Release Date: October 5, 2018
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
It’s easy to take a franchise like Assassin’s Creed for granted when a new title drops just about annually, but the long-running series continues to thrive over ten years after its debut. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey transports players to ancient Greece, a rich milieu that developer Ubisoft Quebec harnesses to inspire new gameplay features that significantly change the classic AC formula. The game world is vast and varied, and while stealth and parkour-style traversal remain the focus of the experience, combat and exploration receive major enhancements, making this one of the most well-rounded entries in the franchise’s history.
The game begins by asking you to choose your hero, either Kassandra or Alexios. They’re siblings but unlike twins Jacob and Evie Frye in AC: Syndicate, you’ll only be able to play as one of them throughout the campaign. It’s a major decision that alters the game from top to bottom depending on who you choose, and it’s the first taste of Odyssey’s strong focus on choice. A new dialogue system allows players to explore branching story paths, which adds an element of agency to the experience that, while featured in countless other action RPGs, feels like a breath of fresh air for this franchise.
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One of the pervading issues with open-world RPGs is that these games are so gigantic and long that the story often gets drowned in the deluge of quests, side quests, and side-side quests that dominate the experience. One is often compelled to skip through the story bits to get through the zillion tasks peppering the world map, but Odyssey makes a valiant effort to combat this by telling a really, really good story.
At its heart, the game is an epic family drama revolving around Kassandra, Alexio, and their parents, who they’re separated from at an early age in gut-wrenchingly tragic fashion. The campaign sees you trekking, climbing, and sailing across Greece to piece together the true nature of that fateful moment. You choose who or who not to befriend, trust, forgive, and of course, kill. Giving players the power of choice in a narrative is nothing new, but because the story is so well told and the drama is so juicy (plot twists abound), the dialogue system doesn’t feel like a cheap gimmick but rather an effective storytelling device.
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Odyssey is customizable through and through, from the different pieces of weapons and gear you collect on your adventures to the special abilities you utilize in combat (melee and ranged) and stealth, to the way you treat the dozens of side characters you’ll meet as you explore the sprawling game world. This is, of course, a ubiquitous design approach in modern games, but more often than not these branching paths result in a story that doesn’t have the purity of vision of a linear game. Ubisoft Quebec, however, tells the central family’s story so well that it acts as a sort of narrative foundation on which all other things are built. There are at least a dozen cutscenes that elicit real, raw emotion, which is incredibly hard to do in a medium that bookends cinematic moments with spinning loading icons.
Another thing that earns Odyssey a spot in the AC Pantheon is its well-balanced gameplay. In my experience, this is the first game in the franchise in which the combat is the most solid pillar of gameplay (this is fitting considering the setting, which is full of warring Athenians and Spartans, a Greek city-state almost exclusively associated with bloody violence and poor souls being cinematically kicked off of cliffs). Melee combat is a blast, with snappy action and a tight dodge and parrying system that is fast and responsive, but feels weighty, which is most noticeable when wielding some of the heavier weapons.
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There are seven weapon types, which feel unique in use, come with their own strengths and weaknesses, and can be leveled up and enhanced with “engravings,” which slightly boost stats. Armor is upgradeable as well, and as in previous titles, dressing your hero up in shiny, colorful, often ill-matching gear is a pleasure. “Assassin Abilities” are arranged in a rudimentary tree system, but the skills themselves are all fun to employ. The aforementioned Spartan kick is the standout (launching unwitting victims off of high ledges with a forceful punt never, ever gets old), but others, like the ability to slow down time and hack enemies with lightning speed, or the ability to light your weapons on fire, are just as satisfying.
Enemy encounters occur on the side of the road, in near-impenetrable fortresses, and in makeshift bandit camps, but all of the gory displays of guts and glory are separated by miles and miles of sunbaked Greek countryside, majestic mountains, gaping canyons, and lots of water to sail across to your heart’s content on your ship, with your trusty crew of seafarers. The largest chunk of play time is spent traversing the staggeringly big game world, which could be a drag but absolutely isn’t.
This game is an ode to mother nature in the way Horizon: Zero Dawn is, populating the landscapes with enough quests, enemy encampments, hidden caves, and wildlife to keep you busy, but spreading them out wide enough to allow you ample opportunity to take in the beauty of the environments, which seem to stretch out as far as the eye can see. The draw distance is ungodly here–while in most previous titles the focus of the famous “synchronization” aerial shots was to take in the historically-accurate architecture in denser cities, Odyssey’s synchronizations act as a showcase for the game’s gorgeous natural environments as opposed to man-made structures.
There are unfortunately a lot of low-quality textures clearly visible throughout the game, which are distracting at times, but that’s to be expected from a game world this large. Otherwise, the game is definitely a looker, with a day-night cycle that captures natural lighting just right, and environmental effects that, while not state-of-the-art, work in concert to create a stunning presentation.
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Exploration is truly gratifying here, and Ubisoft Quebec has implemented a new system of in-game guidance called “Exploration Mode,” which gives players clues as to where their next objective is on the map instead of pointing the location out plainly. You can switch to the old system (which has been used in every other AC game to date), but this new mode encourages you to forge a bond with the environments, a process that is genuinely fun and immersive.
The series’ signature climbing and traversal mechanics are as good as ever, though they don’t seem all that improved either. You can scale cliff walls and mountains, which brings The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to mind, but simple things like crawling through windows still feel awkward. Thankfully, the game is mostly about horizontal movement, which is much more manageable than vertical.
The core gameplay here is truly excellent, but the game’s complexity lies in its inventive quest sub-systems, which see you rising up the mercenary ranks by killing other contract killers in the world, all of whom have their sights set on you as well if the price is right. Knowing these powerful enemies are roaming the world at all times creates a feeling of continuity throughout the game world that really adds more to the experience than maybe Ubisoft Quebec even intended. There are also a couple of other quest trees that see you hunting down members of another equally deadly group of baddies and investigating the origins of the hero’s past, but to go into any further detail would spoil the fun of it. There are several epic battles triggered at key points throughout the game as well, with enemies and allies filling the screen in great numbers as you do your best to tilt the odds in your army’s favor, a la Dynasty Warriors. These sections are a thrill.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is about as dense a game as you’re going to find on the market. There are so many things to do, characters to meet, quests to complete, weapons to find, and mountains to scale that you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth for the full price tag (there are also some really cool surprises to be found in the latter half of the game, but again, it wouldn’t be right to spoil them here). That being said, there’s nothing revolutionary going on here. The dialogue system, while used incredibly effectively here, is an old idea, and while the combat and exploration are fantastic, the truth is, The Witcher 3 did all of this better, and that’s a three-year-old game. For the most part, this essentially feels like the same AC we’ve been playing for the past five years or so, but that’s not a bad thing. Ubisoft is iterating and improving on a winning formula, and the storytelling here is perhaps as good as it’s ever been in the series.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.