Assassin’s Creed is one gaming series that has fascinated me throughout its history spanning exploits. The two aspects of the gameplay that really clicked with me were the sense of movement when scaling buildings and also being cast into these vast treasure-troves of historic beauty. If we are being honest, this Ubisoft regular has not always crossed the finish line in tip-top shape. In fact, I cannot remember a single game that didn't bugger something up, whether it be an out of place feature or crippling technical issues. Yet despite the flaws and occasional moments of janky Moonwalking, I have completed every game to one hundred percent.
So when a series I hold in such high regard starts to change the fundamental DNA of how it plays, this makes me sit up and pay attention. Is this facelift for the Assassins Creed series taking us in an exciting new direction or is the saga starting to lose its way in an increasingly crowded genre? Let us take a closer look at Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Forging the Creed
When you take a look back over the entire Assassin’s Creed series we've actually seen a great many game mechanics and systems. Some have been around for one game (like the ill-fated hunting in AC3) and others have become permanent fixtures. Still, there was an overall blueprint that was adhered to no matter the time period and it was this formula that many agreed needed some innovative thinking.
Assassins Creed Origins reforged these ageing conventions in a way that felt new and fresh. Combat was now more fluid, the mini-map was vanquished in favour of more engaging exploration and, of course, instead of being confined to one sprawling city-scape we were now let loose across a gigantic open world. Subtle role-playing elements that have been slowing creeping their way into the last few games were now embraced, like enemy levels and a more fleshed out loot system.
Assassins Creed Odyssey now takes this new blueprint and runs with it, while adding a few new tricks of its own. One of the biggest new features is that we now have branching dialogue trees while talking with NPCs. Not only do we now have choices on how we handle certain situations but you also have the option to ask questions about quests and story elements. If I am being honest many of these questions boil down to basic quest information that you would have normally be given anyway; where is the NPC? why do you want them dead? etc. So in a sense, it is a prop designed to give the illusion of uncovering information.
You have arrived
In most open world games, players will be given a quest marker and Assassins Creed was no different. However, this time around players have the option to change this in favour of a more organic system of peregrination. With the exploration mode on, players will have to use the clues they receive from quest givers in addition to landmarks and the compass. This mode is actually one of the most exciting features of this Assassins Creed because it makes the player really take note of what is around them. If the game world was generic and cookie cutter then this system wouldn’t work, but it is because the many locations stand out as unique places that exploration is a viable way to locate quest objectives. I’m not sure if this was intentional but this emphasis on environmental markers makes asking questions about quest locations seem a little less contrived. Of course, you can always call upon your favourite nag for a quicker method of travel and thankfully Phobos is a little more adept at getting across rough terrain than his successors.
Like with previous Assassins Creed games, pretty much everything can be clambered over. The way your assassin would scale any standing object was always something I loved about the series, even if the skill requirements were at a bare minimum. In terms of animation, climbing and parkour, the movement of your character has never been as refined as it is now. However, it is unfortunately the case that climbing has also lost some of its original sparkle for me due to a more casual approach. In older games, you would actually have to find visual handholds on a surface or object. Now you can literally scamper up any surface with no consideration about where you are going. Like with Origins, we see the return of a faithful bird of prey to assist you in looking down upon the land and marking targets. By syncing with the many vantage points across the map Icarus (of course it’s called Icarus!) becomes more efficient and can eventually help mither guards while you skulk around ventilating their colleague's chest cavities. Soaring through the sky from the viewpoint of your feathered friend really does let you see how magnificent Odyssey is and also how well it can handle distant structures.
The scene in Zack Snyder’s 300 with Leonidas spitting all over that Persian chap and then kicking him down a bloody great hole is legend. I’m glad the team at Ubisoft Quebec have not only included these references but embraced them. After all, you play as a direct descendant of the fearless warrior king. This game is set in 431BC within a semi-mythical Ancient Greece in the throes of a war between the Persian and Spartan army. From bustling port towns, rolling hills and the open seas, there is a huge amount of topographical diversity. As for varied biospheres, they are not as multifarious but I’ll come back to that. For the most part, this is the most beautiful Creed game ever made with the hypnotic blues of the Aegean Sea in wonderful contrast to the bright colour pallet of the many sun-drenched Greek islands.
The art team have once again outdone themselves because the environments are covered in ancient buildings, grand monuments and a whole range of detailed structures. What is even more impressive is how each settlement feels handcrafted with the exception of small bandit camps. Overall the texture work is excellent, only being let down by some ground textures that look flat and last generation. There is also a huge visual range in weapons and armour sets, all looking resplendent and authentic. What makes many of these scenes pop is the wonderful lighting that changes through the full day and night cycle. As dawn breaks mist rolls down the hills and clings to the forests. Late afternoon sun bathes buildings in a warm glow that makes you just want to stop for a while and enjoy the tableau. The volumetric clouds are also something to behold, even if they will test the most powerful rigs on the highest details. I cannot remember a game in recent memory in which I have stopped to take so many screenshots, a compulsion not abated by the excellent in-game photo mode. The world Ubisoft has created here is a visual spectacle that can be enjoyed just for that reason alone, if you are so inclined.
I have already mentioned that for the most part, you will be running around the same type of biosphere and the ample variations within it. This slightly disappointing but without using seasonal shifts or a lot of creative license, you wouldn't find much damp English woodland or Arctic tundra in Ancient Greece. This isn't to say there aren’t unique and interesting places to discover. There isn’t an hour that goes past in which you don’t find a unique underwater cave system or happen across a small village hidden away high up on a mountainside. Like with Origins, you can (and should) just take the time to wander around and watch the world tick over. People harvesting wood, weaving cloth, catching fish, knocking olives from trees or unloading crates down at the docks. Each of these activities are fully animated, which adds a sense of immersion in the world. The treasure hunting game from Origins also makes a return, where you must use clues to find various rewards. These low key treasure hunts also lead the player to places that are really worth visiting, like the tunnel system that Ephialtes revealed to the Persian army and which ultimately lead to the Spartans doom.
It is safe to say that one of the best Assassin’s Creed games to date is Black Flag because it managed to fuse the assassin tomfoolery perfectly with sailing your own pirate ship. Naval combat was touched on briefly in Origins but now we see it return as a main component of the game. As you leave your starting island you acquire the Adrestia. This vessel and her crew will allow you to sail across the open ocean, something the smaller ships cannot manage without breaking up. As you find more commodious ports you can moor up and explore these coastal hives of activity (and quests!) This part of Odyssey is breathtaking in both looks and execution. The ocean acts on your ship in realtime and during a storm, large waves can almost look like rolling mountains ready to crash upon you and your crew. There are just so many details I love about the ships in Odyssey, like how after boarding a crippled ship (and bodies are floating in the water) sharks will turn up to feast. Also seeing the ocean floor become visible through the pastel blue waters as you move toward shore is just sublime.
Like Black Flag you will also get involved with a bit of the old naval warfare, it is arrows and spears that you hurl at enemy ships this time around. I’ll be honest, I really miss the thunder of my cannons in Black Flag and seeing the wooden hulls shatter as they hit home. However, this is a minor thing and ramming a stricken enemy vessel in half never gets old. Boarding enemy vessels is also fantastic fun, even if the Spartan kick does become a bit too powerful in these situations. In some ways, the ship gameplay in Odyssey is less fleshed out than Black Flag, whale hunting and dodging giant waves in a storm are all now gone. As we see more RPG elements in Odyssey your ship can also be upgraded, as long as you have acquired the correct resources. Even more interesting is that pretty much any enemy and also some story characters can join the crew of your ship. Each of these lieutenants will come with their own statistics which improve your ships skills and performance. I really like this system and it’s great to see people who you’ve recruited working on the ship as you sail.
Like rivers and lakes, you can also explore the world beneath the waves which can include shipwrecks, submerged cave systems and lost ruins. As well as a litany of smaller sea creatures, there are manta rays, sea turtles and of course sharks. As someone who is terrified of sharks (and deep water) avoiding these deadly predators became a battle of wills because I also love underwater exploration. The whole package really comes together thanks or many deft touches such as the way pods of dolphins will follow the Adrestia or how whales will breach the ocean surface.
Fighting the system
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is one of the biggest open world games we have ever seen, even by Ubisoft standards: but how does the actual gameplay shake out? You start out by making a choice between Alexios and his Sister Kassandra, which for the most part is more about aesthetics because they story follows the same path for both. There is an introduction of sorts on the island of Kephallonia after which you will have a good feel for the game and get set loose across the ocean. The map is split into zones, each with their own set of quests, activities and these will normally be in line with the level of the area. There is a main quest line to follow which guides you across many of the game's locations. There is also a whole range of side quests on offer, some will have their own contained story (normally with a bronze exclamation point) that will involve dialogue decisions and multiple stages. There is also a range of notice boards that give you access to contracts, basically ‘kill this target, sink five pirate ships’ etc.
One thing I have consistently heard from other reviewers is that the side quests in Odyssey are boring fetch quests and I would certainly challenge that idea. Yes, there are many quests that offer little by the ways of story and are little more than another excuse to infiltrate that particular bandit camp. However, there are also plenty of intriguing and emotional side quests to enjoy. In one I met a young girl who was looking for jewels to show her friends. On returning it turned out the girl's friends were merely clay figures and her parents had in fact been killed. You have to make the choice to tell the girl she should make some real friends or go along with the fantasy that these clay mounds could indeed be her friends. After choosing the latter, I later considered if I had made the best choice. In another quest you must help a young woman attract a rich local man, it turns out that the woman who helps you is a witch who is secretly vying for the man's attention (and wealth). The witch makes sure the young woman’s looks are ruined and becomes the man's bride to be. I felt so sorry for her that I turned the witch into the guards, who came running in an showed her how dangerous Karma can be. I would also say that while the voice acting can be wooden, there are also many examples where the voice actors really do nail it. This is especially impressive considering the sheer number of quests in Odyssey. The main voice actors make an absolutely fantastic job of voicing Kassandra and Alexios, but it is Kassandra who steals the show for me.
A good few hours into the game you will be made aware of the Cult of Kosmos, a secret organisation that has infiltrated the highest positions in Greek society. This group is also linked to your own story but for the sake of spoilers, I will leave that there. What is very interesting is that when you are presented with the web of cultists you must uncover information about them to reveal the identity of targets. Once you know who these shady folk are you can pay them a visit and show them the error of their ways. Tracking down and assassinating the cult members adds a welcome distraction from the main story, even if most of the members will get dispatched in the same way.
One new gameplay element which I (mostly) love is the mercenary systems, which is essentially a cross between the Nemesis System from Shadow of Mordor and the police in GTA 5. As you murder guards, pilfer loot and generally make a mess: your wanted level with creep up. Each time a red helmet is highlighted a mercenary from your current tier becomes active and will start searching you out. What I do find annoying is that no matter where you are these heat-seeking sell-swords will ferret you out. The one saving grace is that once they have arrived in your area they will just wander around and can be avoided if you are careful. It can be both exhilarating and also infuriating depending when these skilled warriors show up to collect on your hide. Each mercenary is different, with varied skills and attack methods. Another interesting mechanism is that you can get rid of the bounty by either killing the person who placed it, paying the mercenaries directly or just keeping your nose clean for a period of time.
I do like how you can chip away at a region’s controlling ruler by burning supplies and stealing their war chests. Eventually, you will be given the option to assassinate the leader of the realm and open up a full-scale battle. You can then chose the side you wish to fight for and usually one will offer a greater challenge than the other. I like this idea but the conclusion seems a like a wasted opportunity because all that really changes is the colour of the banner on forts in that area. With that said, this system does offer yet another thing to consider while you are stabbing your way across paradise.
In Origins the Assassin’s Creed combat systems were replaced with a far more action happy affair with free-flowing moves and skill based attacks. This system has now been refined in Odyssey, while many skills have made a return, there are some new techniques to master. Just by its association with the famous film, the Spartan kick is the most prevalent and also one of the must-have skills. Luring adversaries onto cliffs/tall buildings and then booting them off is by far one of the best ways to deal with tough adversaries. I was surprised to see shields have been removed from the available kit, especially given they are seen as such an essential element of the Spartan fighting style in 300. Enemy AI is unfortunately dull by default and can also sometimes be unresponsive, whistling, for example, is meant to attract guards but if often ignored. Thankfully I found the act of infiltrating enemy camps, forts and castles just as fun as the previous game, it’s just a shame we don’t face that many different enemy types. One change I do not like is the change to fall damage, which I was horrified to discover has been removed from level 20. Like diving deep into the ocean, climbing high into the rafters of previous games came with a certain risk. It was this that added the buzz of danger when attempting death-defying vaults and also made the leap of faith so impressive. Now, no matter how far you fall you just roll out of it. These changes also give me concerns that the series is starting to embrace a more casual audience, which would be a shame in my book. In future games, I would like climbing to become a challenge again, in which players must plan where they climb and risk death when making mistakes.
The Philosophy of Lore
One tradition that the developers of Assassin’s Creed have always implemented well, is the inclusion of famous faces of the time period. I’ll never forget test piloting Leonardo da Vinci‘s flying machine across the night sky of Venice or working with the famous Charles Dickens in Syndicate. Ancient Greece is a selection box of charismatic personalities and by far one of my favourites is Socrates: the famous philosopher. When you finally make it to Athens there is a whole network of interesting quest lines, some of which Socrates will be on hand to offer his philosophical insight into your actions and decisions. Other interesting characters such as Pericles and Herodotus who acts as a guide for much of the main story.
The choices you make can have some very real consequences for the game world. Often these consequences are only contained within a single quest and don't affect the larger game world. In addition to this, there are other opportunities woven into conversations such as asking people to join your ship's crew or even engage in a bit of slap and tickle. In case you are wondering, the conundrum of how to put sex into a game (in a way that doesn’t look like it was written by a group of teenagers) has still not been figured out. However, if my Kassandra got laid a few times in between bloody sword fights, who am I to criticise. This is my first playthrough of Odyssey so I have had limited opportunities to test alternative outcomes to most situations. With that said, I have seen some very interesting story beats that most certainly would have not happened had I chosen a different path. It is also worth noting that the amazing discovery mode that was released for Origins is going to be making its way to Odyssey. In this mode, you can walk around the existing game world (with combat turned off) and access various guided tours. These were all expertly produced with voice-overs and photographic resources, I even let my son use it to finish his Egyptian homework project.
There has always been a strong sense of fiction within the Assassin’s Creed games, even if the game worlds were wrapped in historical accuracy. The pieces of Eden have been the main component of each story arc and these magical artefacts have led to some extraordinary encounters. Odyssey shifts this up a gear towards the more mythical, with the inclusion of beasts like the Cyclopes and Medusa. I don’t play games for how things should be, I play them to see things that can’t be and while I love how the historical accuracy that holds Odyssey together, I think including these fights shows a playful side of the development team which is good.
The cogs of this world are greased by money and in a world driven by gain, there will always be those who are willing to exploit us to get more poke. Fairgrounds actually remind me of this mentality, like how you have to pay triple the price for a miserable hotdog or when you get shunted through the gift shop before you can leave. All the fake smiles in the world can’t distract you from the plain fact that getting money out of your wallet is the name of the game. After all the praise I have heaped onto Assassin’s Creed Odyssey I cannot let the presence of microtransactions go unchecked. In the right game and when done properly, I have no problem with microtransactions per se but in a single player game that is already at a premium price, it just stinks of avarice.
In the interest of getting my review out before the next ice age, I opted for the gold edition of the game and even from Green Man Gaming (who usually offer the best day one deals) this set me back over seventy quid. This does include the season pass but still, this is a lot of money to splash out on one game. No sooner have you booted the game up, the store is announcing its presence and showing you all the beautiful things you could buy. Of course, these items require Helix points which are purchased with real cash. I have heard that many of these high-end aesthetic skins can drop in the game, but I haven't even seen one in my seventy hours.
The crowning jewel on this already shady monetisation model is that Ubisoft has placed experience boosters in the store, allowing players to pay to increase the speed in which they level up. The old ‘player choice’ mantra has been spouted by every Ubisoft PR representative willing to go on record, but we all know this is a bullshit platitude. If Ubisoft really wanted to give players a choice, these boosters would be free or at least attainable with in-game resources. I personally haven't had any problems getting to the end of the story because I do engage with all of the side content. However, if you are a player who just wants to enjoy the story this is where XP boosters might become a tempting proposition. I think their inclusion is very poor form from Ubisoft, considering the already ridiculous price of these games, it just comes across as them wanting to shake a bit more money from their fans.
When is an Assassin not an Assassin?
It is just worth noting that this chapter is more my own personal wishes for the series and as such shouldn’t be taken as criticism. We all have those moments when we play a game that no matter how good it is we wish the developers had done something different. I absolutely adore this new direction for Assassin’s Creed, it was certainly preferable to the series becoming stale and fading away. However, there is also a part of me that can see the many conventions I loved about those older games being slowly removed. That feeling of being in a bustling city is somewhat lessened now in the favour of a larger open world. While I acknowledge the need for change, I always did hope the actual assassination aspect of the Creed games would be developed, becoming a more intimate and involved experience. We did see some very subtle hints at this direction in Syndicate, in the way Evie and Jacob would scope out various weak points in location. In fact, this almost had some Hitman flavour to it. However, with Origins and now Odyssey the series has lurched in a direction that feels more akin to The Witcher 3. There is no denying that Odyssey is an incredibly accomplished game on a truly epic scale. It is with some sadness that in the bid to mesh with more conventional RPG’s, the Assassin’s Creed games are starting to lose the very thing that made them unique.
I am also a little perplexed as to the overall narrative architecture that Ubisoft is presenting to us. In many ways, Origins didn't feel like it was even part of the Assassin’s Creed world. As you progress through the story there were certain clever hints, like how early assassins would sacrifice a finger to use the hidden blade. However, Odyssey is set four hundred years before these events and apart from the modern day enabler Layla Hassan: links to the main Assassin’s Creed story arc seem very thin on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some strong story beats that include the pieces of Eden. It just feels strange to have done a decent Origin story and then in the next game go even further back. Maybe it’s just a case of the Greek setting being too juicy to pass up? More cynical gamers might suggest that many of the assets from Origins have just been reworked for Odyssey, which could explain the incredibly fast turn around. If we are now in uncharted territory and new AC game settings are being based on nothing more substantial than ‘that would be really cool’: Ubisoft can we please have an AC game based in feudal Japan? The amount of amazing settings and combat opportunities they could cover is off the chain.
Is it PC?
So as I have already touched on, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is gorgeous and certainly one of the most beautiful games we’ve ever seen. As such, the demands on your system will be high. If you have the horses to run this game at maximum settings then you will be in for a visual treat, because as with most games, nothing looks as good as on PC. The closest console contender is the Xbox X which does a very nice job of running the game near to the highest settings with a decent frame rate. Within the graphical settings, we have a wealth of options that will allow you to tweak your experience. Digital foundry’s rundown of the PC version is as always the best in the business and I will defer to them for a detailed rundown. It would seem that the biggest frame rate killers are those stunning volumetric clouds and anti-aliasing. What is notable is that many settings don’t give up that much frame rate going lower than high. The highest setting available, while jaw-dropping, will require a very powerful rig with a series ten card (or equivalent).
Already Ubisoft has been busy patching some of the game’s early wrinkles while also tweaking mechanics. One thing that while might seem utterly insignificant to most gamers was the walking speed and Kassandra: she looked like an Olympic speed-walker. I was over the moon to see the last patch has changed this to a more reasonable amble, allowing me to saunter through the many stunning towns.
There is a dark cloud over the horizon of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, one which honestly didn’t need to be there. While I do not usually condone microtransactions in single player games I do recognise they can work well for both gamer and developer. However, the inclusion of experience boosters in a single player game is never ok and we should resist this exploitative behaviour at every turn. Shadow of War had this kind of ‘player choice’ shoehorned in place for months and there is no doubt it damaged the game and left fans feeling bitter about being hustled in order to see the ‘true ending’. With that said I never felt like I was short on ways to level up and gain access to the next area.
If you do take the time to observe the many places you will travel to, there are details galore. The story elements and player driven dialogue is also a success in my eyes, adding some light (and occasionally heavy) consequences to your choices. The new exploration system is also a lovely idea that I hope follows the series forward. There are so many interlocking systems that make the game feel so compelling to travel through. With all its beauty and satisfying gameplay, this title will be just too big for some players and that’s ok. We should be able to have massive sprawling games that take months to exhaust, in the same way, there is a place for amazing games that last a mere few hours. The Witcher 3 has become the standard that other large open world RPGs get compared to and in most cases, I would say CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece is safe. It seems to me that the gameplay loops and overall ‘Ubisoft formula’ are laid bare in Odyssey, whereas in The Witcher 3 these same mechanisms are hidden away behind a veil of better side quests and world building.
My final thoughts on Assassin’s Creed is that this is a stunning and often entrancing game world that is a must for any fan of the series. Going in you should know that if you plan to just focus on story, you may end up getting forced to take part in ancillary content just to get your level up to scratch (or pay for XP boosters). This isn’t good game design and with the solution being sold for real cash in the store, the only reasonable conclusion is that this system has been balanced to encourage gamers to cough up more poke. With this issue aside I think Odyssey has added some fantastic new features and refined those it introduced in Origins. There is still a wealth of content to arrive in the next twelve months for Odyssey, including weekly events, new missions and the six chapters included in the season pass (which I will review separately). I now hope the developers at Ubisoft take pause and look at where the series is heading next, but more than that, I would like them to fill some of the gaps they have created by taking it in a new direction. Syndicate is still my favourite Assassin’s Creed game but Odyssey certainly deserves very high praise for being one of the best games to come out this year.
Thank you for reading my review for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. My review did take a few extra days than I had planned due to not receiving a review copy and also the gargantuan size of this title. As always, my goal is to produce a quality review that covers all the aspects of the game. If you enjoy my work please follow me @riggedforepic where you will get all my content and see what events I am covering.