At this point, Assassin’s Creed is more of a gaming institution than a simple series. With almost two dozen titles in just over a decade (plus movies, novels, and more), the franchise has developed its own arcs and stories that go well past the events portrayed in its code.
While the series struggled under an accelerated release schedule some years back, Ubisoft’s tentpole franchise is on a more solid pacing again. That means a return to what Assassin’s Creed does best: expounding on and remixing prominent game design ideas and serving them up an aesthetic and conceptual cocktail. Odyssey, much like last year’s Origins, takes ideas from its best contemporaries and reassembles them into a new whole.
Choose your choice
The Assassin’s Creed games are principally founded on the notion that recorded history has just enough gaps to fit in the existence of an unknown, international cabal of elite assassins. Different segments of the series have offered up addendums to the basic conceit, starting with an open world and a flexible parkour system. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has evolved to become a standard-bearer for entire trends in gaming, such as, but certainly not limited to, the so-called “Ubisoft towers.”
Thankfully, nothing so agonizing and formulaic rears its head here, but Odyssey does still suffer from some rather large gameplay quirks, adding an off-putting new system of narrative choices to the series without much benefit.
Odyssey’s Alexios and Kassandra (you pick one to play at the start of the game) are siblings on the precipice of the Peloponnesian wars. Instead of being assassins, though, the protagonists are mercenaries this time around, and the game’s narrative arc and quest system wind themselves around this notion. You can take on jobs for any number of citizens and factions, potentially influencing the war effort in the process.
But since the scope of the game is so broad, many of your choices won’t alter much besides the outcome of one small quest or another. To the game’s credit, these choices more often than not amount to subtle nods toward your preference for discretion (or lack thereof). In many ways, though, that choice becomes the game’s proxy for a rudimentary moral compass, leading to a repeat of some of the more pernicious writing issues of games from the early ‘00s.
Last year’s Origins starred Bayek, a flawed but well-developed character who routinely struggled with political indignation. Kassandra and Alexios aren’t too different in that sense, but the outcomes of their various choices can often come across as comically melodramatic. This isn’t helped by some iffy voice acting for the game’s countless minor characters.
Just because Odyssey offers you a lot of choices doesn’t mean these decisions represent a net positive addition to the formula. That’s especially true when those choices are so often couched in ridiculous extremes and overplayed tropes. (“The chosen through whom legendary blood flows,” etc.)
To be sure, games often struggle with balancing aesthetic and narrative choices against a marketing-ready checklist of technical features. And Odyssey’s narrative issues seem to stem from the game’s immense scale as much as anything else. But in Odyssey, the bevy of overblown choices results in an overall flatline for the plotting.
Players have plenty to do in this gargantuan recreation of Hellenistic Greece, spanning the mountains and seas of the Mediterranean Basin. Traversing that massive world in a variety of ways, tapping quests and unlocks and upgrades along the way, is standard fare for the genre. Odyssey, though, is notable for just having more of just about everything than most of its compatriots.
Early, shallow-seas naval combat was a massive part of Grecian wars of the era, so maritime play has a major role in the game, keeping with the series’ eye for historically accurate worlds (and a firm nod to the epic poem from which the game takes its subtitle). This fills out an already expansive adventure—packed with upgrades and skills to acquire for dozens of hours—with plenty of additional texture.
For your standard gear, you’ll have the option to collect any number of helmets and armor fashioned after historical pieces. Over time, you can upgrade them with the standard set of collected resources. Attack, defense, and health grow in turn, copying the mechanism MMOs and their ilk use to generate arbitrarily large numbers as play time ticks upward. This is one of the less compelling ways the game doles out rewards.
There are many other contextual upgrades that form a nicer set of additions to the formula, though. In addition to getting boosts from the ceaseless conveyor belt of better gear, you have the opportunity to earn specific boosts that match your play style, as in games like Skyrim. Those taking a more brutal tack, for instance, can get upgrades for taking on multiple enemies with heavy weapons. Stealthier players will be able to lean into their chosen playstyle.
On top of that, of course, there is the standard array of unlockable abilities to refine play further. Some of these are profoundly impactful, allowing for an exceptional snipe or the aptly named and eminently referential “Spartan Kick.” At the end of the day, they’re all tools that help you fight more effectively.
In many ways, though, that’s only part of Odyssey’s draw. Assassin’s Creed is as much a fantasy as it is anything else. The game often seems devastatingly intent on overawing players with its painstakingly detailed recreations of the ancient or the medieval. Last year’s Origins was already a genuine visual stunner, and Odyssey ups the ante once more.
Set a few hundred years prior to the events of Origins, Odyssey takes us back to an era that is scarcely reminiscent of the places we know yet is oddly familiar. Statues that defy comprehensive scale—especially for the time—are plentiful. Fluttering fields of largely untamed flowers right next to fertile grain fields, all set against the blue-tinged view of distant mountains and the Aegean Sea are memorable sights. These awe-inspiring visual moments are common, and they never fail to spur the imagination.
It’s in these sweeping vistas that Assassin’s Creed once again finds its best moments. Combat, while satisfying, can be a bit rote. And beating up repetitive antagonists doesn’t quite have the same impact as cresting the top of a towering tribute to Zeus and gazing, as he might well have, at the majesty of the world.
Odyssey competently executes some compelling and varied design, but it shines best when it taps the scale and scope of the ancient world. Though there’s some fun to be had exploring this massive ancient playspace, there’s not much else that’s genuinely memorable aside from those stunning visuals.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey offers a lot to do but very little to say. That’s a shame, since many of history’s greatest tales have leveraged an immense scale to weave equally impactful tales. That’s not quite the case here.
- Literally epic in scope and tone, setting a grand stage for a spectacular odyssey
- Jaw-dropping visuals beautifully recreate the ancient world
- Complex, varied sets of character upgrades
- Rote combat can feel like an obstacle to other, better parts of the game
- Characters have little of import to say or do, and few choices have substantive consequences
- Other games that are not as beautiful
Verdict: Lots to stuff to do and pretty things to look at, but few fresh ideas. Try it.