Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PS4 Pro
A few years back Ubisoft made the wise decision to halt their yearly release of Assassin’s Creed titles in favour of taking the series back to the workshop for a revamp. Many, myself included, hoped this would be the company finally figuring out that annual releases burn out the audience and don’t provide time for the developers to take player feedback into account properly. The year off proved successful as Ubisoft launched Assassin’s Creed: Origins to a pretty good reception. But now it seems we’re back on an annual cycle once again as a year later we’ve got a new AssCreed game.
If last years Origins was the Assassin’s Creed franchise daintily sticking its toes in the RPG pool then Odysessy is it doing a cannonball, embracing the RPG and doing away with quite a bit of the old Assassin’s Creed. Except for jumping in piles of leaves that can inexplicably cushion your fall. For some reason, Ubisoft reckons that’s an integral part of the venerable franchise that absolutely must be kept.
While Origins took us back to the very beginnings of the Assassins in Egypt this latest entry in the series goes back another 400-years from that, plonking us down in ancient Greece and right in the middle of a war between Sparta and Athens. You step into the sandalled feet of either Kassandra or Alexios, a choice made at the beginning of the game that you can’t retract without restarting entirely. Don’t panic, though, as the gameplay implications are relatively minor with just a few dialogue changes here and there to reflect your choice and little else. After flipping a coin I ended up playing as Kassandra who was wonderfully voiced by.
Kassandra, by extension Alexios, is a wonderful character and easily one of the best leads in the series. Confident with a snarky sense of humour and the skills to back it up she’s a joy to play as. Newly introduced dialogue choices don’t impact the story as much as people might wish, but they do provide a nice way to nudge Kassandra’s personality in certain directions without sacrificing the fact that she’s already a fully fleshed out character. With that said there are times when the dialogue choices can be annoying, such as one instance where I chose not to tell someone about what I had just learned and yet about two sentences later Kassandra blurted it out anyway.
The plot is a bit more of a mixed bag of quality as it juggles telling Kassandra’s storyline involving the mystery of her family while also linking everything to the franchise’s lore. That does mean the return of the modern day sections, but it feels more and more like Ubisoft want to ditch these entirely as you’ll spend almost all your time exploring ancient Greece. Given the fact that the Assassin’s wouldn’t be founded for another few hundred years Kassandra is technically never a fully-fledged Assassin, but there are still plenty of links to order to be found. This time around you’re dealing with the Cult of Kosmos (yes, a cult calling themselves a cult is bloody stupid) as well as trying to piece together Kassandra’s family.
Much like Origins, there are times when Odyssey feels like its just as good a historical tour guide as it is a traditional game. Due to the sheer scale of the map it’s not surprising that when you look close there’s a lot of fairly basic texture work to be found or that the animations during conversations are kind of awkward, but when viewed as a whole this is a frequently breathtaking tour of ancient Greece jammed full of amazing vistas and giant statues, which, by the way, do include completely accurate boobs, butts and gentlemen’s tackles for you to clamber all over like a perverted parkour sleeze-bag. The franchise has often jokingly been referred to as a better historical teacher for kids than school, and when you’re ambling around the many cities or temples in Odyssey it feels like that’s true.
The structure has been lifted straight from last year’s Origins so you have a massive map that you’re free to roam around, but much of it is full of enemies who are impossible to defeat due to them being a higher level. Yes, the RPG style levelling mechanics are back so that you can learn new skills as you go and earn better loot, and like Origins there’s a feeling that the balance was tinkered with to push players toward buying XP boosters from the store using real money. For me the grind wasn’t a problem since I typically do a lot of side-missions along the way regardless, but if you prefer to focus on the main story first then you’re going to hit annoying walls where you can’t progress without levelling up, making the “optional” side quests feel a lot more mandatory.
Thankfully the side quests do tend to feel worth the effort. The writing isn’t anything special in many of the more inconsequential and in some instances can be fairly bad, but there’s a lot of varied things to do and the developers have tried their best to bring some fun context to the fact that what you’re doing is often the same core gameplay loops in disguise. In one instance I ended up hunting down ingredients to make a potion to aid a woman’s husband…er, performing and instead wound upo satisfying her desires myself. Yes, sex in ancient Greece was more open. Some of the side-quests and even some of the primary storyline serve up moral choices, too. Consequences tend to be light, but I appreciate the inclusion and the fact that there’s no silly meters or anything gauging your moral standing. You just do what feels right for the style of mercenary you’ve moulded Kassandra into.
What I enjoyed about the side-quests is that many of them weave into the primary story and thus help flesh it out, while others can lead to a whole series of quests that tell their own tale. The Silver Isles plays host to a story of lovers and rebellion, while another quest line I’m on has me uncovering the secrets behind a group called The Dagger. Again, the quality of the dialogue and general writing isn’t the highest but it’s good enough to keep you playing, and these entire plotlines away from the main quest provide plenty of reasons to go explore the world.
In the background of everything is the conflict between the Spartans and the Atheniens, and this gets woven into the game via a series of mechanics that almost seem inconsequentially light considering they involve you literally helping one side or the other dominate swathes of the map. You can assassinate the leadership of the current ruling faction in the area, for example, and can weaken said leaders security by destroying war supplies, pillaging the nation chest which contains vital funds and eliminating captains and other high-ranking troops. But the biggest thing you can do is opt to take part in a fun large-scale battle for the land, siding with either the Atheniens or the Spartans, both of whom will offer hefty rewards of money and loot. Given that you’re playing as a mercenary it’s nicely thematic that you’d side with whoever you fancy or just whichever faction happens to be offering the best deal, but on the other hand I did find the whole thing weirdly anti-climatic. Once you’ve won a battle nothing of consequence happens, the land just carrying on like normal except now there might be a new leader in power who you can also go and murder, if you like. It’s just odd to see something like the balance of power of entire areas on the map get treated like a small gameplay system shoved away in the back somewhere.
After its fairly brief appearences in Origins naval combat and sailing the seas has made a welcome return to the franchise, albeit still in a simplified form compared to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. You get your own ship quite early on in the game and can upgrade it with better armour, deadlier archers and a bigger ram, if that’s your kind of thing. You’re free to sail around the absurdly huge map and attack any ship that takes your fancy with combat boiling down to aiming barrages of arrows and short-range javelin tosses. It’s simple stuff, but it’s fun to manevour your ship and try to get some attacks in when then enemy ship can’t, and then you can get close for a boarding action. Sadly, you can’t swing across on a rope like you could in Black Flag. Whoever thought that needed to be taken out should be made to walk the bloody plank.
Mellee combat takes the fundemental changes made in Origins and tweaks it a bit, opting for a faster pace that works rather well. Kassandra can mix light and heavy attacks with a parry and the ability to dodge, plus a variety of abilities that you can use that are unlocked as you level up, including the fantastic Spartan kick that comes in handy for booting enemies straight off of cliffs or into the ocean. Or you can just set fire to your sword like a freaking boss. The downside to the system is that enemies have the typical RPG ability to soak up damage like sponges, but regardless of that fights are generally entertaining and can be quite challenging. Getting ganged up on is especially dangerous, so you’re encouraged to pick fights smartly and use the terrain to your advantage.
Acting as a sort of ancient police force are bounty hunters who will be hired to take you out if you cause too much trouble. You can pay these bounties off or even kill the person who placed the bounty on your head in order to get rid of the hunters, or you can just fight the merceneries as they come for you. Interestingly these mercs are capable of turning up at pretty much anytime and love to appear at the worst possible times. Sometimes multiple hunters will even turn up at the same time, turning a run of the mill stealth run through a fortress into a massive brawl. It’s an interesting system and it’s fun to work your way through the ranks, actively seeking out merceneries even if they aren’t currently tracking you.
Another system that gets added in fairly early on is a web of targets that you’re free to hunt down at will, each granting extra items and clues that will reveal clues to other targets. It’s a fun detour and a nice way to scratch the itch for some good old-fashioned assassining (is that even a word?) even if you’re still perfectly free to whip out your swords and go ape-shit on everything to get the job done.
Somewhat ironically in a game called Assassin’s Creed it’s the stealth that feels like it needs the most work. You can still hide in improbably small patches of foliage without being seen or clamber around using the franchise’s staple climbing mechanics, but stealth remains easy and lacking any depth. Even without an upgrade you can get away with murdering a guard right next to his companions, and the amount of leeway given when it comes to being spotted is still generous to say the least. On the plus side the ease with which you can move around dispatch enemies (provided you can dish out enough damage in an assassination move to insta-kill them) does make you feel like an effective and dangerous predator. I just wish the series would bulk it’s sneaking up a bit in order to really make us work toward a satisfying assassination.
Throughout everything, you’re going to be gathering up mountains of sparkling loot in the form of new weapons and armour. And boy oh boy did this game bring my loot addiction back to the fore. Everything you gather up offers differing stats and perks that influence your effectiveness when it comes to assassinating, fighting or just shooting people with a bow, and you can also opt to break down old gear in order to spend the gained resources on upgrading other bits of gear or adding new engravings for extra stat boosts.
But given that this is a Ubisoft game that means two things: the first is that the overall structure of the game and its pacing feels distinctly familiar as Ubisoft are still remaining faithful to their open-world template. The second is that there are a fair few bugs and glitches. During my time with the game on a PS4 Pro I had a couple of crashes, a few freezes that resolved themselves and ran into a bunch of interesting problems like NPCs being buried up to their waists or walking on top of objects that they shouldn’t be. There’s probably loads more I never found, too. Open world games tend to be the most vulnerable to bugs, after all.
Yet while these bugs might have been irritating none of them managed to stop my enjoyment of touring ancient Greece, taking on quests and merrily murdering my way through every fort, bandit camp, temple or other area hiding treasure. I’ve spent hours sailing the oceans and diving on sunken wrecks, hunting down legendary animals, locating the coolest gear and feeling like a badass mercenary.
When I reviewed Origins I commented a few times that it was the best Assassin’s Creed game that wasn’t an Assassin’s Creed game. As a franchise that goes on as long as this one has there’s always going to be the lingering question of at what point has the series changed so much that it’s only an Assassin’s Creed game in name. Quite honestly I think Odyssey is tip-toeing that line. With the modern stuff ripped out and the plot tightened to purely focusing on the story of Kassandra this game would be just as good. Take off the Assassin’s Creed name and it would still be just as good.
What I’m saying is that even more so than last year’s Origins this doesn’t feel like an Assassin’s Cree game most of the time. Ultimately, though, I’m okay with that because we’ve wound up with is one hell of an action-RPG lead by a superb protagonist, strong gameplay and hours upon hours of stuff to do. Sure, the focus might no longer be purely on Assassinating people, but at least now we can sex up an old lady so that her flagging husband gets some peace. If that’s not a perfect selling point then I don’t know what is.