Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Platform: PS4 (played), Xbox One, PC
Released: October 5, 2018
Copy supplied by publisher
At what point does the length of a video game begin to impede on its quality? It’s a fair question to ask when discussing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the latest installment in Ubisoft’s long-running historical action series. The title’s invocation of Homer’s epic poem about the Greek hero Odysseus and his decade-long journey home is certainly no accident, as Ubisoft Quebec has crafted their own almost mythic retelling of the Greek Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). Last year’s soft reboot, Assassin’s Creed Origins, featured its own massive story set in Ancient Egypt, but that game almost feels small when measured up against Odyssey and its immense scope. What Ubisoft has achieved here could very well be described as the biggest and possibly even best Assassin’s Creed to date. It’s a pity then that most players will probably burn out on it before they even get to its best parts.
Unlike last year’s Origins, Odyssey is more of an iterative installment than a major reworking of franchise conventions but the changes it does bring to the table are almost all positive ones. Right from the beginning, Odyssey offers the choice between two playable characters: Alexios or Kassandra. The only other Assassin’s Creed game to offer both male and female protagonists is 2015’s Syndicate, but in Odyssey there’s no switching back-and-forth between characters —you’re locked in for the entire game. I picked Kassandra and have no regrets about my decision as she is honestly one of the most refreshing video game protagonists I’ve encountered in some time.
Odyssey’s new branching dialogue options gives Kassandra the option of being both a moralistic hero and a ruthless mercenary out for the money in different situations and thanks to actress Melissanthi Mahut’s layered performance, it all feels believable for the character (it helps that Kassandra is set up as a mercenary by trade). While I enjoyed Origin’s protagonist Bayek, he leaned a little too heavily into altruistic hero for my liking. Kassandra might just be the franchise’s best protagonist since Ezio and while I can’t speak to how Alexios measures up, his role in the game’s story (whichever character you don’t pick becomes an important NPC ) gave me the impression that Kassandra is the superior pick.
I briefly mentioned dialogue options above and their presence in Odyssey — a first for an Assassin’s Creed title — is part of a larger move towards turning the series into a full-on third-person action-RPG. Origins introduced a leveling system with gear drops and the like, but Odyssey doubles down on the role-playing elements to the point where it’s pretty much impossible to play it as a straightforward action game. You’ll be spending a lot of time in menus going over weapon and armor stats so if you already had issues with those systems in Origins, you’re probably going to dislike Odyssey even more. However, if you can come to terms with the franchise’s transition into RPG territory, Odyssey has some surprisingly deep systems at play. Combat is separated into three categories: Hunter (ranged), Warrior (melee), and Assassin (stealth). Each specialization comes with its own corresponding skill tree that you’re free to assign points into as you see fit, and your weapons and armor will dictate how much damage you do in each area. What’s cool about this system is that you unlock various abilities that can be assigned to a wheel with a corresponding face button command. These range from the simple Bull Rush ability that has you charge forward through enemies for massive damage to poison and fire damage that can be applied to your melee weapon for a short period of time.
One peculiar design choice is that assassinations and stealth in general are needlessly underpowered early on in the game. Outside of your standard grunt types, most enemies can’t be taken out with single sneak attack, which automatically puts that enemy (and most likely anyone else in the area) on alert, thereby ruining any attempts at a sneaky approach. While you’d think this would introduce an added layer of depth and challenge to stealth gameplay, in practice all it really does is make it so that you have to dump a bunch of points early on into upgrading your assassination damage — you can hold down the attack button for a critical strike because I guess one fatal stab wound just isn’t enough anymore? — which means that you’ll have to wait longer to unlock some of Odyssey’s more entertaining and experimental abilities. I can understand not wanting to make stealth too overpowered compared to the other combat types but for a game with “assassin” in the title, Odyssey sure makes the actual act of assassination more difficult and cumbersome than it needs to be.
Naval combat has been an on-and-off part of the core Assassin’s Creed experience since 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III and it makes a full return in Odyssey. Like the pirate-themed Black Flag, you can hop in your ship at any dock and sail around the Mediterranean uninhibited. While naval combat is still as fun as ever, it’s hard not to feel like the ship was brought back just to ferry players around Odyssey’s sprawling map. It’s hard not to be reminded of the repetitive sailing segments from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, as Odyssey’s water traversal often feels like something to be endured on the way to the next mission. I’m sure many players will feel differently and invest a lot of time upgrading their ship and living the pirate life, but it got to the point where I couldn’t help but groan when I realized my next objective would require me to get back out on the water and sail mindlessly for minutes on end (if I was lucky enough to not run into enemy ships that attack on sight, of course), though this admittedly did become less of an issue the further I got due to all the unlocked fast travel points I had accumulated.
And make no mistake: Ubisoft Quebec has put together a truly impressive world here. Assassin’s Creed remains a wonderful medium for immersing oneself back to a time and place we could never ever actually visit. With its large swaths of crystal-clear waters, mountainous landscapes, and beautiful architecture, Odyssey’s vision of Ancient Greece is downright stunning, though it’s also a treat for the ears … well, mostly. While Joe Henson and Alexis Smith’s sweeping score and the convincing Mediterranean accents are high points, Odyssey’s audio wonders are somewhat undermined by some spotty dialogue. Overall, this is a well-written game but I don’t think I’ve heard this many F-bombs dropped since Grand Theft Auto V. Coarse language certainly has its place when used properly but in a game where characters already swear in Greek, why do they also need to sound like edgy teenagers who just discovered South Park? It just strikes me as a bit lazy and took me out of the experience when it cropped up, but it’s by no means a deal-breaker.
As impressive as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is on a production level (outside of the usual litany of glitches that plague most open-world games, including a bizarre one where my character’s torch had no flame but still gave off light), its issues of scale and balance are hard to ignore. Like I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this review, Odyssey is the kind of game very few people who actually start will finish. Yes, this is a depressing truth of many AAA video games but it feels at times like the designers of Odyssey don’t actually want players to reach its ending. Like any RPG worth its salt, grinding is a major component of Odyssey’s design but the balance feels totally off.
Every mission in the game is level-gated, including the main story path and Odyssey is the kind of game that will pummel you into the ground if you’re even one or two below the recommended level. The problem is that you’ll rarely earn enough XP from story missions and killing enemies to keep pace with level requirements, leading to a process that is punctuated by frequent diversions to go off and earn enough XP just to get through the next mission. Rinse and repeat. For an open-world game that supposedly lets you tackle things as you see fit, Odyssey boxes players into a routine quite early on by forcing you to go off and do whatever you can to earn enough XP to progress. This is a problem for two reasons: it ruins the pacing of the story and pads it out to the point where it takes at least 50 hours to get to the credits (and that’s if you’re doing everything right, not dying, etc.) and much more importantly, is a deliberate ploy made in service of the game’s microtransaction system.
While Odyssey’s storefront isn’t as intrusive as some other AAA offenders like NBA 2K19, the game is still structured in such a way as to wear you down into spending more money. Early on, the game gives you 200 Helix Credits (Assassin’s Creed’s virtual currency), which isn’t enough to actually purchase anything worthwhile, so already there’s a pull to spend more. But then there are the permanent boosts to consider, which increase XP gains. These boosts are advertised as a way to “skip the grind”, which is weird when you think about it because it’s like Ubisoft is telling you that their game is so bad that you’ll want to skip parts of it. Essentially, they’ve created a problem and are selling you a solution, as Odyssey was built in such a way as to make it just tedious enough to want to make an additional purchase in order to alleviate the problem. As evidenced recently by Marvel’s Spider-Man, another open-world game with a leveling system, it’s quite possible to make a game like this without resorting to these sort of underhanded psychological manipulation tactics, but Ubisoft seems keen to try and wrest as much money from its customers as possible.
And really, that’s a shame because Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a very good game outside of these few glaring issues. I realize much of this review sounds negative and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m completely down on this game. I do think it makes a strong case for being the best Assassin’s Creed yet and I could go on about the many ways it impressed me, from the opening scene that thrusts you into battle as Spartan King Leonidas and his doomed 300 to the way so many characters come off as thirsty sex fiends (yup, there’s romance options in Assassin’s Creed now). Even though I take issue with the way Odyssey is designed like a free-to-play experience, the core gameplay is entertaining enough to make me want to keep playing it and clearing out more objectives in its sprawling world. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Ubisoft has turned Assassin’s Creed into an RPG just to make more money off of its player base and not because it actually makes the game “better”. In a world where The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt already exists — a game that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does its best to imitate at nearly every turn, to varying degrees of success — I’m just not sure if “second-rate” RPG is the best identity for Assassin’s Creed to be clinging to right now. If Odyssey wasn’t so overwhelming on every level of its design, I might feel different but as things stand, this feels like the last Assassin’s Creed game of this scale we’ll ever need.
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