How eagles, towers and photo editors point to a kinder, less suffocating open world
One Assassin’s Creed staple Ubisoft has sought to downplay in recent years is the synchronisation tower. Once upon a time, you’d scale these to clear the map’s fog of war and highlight nearby missions on the HUD, in a recurrent act of conquest by which ‘living, breathing’ exoticised worlds are revealed for piles of disposable resources. Synchronisation points still exist in Odyssey, but they are relatively modest in stature and now serve only as fast-travel points that gradually enhance the capabilities of your eagle ally, Ikaros.
Their map-revealing properties aside, the old towers were a means of rising above a realm of exhausting busywork in which you were under constant surveillance. While standing on a synchronisation point in, say, Assassin’s Creed II, you are temporarily free of the swirling, watchful NPC crowds, the enveloping seethe of icons and waypoints, the contextual HUD’s invitations to steal from or kill the people at your elbow. The towers were, in a way, attempts to transcend the game’s structure from within – according to series co-creator Patrice Désilets, they were inspired by a wish to blur the divide between avatar and player in the act of escaping upward.
As in Origins, Odyssey’s eagle companion is effectively the gateway to an entirely different game, a leisurely unwinding of the landscape in a soundless calm. The eagle is technically just a tactical aid through which to size up an area’s layout and highlight enemies, but you can fly any distance from your character with no penalty, and in a world newly encumbered with levelling thresholds, the temptation to head for the horizon is hard to resist.
With no missions to distract you, you’re free to create your own fun: working out the exact height at which the game ceases to render pedestrians or pots, for example. The eagle becomes a curious means of operating upon the simulation, peeling apart layers of diegesis and mimesis. It also makes more obvious Odyssey’s deft compromises between archaeology and game design, the shoring of the ruins of Korinth, Athens and Argos against the familiar Ubiworld framework of fortified tactical puzzle-boxes. Many of Ubisoft’s other open-world games offer their own equivalents. Ghost Recon: Wildlands has its drones, for example – a more limited and clinical instrument of reconnaissance, but one whose very limitations can be provocative. Videogame architecture website Heterotopias has devoted a photograph essay to the simulated breakdown of the drone feed at maximum range, turning this into a visual critique of the game’s imperialist tendencies.
What the eagle does for Odyssey at the level of city walls and mountain ranges, the game’s photo editor does at the level of the street corner. Stripping away the UI, it allows you to zoom, tilt and edit the view as you see fit – a reprieve from the bombardment of cues, resource indicators and objective markers, and an opportunity to investigate details that the game’s primary verbs (killing people or robbing them) encourage you to disregard. It makes the population seem a little more human. Townsfolk typically look toward the player’s character en masse as you approach, like possessed villagers in some backwoods ’60s horror film. Care of the photo editor, you are able to watch them without being stared at in turn, picking up on details like the worn clay bowl held in a guard captain’s fingers.
Detaching camera from player avatar also helps reveal Kassandra and Alexios for the sleepless predators they are, each standing by default with one foot forward, torsos tilted aggressively, always on the brink of launching themselves up a wall or into a combo. These alternative ways of seeing the world suggest a series that is, on some level, straining to overcome the deadening brutality of its own core mechanisms, and find other ways of engaging with, and living within, the majestic landscapes it creates for you.
Naval battles are much as in previous games – you brace to minimise damage, ram into opponents to create weak points and pepper targets with arrows before boarding them