Games Review: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Xbox One, 2018) is huge, confident and full of big ideas

Before we begin, a personal note: Between Nintendo and Ubisoft, I have had to write out the word “Odyssey” so often over the last two years that I’ll never misspell it again. Big thanks to both companies for that little toward self improvement.

One year on from Ubisoft’s drastic reconstruction of its most popular franchise, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey represents the final pieces of that transformation falling into place. These pieces tilt the series further towards the kind of action/role-playing familiar to anyone who has played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey wants players to explore, and it wants them to feel like they have a character they can mould to their preferred playstyle rather than an avatar with a very specific set of stealthy skills. In the same way Assassin’s Creed Origins openly borrowed from numerous popular titles to create a revised franchise blueprint, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey pulls quite specifically from The Witcher 3 and, to a lesser extent, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I’ll come back to that, but let me lay a bit of groundwork first.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey follows one of two characters — Alexios or Kassandra. These two siblings are descended from the great Spartan leader Leonidas himself, hardened soldiers and world weary by the time you meet them in what seems like their late 20’s or early 30’s. Unlike previous Assassin’s Creed siblings Jacob and Evie Frye, there’s no tagging in or tagging out. Rather, you pick one as your character and that is the end of the discussion. Don’t worry — choosing one over the other has no impact on the way the game’s story plays out, so don’t let the FOMO get to you. Both characters speak the same lines of dialogue and perform the same actions. The same choices, even romantic ones, are available to both characters, but you do have to be careful about which one you pick. There’s no changing your mind once you select your character.

Raised on Kephallonia, your character (Kassandra in my case) begins as a small time mercenary, or Misthios, doing odd jobs for crooked local businessmen and eking out a minor living, cut off from their early life in Sparta. Before long, they are caught up in a brewing war between the Spartan nation and the Athenian empire. The Athenian leader, Perikles, is seen as an elitist snob, happy to deal with the rich and leave the poor to starve and rot. With the whole Greek world under seige by the relentless Spartan army, Perikles’ grip on both the capital and the wider empire is dwindling.

Throughout the game, you will be charged with helping to destablise or bolster the troops in each area you arrive in. If you’d prefer to side with the Spartans, leave them be and go hunting Athenians. If you like the cut of the Athenian gib and have no allegiance to Sparta, you can work to wipe out the Spartans instead. If you’re only in it for the coin, busy yourself with decimating whichever force controls the area, regardless of their colours. It’s entirely up to you.

The casting of the lead character as a Spartan has wider implications on the game’s combat. In Origins, a significant component in Bayek’s kit was his shield. Spartans have no need for such a comfort and so the mechanic is removed entirely. Spartans make their enemies need shields, not the other way around. This means that players are encouraged to engage in open, front-facing combat when the stealthy approach either won’t work or falls apart. In this, I’m reminded of Metal Gear Solid 5 — in that game, getting sprung and going loud was just as much fun as clearing a whole base out without anyone ever knowing you were there. The same is true here. Try to sneak in if you can, do your best to get the drop on your enemies, but if it all goes to shit (and it may) you’re still well prepared for a fight.

Moves like the Spartan Kick and Bullrush seem a bit showy at first blush, perhaps out of step with what the series has traditionally been, but it wasn’t long before both moves became a regular part of my kit. I’ve found the Spartan Kick is invaluable in naval combat. Punting a powerful general off their boat is a great way to stop a fight before it ever even starts. Sure, you might miss out on a little loot if they die in the water but you’re still gonna ransack their boat before it sinks so swings and roundabouts.

The skill tree is, overall, significantly diminished from the sprawling web found in Origins. This is not a bad thing. At all. The smaller tree has allowed designers to create more specific unlocks and ways to interact with the game that are more meaningful. Further, most skill tree items can be pumped up to the three times to maximise their effectiveness. The net benefit for you, the player, is that you’re free to create a build for your character. When I say “build”, I don’t want you getting the wrong idea here — this isn’t an ARPG so don’t go expecting builds with anything approaching that kind of build customisation or optimisation. What I mean to say is that, with careful selection of items from the skill tree, you are better positioned to make your character powerful in ways that suit your playstyle. Pump Assassin skills if you prefer stealth, pump Warrior skills if you prefer to solve your problems head on, and pump Ranged if you like sorting shit out from a distance with a bow and arrow.

The game’s most heralded change is its aforementioned hard shove into role playing, and it’s here the game feels most like The Witcher 3. Its dialogue trees and animations are very reminiscent of the work CD Projekt Red did in their seminal fantasy RPG in both form and function. They’re more than just an excuse for characters to talk to each other which, I will confess, was a fear I had going in. Don’t just implement dialogue trees for no reason. This is what got Fallout 4 roasted. The dialogue itself is quite good, and is quite snappily written for a Ubisoft game. Ubi tends to err on the side of caution in its scripts — stick to the most basic version of the story and dialogue and don’t over-complicate — but here they’re willing to stretch themselves a little. The result, while not terribly original in the broader context of AAA game development, is a refreshing change of pace for the Assassin’s Creed series, as immersed in Greek custom and sayings as any of the map’s landmarks. Where it sometimes falters is in the reading. There are some lines that Kassandra’s VO, Melissanthi Mahut, seems to struggle with. It doesn’t keep her from creating a character with a rich inner life, of course. Kass is a remarkable character and Mahut should be very pleased with her performance. Any game with as much dialogue to get through as this will always have the odd weak line reading. Still, there were a few spots where it sounded like Mahut might have been lacking the direction she needed to make a line land.

Dialogue trees are used in conjunction with the game’s new Exploration Mode. Selected at the beginning of the game, Exploration Mode turns off automatic navigation waypoints, asking the player to use details gleaned from conversation to track their marks. It’s very similar to Witcher contracts — take the job, gather information, prepare accordingly and, finally, act. It works, and I like it a lot. I like being allowed to find my own way rather than being told exactly where to go. I know that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and if you’d prefer to use the more traditional Guided Mode, I won’t hold it against you. Sometimes you just want to know where to go and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Exploration Mode makes a great case for exploring the world Ubisoft have built, and I have to give them a shout out for that.

And what a great world it is. The map of Ancient Greece, from the island of Kephallonia to the towering monoliths of Athens, is gorgeously realised. Hopping from island to island via your ship is a nice change from the entirely landlocked and desert-bound adventure of Origins. Ubisoft have gone to great pains to fill their world with true-to-life artifacts, statues, buildings and examples of day-to-day Greek life. The bleached white cliffs of the Grecian seaside are rendered with an exacting eye for detail. The clothing on every character, including your own, is lovingly crafted and period appropriate. I look forward to the inevitable educational walkthrough mode. The return of Black Flag-esque naval combat is a welcome one, and is largely unchanged from that game. It makes island hopping a rather more fraught experience because you never know who’s going to want a piece of you on the high seas.

I want to talk a little about where the game borrows quite liberally from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor because there’s a big reason I feel like it’s worth remarking on: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the first game I’ve seen since Shadow of Mordor‘s release to ape its famous Nemesis System. This nod to Mordor is contained entirely within a pair of hunter-killer lists. The first is a tiered list of roving mercenaries who will leave you be until hired to take you out. Hired mercenaries are always tracking you, looking for information on where you’ve been  and where you’re likely to head next. They will roll into a fight already in progress when you least expect it, an Inception bwaaaa heralding their arrival. Taking them out gets you some sweet high-end loot and moves you up the mercenary power list a little further.

The second is a network of mysterious individuals that make up a Cult. Murdering each cult member nets you more sweet loot and isolated pieces of information on other cult members. Once you’ve collected enough information on a cult member, you can reveal their true identity and their location in the world. If they’re below, equal to, or slightly above your level, you can head over to take them out. As in Mordor, enemies will carry certain modifiers — some travel with a deadly pet for instance, others take reduced damage from melee or ranged attacks. Like the dialogue trees, its about collecting information for later use. Odyssey‘s version of Nemesis isn’t implemented with the depth or charm Monolith was able to achieve — your enemies aren’t memorable, and they don’t remember you or adjust their tactics if you bail — but I also haven’t seen anyone else trying to emulate that system, so well done Ubi.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a sprawling, character-driven entry in a series that is still going through a lot of changes. It feels like the tectonic plates that were thrashing around in Origins have begun to settle here. If the more refined blueprint Odyssey provides will inform the shape of the series going forward, I’m very excited to see the places Ubisoft will take it. For the first time in almost a decade, it feels like Assassin’s Creed has a direction its headed in. It knows what it wants to be. With Ubisoft confirming that the series will go on hiatus once more in 2019, it’s likely to be 2020 before another mainline entry in the franchise arrives. I’m excited to see what Ubisoft spend that two years on. The choice of the name Odyssey is a fitting one — Ubisoft can take the series they want from here.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights: Great character work; Excellent dialogue tree implementation; Exploration Mode is great
Lowlights: Main quest level requirements began to outpace me around Level 16, meaning I had to grind a bit to move forward
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Review conducted on Xbox One X with a Gold Edition code provided by the publisher.

 

 

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.