Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Astaid but elegant epic that might comfortably exceed 100 hours of playtime, depending on your tolerance for grinding, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is often at its best when it leaves things out. Among its quieter feats is Exploration mode, which sees you tackling the same quests with a little less guidance, finding your way to the goal using a set of rough directions. Styling this as “exploration” is overselling things somewhat – the game’s map has all regions already marked on it, and you’re encouraged to summon your eagle, Ikaros, to lay down waypoints (and tag nearby foes or treasures) when you’re close. Still, it’s a welcome incentive to become intimate with architecture and geography that, in prior Creeds, were a little too easy to treat as background static. And 5th century BCE Greece is certainly worth the extra attention, from the fluted, curtained temples that top each island to the marks of civic life and industry that animate its villages and cities.
The game casts you as either Kassandra or Alexios, two children of Sparta thrown into exile. Whoever you pick, you’ll begin the game as a young but battle-scarred mercenary on the isle of Kefalonia, which serves as a tutorial area. In short order, a brush with a masked cult propels you to the mainland and beyond, where you’ll help Athens and Sparta contest ownership of regions – a question of destroying soldiers and resources until you’re in a position to initiate a clash between armies – while searching for your parents.
As hardened killers, Alexios and Kassandra are endowed with a certain ruthlessness from the off. This is vital in a game which, its newfound taste for pacifist outcomes notwithstanding, generally defaults to good old murdering and looting. Both protagonists are fine company, thanks to spirited voice acting and writing that strikes a deft balance of darkness and humour, and you’ll encounter some vivid personalities as you roam, from con-men posing as creatures from myth to classical celebrities such as Sokrates and Perikles. Their stories often, however, feel like a justification for a campaign framework that consists of checking off regions and levelling up. Origins had a similarly workmanlike air, but sparked intrigue by alternating between the perspectives of a husband and a wife, each with their own, semidistinct agenda. Odyssey has an equivalent for this – essentially, a familial redemption story in the vein of Star Wars – but it’s much less engrossing.
Where Exploration Mode owes something to Breath Of The Wild’s lightly instrumentalised countryside, Odyssey’s missions learn from BioWare, with a branching dialogue system and multiple quest outcomes. Some of the better examples border on the transformative, though most of them rest atop the familiar Ubiworld structuring principle of the fortified outpost. One quest sees you ridding a healing bath of some sacred snakes – slaughtering the creatures will upset local clerics, but there’s another solution hidden away in one character’s optional patter. A little later, you’re sent to fetch a physician from a fortress to save a dying man. Your mark, however, insists on treating one of his own patients first. You might agree to wait, whereupon you’ll be asked to recover a surgical instrument from elsewhere in the (well-guarded) fortress, or knife the patient to hurry things along. Or you could knock your quarry out and throw him over your shoulder, which entails trying to escape the area while being too encumbered to climb.
Few of these choices have lasting repercussions. Key characters will usually find ways to forgive you if you behave violently, which makes dialogue branches more a question of striking the preferred tone than changing the plot. All the same, there’s a richness and an excitement to Odyssey’s quest design that Assassin’s Creed’s waypoint-ridden worlds have been crying out for, and if many of your decisions don’t leave a mark, there are enough that do to keep you on your toes. Allow a plague sufferer to escape the purge, for example, and you may find nearby towns less picturesque on subsequent visits.
You’re presented early on with your very own, upgradeable war trireme and a horse (which teleports to your side at a whistle), and synchronisation points allow for fast travel across a world roughly twice the size of Origins’ North Africa. Your forays are checked, however, by the return of Origins’ levelling system, each region having its recommended level. As in Origins, this also tips the emphasis towards brawling when fighting above your level, because stealthy attacks no longer guarantee a kill: plunge blade-first onto a comparatively seasoned guard and you’ll have to settle for a chunk of health bar. Fortunately, the game’s melee combat is much improved, if straightforward, split between various weapon categories and backed up by a decadent suite of upgradeable abilities. Kassandra and Alexios can’t block but are adept at dodging and countering, with a generous parry window and a slow-mo trait that triggers when you narrowly avoid damage. The three unlock trees borrow copiously from other Ubisoft games, but the ability to respec characters without penalty means you are better able to enjoy the breadth of ideas in play. The combat shines brightest when duelling other mercenaries.
Odyssey was developed alongside Origins and thus isn’t so much a sequel as a parallel meditation on the same ideas – hence its lack of real surprise. It also commits a few of the same sins: in particular, the deluge of gear drops feels vaguely insulting, conditioning the player to lust after items exclusive to the in-game store. It’s lifted, however, by the relative wit and intelligence of its quest design, and the delicate notes of uncertainty and curiosity introduced by Exploration mode. The series would do well to build on the latter feature, if its landscapes are to be as involving as they are grand.
It’s lifted by the relative wit and intelligence of its quest design, and by the Exploration mode