This review was updated on October 22, after Alice finished the game. The original went live on October 5. There's a new paragraph about micro-transactions in there, and a Minotaur pun. Go wild.
I have finished my odyssey. Which is to say, I haven’t cleared every all filler no killer question mark on the map, but for all intents and purposes I’ve completed Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It is a curious mythic beast. Though there are additions to the core of Assassin’s Creed Oranges, they also subtract their own import by only existing as much as you want to interact with them. Odyssey ends up being almost exactly the sum of its parts.
The combat, though it has different, more kickier special abilities, is fundamentally unchanged from Oranges. The touted default exploration mode, where you’re given map clues as to the whereabouts of your objective, isn’t vague enough to be interesting: the target is in the North West of this region; they were last seen fishing by this tower; they are in said tower. The little fishing boats you can jump on are reskins of the reed boats of Ancient Egypt. It all suggests 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 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-than-trad-AC dodging and parrying stuff. This is all firmly in Assassin’s Creed Origins territory - though, instead of the pyramid of animal-themed baddies in Oranges, the Cult of Kosmos has more of a flat structure. One hopes the Cult leader sets SMART goals for the other cultists, so they can measure their progress.
The territory of the game itself is another entire country (ish). 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. I encountered a couple of frame rate snags in the very first few cutscenes, but otherwise my experience was as smooth as an Olympic wrestler covered in olive oil - though you can read Katharine’s tips on getting the best performance.
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, except 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. Barnabus is a constant reminder of how the game is actually rather funny. Most of my favourite bits probably also count as spoilers, but you should definitely spend some time in Messara. Take a Minotaur tour. A Minotour.
As with Egypt, the setting means that you can visit some of the most famous locations on the planet, and see them come alive. 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 admire the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 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 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 stumble across 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.
This is tangentially linked to the “Time Saver” packs that you can buy for real money, from a store that also sells unique armour sets and that sort of carry on. Micro-transactions are bad, but these aren’t fundamentally badder than others. They’re tempting if you really can’t be arsed doing any side missions, but not essential. I don’t agree that the game is a deliberately slow grind to force you to splash out more. It is a grind, sometimes, but no more than most open world games, or indeed Oranges. My Kassandra is levelling quickly even approaching the 50s, and has always had more money than things to spend it on. If I need leather I can go and decimate the goat population or kill a big magic lion.
In Ancient Greece, ancient myths are just myths. The divine is always close at hand, and bleeds into the real. The super advanced Precursor Race, once the main MacGuffin of classic Assassin’s Creed, arrives surprisingly late in the game. These days it’s sort of relegated to a B plot providing a weirdly sexy Sphinx and explaining why Kassandra is a giant masterpiece of a person. The Greek tragedy and/or soap opera of a family torn apart by political intrigue is much more interesting. There’s false prophecy! Near death escapes! An Avengers squad of your favourite Grecian playwrights and philosophers! Big cliffs! Living gods, sort of!
Kassandra can express a healthy dose of scepticism toward religion. 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 haven’t played as Alexios, but Kassandra is a genuine delight, and Xalavier has taken a more in depth look at how the characters differ. Voiced par excellence by Melissanthi Mahut, Kassandra is 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. A few have a deeper impact on your future choices in the game, and you can get varying dialogue, but most add fun more than consequence. Which I’m alright with, ‘cos it’s an Assassin’s Creed game. Sometimes, though, it’s trying so hard to look like an RPG that it makes you notice it isn’t. Odyssey can feel less alive than Oranges did, because the added interactions let you see that it’s all very advanced cardboard cutouts.
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. 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, or if you should just cower in an alleyway as they walk past.
Aside from that, most of the new stuff in 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 big battles are fine, but the war between the Spartans and Athenians will keep going without your input.
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. It has more breadth than depth, like a wide puddle reflecting a really nice landscape. Basically, 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.