Ubisoft’s newest Assassin’s Creed is the stuff of legends.
Ironically for a game set in ancient Greece, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is anything but Spartan. This epic-scale action-roleplaying game shines as a grand adventure through a magnificent and beautiful open world on a scale we’ve rarely seen. With so few compromises between quantity and quality, Odyssey vaults over its predecessors to become the most impressive game in the history of the series.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey begins more than 2,400 years ago at the onset of the Peloponnesian war: a decades-long struggle between Athens and Sparta for dominion over the ancient Greek world. It’s a fitting period to explore that’s rife with social and political intrigue, full-scale warfare on land and sea, and a tangible air of myth and legend. And after an astonishing 60-plus hours of galloping, sailing, and slicing through that historical-fiction sandbox, it’s easy to see why it was worth fighting so hard over.
Odyssey’s world is the biggest and most vibrantly colorful of the series.
Odyssey’s world is the biggest and most vibrantly colorful of the series. Even though much of its playground is blanketed in the fickle blue waters of the Aegean sea, its playable acreage is immense and rivaled only by its sheer jaw-dropping beauty. Greece is a stunning series of picturesque locales: white-stone isles, eternally autumnal forests, sun-blasted desert islands, an endless expanse of beach, alabaster cities defended by titanic statues of bronze and stone, and the inviting, rolling waves of the open sea. These beautiful scenes explode into life thanks to a lighting system that still causes me to stop and snap a picture even all these hours later.
Of course, as with virtually all grand-scale game worlds, flaws lurk just under the surface. They range from minor immersion-breaking hiccups like draw distance that never seems to be quite far enough to capture the view, textures that arrive moments too late, or slightly off-sync audio, to the more severe: getting terminally stuck on geometry, finding an unlootable lootable item, or having your tamed beast become untamed when you die and reload – which may very well cause you to die and reload again if you happen to have had a tamed bear. Bugs like these were annoying, sure, but not quite frequent enough to sour me on exploring what has become one of my favorite open-world maps ever.
History / Herstory
For the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game we get a choice of whether to play exclusively as a man or a woman: siblings Alexios and Kassandra. True, as far as the story’s concerned they’re effectively the same character, but even though they’re superficial there are some meaningful differences. Namely, Kassandra’s voice acting is generally more consistently well done than that of her brother.
For that matter, accents and voice delivery throughout Odyssey are hit or miss, usually falling somewhere between good and outright scenery-chewing, especially when it comes to no-name NPCs who sound like someone who’d watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding once before being asked to do an impersonation. But the facial animation of the marquee characters is superb, and you can sense the subtle disgust or confusion on the face of Alexios or Kassandra without them having to say a word.
These protagonists are easily the most flexible characters in any Assassin’s Creed game to date.
These protagonists are easily the most flexible characters in any Assassin’s Creed game to date when it comes to their personalities. As a mercenary, my Alexios was free to be whoever I decided he should be. A merc with a conscious, a one-track-mind horn dog, or a ruthless murdering psychopath – there are no wrong answers, but there were definitely consequences to the decisions I chose.
Most dialogue decisions usually don’t carry much meaning outside of whether your character is an upstanding person or a total dick. For example, a desperate fisherwoman pleads to find her husband she fears was overtaken by pirates: I could agree to help find him for the sake of love and reconciliation and all the brownie points, or tell her I don’t work for free and watch her hopes dashed to pieces like the body of her former spouse upon the rocks. But some of those choices do affect the greater world around you: varied side missions become available according to your deeds, and certain characters could live or die – all the way through to the multiple possible endings. I never felt like I screwed myself out of something I wanted to do, but I had the freedom to be who I wanted to be.
I had the freedom to be who I wanted to be.
Who I wanted to be was someone who’s often too lazy or self-assured to hide his murderous ways, which put me in conflict with Odyssey’s new notoriety system. It’s a simple, common-sense approach: the more crimes you commit, the more likely it is that someone in the world puts a bounty on your head, and then a relentless cadre of procedurally named mercenaries begin to hunt and track you down.
While I initially found the mercs who were sicced on me to be little more than loot pinatas, as I leveled up the generic names and descriptors – like Ilona the Agile (who was admittedly quite agile until I sunk her vessel and she drown in the Aegean) – began to get more bombastic and threatening. For example, Mariah the Glimmering dogged me throughout my level-30s and her flaming spear and voracious pet lion worked in tandem to skewer or maul me into sweet oblivion on multiple occasions. I eventually just started running away when she had tracked me down, before finally ending her reign of terror some ten levels later. Sure, the loot wasn’t great, but it was worth it.
The mercenaries sent to kill me eventaully earned my respect.
With a high enough bounty, this endless procession of relentless pursuers began to show up in force to complicate matters while I was in the middle of sieging a fort – and before I could finish fighting one another would join, eager to hunt my head for coin. Then another, then another, and soon I had to choose between battling five headhunters while I tried to complete my objective in a defended fort, or turn tail and run. They eventually earned my respect, and I appreciate the chaotic X-factor they bring to Odyssey. Rising through their ranks to gain the attention of their legendary warriors is a fun meta-game in and of itself.
Similarly, the nation struggle system allows you to help the war effort for either Sparta or Athens in each region. By destroying supplies, pillaging war chests, or deposing a national leader, you’ll trigger a conquest battle. While these huge melee or naval battles are thoroughly excellent combat scenarios and reward you with some good loot, they mean disappointingly little to the story. Regardless of whether you’re attacking or defending, which side you join, or who ultimately wins, the war machine keeps turning. Eventually, I got to a point where I was able to weaken a region and trigger a conquest battle rather quickly, which made these mini-wars effectively farmable. That sucks some of the grandeur out of them, but seeing a hundred soldiers, captains, and mercenaries locked in combat is always a sight to behold.
Plying Your Trade
Weapons behave just differently enough for meaningful nuance.
Odyssey continues what Origins started last year, moving combat to a free-flowing dance of light and heavy attacks. The weapons are swords, daggers, axes, maces, spears, and staves, all of which behave just differently enough for meaningful nuance. In the heat of battle, it’s an easy-to-grasp system of slashes and skills, and I’m still picking fights just for the joy of it – especially against improbable odds, like the Greek legends of old.
There’s a staggering amount of equipment to find, upgrade, and engrave with powerful perks. Odyssey smartly offers you the chance to upgrade an old piece of gear to your level for a hefty fee, depending on its rarity. Thanks to that system, I didn’t have to say goodbye to my favorite sword and axe that I used throughout much of the adventure – but that attachment cost me a small fortune in resources to keep them up to date every few levels. But even if I didn’t always have the crafting materials or currency needed to upgrade my old reliable Spartan War Hero helmet to my current level, a constant stream of new viable gear continued to pour in, giving me options until I refilled my coffers.
Leveling is a seamless experience, and though it predictably slows the higher you get, I never felt like I was spinning my wheels for an excessively long time before being rewarded. The real progression comes from Odyssey’s three distinct skill trees: Warrior (melee), Hunter (archery), and Assassin (stabby stab stab). Each holds powerful abilities that can devastate on the battlefield, and while I opted to turn Alexios into a killing machine by focusing almost entirely on the warrior tree I also dabbled in the others, enough to pick up Archer skills like the head-splitting Predator Shot and the Shadow Assassin ability that made silent kills more reliable. More than any other Assassin’s Creed before, I felt I could tailor my mercenary to my play style without making any real sacrifices.
The Sparta Kick was the single most devastating and just plain fun weapon.
Even when experimenting, every skill I chose felt worthwhile. Stripping shields from the hands of well-defended enemies, delivering brutally overpowered attacks, activating life-saving heals, and a multitude of craftable special arrows made me feel like I had the utility to handle a small army. But thanks to the murderous power of gravity, I found the Sparta Kick (a winking acknowledgement to Leonidas’ punting a foe off a cliff to his death in the movie 300) to be the single most devastating and just plain fun weapon in my arsenal for nearly half my playthrough.
Naval warfare is the best it’s ever been in Assassin’s Creed.
The other pillar of combat is naval warfare, which is the best it’s ever been in Assassin’s Creed. It’s that same familiar system of ramming, raining arrows and javelins on opposing vessels – both standard and of the fiery variety – and maneuvering to fend off retaliation. But this time around, your ship, the Adrestia, has much more excellent upgradeable options to buff out arrow damage, ramming damage, or durability at the cost of a ton of collectible resources. While those costs continue to rise, finally collecting enough to sink a point into a new upgrade instills a sense of real accomplishment. By the time I had finished the main story, I was annihilating mercenary vessels several levels higher than me because of the upgrades I chose, and I felt like I could handle just about anything the Aegean had to throw at me.
But Odyssey’s thoughtful systems for upgrading mean even when you’re on land, the sea is ever-present, because you can always be working toward upgrading your ship. Nearly every enemy you encounter, from foot soldiers to Spartan generals, can be subdued and recruited to join your ship as a lieutenant in a way that’s reminiscent of Shadow of War’s army-building Nemesis system. It’s a smart sub-layer of optimization that not only adds customization, but kept me thinking about the Adrestia even while I was hundreds of miles inland. And of course, gliding across the glassy Aegean and charging headlong into an armada of pirates, Spartans, Athenians, or even helpless merchant vessels is something I relish even after so much time dominating Greece’s waters.
Its straightforward family drama is unhindered by the tired Assassins versus Templars soap opera.
While side missions and combat are abundant and fun, eventually you’ve got to move Odyssey’s main story forward. It’s enjoyable, with genuine moments of bare emotion that made me feel for those involved. Its straightforward family drama is unhindered by the tired Assassins versus Templars soap opera, which is thankfully all but entirely kicked to the curb this time. Instead, it comes up with enough twists and memorable side characters of its own to keep me invested.
At the same time, Odyssey’s main story is padded with mission after mission of meaningless errands that make getting to those strong character moments a painstaking gauntlet of splintered tasks. Oftentimes the payoff of a major character reveal was dulled because I had to spend six hours chasing my tail through half the Greek world to reach it. Which is a shame, since those moments really solidify your mercenary character as a person, rather than a means to an end.
But even after completing the main story, there’s still so much left to uncover that I’m nearly as overwhelmed with where to go and what to do next as I was when I started. The three main story pillars weave in and out of one another, but for a large chunk of the adventure you have access to quests from each, so there’s both a variety to choose from and meaningful things left to complete when you finish the main character’s family story. Whether I’m hunting down the remnants of the sinister Cult of Kosmos, tracking down relics that push the totally superficial present-day story forward, fighting mythological monsters, or hunting the great beasts of Greek legend, there’s a staggering amount of content left to discover.