You’d be forgiven for forgetting just how young the Assassin’s Creed franchise is. It hasn’t even been a full 12 years since we met Altair in the original game; fast-forward to 2018, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the eleventh main entry in the series, and there are plenty of spin-offs besides. Until recently, the franchise focused mostly on key periods in the last millennium, starting with The Crusades in the 12th century and gradually advancing towards 1800s London. More recently, Origins took us into the BC years, and Odyssey goes back further still.
Ironically, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has very little to do with the assassins. This is well before their time, after all, so there are none of the usual assassins-versus-templars storylines that formed the central plot of the series for so long. Its predecessor, Origins, covered the beginnings of the assassins; Odyssey has a more personal focus, following the life of one mercenary against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War. All of Greece is in turmoil, and you get the chance to make a name for yourself amidst all the chaos.
You have the choice of playing as either Alexios or Kassandra. Whoever you pick, your story plays out the same: as a child, the chosen character was separated from their family and went into a sort of self-imposed exile. Fast-forward a few years, and the protagonist is working as a mercenary on the secluded island of Kephallonia. After running a few errands for a buffoon who happens to be both your boss and some sort of adoptive father, you realize that there’s more to life beyond your little island and go wading right into the middle of the war between Sparta and Athens. The first half of the story is reminiscent of Black Flag’s own meandering plot: uninteresting characters will get you to do some basic task for them, and then your reward will be the name or location of the next errand-giver.
This all goes on for quite a while, unfortunately, but I was relieved when the repetitive mercenary lifestyle came to an end and Kassandra’s own story really came to the front. The actual Athens-Sparta conflict plays a surprisingly small role in the overall plot. For the most part, you’ll be exploring the truth of what happened to your family, pursuing a Templar-esque cult that has its fingers in many Greek pies and, to no one’s surprise, there are a few touches of that long-running First Civilization storyline as well. Ironically, that aspect of the lore, now that it’s mostly background stuff, is tremendously more interesting than it used to be.
That aforementioned first island section is essentially the tutorial section of the game, where basic mechanics and combat are explained to you through a handful of simple missions. Like Origins before it, Odyssey has undergone some radical changes from how the series used to play. As much as I love it, Assassin’s Creed was never the most engaging of series. If you took a stealthy approach, and the fiddly controls didn’t betray you in the process, you could take out a whole base of enemies with ease. If you got caught, you could just string together instant-kill counter attacks. Odyssey does away with that part of its heritage entirely, instead favoring a combat system more akin to an action game. You’ll have to parry, dodge and roll around your enemies, timing your attacks to safely remove a chunk of your enemies’ health.
Some foes, especially brute-type enemies and pretty much every boss, have ridiculously large amounts of health. If you’re spotted trespassing in an enemy stronghold, expect to have dozens of these guys come running at you. Stealth is the safer approach, of course, but assassination moves are rarely the one-hit-kill option they once were. Unless you’ve optimized your gear loadout to favor assassination, sneaking up behind someone for a stealth attack is only going to take off about half of their health – if that.
Speaking of powerful enemies, I hope you like being constantly hunted down, because Kassandra/Alexios isn’t the only mercenary roaming around in Greece. Any time you’re witnessed committing a crime, from petty theft to good old murder, a bounty will gradually be placed on you, and powerful mercenaries will inevitably come to claim it. It can be a little tedious having them pop up at inopportune moments, but this is a minor issue when you can simply open the menu and pay off your bounty immediately. Taking on your pursuers isn’t just worth it for a challenging fight – it’s also one of the best ways to get high-end gear. That is until you level up once or twice and you find some common loot that’s much better.
Combat is hectic in a way that makes older games in the series look dull by comparison, but it’s hard to say if I like it or not. Actually fighting enemies is great, sure, especially when you use the Spartan Kick ability to send them off a cliff, but the sheer amount of time each fight can take – and you’ll be getting into a lot of them! – dilutes the fun somewhat. I turned down the difficulty about halfway through the game, simply because I was tired of how long every encounter took. I never thought I’d be talking about grinding in an Assassin’s Creed game, but here we are.
On the other hand, smaller encounters are both tense and brilliantly engaging, with both you and your enemy dancing around one another, waiting for an opening to strike. Time a dodge right and the game briefly goes into slow-motion, allowing you to land a flurry of hits on your opponent. It can be a little too easy to pull off, and there’s no limit on how often you can do it, but it’s immensely satisfying to turn a fight around by ducking aside at just the right moment before firing off your strongest attack abilities.
It is strange, I’ll admit, to be talking about abilities and skill trees in relation to an Assassin’s Creed game. You’ll get an ability point with every level-up, allowing you to unlock or upgrade a skill from one of three trees: Hunter (which mostly affects your bow), Warrior (offensive moves and buffs) and Assassin (stealth techniques and enemy debuffs). As I put more points into improving the damage of my assassination moves, stealth kills became tremendously more viable, which in turn greatly improved the fun I had in clearing Greece’s innumerable forts and bases.
Speaking of Greece, the map is huge, in typical Ubisoft fashion, and I can’t help but feel that it’s a little too big. Like Black Flag, much of the map is water, meaning ship sailing and naval combat are back in force. Unlike Black Flag, however, there’s simply too much going on. The islands far from the Greek mainland can take what feels like an age to reach, and the more minimalist ship combat – there are no cannons and mortars here after all – doesn’t have the same chaotic spectacle as it once did. It is gorgeous, though, and sometimes it’s worth sailing around or climbing the nearest mountain just to take in how lovely everything looks.
Take me back 20 years, and complaining about a game having too much to do in it would seem ludicrous. Odyssey certainly has a problem with bloating, however, from the near-endless list of miscellaneous tasks to complete to the constant, relentless acquisition of loot – primarily new gear. Any piece of equipment can be taken to a blacksmith and given extra traits like damage increases, but why bother when you’ll almost certainly find a much better item on the body of a standard enemy five minutes later? Exploring the myriad fortresses, caves, and encampments of Greece is fun at first, but the charm quickly disappears when you realize it’s mostly all inconsequential. It’s helped somewhat by being able to use your eagle companion to mark enemies, treasure and the like, but I often wished they’d taken a less-is-more approach at times.
The truly annoying part is that you have to engage with the side missions to some extent or you risk being too weak for story missions. Enemies that are the same level as you can put up a formidable fight; add even a single level on top of that and they become like gods before your puny assault. In the game’s defense, it’s pretty easy to breeze through a lot of the non-story stuff and actually become too powerful, but the sheer amount of things to do – the unending appearance of new question-marks on the map to uncover – and the need to engage with it all is so excessive that it became almost wearying to witness.
That said, when Assassin’s Creed Odyssey hits its stride it can be hard to look away. Kassandra is an incredibly compelling protagonist, from her story arc to her voice acting, and she’s certainly up there with the likes of Ezio and Connor before her. The story itself, after stumbling for a while, is personal and emotional in a way that the series has failed to really capture since Assassin’s Creed III. Although I do certainly take issue with the way the game tries to bury you in new missions, bounties, gear drops et al, there are certain optional pursuits, hunting down cultists in particular, that make up some of the best in the franchise, and they make the gargantuan Greek world worth exploring.
When I first started playing Assassin’s Creed way back in 2010, I never would have expected Ubisoft to turn it into a sort of action/RPG hybrid. It certainly isn’t a roaring success – the loot system, in particular, puts a dent in the experience – but the sense of a grand adventure that Assassin’s Creed creates so well is as strong as ever in Odyssey. Although it struggles to make a good first impression, it eventually manages to impress on many fronts: a gorgeous world, engrossing story and a wealth of content to tackle. Make sure to explore Greece at a sensible pace, however, or Odyssey runs the risk of overstaying its welcome.