Why everyone needs to play… Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

For episode 2 of my Why everyone needs to play… series, I’m going to talk about Ubisoft’s 2018 open-world behemoth, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Once again, this will consist of a set of arguments whereby I will try to convince you to play this 100+ hour game (for at least a few dozen of those). With a game like Odyssey, it’s hard to avoid spoilers, because it depends on your definition of a spoiler. There is one main narrative, which branches into another two, and there are also two massive DLCs, which are endgame content. Regardless, I will avoid any discussion of “endings” – but screenshots etc., will be from across the entirety of explorable Ancient Greece.

So, why am I talking about Assassin’s Creed 11: Kephallonia Drift? (What it should have been called).

What is it about?

To talk about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you have to talk about ALL of Assassin’s Creed.

Odyssey is the latest iteration of the massively successful Assassin’s Creed franchise, which started all the way back in 2007 with Assassin’s Creed, on the seventh generation of consoles (PS3, Xbox 360). The eponymous first game introduced us to a unique take on the stealth/action video game genre. In Assassin’s Creed, you play as Desmond Miles, a bartender in 2012, who is whisked away to Abstergo industries, due to his unique genetic lineage, which can be traced back to an assassin, Altaïr, who operated during the crusades in the Holy Land in 1191, who is in the midst of a war between the secret assassin brotherhood and the Templars (and breathe). Through a device known as the “animus”, you are able to access Altaïr’s memories and essentially play them out in real-time.

The main loop of the first title involved gathering information regarding your target, typically some important and powerful Templar agent, then planning your method of attack, followed by the final showdown, ending with a (now iconic) hidden blade to the neck and a rapid escape using a novel, third-person free running mechanic. Ubisoft drew on their Prince of Persia series with regards to Altaïr’s movement, adapting it to an open world sandbox. The plot revolved around Abstergo’s desire to access assassin’s memories, to uncover extremely powerful alien artefacts, that fictionally, had been involved in major assassinations or important historical events.

Subsequent games kept the same formula, and same overarching plot, with positive and negative outcomes. By concentrating on tick box gaming, large responsive open worlds, fluid movement and simple combat, Ubisoft carved out a popular niche in the video game industry, with iterative instalments being financially profitable. Being such a large company, Ubisoft made the clever decision for different entries of the Assassin’s Creed franchise to be developed by different “sub-studios”, across the world. This was similar to a TV show where guest directors come in to direct an episode, resulting in something familiar, but also clearly distinct from the other episodes. Even with this, Assassin’s Creed’s novelty started to stutter in the mid-2010s. One might argue that all of Ubisoft games “feel the same”; their other core franchises, the Tom Clancy and Far Cry series, do tend to stick to the same type of formula, with just enough alterations to justify their release. We’re not talking Call of Duty or FIFA levels of “sameness” (hot take: these are both essentially the same game released every year with cosmetic improvements), but, Assassin’s Creed earned a negative reputation in the minds of critics.

Everything changed in 2017 with instalment number 10, Assassin’s Creed Origins. What changed was fundamental, but was hard to see at first glance. There was an animus, an assassin, targets, and two storylines: the future, and the past. The difference was that Ubisoft altered track from the illusion of an open world game, to a proper sandbox RPG. Initial Assassin’s Creed games plodded along memory sequences/episodes/chapters, with only a smattering of role playing elements, that is, levelling up your character, earning different combat abilities, crafting etc. Its impetus was the main plot – the narrative structure was at the forefront. Assassin’s Creed was a linear game with light open world/RPG elements. With Origins, it reversed completely. Now there were numbers coming out enemies, they had levels and health bars above their heads. You had to craft and upgrade your armour. You could no longer one-hit-kill an enemy with your hidden blade. You had to grind side missions and exploration in order to level up enough to carry on with the main story. This deviation in gameplay, coupled with a story steeped in Egyptian mythology and beautifully rendered pyramids and deserts, meant that Origins provided a breath of fresh air to the stagnating franchise. And yet, at its core, it still felt like an Assassin’s Creed game.

Leap of faiths still exist!

My story

Much like The Last of Us, the initial launch of Origins passed me by in 2017. I was too busy hunting robot dinosaurs in the hugely successful Horizon: Zero Dawn. You see, I had given up on the franchise after the Ezio trilogy; arguably the golden age of Assassin’s Creed. Consisting of Assassin’s Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations, the trilogy followed the journeys of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, in late 14th-century Italy. AC2 was the high point for marrying open world tick boxing and a truly fascinating story. It also brought colour and life into the franchise, deviating from the pastel browns and greys of the Holy Land. Like Uncharted 2, the sequel improved upon the first outing in every single way.

With the ending of Ezio’s story, I lost interest in doing the same missions over and over again, be it in Assassin’s Creed 3, Black Flag (which brought naval combat to the franchise – while innovative at the time, is shockingly clunky and frustrating replaying it in 2020), or the famously buggy Unity. I came to the realisation that there wasn’t really a proper story that Ubisoft was trying to tell here. Every game ended with me wanting more and feeling unsatisfied. It began to feel like the story of the assassin’s versus the Templars was becoming less and less important, giving way to iterative, improved gameplay. It felt formulaic. So I quit on a high.

What changed for me? The announcement of Odyssey in mid-2018 caught my eye. Mainly because of the setting: Ancient Greece. I am far from a scholar of Greek mythology, however, I utterly adore the endless stories involving the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. They were so different to other myths, because their personalities were so human. They were not perfect, content beings, rather they were subject to the full human emotional catalogue. They used humans as their playthings in wars, to settle arguments, or simply out of boredom. They got caught in affairs, theft, blackmail, amongst other debauchery. It was like Eastenders meets Lord of the Rings.

Autumn 2018 rolled by and I dived into Odyssey, expecting the same Assassin’s Creed formula, but instead getting something I definitely didn’t order. This wasn’t the Assassin’s Creed I played before, no, this was like Skyrim set in Ancient Greece. There was no hidden blade! I spent a good 4-5 hours before I even left the first island, Kephallonia. Opening up the map, my eyes bulged in disbelief. There was no way this game was even possible to finish. What would that even mean? How could you finish something with branching storylines, multiple endings and numerous ways of tackling each scenario?

What Odyssey does so well is a testament to excellent game design. It doesn’t throw you into the deep end. Nor does it overly hold your hand. It subtly guides you throughout the game into becoming a demi-god(dess), feeling ultra-confident in any combat situation. There is no tutorial for Odyssey, at least, not obtrusively. The first few hours on Kephallonia exemplify the combat, exploration and mission structures you will be seeing throughout the rest of the game. You perform these acts for plot reasons, rather than overtly as a tutorial. Next, you leave Kephallonia and head for Megaris, the baby steps region. Here you are introduced to quest lines, encampments, region takeovers, crafting, looting and more. Without realising it, you’re 8 hours into the story of Odyssey, with a clear end to the first chapter, and you’ve just been didactically proselytised.

All the while, Odyssey, much like Origins, focuses on the character-heavy story of Kassandra (or Alexios, depending on your gender choice). By turning Assassin’s Creed into an RPG, by flipping the narrative to concentrate on the characters you’re actually playing as, giving weight to those stories and multi-tiered quest lines, Odyssey delivers a video game that while not revolutionising the industry, has revolutionised itself into an absolutely brilliant, hyper-polished rollercoaster of an open world game.

Okay, but what specifically is Odyssey about?

The game is set in approximately 430 B.C., Ancient Greece, with nay a whiff of the animus, Abstergo, or any sort of present day storyline, beyond a few, very brief segments. You play as a misthios, a mercenary, and a descendant of the great King Leonidas (genetic lineage alert!), searching for your mother and father during the Peloponnesian war. This urge to “find your family” stems from a traumatic childhood incident where both you and your sibling were hurled from a mountain, by your father, at the Oracle’s request – ah Ancient Greece! While this opens up one main narrative that motivates your character, each step along your journey opens up new and interesting storylines. There is the unveiling of a cult that are hinged on world domination, the search for alien artefacts that pit you against mythological beasts of the Greek opera, a huge amount of ship exploration where you can essentially be a pirate for many hours (the ship combat and traversal is sublime, the best I’ve ever experienced in a game, of which there are few to be fair), quest lines where you help out a plethora of historical characters from Hippokrates to Sokrates, while also being hunted by other mercenaries in a tier/Shadow of Mordor system who are out for your blood. If this isn’t enough, you can invest in DLC, which amounts to a further 30+ hours across two large narratives involving exploring the legacy of an early assassin (more cultists!), and embarking upon the lost city of Atlantis (more Gods!).

Why you need to play it

Odyssey is just that; an odyssey of trials and tribulations, to find your family, to right the wrongs of the world, analogous in some respects to Odysseus’ journey following the end of the Trojan War. Odyssey doesn’t expect you to “mainline” the game, and in fact, you can’t really. The levelling system forces you into exploring side quests and helping your fellow citizen, in Witcher-style contracts, in order to be strong enough to take on an encampment, a large conflict, or that mythical boar that will drop some very nice loot once you beat it. Odyssey deviates from the Assassin’s Creed formula not by reinventing the wheel, but by picking and choosing elements from well established games and moulding it into a Ubisoft-friendly framework. While this may dampen novelty, Odyssey makes up for it in leaps and bounds when its mechanics start to coalesce and play off one another. This is what makes Odyssey so addictive, and why I’ve put in it at least 100 hours over the past 18 months or so.

20 minutes in the life of Kassandra

I’ll explain what I mean with an example. I’m currently playing through the “Legacy of the First Blade” DLC which has me hunt down a new set of cultists called the Order, following a storyline that has me come out of misthios semi-retirement, aided by Darius, the first recorded user of a hidden blade. One mission had me infiltrate a fortress to glean some information regarding the whereabouts of a certain bad guy, who stole something very precious to me. As I’m stealthily incapacitating enemies with critical assassinations, building up an adrenaline bar (that lets you use “magical” abilities such as an overcharged arrow strike which operates like a grenade launcher, or a 300-style spartan kick, or an animation locking series of devastating stabs, etc. etc.), I notice that a bounty hunter is tracking me, in this very encampment. This guy also has a pet Lynx that can sniff me out. Now, I go about my business, trying to avoid him, but I mess up, I fail a clean kill and I have to dispatch a heavy enemy quite loudly, bringing the bounty hunter, and all the other fort soldiers to the commotion. The pyre is lit and I’m told reinforcements are incoming. While I’m trying to take out about 8 guys by dodging, rolling, climbing over rooftops, switching up abilities (okay poison arrows now, then wait for the cool down on my Hero strike ability, kick that guy off the ramparts…), two more bounty hunters appear and now I’m fighting off the fort’s defences, I have a lynx on my back, and trying to avoid getting killed by 3 very different mercenaries – one whirling a staff made of fire, one shooting 3 arrows at a time at my head, and one that keeps leaping up, glowing red and smashing an axe near my feet. I am overwhelmed and die. Okay, reset. This time, I am more methodical, I take out more of the fort’s weaker enemies first. I disable the pyre, and acquire the mission evidence first, enabling a clean getaway. Prior to this, I venture out and murder the person who is holding my bounty for this region, reducing my notoriety so only 1 bounty hunter is incentivised to hunt me. Next, I meditate before entering the camp moving the clock to night-time, such that more guards are asleep and I can slit their throats while they dream. With most of the encampment either dead or asleep, and a bounty hunter nowhere to be seen, I leap off a dizzyingly tall tower and walk nonchalantly back into town, epic loot in tow.

This sequence pretty much sums up the combat in Odyssey in 25 seconds.

Calm down, Assassin’s Creed, please

Whether it’s a legendary beast, looting island treasures, finding those legendary armour sets, upgrading my ship, taking down bounty hunters, or even changing the leadership of an entire region, Odyssey never lets up. There is so much GAME here, which surprisingly still feels fresh enough to keep going back to. The side quests are streamlined to minimise boredom, providing welcome respites with quirky and sometimes hilarious characters. Romances can occur out of nowhere; I specifically recall spending the night with a wizened old lady who’s sexual satiety could not be fulfilled by her husband. The endings and consequences of these side narratives often follow the philosophy of a Greek tragedy; a brilliant and apt storytelling technique.

The crux of why Odyssey feels so fun and relaxing to play is that it is the most streamlined, player-optimised AAA video game I’ve played. Everything is made for you to live out a power fantasy, and yet, still provides you with enough challenge to feel a sense of accomplishment. Combat is extremely satisfying, be it as an Aloy-esque archer, a traditional Ezio type assassin, or the chest-thumping, blood-screaming descendant of Leonidas. Dodging, parrying, using abilities, reacting to your terrain, strategising; it is all brought together so exquisitely. Exploration is optimised too by setting up the world to aid you on your odyssey; one example, you can find a legendary trident that lets you breathe underwater, enabling exploration of underwater shipwrecks a breeze. To explore requires traversal, which feels stupidly fast and easy, especially if you’ve just finished playing Death Stranding.

Odyssey’s gameplay loop is addictive sure, but what elevates this is the perfusion of the story into the random and ridiculous side quests. This story is ever present, without feeling like a looming shadow, in everything you do. In my dozen hours exploring every island on the western side of the map, I never felt that I forgot what I was supposed to doing. The game wants you to decide yourself what you’re supposed to be doing. It wants to give you an individual Odyssey, different to how your friend is playing it. There are many moments in the story where you can really go off on one, and spend hours and hours upgrading yourself, learning and discovering so much across the map, helping out people and building your own, personal legacy of a misthios. This is exemplified by the karma/choice system, which affects how the endgame plays out (read: a spectrum of happy or sad endings). I choose to be an altruistic, bisexual, angel of death, who has spent a lot of time finding poison-enhancing armour, hunting down Cyclopses and the like, while also being the scourge of the Aegean sea, with my flamethrower-equipped ship, and my all female crew. This is just one way to embark on your odyssey.

An example of the ship-ramming naval combat you will encounter in Odyssey

At the same time, I actually cared about Kassandra’s story. I related to her, and really wanted to understand why her life turned out the way it did, and help her to find a way to reunite her family, avoiding revenge and destruction. In the lead up to, and after getting through the main narrative of Odyssey, I went back and dabbled in the previous entries. I found 3 too slow, without the payoff that Red Dead 2 delivers; Black Flag was interesting but I couldn’t go back to clunky naval combat after Odyssey; Unity and Syndicate were good iterations on the standard Assassin’s formula, but nothing more. Origins felt more at home, but I didn’t resonate with Bayek’s journey – I would have preferred to follow in his wife’s footsteps, rather than hear about them off-screen. I quickly realised that I had been spoilt with Odyssey; it refined the open world RPG genre to its natural limit. It was unsatisfying to play The Witcher 3; the only thing holding me there was the story, and it’s grip was dependent on gameplay that I couldn’t help but think, “Odyssey does this better, why don’t I play that instead…”

I suspect there is nowhere left to go within this standard sandbox framework. One will either have to revert to a more narrative focused vision, or give players absolute agency, providing story beats organically. While Odyssey has tried an organic approach, with the player having to use the map to search for mission locations given only directions or landmarks, it is still an illusion of agency. The cost of a fully organic, reaction-heavy video game is that you lose experiences the developer has spent hours slaving over, as well as the cost in accounting for all the possible choices the player could make. One upcoming game which has a good chance of revamping the genre is Cyberpunk 2077, releasing later this year. I suspect we will something new in open worlds with ecological mission structure, by blurring the lines between side and main missions, vastly different ways of tackling a story beat, and perhaps even breaking outside the box of “the next mission”.

The Music of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

The track, Ezio’s family, originally composed by Jesper Kyd for Assassin’s Creed 2, is front and centre here, further solidifying it as the now iconic theme for the franchise. The opening menus alter the original riff with a Greek twist, evoking the sweeping wheat fields, tree-lined mountains and vast Aegean waters of Odyssey’s setting.

Other than ambient sounds during gameplay, music is not emphatic and can even be absent for several hours. This is very different to Assassin’s Creed 2, where the music flowed copiously; I can easily bring to mind the distinct motifs of Venice Rooftops, Florence Tarantella, or Leonardo’s inventions. A shame then, and possibly a consequence of open world games, where player agency reigns supreme, obliterating musical task-relevant curation. Or maybe this was purposeful. The ambience in Odyssey could be a consequence of game design; the game wants you to carve out your own story, without imposing any strong flavours. This is in contrast to other recent open world releases, for example, Spider-Man (2018) has an excellent score, which reacts dynamically to your gameplay.

A common complaint with the new direction Odyssey has taken, and Origins before it, is that the game is “no longer Assassin’s Creed“. This may be true, but like anything in our world, you either evolve or die. Innovation had to come to the franchise, since there was a limit in Ubisoft’s mind for how far you could take Ezio’s world. Yes, perhaps there isn’t a major change, the world is still tick boxy, but there is enough here to make you step back, a little dazed. The same trends occur in the music industry; just look at your favourite pop/rockstar, if they’re still around, and how much their music has changed over time, e.g. Taylor Swift, Muse, etc. Adapt or die, that is the rule. I for one, am extremely glad that Assassin’s Creed is still alive and kicking, 13 years later.

Wrap-up

I recently described Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as a “bread and butter” game. It’s the game that I can always jump back into when I have a few hours free. I can accomplish something, taking only a minute to recall what I was doing last time I left my misthios relaxing underneath a palm tree on Mykonos. What I mean is, Odyssey is pure, non-committal fun. It’s there when you want it, and it will always have something for you to do, something that feels like a designer has curated. What Odyssey does, it does very well. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of open world games, but only on the inside. The exterior is beautiful, slick and very inviting. It’s a game where it always feels like summer; white sandy beaches, sailing on the open sea, breezes flickering through tall grass. It’s so ambient, and yet so full of things to do. It’s bright, colourful and epic. The highest praise I can give it, is that it is a game that I am always in the mood to play.

Odyssey was my favourite game of 2018, mainly because it arrived at the right time for me. It both optimised the revolution of Ubisoft’s franchise that started with Origins, and the genre of open world RPGs. I love spending a few hours every so often checking in on Kassandra’s odyssey: maybe I’ll earn a few Drachmae, or face off against a beast from the Underworld. Regardless, every inch of progress feels rewarding, and adds a new, positive memory to my own Odyssey. With Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on the horizon, I believe we are now in the renaissance of Assassin’s Creed, with subsequent games building on the RPG-“ness” of its predecessors. I hope you will continue on this journey with me, too.

And as always, thank you for reading 🙂

Gladiator, anyone?