This review requires acknowledgement of a couple of things: the last Assassin’s Creed I played prior to Odyssey was Black Flag back in 2013, thus missing out on AC: Origins, the first of the new style of Assassin’s Creeds. I mention this because I am going to spend a lot of time talking about “new” mechanics and changes to the formula of the series, changes which were likely largely made in Origins. However, because I have not played Origins I don’t know which mechanics are specific to the new generation and which are specific to Odyssey. So, rather than do my research I’m just going to pretend, for the duration of this review, that Origins doesn’t exist and everything is new.
All this talk of new mechanics is important as well because at some point I want to ask “at what point does something no longer belong in a franchise?” I ask this because Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is in actuality a pretty excellent game. Flawed to be sure, but still pretty top notch. What it is not though, is an Assassin’s Creed game. No, the last of those, I’d argue, was Syndicate (although by that point the series itself was dying a pretty ignoble death given how Syndicate was received).
Odyssey takes place in the world of the ancient Greeks, in a period following the Battle of Thermopylae (of 300 fame). You play as either Alexios or Cassandra, a Spartan child who was cast away when young and has had to go through life as a solitary misthios (a paid mercenary). Now, following a series of events your character is thrown back into the world from where they were hiding away, going on a massive island-hopping adventure to discover the truth about their family, uncover a sinister cult and potentially rescue the Greek world and democracy itself!
You ALSO are doing this all through a new animus as one of the modern-day Assassins but their involvement is genuinely so minor that without Googling it, I couldn’t tell you a single of the modern-day character’s names. However, there is still a modern-day plot, and this time the goal is to discover the hiding place of the Spear of Leonidas (which Alexios/Cassandra uses as their assassining-stabby-device).
As a manly man myself who cannot relate to women I picked Alexios, so from this point on I will be referring to the protagonist as a “he”. Don’t @ me.
Although incidentally, it is sort of hilarious that Ubisoft made such a huge deal about allowing players to pick their genders (and even sexuality) within the game when I thought Syndicate allowed you to play both a man and a woman? Revisionist much?
As already stated, I have enjoyed Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and actually think it might be something of a stand-out title in the series. I think it does an awful lot of things right and a lot of the new additions and tweaks to the game seem positive. The issue is that feels like it’s an exercise of “a great game but…” Every new thing seems to come with an addendum that means it’s not realised quite as well as it could have been. That every time the game had a nice idea there was just something holding it back.
At a glance, Odyssey plays a lot less like Black Flag and a lot more like the Witcher 3. Sure, there are a lot of the same old core mechanics in place, but now the game is focused more on RPG elements. There is a skill-tree, branching dialogue trees and choices. The combat is more level-based and you are encouraged to explore and investigate hundreds of locations for the sake of getting loot and experience. You also are restricted, in MMO fashion, to specific areas by level-gating, requiring a certain amount of experience to be earned before you can progress.
A lot of the new mechanics are also there in favour of creating a more “emergent and engaging world” so that players can get involved and also have more chances to get those rookie numbers up! You can clear out military camps, raid forts, loot sunken ships, fight other mercenaries, hunt down cultists (who are taking the role of the Templars here), you can even aid the war between Sparta and Athens, helping either side take territory across Greece.
It is very clear that Odyssey is trying to take a lot of cues from the Witcher in terms of its style and hell even the dialogue system is reminiscent of it (I.e. gold dialogue choices progress the conversation, while white ones are asking for more information). The issue unfortunately comes down to the level of depth within all these mechanics which is where the games start to diverge in quality, so let’s go through some examples.
The new mercenary system is, on the surface, a very cool addition. During the game if you are seen doing your assassin-y deeds you will have a bounty placed on your head and then other misthios’ will come and hunt you down. The level of bounty functions similarly to stars in GTA, with more and higher level misthios coming after you if you have been a particularly naughty boy.
These misthios exist in a near persistent state across the game, in a very similar way to the nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor. This means that you can encounter the same hunters repeatedly, sometimes you will bump into ones which are massively higher level than you just travelling the world, and there is a ranking system which you gradually climb throughout the game as your renown increases and you kill more of your competitors. Initially it seems like a really neat emergent system for the game, potentially allowing you to find rivals and get involved with killing your competitors to improve your own standing.
That is until it becomes clear how pointless it is. Each mercenary tends to have one strength and one weakness, not even remotely close to the depth of the nemesis system, and frankly this knowledge will never alter your approach to how you fight them. In fact, you will never even check these strengths and weaknesses because really they don’t actually add anything meaningful. You also progress up the renown tree without any real effort (unless you go out of your way to avoid doing so), and actually killing the other mercenaries provides you only with a bit of loot and experience.
Another thing which might have provided a nice little side-show is the consistent war state across each Greek territory you visit. Every zone is owned by one of the two factions, Sparta or Athens, and they usually start well-defended. You can however lower the “fortification” score by killing garrison troops, destroying war supplies, raiding the forts (which house the generals and zone faction chests). All of which also nets you experience and loot. You can even kill the faction leader in that zone in a targeted assassination to weaken their grip significantly. When the score gets low enough a control battle event occurs and you can decide to either side with the attackers or defenders and whoever wins will own the territory after the battle (and if you win the battle you get epic loot).
Naturally this is not supposed to be your focus in the game, but it seemed like something which COULD have had the potential to allow for a bit of extra fun if you wanted some gear or just to kill some things. The issue with the whole bloody system though is that there is NO stakes. As a misthios you have no allegiance to either side of the war. In fact in the early parts of the game you aid Spartans in their war effort but then just a bit later you spend ages defending Athens itself. Initially I thought that by not picking sides deliberately it would allow the players to roleplay a bit and pick a side themselves (or just jump back and forth for the money). In reality, by actually making players play both sides of the field in the main story, it just means that you simply don’t care enough about either side to help out. Plus, it can lead to really awkward situations. Back during the first 10 hours of playtime when I was trying to do everything in each zone, I had a zone change hands while I was in it because I had lowered the fortification score so much, but I wasn’t actually finished with the missions… So, I went from happily helping the Spartans conquer the place to awkwardly stabbing Spartans in the face in order to finish all the side objectives.
Other examples include the cultist screen, where you are essentially given a command tree of the entire enemy cult organisation and told you can go hunt them down and kill them. This could have been a highlight of the game, just being told you have all these targets and having to figure out who they are by finding clues and then you are given free-reign to kill them off one by one… Except they are mostly only revealed through story progression, and even if they weren’t you can’t hunt down most of them because of the level gating.
And another gripe along these lines is the emergent quest system. Like many open world games like this there are three tiers of quest: the main campaign quest/s required to actually finish the game, the side quests featuring recurring characters which you are usually encouraged to do, and then the emergent quests. You can grab emergent quests to kill 10 Spartans or sink five Athenian ships from notice boards all over the map. Normally, I’d say this sort of thing isn’t exactly bad, it’s just a bit of mindless filler really. But why the fuck do about 90% of them have a real-time 24 hour timer? Seriously? Ubisoft, do you genuinely believe the rewards for those quests are so worth our time that you can make them into dailies???
A big reason for all these issues is that for the most part the rewards are only ever loot and experience. Experience is barely important in that levelling up seems to happy pretty much naturally and if you are grinding for it then you’re doing it wrong, so going out of your way to try and get more experience is basically worthless.
As an aside, there is a talent-tree which is mostly all well and good, until the mid-game where new talent points become basically pointless. You can only have a certain amount of abilities active at once, and many abilities require you to have cultist kills in order to level them up to the highest tiers (I.e. story progression), so it eventually gets to the point where you have spare talent points because you can’t get a new ability without replacing an old one and you can’t upgrade your existing abilities because you aren’t far enough in the story.
And if the issue of experience is bad, it’s about 10 times worse with regards to gear. You will repeatedly upgrade armour and weapons multiple times every single level. “Epic” purple gear will usually be immediately outclassed by blue gear of only one level higher and even the rare yellow “Legendary” gear still will only last you for 2 levels at best. Purples also seem to be just about as common as blues after you get past like level 10. And this isn’t even taking into account minor differences between gear types at each level. Because you change and upgrade your gear so often this means that there is genuinely no point in going out of your war to try and get new epic loot. Because you’ll stumble upon an upgrade just by messing around.
Not that it makes a difference though, given that in combat you still need to hack and slash and hack and slash even the weakest of enemies. The various abilities and the style of the combat is actually great, but the fact that you can’t even just assassinate one and then stab a bunch of other cunts in a few jabs any more is just a bit disappointing.
This is, I think, the single core issue behind all of the above problems with Odyssey. Without the push to get epic gear which will last a few hours or a big chunk of experience, pretty much all of the side-activities provide absolutely no worthwhile rewards. It becomes pretty clear after a while that even exploring is just a waste of time, because any rare rewards from it will last about 20 minutes in your inventory.
One final note now, on the story. Now unfortunately I never finished the game. As much as I was enjoying Odyssey, when I lost my save ~50 hours in, I did not have any desire to replay what I’d already done (telling on its own). So I can’t comment on the overall story, but for the most part it did seem engaging and enjoyable, hitting a few interesting notes with the search for Alexios’ family.
Thus, we return to what I said earlier. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a great game, but there’s always a “but”… It’s absolutely gorgeous and stunning to explore (I mean, seriously it’s incredible to look at screenshots occasionally), but exploring is pretty much disincentivised as a mechanic and honestly a lot of the scenery is fairly repetitive after a while. It has so many neat ideas for mechanics like a nemesis system for rivals, a persistent war between two factions you can take sides in, except that all of these things lack depth and there’s generally not much point to engaging with them. There’s even the promise of proper Assassin-y stuff of hunting down targets and killing them, but it’s level gated. And on-and-on the list goes.
I also now want to return what I said at the start about the franchise title. See, Odyssey felt significantly more like Dragon Age or the Witcher in terms of style than it did Assassin’s Creed. By this I mean that it does have the ingredients of Assassin’s Creed but used differently. Climbing and free-running is the big example that comes to mind. In the olden days, this was a very important mechanic. Even though you would be able to get a horse, your main method of traversal was free-running and the game was built to reflect that. I.e. lots of jumping over streets and using ropes between buildings and even the famous hay bales to prevent damage from 20-story falls. Now though, while you can climb literally anything in the game (with absolutely zero effort too) the game does not feel designed around it. Most of the game takes places in the wilderness where the horse is much more useful for travelling than free-running is. And even when you actually get to a more metropolitan area, it does not seem to be designed with free running in mind. In the sense that, in the main city of Athens it doesn’t seem like you could cross the entire city without setting foot off a rooftop. Even the bale of hay “mechanic” is only reserved for synchronisation points and in fact you can learn an ability to negate literally all fall damage (removing yet more of the original style).
So, I pose the question now, why is it called Assassin’s Creed? These days the name is just an excuse to have a big ol’ Ubisoft open-world, historical, sandbox RPG. It’s not really about its roots. In fact, it is now even becoming more and more outright based in mythology compared to the relative historical “accuracy” (loaded word) of the previous games. I mean, frankly it’s not even about the Assassins any longer and has real mythological creatures!
Whether or not the gradual disappearance of the core of Assassin’s Creed is itself a bad thing (and I’d argue it is) honestly the animus thing has just been an excuse to go have a romp in a vaaaaguely historical setting for years at this point. In which case I reckon Ubisoft should maybe just ditch the AC logo completely and just make the mythological RPG they clearly want to make! Nobody cares about the modern day setting at this point, literally no-one, even you guys must be absolutely done by now! And given that it’s no longer about Assassins, why not try and break new ground?!
I guess I’m just disappointed. As much as I enjoyed Odyssey, it just wasn’t an Assassin’s Creed game. Plus, at the time of writing they have just released the announcement trailer for Asssassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which I’m sure will be fun… But how the heck are the VKINGS the good guys here? Y’know, the Assassins being the ones who always fight for the people and for freedom and shit? Those pillaging, conquering, raping Vikings? THOSE are the guys fighting for freedom here, right?
As exciting as the trailer seems, it really makes one thing abundantly clear. Assassin’s Creed has lost its roots a long time ago.
|· Engaging combat with MMO-style abilities and skills
· Tonnes of new systems and mechanics to occupy your time, such as an emergent war state, assassin targets and nemesis-style mercenaries
· Gorgeous world and exceptional world-building
· Introduction of proper mythological elements is exciting and entertaining and makes for fun gaming
· It’s really quite good fun
|· … But fighting enemies is a bit of a chore because of their oversized health-bars
· … But each new system doesn’t feel properly fleshed out, with each aspect having some problem that prevents it from being engaging
· … But a lot of it feels very same-y and you have to rush through it all
· … But all of the mythological elements mean that the game seems to be straying further and further from its roots
· … But feels so overstretched