So I’m closing in on 60 hours of playtime in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and while I’m still not finished with the main story (not for lacking of trying, mind you) I’ve reached a sufficient point where I think I can give a good review of the game. It’s pretty much the only game that’s had my attention over the last month (although there were a few others that I will go over in my monthly recap as well). I was a little wary going into the game because the last big game I played was Spider-Man and I was possibly risking burnout by jumping into another action-oriented open world game. Especially since Odyssey’s map is much larger than Spider-Man’s NYC.
I talked a little bit about my specific problem with Odyssey’s map design and traversal aspects in an earlier blog post, and they continued to persist as I got further into the game. I abuse fast travel like nobody’s business and often have my horse or ship auto-take me to the next place I want to go while I turn my attention to Twitter or Facebook for a few minutes. That is probably the game’s biggest flaw in terms of design – you do a lot of traveling from place to place in the game but the journey is never interesting.
But as the famous saying goes, it’s not about the journey – it’s about the destination. Wait, that’s not right. Well, regardless of how the saying goes, I’m going to take a deeper dive into my experiences with Odyssey and how it stacks up against other massive open-world games.
(Some main story and sidequest spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey will follow.)
I haven’t played a lot of Assassin’s Creed games – I played the very first game for a few hours, I finished Assassin’s Creed II and played some of Brotherhood. Then I skipped pretty much everything until Syndicate, which I played for a few hours and could not get invested in at all – the story of Assassins vs. Templars just wasn’t enough to grab my attention. And while Evie was an interesting character Jacob was not and I was actually less enthused every time the game forced me to play as him.
Odyssey, however, had my attention ever since they announced the setting – I love Ancient Greece and the mythology that goes along with it, so the more I heard about the game the more I thought “this is the Assassin’s Creed I want to play.” It takes place before the Assassins and Templars are even a thing so it has its own story. The modern aspect is reduced to very short cut-scenes that don’t take up too much time – in the 60 hours of playtime I think I’ve spent less than 10 minutes total in the modern era. And the game is much better for it.
You start off being able to choose between Alexios or Kassandra as your main character which is a welcome shake-up to the AC franchise. Previously almost every Assassin had been male, except for the aforementioned Evie and another Assassin in a spinoff game. I chose Kassandra because I like playing as women when given the choice and she has been a kick-ass protagonist for the 60 hours. Her voice acting is great, and as a bonus both her and Alexios are voiced by actual Greeks. The game embraces a more RPG format and while there are “romance” options, they aren’t super complicated so don’t expect Mass Effect style long-form seductions. It’s more “choose the option with the heart” and then Alexios or Kassandra will put the moves on said character, then you go about your day. (The game allows you to play Alexios and Kassandra as gay, straight, bi, or asexual as you wish.)
Since the Assassins don’t exist yet, you discover your main enemy towards the end of the game’s third chapter. They’re called the Cult of Kosmos and they make for a very interesting villainous group. The Cult has infiltrated the entire Greek world and you have to unmask them by searching for clues through both the main story and sidequests. It adds a unique cat-and-mouse aspect to the assassinations – you have a full list of mysterious targets once the Cult is revealed, but you have no idea who or where they are. To add on to the fact, you can kill Cultists without even knowing they’re Cultists – one time I destroyed a ship carrying a Cultist and didn’t even know it until the “Cultist Killed” notification came up on the screen. You never know when a sidequest might lead you to a Cultist or a clue to find them and it’s a very well done challenge that keeps you invested in the hunt.
Kassandra is going as “sexy minotaur” for Halloween this year.
The stories and characters are also very engaging. Odyssey’s map of Greece is made up of the mainland and plenty of small islands, and often times each island will have its own contained sidequests. The sidequests are often more like additional stories, though, and are usually thought out and interesting over “fetch X things and bring them back to me.” One island has you helping a band of rebels overthrow the island’s leader – another has you compete in a 100-man battle royale style gladiator tournament to be the last champion standing. My favorite side island is the island of Krete – one section of the island has turned into a Minotaur-based tourist trap where you have vendors offering to take you on “mino-tours.” The quests in this area lead you to a showdown with an obviously fake minotaur that is used to scare witless people out of their money. The entire area is hilarious in its touristy pastiche, which makes it even better when later in a different part of Krete you end up on a quest to find the real Minotaur.
Different areas of the game (and especially the different islands) have their own feel and distinct personality. The sprawling city of Athens is very impressive when you first come across it. When you make it to the Olympic Valley in the later game, the rolling hills and giant mountains provide a stark contrast to the small, ocean islands you’ve been spending a lot of your time on. One of my favorite areas was a large salt field that I found pretty early in the game – its vast whiteness stood out against the repeated forest and greenery I’d spent my time in up until that point. Ubisoft’s developers made a giant world and managed to succeed in making a majority of the locations feel distinctive.
That isn’t to say all the areas are distinctive. A lot of the bandit camps, caverns, and military outposts DO feel copy-pasted, which makes quests that involve them a little disappointing. There are a few interesting ones – like I found a bunch of crazy cultists (not related to the Cult you’re hunting) living in a cavern under a volcano. But the majority are not terribly interesting to explore and it becomes a routine to assassinate everyone in a camp since you’ve seen the layout twenty times over. And a lot of the synchronization points (aka fast travel) are always on the same thing – whatever temple to whatever god is primarily worshiped in the city you’re in, or a tree branch at the edge of a cliff. Older Assassin’s Creed games had their synchronization points be at interesting and unique locales, but only a few of the vistas you get to see in this game while synchronizing are actually impressive.
The game also has a dicey combat issue. In 1v1 fights the combat shines – you can be tactical and use your abilities to get the best of your foe while watching the cues to predict how who you’re fighting will respond. You can choose between Hunter (ranged), Warrior (melee) and Assassin (stealth) ability trees and play how you like – all three trees get some pretty wicked abilities. But whenever you face multiple enemies at a time the combat breaks down. Your parry window is fairly large, but enemies will often stagger their attacks so one will be parried but others won’t. The window for unblockable attack cues is also small, which isn’t a big deal when you’re facing one enemy but when multiple enemies gear up unblockable attacks and you’re in the middle of an attack animation, it becomes a long chain of unblockable pain. The lock-on is also very finicky and it will switch to different enemies on a whim, so it is basically useless in group fights. More than a few times I found myself whiffing a whole combo because Kassandra kept flipping back and forth between two enemies and not actually hitting either of them.
This wouldn’t be a glaring flaw if the game focused entirely on assassinations and stealth – if you were supposed to be sneaky and actual face-to-face combat was an unpleasant outcome, I wouldn’t have a probably with multi-person combat being a drag. I don’t complain when twenty guys are shooting at me when I screw up in Hitman because, well, if you get to a point where twenty guys are shooting at you in Hitman you made a mistake somewhere. But AC: Odyssey not only doesn’t want you to focus solely on stealth, it actually has a major system that revolves solely around group combat in the Conquest system.
The game takes place during the Peloponnesian War so Athens and Sparta are constantly fighting for territory. Each area of Greece is either ruled by Athens or Sparta, and as a mercenary (or misthios in-game) you can do odd jobs to destabilize regions – from burning war supplies to stealing money from their war chest to outright assassinating the leader of a particular territory. Once an area has become “vulnerable” the game allows you to participate in a Conquest Battle – you can either side with the defending country for an easier battle and less loot, or you can side with the attacking country for a harder battle and more loot. You then go into a giant free-for-all war battle where a bunch of Athenians and Spartans are fighting. Because you start in the middle of combat, you have no option for stealth and you’re guaranteed to be fighting multiple enemies at once.
The entire Conquest system feels half-baked. Between the combat not being suited for giant battles like the Conquest ones and the fact that there don’t seem to be any consequences for Conquest takeovers, it feels like you can entirely ignore the system unless it is required for a quest. When you overthrow Athens’ control of an area and put in a Spartan leader, you can immediately try to assassinate the new leader and put the Athenians in charge again. It feels tacked on as another “thing to do” in a game that already has plenty to do and after a few of them I was over it completely.
Speaking of tacked on, the Mercenary system also feel sloppy compared to other polished areas of Odyssey. If you perform bad deeds like stealing or murder in front of citizens, your bounty level goes up. And for each level it goes up, a Mercenary from a list starts hunting you to collect that bounty. Mercenaries are tougher opponents than regular enemies and you have to really focus on them to beat them, so if they show up when you’re trying to complete a mission they can really ruin your day. On top of that, since your bounty level can go up to 5, you can have 5 Mercenaries hunting you at the same time. The Mercenaries aren’t level-gated either – at one point when I was level 8, I had a level 35 Mercenary on my tail which scared me to death, so I paid off that bounty real quick.
The reason the system feels sloppy is because the game is constantly generating new Mercenaries as you kill older ones. You’re supposed to be climbing a ladder until you’re the top Mercenary, but the Mercenaries you defeat just disappear into the ether. You can’t go back and see all the Mercenaries you’ve beaten because they’re replaced on the list by new fodder. It’s very disappointing because you can see the framework for an interesting system but it just doesn’t quite reach its potential. There’s no sense of progression when the Mercenaries are just infinitely generated. They only feel threatening at the beginning of the game when you’re underleveled and when you get further along they’re just annoying and don’t really add anything to the gameplay.
The storms at sea are beautiful.
The last thing I want to talk about is the sea combat which is actually pretty refreshing. I never played Black Flag (aka Assassin’s Creed Pirates) so I don’t know how it compares to that, but I really don’t mind the ship-to-ship combat in this game. Obviously if you take on a whole fleet you’re going to get massacred, so don’t do that. But I found a lot of fun in ramming into ships to take them by surprise and then volleying arrow after arrow into their crew before boarding them and sacking their loot. The sea travel feels necessary because of the island nature of Greece, but unlike the Conquest battles it doesn’t feel like it was tacked on as another “thing to do.” You don’t have to participate in much naval combat if you don’t want to, but it’s pretty exciting to see people you’ve recruited along your journey jump onto the enemy boat with you and help with massacring some bandits. Or Athenians. Or Spartans. Or Cultists.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with Odyssey. The setting definitely helps – I’m not sure I would be as invested in the game in a different place and time. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle a huge open world game so quickly after Spider-Man, but after 60 hours I’m not tired of it yet. In fact I’m itching to go back into the game right now and continue on with the main story. The plethora of side quests and activities you find while exploring, though, are likely going to distract me yet again. But it’s a good kind of distraction. Lots of games have lost me after only a few hours, but between Odyssey’s story, its characters, and its setting I’m ready to put another 10-20 hours into the game and finish this bad boy up. The parts that I’m iffy on are easy enough to avoid, which makes this a pretty easy recommendation on my part.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a PLAY.