It’s not uncommon for new instalments in video game franchises to mix things up for a sequel, especially long running ones. It’s also not unusual for series to experiment with new genres in spinoffs – think Mario + Rabbids, which surprised by combining its two character families in a turn-based strategy. What is rarer though is for the next key instalment in a major property to completely lean into another genre – but that’s exactly what Ubisoft is doing with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
The upcoming 11th core instalment of Assassin’s Creed – and 20th overall in the series – is for the first time in the series’ history being structured as an “epic RPG”. The series has often had elements of role-playing games blended in, from levelling up to increase stats, to a quest system driving plots, but the shift here fully adopts the trappings of the form, from customisable armour load-outs to stat-based progression systems.
It’s an RPG more in the mold of The Witcher III than Final Fantasy though. It retains the vast open worlds Assassin’s Creed has become known for, but populates it with numerous quests, side quests, and what amount to minigame subsystems providing distractions from the main quest. Much of the groundwork for this was laid by last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which itself pushed things like progression systems more towards the RPG end of the spectrum, but having gotten hands on with the game at E3 2018, it’s clear Odyssey takes things a step further.
Set in ancient Greece, you play as either Alexios or Kassandra, choosing one of the two protagonists at the start of the game and following their life. There’s no difference in terms of skills, so it’s purely a matter of preference. Both are fully and uniquely voiced, and the basic set-up of the story doesn’t change – either way, you’re a child of Sparta and descendant of Leonidas I, who is cast out but grows up into a mercenary. Anecdotally, most people in my hands on session had chosen Kassandra, and she seems to be the most talked-about of the pair on the E3 show floor.
There’s now a much stronger emphasis on the storyline and interacting with characters in the world, which often creates other branching vignettes. The main quest line involved aiding a rebellion against a cruel ruler, part of a wider story set during the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta. As a mercenary, you can choose to ally with either faction, even switching between them as situations change.
Choices matter now, too. For instance, a conversation with philosopher Sokrates – Ubisoft has gone with the more accurate ‘K’ spellings of names we’d render in English with a ‘C’ – leads to a side quest where you can free or kill a captured thief. Your decision either way can come back to haunt you and, like The Witcher III, there are often no clearly right or wrong options. Other conversations can foster romances, including same sex ones, which can impact characters’ lives and the world around you.
And what a world – Odyssey is remarkably beautiful, even more so than its immediate predecessor. Ubisoft has recreated the historical splendor of ancient Greece, ignoring the common misconception of white marble as far as the eye can see in favour of colourful buildings, verdant hills, elaborate fabrics, flowers of every colour, and glistening oceans teeming with sea life. It’s a phenomenally large world, too – only two islands were accessible at E3, but the wider map shows practically the whole of the Aegean Sea to explore. Hopefully, there will be a companion release of Discovery Tour to follow too, as this is a world you could happily just walk around without any combat to distract you.
Said combat, like much of Odyssey’s mechanics, remains very similar to Origins, though with a few upgrades. While still a mix of light and heavy attacks, you’ll now be able to unleash special moves. Usefully, these include the ability to rip shields away from guarded foes, and the classic ‘Sparta Kick’, to boot enemies away should you get overwhelmed. This has a knockback effect too, letting you topple multiple opponents at once. Kassandra/Alexios also carries a mythical weapon, the Staff of Leonidas, which can offer more powerful attacks and skills, though it was at its lowest level with minimal powers in the build provided.
Melee combat really comes into its own in new army battles though. As a mercenary, you can take part in skirmishes, the outcome of which can affect control of territory. These can be massive brawls of 150 vs 150, but thankfully there’s more to them than Dynasty Warriors-style hacking-and-slashing. While there will be numerous opponents to contend with at once, enemy unit leaders will be marked with a golden icon, and defeating them lowers overall morale. Enemy heroes serve a similar function – challenging enemies with unique skills, but killing them massively demoralises your foes. Finding and participating in these field battles is one of the more engaging distractions Odyssey provides.
One thing that feels changed for the worse – although again, Origins introduced this – is that the assassination part of Assassin’s Creed feels very much reduced. Enemies have their own level indicator, so stealth kills may not be successful if they’re too strong in relation to you. While you can level up your own skills in three categories (hunter, warrior, or assassin) to counter this, it shatters the immersion when you try to kill a sleeping guard but he instead just wakes up and starts fighting. A difference in level should be a factor in combat, but it almost feels like the game is cheating when a silent, carefully planned assassination isn’t guaranteed.
Curiously, given Odyssey is set around 431BCE – or certainly the ‘vertical slice’ of the game provided by Ubisoft was – that places the game around 400 years before Origins. With, technically, no Assassins or Templars around at this point in the Assassin’s Creed chronology (although the Order of the Ancients, predecessors to the latter faction, could present themselves), it’ll be interesting to see how this fits into the wider tapestry.
With Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey set for release on October 5, slightly less than one year after Origins, I am a little concerned Ubisoft is ramping up to return to an annual release cycle for the franchise again. There feels to be enough new ideas here to warrant a return so soon, and part of what made Origins so fresh was that series had enjoyed a year off. The sheer size of the final world looks like a frankly daunting time sink, too. However, by shifting to a full-on RPG and offering branching stories and varied side challenges, Odyssey will hopefully stave off the sense of repetition that creeped in a few years ago