Review – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
The most interesting thing about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is what happens when you don’t play the game. This isn’t to say playing the game sucks, as Odyssey easily manages to take the best from Origins, smooth out the edges, and add a bunch of stuff on top to refresh it. No, it’s meant quite literally, specifically when it comes to the world they created here. Most would say that Ubisoft has allowed their open-world style to stagnate as well as the overall Ubisoft formula, and there’s no dramatic changes here at first glance. Icons fill the map to be completed (at least there’s no flags or feathers to ruin your life), towers that need to be synchronized, and upgrades have upgrades to be further upgraded. Give it a couple hours and a brand new world is unveiled for you.
Odyssey is set in Ubisoft’s vision of Ancient Greece, during the 25 year conflict between the city-states of Athens and Sparta in what would become known as the Peloponnesian War. The war which forever crippled Greece and removed it from the world’s stage as a major power. Wars, revolutions, or general times of conflict and violence are a common theme for AC settings as it makes for an easy background. The difference here though is that while other games in the franchise tie the main character and plot intrinsically with actual history, essentially making history based solely on your success and failures, this time your odyssey throughout Greece as well as your actions and choices have a negligible effect at best on this war. You’re not the secret power behind the victor, or the grand architect of the loser. You are just a mercenary, making your way in a world on fire.
Imagine if you will, an Athenian fortress on the coast of some beautiful Greek real estate, with a great view of a sizable Spartan war camp. You’re right on the front lines of the war, Athens on the defensive against the Spartan’s infamous warlike nature. There’s exchanges in the fields between the two; Spartan spear men advance meeting Athenian scouting squads in open combat; Athenian advances from the fortress, poking the bear on their footsteps in order to bleed it dry, etc. Every loss on both sides is slowly but surely draining their power in this region, the only question being who flinches first. This isn’t just an isolated situation, but rather all throughout the region. At every camp, city, and throughout the wilds, Red meets Blue.
After the current leading faction has been bled enough, a Conquest battle becomes available. These fights can have up to 150 npcs per side, waging war in an all out melee. Every death brings the count down until one side is utterly victorious. If Athens successfully defends, then they hold out to fight another day. If Sparta stands victorious however, then they win outright. Then the entire situation reverses and the soldiers flip their coats from blue to red (actually a common theme of this war in real life history) and Sparta is now defending with Athens trying to take it back.
What matters about all of this, is that it occurs with or without any input from the player. Hell, it doesn’t even require you to be anywhere close. All over the world, every single contested region is in a constant state of flux between the two forces. Even the Conquest Battles that define who will gain or keep control of a region can and will be decided without the player’s involvement which allows regions to flip on their own. The whole war is automated to fight itself and as the player, you are then tossed into this frantic mess that you have no way to control or stop.
This doesn’t stop at the coast either, the seas are just as chaotic. Athenian and Spartan flotillas will attack each other with extreme prejudice and any poor pirate that gets caught in the middle (everyone hates pirate scum) will be smashed to splinters. The only winners are the sharks who gather to gorge on the dying sailors and you who get to loot the ships no matter who sunk them. There is no control system for the seas, but I’ve found that the controlling faction of nearby regions has more patrols in the seas surrounding.
In my opinion this is Odyssey’s real claim to fame. After so long making the same world in a different skin, Ubisoft managed to create a living world that acts well beyond the player’s actions, while also personalized to the time period. This isn’t your Greece. This isn’t your war to win. You are a mercenary and your loyalty is to who currently pays the best. No matter how many you personally kill, thousands more fall everywhere else. No matter how many regions you take, they will eventually rise and fall again on their own. You may be unable to be everywhere at once, but the game IS everywhere else.
It’s interesting how great your insignificance feels, but it does. It makes your journey feel more personal as the choices you make actually matter when so much is beyond your control. The war feels more real with the whole Greek world in turmoil. It feels bigger and more alive. Giving credit where it’s due, this isn’t exactly an original feature. It’s quite similar to Middle-Earth Shadow of War’s Nemesis Fortress system, but the scale and scope put that game’s to shame, even if Fortress Assaults were WAY more fun and varied.
This isn’t the only big addition to the game either. In older AC games, committing illegal acts (murder, thievery, pushing wannabe bards off buildings) would raise your wanted level GTA style. In Ancient Greece there’s no wanted level, as there will never come a time where either Athens or Sparta will decide to waste time and alienate your potential services by turning their forces against you on sight. After all, you are just one mercenary and there’s a war going on. However, this is where Bounty Hunters come in and there are individuals amongst both forces willing to pay to remove an irritant. The bigger annoyance you are, the higher the bounty.
In another tribute to the Middle-Earth games, each unique mercenary is a collection of strengths and weaknesses, and arranged in a linear hierarchy with you at the very bottom at the start. The more Hunters you bring down, the higher you climb, but your notoriety will then attract stronger foes. They like to show up at the worst times too, so they can be really, really annoying in general. I recommend not doing illegal stuff right in front of people, or if you can’t help it just pay your bounty. Or just assassinate the person who put the hit on you and they will appear on the map for you to “settle” your account.
The last major change is a new focus on player choice. First for the franchise is the ability to choose your character from either the smart-assed Kassandra or the righteous Alexios. Also brand new is a branching narrative culminating in 9 possible endings, alongside a plethora of side quests receiving the same choice-driven treatment. With freedom comes consequence however, and your decisions will have plenty. There’s a glaring example a few hours in that Ubisoft clearly intends to be a warning that when they said choices will matter, they meant it. No choice will be made lightly and you’ll often have to side with the lesser evil.
The rest of the game is more of the same, but almost every major system got some kind of touch-up for the better. The combat system dropped the shield for example, focusing on two-handed/duel wielding weapons with fast-paced parry and riposte based gameplay, replacing the slower paced blocking focused gameplay of Origins. The parkour system is itself untouched, but one addition does change the game quite dramatically: you can no longer die from fall damage. Even more, once you hit level 20, there is no fall damage whatsoever. No more relying on the still finicky descending tactics, only to accidentally leap off anyway, you can simply fall from the heavens like the gods themselves and smite whatever puny being is beneath your might.
There’s been a lot of talk about grinding issues, especially in the early game. This is a symptom of a larger issue with the game based on how much it diverges from the old AC style. Which I will remind everyone, is something the internet raged about for years, how it was old and outdated and needed to go away. While Origins changed things up for sure, Odyssey is in many ways the game Origins was billed as. It’s honestly a proper RPG now and when played as one, there’s no issue here. Hell, it’s even quite generous for the genre. Side-quests give loads of XP to boost you quickly and gear is readily available through every side activity (Conquest Battles give you a lot of the second highest quality), but you have to work for it. Merely following the main quest will not keep you up on higher difficulties. Obviously starting on Easy, keeping up is not such an issue. You will have to do some quests for XP, explore a bit for some nice gear, maybe infiltrate a fortress for a new weapon, the works. When the game is played how it was intended, there isn’t an issue. When played as the action adventure game it’s always been, there are indeed issues, but these aren’t the game’s problems.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a reminder that the best way to make an Assassin’s Creed game is to not make an Assassin’s Creed game. At it’s heart it may still use the same fundamentals such as the totally realistic parkour, a nonsensical Sci-Fi story about DNA memory, a shadow war spanning history between shady organizations for control of the world, and meeting a bunch of famous old dead people to become their chief muse. Allowing new ideas to creep in though, such as the Region Conquest system to remove control of the world from you, the Bounty system to give the game a weapon to fight you, and making the story and side-quests choice based to make what you do truly matter has allowed the franchise to deliver on it’s original premise: to make history your playground, in ways it never could have otherwise.
The world is as stunning as expected, on land, from the sea, a full day/night cycle, weather systems that range from area to area, alongside the highly detailed architecture bringing Greece to life. What isn’t stunning are the character models. Alexios/Kassandra are fine, as are major story NPC’s, but enemies and other background NPC’s are questionable at best. It doesn’t detract from the overall game’s beauty, but it certainly doesn’t help.
The gameplay is incredibly satisfying, shockingly tight, and most importantly fun, but it’s not the most original collection of features. The game can be slow at the very start showing off all of its toys, and some of them, mainly the equipment system can be really finicky to work with. It’s more than solid however, and the perfect pairing for the world.
Always the unsung hero amongst gaming soundtracks, Assassin’s Creed has always managed to deliver music. Odyssey manages to up the ante and deliver one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. From the main theme which takes the series theme and puts a Greek twist on it, to the sea shanties sang in Greek (with no subtitles so I have no idea what they are about but they sound good), this is as good as it gets.
The first time you Spartan Kick something, you will understand. After lining up the perfect attack run with your ship, hearing the satisfying crunching noise as your hull cleaves the other ship in half, it’s thrilling. Some of the inventory management can be finicky, and there’s some lag in menu switching which can be annoying, and does bring down the experience a bit, but it all disappears the moment you kick a freaking bear into a cluster of very unlucky Spartan soldiers.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Reviewed on PS4.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam.