Medusa, Monsters, and Mercenaries — an Assassin’s Creed Odyssey preview

While talking with Jonathan Dumont, Creative Director of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, he casually mentions that this newest title will be “easily” over 100 hours of gameplay. To say that Odyssey is the biggest Assassin’s Creed yet is an understatement, and even more impressively, it bings more than just fetch quests to the table. The team at Ubisoft Québec (with the help of a whopping seven supporting studios) has hand-crafted an entire world to experience and explore. I’ve gotten my second hands-on opportunity with the game, and I came away even more impressed than I was at E3. I can’t tell you everything I saw, not because anything was secret (everything was permitted!), but because I simply can’t encapsulate it all without turning this into a novel. Instead, I’ve got some great footage of an extended questline, and some tidbit observations, and the aforementioned interview. Ready yourself, Spartans.

Kicks to the chest. So many kicks to the chest.

With Origins, our predecessor predated the Order of Assassin’s, so many of his tools and techniques were improvised and undisciplined. Here, we see an even larger shift. Whether you pick protagonist Alexios or Kassandra, both are Spartans, everything about them exudes the warrior ethos. I saw this quickly as I crested the hill in the first combat sequence.

A local woman has been accused of being in league with “The Writhing Dread” in the nearby petrified forest, and the the locals in their “wisdom” have chosen to sacrifice her as their solution to the problem. You step in and rescue her, pitting your Spartan might against the combined forces of several equally-powerful warriors. While the E3 demo (you can see that footage here) focused heavily on the player’s first moments in the game, this demo was all about what happens near the latter portions of Odyssey. The Ubisoft team jumped us forward to the endgame content, providing us with legendary weapons and nearly every skill in the game. Amazingly, this first fight was still a challenge. In my posession is a special artifact that links the player with a mysterious and storied past — the Spear of Leonidas, which has been revealed to be a First Civilization artifact. Immediately I noticed that combat is faster, dodging is more important, and enemies are happy to gang up on you and wreak havoc on you in teams. I dance around in this video above for entirely too long before I unleash one of my special attacks and decimate them in short order. Enjoy!

Play your way — stealthy, warrior, or archer, or a mix of all three as you see fit.

One of the central frustrations with Assassin’s Creed titles of days past were accidental assassinations or desync conditions. To combat this, the team has overhauled this system entirely with a Grand Theft Auto-esque Mercenary system. There are 50 hand-built Mercenaries that act as enforcers for the world. Cracking open unattended boxes used to be a favorite Assassin pastime, but if those boxes are owned by someone, that’s called stealing. Similarly, if you stab someone innocent, that’s called murder. If your theft or murder is witnessed, Mercenaries will come to address the situation. These soldiers of fortune are armed with special weapons and attributes like extra health, poison or paralysing arrows, or even tamed animals flanking them, just as easy examples. If your crimes are egregious or sustained enough, you’ll draw the attention of two, three, four, or even five of these incredibly dangerous individuals simultaneously. While skilled players might be able to withstand the assault of several rank-and-file soldiers, these Mercenaries are no joke.

If you can defeat them (or any soldier you encounter) without striking an ultimately fatal blow, you’ll be granted an opportunity to recruit them to your ship’s crew. These recruited Lieutenants grant bonuses for your ship such as faster reload speed, increased ramming speed, or additional damage for fire arrows, as examples. They will also join you on boarding parties for damaged boat assaults, and can even distract mobs on land to assist in stealth efforts. It ties in nicely with the game’s new enemy scaling system. One of the issues with Origins was that zones that were low level remained that way. In Odyssey, the zone will continue to power up with you, though it will never fully match your current level. It ensures you are challenged throughout the game, regardless of where you roam.

Nine tiers of named mercenaries await you.

Speaking of roaming, there is plenty of that to do. There are a total of 28 different cities to visit in Odyssey, and each one is thematically different than the last. We saw a bit of this in Origins when visiting “blended” cities like Alexandria versus the more traditional Egyptian areas near the Great Pyramids. Even locked into the demo area of the Island of Lesbos, I saw vast forests, sprawling cities, and small encampments that were all obviously hand-built and placed with purpose.

As players roam through the city-states of the area, they’ll encounter various factions. Spartans faced off with Athenian rivals most famously, but there are also Daughters of Artemis who worship their namesake — the goddess of the hunt, the Followers of Ares who follow the God of War, bandits, cultists, and several smaller factions, each with their own garb, weapons, and motivations. Some are highly skilled hunters who use spears and shields, while others skillfully employ bows and arrows. We didn’t get to see the faction system in action much, but I was told that our interaction with them, and the choices we make (trade, whether we choose to use lethal or non-lethal methods, etc.) would have a direct impact on our relationship with those groups.

Mercenaries add special powers to your boat crew, and will fight for you on land.

During our extended mission demo, I was tasked with finding a spear and some special artifacts that would help me with my encounter with the not-so-mysterious “writhing dread” (read: Medusa) I was to slay. During one mission, I ambushed the camp of the Daughters of Artemis. When I returned the mission, I was asked whether or not I had to kill any of the Daughters. I chose to be truthful and admit that I did kill two of them, but they felt nothing as I killed them quickly. I could have lied and faced potential consequences of that choice later on. Since one of the quest givers in the game is Hippocrates (father of the physician’s oath to do no harm), his tolerance for my murderous antics would likely be somewhat less than that of others. Similarly, Sokrates, the famous philosopher, would have much and more to say about my choices.

Dumont again casually mention during a later chat that, while Origins had roughly 4-5 hours of “interactive cutscenes”, Odyssey will push this to over 30 hours. With player choice now being a large part of the game, narrative decisions will drive the storyline. Naturally, if you are here for the action, you can simply choose the “get on with it” option and press forward, but for those who are invested in the backstory, it’s here in a way we’ve never seen before.

Each mercenary is kitted out in a unique fashion with their own powers.

Our time with the game was highly focused on the more supernatural elements and endgame content for this engagement, but I did take a little time to harass the locals on the sea. With a nod to predecessors like Black Flag, we see the return of upgrades for our ship, the Adrestia, allowing players to improve their ramming damage, flaming arrows, and other stat-based weapons, as well as cosmetics like sails and figurehead. While my ship’s bow was adorned with multiple giant snakes head before my battle with Medusa, I was happy to add her entire torso, head, and likeness as my new figurehead upon her defeat. There were quite a few slots for unlockable cosmetic goodies, so I’m eager to see what lies on the horizon.

Naval combat functions a bit differently than before. Instead of purchasing mortars, grape and chainshot, and other specialized ammunition, combat is instead based on weaking specific areas of a ship and then capitalizing on that weakness. As you unleash regular arrows and pilum (javelins) on your enemy, you’ll charge up the ability to unleash flaming variants. These cause fire damage — something that is absolutely terrifying, even on a modern vessel. As the enemy scrambles to deal with the fire threat, you’ll likely see a weak area on the ship appear that you can now exploit with the ram of the Adrestia. Crashing the ram into this area can cause massive damage to the ship, ripping it in two. Unlike the entirely-committed ramming of Black Flag, these are more controlled maneuvers that sees your rowers drag or blade their oars to guide you into position with far more precision. Tearing a ship in two has two advantages that become immediately apparent when facing multiple opponents — it restores a portion of your health, but it also creates a temporary flotsam blockade that prevents the enemy from doing the same thing to you for a short period of time. Naturally, you can board the ship with your aforementioned Lieutenants and raid the ship for goods and supplies (albeit without a cutscene, thankfully — just duke it out and loot the chests), but where’s the fun in that? Oh right, it’s in delivering my foes to the shark-infested water with a Spartan-kick to the chest. That never gets old.

Naval combat is incredibly satisfying courtesy of some new combat mechanics.

This demo (and the video above) ultimately dealt with the supernatural, and there was some mention of named creatures like the Nemean Lion, but at its heart, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks like it’s rooted in the world of people with real world problems. I’m eager to dive into the backstory of Kassandra, how she became a Spartan, and how she fits into the war. That said, it’s also going to be a whole lot of fun to occasionally take off the snake-infested head of a Lamia every once in a while.

Interaction will still be key to the 100+ hours of gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is coming to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, (with enhancements for Xbox One X and PS4 Pro) and PC on October 5th, 2018. Stay tuned for our continued coverage and eventual review.

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