Clad in hammered bronze armor and braced for the incoming attack, I waited until the last moment — I’d have just one chance. As the strike descended, I crossed my spear and khopesh sword, rebuffing the attack in an explosive whirlwind of sudden motion. Pressing my foe backwards to the edge of the cliff, I finish them off with a massive Spartan kick to the chest that sent them careening over the precipice. If this doesn’t sound like Assassin’s Creed, I would understand your trepidation. In point of fact, this franchise is changing, and before you break out the hidden blades and march on Ubisoft, let me tell you why these changes add up to something to take this franchise into the next generation.
As usual, I’ll do my best to steer clear of spoilers, though some will be necessary to set the stage. That said, I can promise you that nothing in this review will ruin your enjoyment and discovery of this absolutely massive game. Let’s get to it with what could be an accurate representation of the Battle at Thermopylae (minus that whole shield throwing bit) captured in 4K from the PC:
After this brief sequence you’ll be given an opportunity to select your protagonist. On the recovered Spear of Leonidas lies two DNA strands – one for Alexios and one for Kassandra, representing your first major choice in a game filled with them.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes place in 431 BCE, though there are moments that flash back further than this. The protagonist (I played on the Xbox One X as Kassandra, and as Alexios on the PC) has grown up, but never realized their potential as a descendant of the King of Sparta. Instead, they’ve ended up a poor misthios (a sword for hire, or mercenary) living in a hovel, sheltering a local orphan, and hounded by thugs for debts. While your father may have been Spartan, your loyalty is to drachmae (amazingly, the real-world official currency of Greece from 1832 to 2000!). This means you don’t fight for a particular nation, but we’ll get back to that after we talk about choices.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has, up to this point, been a linear experience. The team at Ubisoft Quebec have taken the series in a new direction, pushing choice to the forefront with some entirely new mechanics and design elements. While riding with the developers in an Lyft headed to a recent event, I took the chance for some impromptu chatting about those elements. The team wanted to try to stop forcing the player into a single path that would desync them if they deviated from the design. Instead, they wanted to expose the story elements and options, and then let the player choose how to resolve it. This means that quests can be failed or skipped, and that choices you make can have lasting consequences that the team can reintroduce to the player throughout their campaign. As a purposely vague example, I made a choice on Kephalonia that almost wiped out the entire population of that island. I then had to answer again for that choice (over 25 hours later) to a small child whose friend was almost certainly lost to my decision. I have no idea if this choice will haunt me again in the future, and from a gameplay perspective, it’s a great, if not emotionally unpleasant, improvement.
Choices now permeate the conversation tree in the game. Every conversation has multiple options, some that yield additional information, and others that can change the outcome. When the choices are more severe, Ubisoft has provided a few icons that tell you if you are lying, intend violence, will pay off the target, etc. These can be somewhat misleading as what comes out of your character’s mouth may not be what you expect. Romance is the best example of this.
For the first time in the series, you have the option to pursue romantic engagements in Assassin’s Creed. These liaisons are a bit of a mixed bag, occasionally coming across as ham fisted and forced. What isn’t immediately obvious, however, is that this heart icon is less of a romance choice and more one of compassion. As an example, there were occasionally choices where it seemed like your selection would lead to a romantic interlude, but instead resulted in lending a soft shoulder for someone who just suffered a profound loss. Knowing that distinction up front may change some of your choices. This addition is a positive one that I hope that Ubisoft continues to refine in future installments into the franchise.
One of my favorite new additions to the Assassin’s Creed playbook is a new mode. Typically, when you are given a quest objective, you are also provided a marker on the map to chase it down. Now, right after choosing between four difficulty levels, you can select between Guided Mode (where markers are displayed at all times) and Exploration mode. Exploration mode provides general locations of things instead of specifics (“The Captain will meet you east of the city of Phokis” or “We believe he’s nearby a cave at the southern edge of the island”), allowing the player to explore without so much hand-holding. This small change made the open world, which is already 2.5x larger than the massive play space of Origins, feel even larger and more mysterious.
A dozen or so hours into the game, you’ll encounter another new, albeit familiar, mechanic. As Odyssey takes place during the 30 year war between Sparta and Athens known as the Peloponnesian War, the team integrated a similar system to one found in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Each city state of Greece has a leader currently in control. You can weaken their control by killing their soldiers, burning their war supplies, pillaging their treasures, and dispatching their captains. Unlike Wildlands, you also have the option to simply try to cut the head from snake by attacking the Nation Leader immediately. However, if you take this approach, you’ll face a far tougher foe, and one likely surrounded by powerful allies and dangerous reinforcements. Once again, the power of choice. Allow me to demonstrate:
Another mechanic that I sincerely hope continues into future titles is the Mercenary system. After you’ve tangled with enough of the locals, you’ll eventually end up making them angry enough that they will hire a mercenary to come have a “pointed” conversation with you. These mercenaries are incredibly tough adversaries, each with special attacks, some with monstrous backup like lions and bears. They also have strengths and weaknesses that need to be avoided or exploited, and can be every bit as tough (or tougher!) than you. Using a Grand Theft Auto-like system, the more you steal (those boxes aren’t yours, misthios!), kill, raid enemy ships, and otherwise cause havoc, the more you’ll upset the status quo. Eventually the authorities will send two, three, four, or even five of these mercenaries to try to take you down, simultaneously! These mercs roam the world as they see fit, and they can (and will) interrupt your missions. You can be stealthily taking out guards as you break into a fort to steal a priceless artifact, only to find yourself suddenly having to deal with a major boss battle right in the middle of your carefully planned heist. It creates a relentless pressure that even follows you on the high seas.
As Greece is a peninsular country with hundreds of inhabited islands, it creates a fantastic opportunity to return players to open-world naval battle. Triremes, ships of the time, are more flat and nimble vessels than the deep-bellied galleys of games like Black Flag, using their ample prows to cut enemy boats in half. As these ships predate gunpowder, they also relied on the archery and spear throwing prowess of their crew. Add in a coal-fired brazier to light arrows and pilum on fire and you have a recipe for naval warfare.
Mercenaries you encounter can, of course, be killed, but they can also be recruited. If you add them to your crew, you’ll find them on your ship, where they will assist in any boarding activities, like leaping over to the enemy ship to engage in close quarters combat. They bring with them unique special attacks, employing poison, fire, berserker rage, and much more. They’ll even Spartan kick foes off the side of the ship. Here’s a spoiler-free ship quest where I was tasked with sinking some vessels and ran afoul of some mercenaries in the process.
Your character’s skills are divided into three categories; Warrior, Assassin, and Hunter, with dozens of multi-tiered options in each. As you level up you’ll earn a single point that can unlock and upgrade any of these skill choices, granting new powers like multi-shot arrows, the aforementioned Spartan kick, increased stealth, area scanning, and even the ability to light your weapons on fire or coat them with poison. You are likely to beat the game before you get enough points under your belt to come even close to unlocking everything, so being a little picky to match your play style would be wise.
Combat, whether you choose to be quiet or loud, is a large part of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. While the game performs well the vast majority of the time, there are occasionally some moments where I ran into a few hiccups. I found a bug whereby I could stand on my boat and gun down any foe, including mercenaries, while they stood there taking arrows to the face. I’ve also run into a few instances where I’ve saved people’s lives only to suddenly have them take up arms and try to kill me for reasons I cannot explain. These are minor glitches in the grand scheme of things, but it breaks immersion for sure.
I did run into two instances over the course of 50+ hours of time where I was forced to exit the game to reset it from a bug. During my fight with a legendary animal, suddenly I found myself without a health bar. I also ended up having to wait for an NPC to reset his position as he got stuck trying to descend a cliff to get on a boat at the beach. Finally, I had one infinite loading sequence during a fast travel. While the two paragraphs above sound ominous, in the grand scheme of things (and it is grand — this is the largest game I’ve ever played, both in terms of content, and in land mass) they are barely worth mentioning.
One of my favorite parts of Assassin’s Creed games are their loose ties with history. Here, we get to rub shoulders with real people from Grecian antiquity including Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, and even Socrates. Using the new conversation system, you’ll get to engage with the great philosopher and have logical debates. Below you can see a spoiler-free debate about a missing horse:
Assassin’s Creed Origins was great about creating a massive world that rewarded players for their exploration. It gave players new quests and challenges at every new location, and it never felt like you had to do everything to grind out your levels to beat the game. This turned out to be a hidden problem, as many players were in their mid 30s to low 40s when they completed the game, but all of the content that came after the game shipped required that players be level 50, shutting out a lot of people who didn’t want to grind for levels. Odyssey solves this problem in the best possible way.
Every area in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set up with a level range, but this time around the game levels with you. This means that even the starting area, Kephallonia, will have level 30 foes if you return when you are level 30. Similarly, the quests are leveled as well, meaning that you never ‘age out’ of a mission. When you tackle it, the rewards are appropriate for your level, granting you gear, cash, and XP that helps you move the needle, no matter where you are in the world. It also means that the world is always dangerous, and that’s fantastic.
If danger is your jam, there are a few offshoot areas that might be of interest. The Arena returns, though it’s more unsanctioned in Greece. I’ve taken on three rounds, two with wave battles and a boss, and one handling some unfinished business with a mercenary that I’d tangled with before and had to retreat. I wouldn’t want to ruin this, so I’ll leave you these spoiler-free videos to enjoy without context:
Normally, when a game becomes less linear the storyline suffers. Here, the opposite has happened. The storyline in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is not only its strongest point, it also continues to surprise throughout. There are elements that you’ll have figured out quickly, and some that come out of left field without warning. Your story starts out small, but eventually you are embroiled in the war between Sparta and Athens. While the civil war mechanic ends up a little less impactful or used than it could have been (other than using it to farm for gear), it’s a great addition to the mix that could expand into a full war engine as the series expands.
Speaking of expansion, the team is taking an entirely new approach with Odyssey. Instead of trying to jump right back into the series next year, they will instead support the world of Odyssey for a full year beyond launch. Origins did this with battles with the Gods, but Odyssey’s new framework can support far more than simple Animus glitch battles. It’ll be exciting to see where the team takes us next.
Beyond the main storyline lies the realm of Gods and Monsters. Grecian lore features Minotaurs, Medusa, the Nemean Lion, and other mythical beasts. The vast majority of the game is rooted in reality, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance to step into the world of the fantastic. Tomorrow, when the game is live, I will update this video with a quick peek at a mythical monster that I can’t include ahead of the game’s launch. Stay tuned!
Assassin's Creed Odyssey
It’s nearly impossible to summarize a game this big, or this complete. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey lives up to its Homeric namesake in scope and scale, adding fantastic new elements to the solid foundation Origins laid before it. For me, it’s easily the best Assassin’s Creed game to date, and I can’t wait to keep playing it long after the credits roll.