My play timer on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sits at around 25 hours right now. It’s not entirely accurate – I have a short attention span and will often be doing things on my computer at the same time – or sometimes I will leave the game running and forget about it until the PS4 auto-sleep modes after an hour. But I’ve definitely been playing for somewhere between 20 and 25 hours, which I estimate is about how long it took me to 100% Spider-Man on the PS4. Meanwhile in AC: Odyssey I’ve explored maybe a fourth of the map at most, the main plot of the game is only barely beginning to come into focus and I’m only level 20 out of a soft level cap of 50. (Spider-Man’s soft level cap was also 50 – in both games you can level past 50 but the rewards are minimal.)
Both are considered “open-world action” games that have an RPG element to them. Both have skill trees that you can upgrade and customize your play-style through. Assassin’s Creed has loot-drops and equipment to upgrade, along with a system of tracking mercenaries out to kill you and the ability to recruit people for your ship crew, while Spider-Man has gadgets to acquire and special suits and powers to unlock and upgrade. Spider-Man, however is a very story-focused game with a smaller overall map that allows for a high density of things to do in the playground you’re given, while AC: Odyssey gives you an extremely large map that is still dense with things to do, but is more focused on letting you explore and find those quests at your leisure.
So why is it that, even though the map is clearly larger and encouraging you to explore everywhere, getting anywhere in Assassin’s Creed is a chore? But in the smaller map of Spider-Man I had the most fun I’ve ever had getting from point A to point B?
This amazing view is just the tutorial starting island of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Part of it is of course that Spider-Man as a superhero allows for a more whimsical and not-of-this-world traversal mechanic in his web-swinging. Odyssey is set in historical ancient Greece so there’s not a lot of wiggle room for transportation between horses and boats and maybe a chariot if you’re rich and lucky. But even within those parameters getting anywhere in this game is absolutely boring. There’s an option while you’re on horseback to have it follow the road and auto-take you to whatever you’ve marked on your map as your destination – and while that might take a little while longer because of the circuitous routes the roads take you in the game, I often find myself doing that to get everywhere instead of exploring manually. Because if I decide to run through the trees instead, it’s likely I’m going to get attacked by lions or bears or wolves (oh my?) and delay my progress even longer.
Hell, at one point I was simultaneously playing a game of Into the Breach on my PC while Kassandra was riding her horse to her next destination on my PS4! That is not a recipe for keeping people engaged with your game!
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still really enjoying Odyssey. When you actually get to your destination the quests are fun and the combat gets better and better as you unlock more abilities and weapons. It’s really fun to Sparta Kick unsuspecting enemies off ledges and navigating a fort in stealth to pick off enemies one by one is fun and exciting. The sidequests actually have substance to them and there are some fun minor characters you get to meet – one early standout is an elderly woman who asks you to fetch some special herbs so her husband can keep up with her sex drive, but once you find them you have the option of either giving the herbs to her or taking it upon yourself to give the husband a much-needed break (that he completely approves of).
What bothers me is that Ubisoft crafted this gigantic open world for you to explore but made traveling it so boring and sometimes even frustrating. Unlike previous Assassin’s Creed games (except for I believe Origins which came out last year) you have the ability to climb pretty much anything in the world, which gives you a lot of freedom. On top of that, the game designers did the smart thing and removed being able to die from a fall – you still take fall damage if you jump from a great height (until level 20, when even that no longer happens) but you’ll never die. The combination of both these things allows for unprecedented verticality in movement which is a definite plus in terms of traversal.
Occasionally in your exploration you find cool environmental areas like this.
The problem is this verticality only feels good in the situations where you’re moving about an infiltration area planning your next stealth kill. Climbing involves pressing and holding a single button which is not particularly engaging. And this singular button just functions as a “climb higher” button. So while it gives you a wide range of vertical mobility it adds nothing to horizontal motion to the detriment of the game. Kassandra (or Alexios) has no sprint or addition to horizontal movement aside from calling your horse to go faster. As such when you’re navigating a big city area (such as Athens) you end up either jogging very slowly or plowing through civilians with a horse and neither is particularly fun.
The moment that stood out to me was while I was moving through the city of Athens – I was holding the climb button down to allow Kassandra to hope over small obstacles – making for a slightly straighter path to my destination. What ended up happening was she jumped up onto a small wall, then leapt forward and grabbed the pole on a low hanging awning. The animation swung her forward and it felt like the logical continuation would be for her to let go and continue her horizontal momentum – because I wasn’t trying to go up, just straight. Instead, she swings back then hoists herself up onto the awning which added unnecessary time to my trip towards whatever quest I was on.
Because the game only plays with vertical motion, not horizontal motion. Parkouring through the streets of Athens is not built into the traversal system of AC: Odyssey and it makes navigating through denser environments feel sluggish and un-fun.
The fact of the matter is – when you make a gigantic open world like this, you have to consider how people are going to be moving through it – especially if there are going to be long distances to be traveled for quests. Even the ship traversal is boring – you can hit a button to pull down the sail, or you can hold a different button to go slightly faster until your crew’s stamina runs out. Whenever I explore a new area in Odyssey I immediately try to unlock any relevant fast travel points in this game because most of the time it just makes more sense to hit fast travel than actually try to cross the terrain.
In Spider-Man, a 2000m+ distance to your target was basically across the city, but your active participation in web-swinging made going those 2000 meters fun. Aside from needing to fast travel for a trophy, I never touched the fast-travel system in Spider-Man because I didn’t need it. In AC: Odyssey, I try to fast travel for anything over 500m and anything that I can’t fast travel for I let my horse guide me to.
In Spider-Man, it was always fun to thwip, zip, and swoosh across the city.
It’s weird to me that developers will make their game not fun to get around when the whole purpose of having a large world is for players to get lost in it. I love ancient Greece and I love Greek mythology. I want to get lost in Odyssey’s world (and I have a few times at specific locations that are designed very beautifully) but the game’s traversal system actively discourages me from enjoying the scenery. If it’s preferable to hit a fast travel point, set the controller down, and check Facebook while the area loads you’ve done something wrong with your game design. If it’s preferable to set your horse on auto-pilot, put down the controller, and check Twitter over manually navigating the game – you’ve done something wrong with game design.
It’s why Spider-Man kept me glued to my screen – because when I was playing it, I was playing it. I was engaged with not just the combat and story, but web-swinging. It’s why that even though the only thing you do in Just Cause games is blow stuff up, the games keep your attention because its fun to zip around with your grappling hook and wing-suit when you’re in-between explosions. It’s why Grand Theft Auto is a hit because the whole game is based around stealing cars, motorcycles, planes, and who knows what else to careen through the city on your way to your next objective.
I know Odyssey doesn’t have a lot of options with the historical aspect but maybe throw something in like Icarus wings or boots of Hermes to allow for something to mix up the traveling. Give me a fun, engaging way to explore your world and I’ll feel more excited to jump into the mountain of quests you give me. Otherwise, I’ll just stick to completing the things nearby because it feels like my time isn’t being respected. I have better things to do – like another game of Into the Breach.