I have played, now, 30 hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which I think means I’m about half way through (the main story, that is, not the entire game, which is so vast it might as well be infinite when set against the free time most adults have). Odyssey is a curious mythic beast. Though there are additions to the core of Assassin’s Creed Oranges, they also subtract their own import to the game by only existing as much as you want to interact with them. Odyssey ends up being almost exactly the sum of its parts.
I’d like to see more of those parts, but I can only put off a review for so long before it becomes useless to you, the reader. As today is its release day, I must curse my ancestors, push my face to the grindstone, and tell you wot I think of Ubisoft’s latest epic — at least, so far. I will cycle back and update you once my own personal odyssey is finished.
I laboured for many years under the yoke of liking Assassin’s Creed games. When you’ve bought into a yearly franchise you buy the games, and then have to keep looking for the good in them, and grow defensive, even as you grow fatigued by them at the same time. I likened this to being in a comfortable but ultimately bad relationship: it is difficult to leave, but something has to change. Oranges, a huge open world encompassing all of ancient Egypt, with a more complex and engaging main character, made the series exciting again.
Odyssey is very similar to play, suggesting that Ubisoft might have identified a new normal to snuggle down in, but for now it’s still a very impressive normal; we are still in the midst of our second honeymoon period.
In Odyssey you play as either Kassandra or Alexios (abandoned-as-a-baby Spartan turned irrepressibly cool mercenary). A series of events conspire that take you from chuffing about your small town home on the island of Kephallonia, to running around all your favourite Ancient Grecian sites and cities in pursuit of a mysterious cult trying to control the world. Your best mate is an eagle who you can use to scout locations, making sure you have the right gear for your level is crucial, and combat is harder-that-trad-AC dodging and parrying stuff. All firmly in Assassin’s Creed Origins territory here.
But the territory of the game itself is another entire country (ish, to within the degree that a game can do that). Where Oranges was set in Egypt, we’re now running around Greece. It is, of course, beautiful, full of fruit trees and wheat fields, marshes, sun-dappled forests, craggy mountains, and white sandy beaches falling into bright blue seas. The loveliness that crackles off the screen sometimes could only be completed by Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård arriving on a tourist boat, set to ABBA. Alas, the seafaring is your own: Greece is split into islands, which means sailing makes a full return to the series. It works in almost exactly the same way it always has, though you can now recruit lieutenants who confer bonuses to your ship. The Greek sea shanties are, I think, more enjoyable than those we heard in Black Flag, and you have a first mate in the form of Barnabus, who is adorably devout and believes he only narrowly escaped being drowned by sirens.
As with Egypt, the setting means that you can visit some of the most famous locations on the planet, and see them come alive — with artistic license taken, of course. You can see the Acropolis at Athens, lit by burning torches at night, and with all the marble of the Parthenon in its rightful place. You can visit sacred Delphi, the centre of the world, where a nice lady huffed smoke from burning leaves and got so high she delivered authentic prophecy. You can splash around in the Castalian spring (which you are decidedly not allowed to do now). You can even go to the Hot Gates at Thermopylae and run around going “Ooh, it’s the place from the movie 300!”
You do get the feeling that the map is too big, too sprawling. Even the main quest line is heavily supplemented by busy work, and you don’t often have compelling reasons to visit new areas, or stick around exploring once you’re there. At the same time, you do run into some really wonderful and funny stories, and some of them have actual meaningful consequences in the game — like the girl who I found who had misinterpreted a direction to “make friends”, and was building them out of clay. These sorts of things are lovely when you run into them, but you never know when you will. What seems like a fetch quest can turn into a lovely human moment, while other fetch quests are just… fetch quests. Distant islands are Schroedinger’s Landmass: they both are and are not worth visiting. There might be a giant, magic lion knocking about, but there’s no real way to tell for sure.
In Ancient Greece, ancient myths are just myths. The divine is always close at hand, and bleeds into the real. I have enjoyed the magical realism that I’ve seen so far, a mixture of plausible reasons for beliefs with a creeping in of the inexplicable. This has only involved a little bit of the super advanced Precursor Race from classic Assassin’s Creed so far. When and if they get involved in earnest I expect I’ll get a bit annoyed, but for now I’m happy running into things I remember from reading the myths as a kid.
Kassandra, your main character, can express a healthy dose of scepticism toward religion herself. She may, hilariously, declare herself a divine boon sent to help people in their hour of need (which I like to think she does with her tongue lodged firmly in her cheek, if not someone else’s — I have already delved into how romances work in the game). I haven’t played as Alexios, but Kassandra is a genuine delight. Voiced par excellence by Melissanthi Mahut, she’s charismatic and funny, whilst taking exacting zero shit. I delighted in rocking up at a swanky political party in Athens and refusing to change out of my mercenary armour; I then, scandalously, went and joined an orgy in a back room.
The RPG moments like this exist, but most are gossamer thin, adding fun more than consequence — which I’m alright with, ‘cos it’s an Assassin’s Creed game. The change that had the most impact on me was the tweak to the mercenary system. You now have a wanted level, sort of GTA style (which you can lower by killing whoever put the bounty on you). The mercenaries are named and ranked, and are much better at tracking you. This means that two or three angry boys can turn up while you’re already embroiled in a dust up with a story critical angry boy, leading to much flailing of hands and shouting. It forces you to think about where you are and what you’re doing — whether it’s worth killing at least one of the mercenaries before starting your stealth incursion into a fort, for example.
Aside from that, most of the new stuff in the Odyssey exists in a sort of disconnected way where, if you’re not looking directly at it, you can ignore it. Getting laid is easy to achieve and easy to avoid; the new Cult screen requires that you actually hunt down clues if you want to find the baddies, but you don’t have to do any outside the main quests if you’re not arsed; the war between the Spartans and Athenians will keep going without your input, to the extent that you’ll get notifications when regions change hands even hundreds of miles away.
But, if you’ve built a sufficiently nice world for me to run around in, I like just running around in it. There’s a lot of busy work, an eagle, and stabbing people brutally through the throat. Sometimes when you jump off a high thing you land in a load of hay. So, so far, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a very good Assassin’s Creed game. Which is what we were all expecting, wasn’t it? Except this one lets me ignore all that and roleplay as a big buff Greek neighbourhood hero. I’m alright with that.