Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has been out for—depending on what version your purchased—either just over two weeks or a little over one. As someone who had spare Amazon Points, and a biting curiosity for what this game could actually be in practice, I picked up the Gold edition and started playing on the 1st. Much the pre-release information released touted player choice and romanceable characters, which as a long-time fan of both Assassin’s Creed and Bioware RPGs made my head spin a little bit.
In this topsy-turvy period of gaming we exist in, where Bungie has abandoned narrative storytelling and gregorian chanting, Bioware is basically dropping dialog trees and companions for their make-or-break Destiny-like title Anthem, and Bethesda’s Fallout 76 is being comically overshadowed by no less than four independent industry-quality mod projects for the previous two iterations of said franchise, it was inevitable that this confusing reversal of company trends would actually swing the “other” way for something as profoundly huge as Ubisoft.
Industry trends have been shifting around a lot as of late, the most notable of which are that nearly every recent triple-A release needs to have some level of open-world and RPG elements (God of War, Prey, Destiny, The Division, Spider-Man, Far Cry 5, Final Fantasy XV, Monster Hunter: World, Shadow of Mordor/War, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Breath of the Wild, Batman: Arkham Knight, etc) if they didn’t already have one or both elements already (Fallout 4, both Deus Ex prequels, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Dark Souls, etc). And sometimes, there’s a game that epitomizes nearly every industry trend so almost-perfectly that it becomes a weird sort of standard. In this case, it’s The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3 is a modern masterpiece of pure ambition, technical prowess, beautiful art design, and legitimately mature, morally complex narrative storytelling. It is basically impossible to replicate. Here’s the thing about industry trends, though: developers and publishers always lean hard into them. And when I say hard, I mean to the absurd. It’s something we’ve happen again and again with Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, the Arkham-style Freeflow combat, and of course PUBG’s popularization of the Battle Royale.
For an even stranger example, the rogue-like sub-genre has somehow managed to work its way up from indie games (Rogue Legacy, FTL, Into the Breach, Darkest Dungeon, etc) to, of all things, the most recent and genuinely excellent Hitman.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a game that really, really tries to go for broke into these trends, except not in way that the vast majority of gamers would assume. Ubisoft is basically known as “those guys that make the open worlds with the towers” at this point, so if they’ve already gotten that part down (mostly, anyway), then…that would mean that they’d need to go for the other half of where the industry is headed: the RPG. And oh boy, did they ever go for it. Like, really went for it.
The RPG, especially the branching narrative, dialog-heavy, romancing variety has been a niche thing for a long, long time. Think the original Fallouts and New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex, both KOTOR games (but especially the second one) and…pretty much every game where Chris Avellone was a writer…? Weird.
The biggest reason for that, for a very long time, was because the amount of time, bandwidth and talent it took to actually do one of those right wasn’t worth dumping triple-A budgets into because it just wasn’t profitable. But now, it apparently is. Hilariously, I think it’s because we’ve reached a point where creating a complex branching narrative is easier and less costly than building a super-massive open world.
I’m about 75 hours into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on PC, running at an almost locked 60fps at 4k, and at this point, while not knowing really how far I am from completing the main story (because exploring is too fun), I can confidently say that it’s a very bold attempt at branching narrative storytelling…specifically for a franchise who has literally never done that before. And that’s a great thing. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does not reinvent the wheel, and nor does it attempt to do that. It doesn’t introduce new gameplay elements that I haven’t seen before, but that was probably for the best. It’s also one of the smoothest PC ports I’ve played in a long time. I’ve experienced literally one crash, and the game’s autosave system is so forgiving that I lost maybe two minutes of progress. Load times are fast, and the visuals are just phenomenal.
For contrast, the last Assassin’s Creed game I played was the hilariously broken and inconsequential Unity, which was baffling to me at the time. How could you possibly fail at making an interesting Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution? After that, I stopped buying them, despite the fact that I’d been hooked ever since Assassin’s Creed II.
The element that actually sold me back on Assassin’s Creed wasn’t just the dialog options, or the romance, or even the inherent promise of some really, really, really queer stuff within the ancient Greek world (in which the negativity towards sapphic women has basically been nuked from orbit within the world of the game because why the hell not?) but rather the option to choose the gender of my protagonist. I’ve always leaned towards picking the female option in RPGs, since for whatever reason that makes it easier for me to get immersed in the narrative.
The in-universe reason for why the Animus (the thing that lets you explore different parts of history via 3D projections of genetic memories blah blah blah) can even let you choose from two different options and still have the same basic narrative is…not explained. At least, not yet. But the game’s meta-narrative does a lot to basically say “that’s not how this or games work anymore; isn’t this more fun?”. And yes, it is.
What Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does best is streamlining. If you’re at all familiar with the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor and its mess of a sequel, then that’s basically what they integrated into Odyssey with their Bounty Hunters. They’re basically periodic mini-bosses that help keep gameplay varied and interesting. Except it’s not as complex (there aren’t like 40 different weaknesses and immunities to memorize at all times) and the camera doesn’t freeze and zoom in every time one shows up to fight you. Which is better, since, much like in Shadow of Mordor, Odyssey will have moments where three to five bounty hunters will show up one after the other to take you down.
The dialog options in the game aren’t what anyone would call complex, and that’s not really an issue with me. Interestingly enough, it operates a lot more like Mass Effect 3’s much maligned reduced dialog than anything else. You get a choice here or there, but a lot of the dialog is automatic. There are also icons to denote the outcomes and tone of each choice: a scale typically means lying, while a red hand with a jabbing index finger means a threat. It’s simple, but effective.
On the other hand, the romance dialog is pretty hit or miss, and I honestly kind of love that it is. Mass Effect: Andromeda typically chose to portray your character as an awkward romantic whenever you chose the “flirt” option in dialog, which was purposeful. In Odyssey, your protagonist’s flirting skills range from extremely creepy to genuinely sweet with very little in between. In one particular quest, I was asked by Spartan woman’s mother to show her daughter the importance of training…which somehow translated to the game almost railroading me into banging the daughter. You can always opt out, of course, but there was just something really endearing from an outside perspective of how the dialog prompts popped up and both of them were labeled as “flirt”.
This is the kind of thing that would only show up in a game where the development teams are really working outside of their wheelhouse, but doing their absolute best to deliver an experience that is as close to The Witcher 3 without actually being The Witcher 3. And I mean, if you’re going to emulate anything, holy crap it’s hard to find a better thing to riff off of. Seriously, for a decent chunk of the game you’re trying to find a woman all across the Greek world, and you keep running into people who knew her in the past…which is then instantly followed up by a flashback with that interaction. Unlike those Ciri sequences in The Witcher 3, you don’t play as the person you’re trying to find, but the intent is still clear.
As for combat, it’s a blast. It feels a lot like a slightly cheesier version of April’s God of War mashed up with the at times overly-complex peak of Arkham Knight’s FreeFlow system. Snipe, evade, counter, hit, hit, evade, counter, special move, hit, evade, headshot, etc. There’s even a mechanic where if you perform a “Perfect Dodge”, you slow time for a couple seconds. You know, just like Bayonetta 2. Which I loved.
In other words: speccing right makes you feel invincible until you make one mistake, and then you die. The stealth system is a lot more forgiving than previous Assassin’s Creed titles, and by extension much more fun to mess around in. It gives you a ton of tools to play with inside of that sandbox, and unlike the problem that every Metal Gear Solid game had except for arguably Phantom Pain, you aren’t “punished” for using any of them.
As for the characters you meet, Assassin’s Creed has always had so much fun in introducing the protagonists to important historical figures. It doesn’t always work (see: most of Assassin’s Creed III), but rarely has any game measured up quite as well as Ezio Auditore’s deep friendship with Leonardo Da Vinci. In Odyssey, you meet (I’m gonna use the game’s spelling here, so…) Hippokrates, Demosthenes, Alkibades, Sokrates, Pythagoras, Perikles, Euripides (the inner theater nerd in me couldn’t stop laughing), and history’s most famous liar: Herodotus. You meet a bunch of other people too, but those are just the ones at the top of my head that I can recall actually being real. Are they accurate representations? I give it a decent chance that they are, especially Euripides and Sokrates. They are also extremely fun to interact with, and you’re introduced to them in a manner that is surprisingly organic, and rather reminiscent of how historical figures popped up during Ezio’s adventures.
Above all, the biggest accomplishment that Odyssey has in the character front is their protagonist. At least, Kassandra, the female option. Melissanthi Mahut’s performance is evocative, engaging, and genuinely charming throughout. That’s really not an easy thing to pull off when dialog options are involved, and the last time I saw it happen this consistently was, surprise, The Witcher 3. The gameplay I’ve seen of Alexios, the male option, seems…far less personable. Michael Antonakos’s performance never seems to veer away from “gruff dude grunting”, which I guess has its following but seems kind of weird when put up next to his counterpart. On the other hand, that stark dichotomy does enhance a different aspect of the game that I’m not going to spoil. It’s something that you probably expected, but not in how well it was executed.
Speaking of voice actors, there are a lot in this game, and I only recognized one. Elias Toufexis, the unmistakable voice of Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, plays both King Leonidas in flashbacks, as well as, confusingly, the protagonist’s father Nikolaos…who, unlike the protagonist, doesn’t have any direct lineage to Leonidas. I just thought it was funny that the one voice I actually recognized was one of the most recognizable voices in gaming.
Odyssey is about eighty different systems layered on top of each other in a manner that is clearly imperfect, but not to the point where the cracks in the plaster are distracting or harmful to the overall experience. It’s a great game, and if the industry continues to follow these trends, as they almost certainly will, then we’re in for quite the widespread rebirth and adoption of both the Immersive Sim and morally complex branching narrative RPGs. Which, considering the presentation we’ve seen of Red Dead Redemption 2’s first-person perspective…well, that future might be about two weeks out.