and that is saying something. This is before you notice each one always boils down to “Find the ancient stele” or “Kill the whoever” or “Loot the treasure”. No personality, no substance. Just do it. This mentality also extends to the combat in the game. While a lot smoother than Origins, it gets very dull very quickly, and every single fight can be cheesed with some furious button mashing, special abilities and well-timed dodges. At least stealth is a much more viable option this time around, which really shouldn’t be something I need to say for an Assassin’s Creed game, but here we are.
Busywork is the overall theme of this game. Many of the systems from Origins have been revisited and unnecessarily bloated to fit this much larger game. Rival mercenaries replace Phylakes and are now generated endlessly and tied into a bounty system loosely linked to your actions. There was more than a passing glance at the Nemesis system from the Mordor games for these encounters, though the final product lacks any of the personality. The inventory management system has been overhauled as well, but it still very quickly fills up with hundreds of different weapons, armours, and tonnes of sellable junk. Then we have the Cult of Kosmos. As the second major plotline in Odyssey, the Cult takes the revenge targets idea and expands it to over forty members, though barely a quarter of these masked losers turn out to be pivotal to the main story. If you actually hunt them all down and reveal their leader, I’m sorry to say, you’ll be disappointed. We’re talking “punching the Pope” levels of dumb here. I know they were trying to be profound with the reveal, but it was (literally) a bloody waste of time.
“I just love what you’ve done with the place. The robes, the masks, the big snake and the glowy thing. Beautiful.”
The same can be said for the Peloponnesian War that is the overarching setting for this game. Aside from a few central quest moments where you fight for one side or the other, it is entirely inconsequential. You can participate in conquest battles for either Athens or Sparta after destabilising a region, culminating in a big fight. Don’t get too excited though, because while I tried to honour my Spartan heritage and turn the whole map red, after finishing for the day and coming back the next, I found multiple regions had switched back entirely on their own. There isn’t even any benefit to installing one group over the other. Banners and soldiers will change in each region depending on who’s in charge, and that’s about it. It’s such a wasted game mechanic, I don’t know why they bothered.
On to other things I don’t get why they bothered, ship combat is right at the top of the list. In Black Flag and Rogue, ship combat worked so well because the culture of the time had evolved to perfect those kinds of engagements. In Origins, it returned as a tedious distraction but was thankfully very short. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, it’s back again, bigger and somehow worse. You’re seriously expected to sink multiple ships with only arrows and javelins. Oh, and ramming. The only part that makes sense is ramming, as that is what Triremes were designed to do. The devs could have at least given us the option of smashing an enemy ships oars, to immobilise them, or arrows could have weakened the offensive nature of the ship, thus making them easier to board, but no. I honestly had more fun just swimming over and solo-killing everyone aboard and then zipping back to my ship. This was something I did in Black Flag and Rogue for fun, but here, it’s almost the preferable alternative to ship combat.
“Only the most experienced misthios know how to deliver death by dab.”
The last thing I’m going to address is the present day plotline. All fifteen minutes of it. Layla Hassan, the Animus user from Origins, is back, and aside from a quick chit-chat at the start of the game with her handler, you only see her three other times in the entire game. Even after a zinger character development moment for her, we jump right back into the Animus and carry on, because after what we just saw, yeah okay, that’s the more important story. Zero follow through, no resolution. Because of the way I played things, completing everything on the whole map first and hitting level fifty, I’d already completed everything I needed to unlock this secret-ish ending, and the game gave me no indication that it was going to result in anything more or less significant than the other two. The credits didn’t even run after this or any of the endings because the game doesn’t know which one you’ll encounter first!
Now you can’t tell me that I played the game wrong because there is no wrong way to play a game presented like this. Despite its astounding scale and length, it’s just structured so poorly. Previous Assassin’s Creed games dealt with this by having physical memory barriers to specific locations or encounters, even in their open worlds, and they were suitably explained too. You’re reliving memories, so you just can’t do that part yet, because that’s not how it happened for the character. It was a smart game mechanic that ensured a structured method of story-telling even in an open world, and unfortunately, it’s gone out the window with so many other Assassin’s Creed mainstays. This is why I got a story that peaked in the middle and then stumbled its way into a conclusion. Not how I expected to end my Odyssey.
“Oh yeah, I picked all the optional extras. Stained wood oars, hand-stitched sails, a killer figurehead and free servicing for ten years!”
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a brilliant and beautiful game, but it’s also very clearly abandoned too many of its own time-tested mechanics in favour of ones from other games. The inclusion of narrative choices is nice and selectable genders was long overdue, but then so much of the game is spent on pointless side content that offers nothing to overall gameplay except to fill the unnecessarily oversized map or delay the story. It was encouraging when Ubisoft skipped a year to develop Origins, and I’m relieved the series is going to be taking another year off in 2019. While Odyssey isn’t a bad game by any stretch, I think a more extended break might be in order, to help the series rediscover its identity. Odysseus was lost for ten years before he finally found his way home. Maybe one day, Assassin’s Creed will too.