Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the video game equivalent of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. There’s a good story in there somewhere and a decent editor could trim the material and create a cohesive product. However, both experiences are stretched thin over unnecessary padding and diversions and by the time you’re two-thirds of the way through you’re desperate for it to finish.
In the case of Odyssey, the bloated story is especially disappointing, because it showed a lot of early promise until someone seemingly decided the run-time needed to be twice as long. Odyssey takes place in Greece in 431 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. That puts Odyssey‘s story 400 years before that of Origins, so don’t expect to see much in the way of the Assassins, Templars, or indeed anything relating to the present day story. Layla is back in the animus but you see her even less than you did in Origins (my review of Origins). I wish Ubisoft would shit or get off the pot with the modern day stuff. It’s now so sparse that it might as well not be there at all.
Fortunately, Odyssey‘s main story is compelling. Playing as either Kassandra or Alexius (for the first time in the series’ history, you can choose to play as a man or a woman), you are a mercenary on the small island of Kephallonia who gets dragged into the war while dealing with some fairly dark family history. I played as Kassandra and don’t regret the decision at all. Her voice actress—Melissanthi Mahut—is phenomenal and is a huge part of the reason why I rate her even higher than Ezio on my list of favorite Assassin’s Creed protagonists. Depending on who she’s talking to, Kassandra smoothly transitions from being a mercenary to a flirt to a mother figure. She’s rounded and completely believable in a similar way to Geralt from The Witcher 3, with the exception of a few moments where the dialogue is a little too aggressive or loud for the conversation. I can’t speak much to Alexios, however from what I heard he didn’t sound as convincing as Kassandra.
Odyssey‘s story is a lot more interesting than the basic revenge plot of Origins. There are a couple of cool twists and plenty of mysteries that compelled me to push forward. You need this motivation because Odyssey pushes back against any desire you have to see the end of the story. It’s far too long for its own good. The pacing is solid for the first third or so, but then it comes to a grinding halt when you are given three simultaneous quests to complete, each taking multiple hours to get through. I played for around ten hours without progressing the story in any meaningful way. This was merely a sign of things to come.
The pacing problem gets worse in the second half when there are multiple main questlines to follow, or at least there might be if you first do a side quest which then opens up a new main questline (it’s a mess). At times, it’s hard to keep track of exactly what the “main story” is and when I finished the story after fifty hours, I genuinely didn’t realize it was over. There weren’t even any credits.
The poor pacing is all the more frustrating when you see the improvements Ubisoft made to the quality of its writing and direction. The writing has now reached the giddy heights of “good for a video game.” Side quests don’t take themselves too seriously and it feels as if the writers were really able to let go and have some fun. However, the writing for major events is a little underwhelming at times. Likewise, there’s been a little more care and attention taken over the scene direction, but again the major moments don’t hit as hard as they should. However, it does feel like Ubisoft is on the right path.
The story isn’t the only thing that felt a little too big. Odyssey‘s world is huge. It’s unfathomably big. After 60 hours, there were still huge swathes of land that I hadn’t uncovered and many islands that I’d only briefly visited. It’s all absolutely stunning to look at, with busy towns and sunrises/sunsets being a particular highlight. Mountains are dense with vegetation and animals, and the water is some of the best I’ve ever seen (yes, there’s pointless ship stuff again). Towns suffered from a few frame rate drops, but nothing overly problematic.
If you enjoy exploring beautiful open worlds then Odyssey could easily keep you going for over one hundred hours. Even taking into account a lot of repeated assets (one significant building is used dozens of times), there’s a ridiculous amount of content to see and appreciate. Towns are densely packed with NPCs and clutter which leads to Ancient Greece feeling alive with activity.
Ubisoft even provides a little extra motivation to explore this world with its new exploration mode. This mode turns off the waypoint markers that usually mark your destination and instead gives you vague hints and directions to find the right place. It’s a nice feature that I highly recommend using, but it’s little more than a baby step towards something more interesting and I’d like to see Ubisoft go much further with this in the future. As soon as you get even vaguely close to the correct area, your eagle makes itself known and pinpoints exactly where you need to go, which is usually a fort.
Yes, forts are once again a core part of the gameplay loop. The majority of quests have you going to a fort and clearing it of enemies or grabbing an important item. Having played a lot of Origins, it didn’t take long to slip back into a trance as I snuck around knocking out enemies and sabotaging alarms. When it comes to these forts, the only change of note between Odyssey and Origins is that the enemy AI seems to be simultaneously better and worse. I would regularly take people out in sight of others only for them to ignore it and I had huge sword fights with three or four people while the rest of the camp stood around without a care in the world. Conversely, if enemies do spot you, they will search in groups this time which makes it a lot harder to take them out one at a time.
Odyssey‘s combat makes a few tweaks to the formula from Origins, although it’s nothing substantial. You can’t use shields this time, however you can use your weapons to parry any attack so with the exception of not being able to block arrows you will barely notice the change. There are also some cool new assassin skills that abandon any pretense of realism (which is fine with me). One move lets you throw your spear at an enemy and then warp towards them in a second. It’s a little jarring, but it’s useful, so who cares. Unfortunately, weapons like smoke bombs are no longer available and overall I felt like I had fewer options at my disposal when trying to be a silent assassin. Some of the assassin perks are specifically for use in combat so there aren’t as many stealth attacks as you might think from a glance at the skill tree.
There are a few quality of life changes that I won’t be able to live without in future Assassin’s Creed games or when revisiting old ones. For example, you can’t die from fall damage anymore. At the start, you still take damage from falling, however once you hit level 20, your protagonist gets the ability to do a flip just before she hits the ground which stops her taking any damage. Don’t ask questions; just be grateful. I also appreciated being able to cheaply and easily reset my skill tree which let me correct mistakes or change up my playstyle on a whim.
Odyssey takes a few more steps towards being a full RPG with dialogue choices and a stricter approach to character levels. The dialogue choices let you make a few key decisions and occasionally you’ll see the consequences of those decisions later on. This doesn’t happen all that often and, given how long the game is, there’s a good chance you’ll have forgotten what decision you made anyway by the time it pays off. It’s also easy to see the machinery behind the cutscenes as this plays out. There’s a quick flicker to black as Odyssey loads in the appropriate cutscene. A big deal has been made of the ability to romance NPCs, however this only ever comes down to you selecting the dialogue with a heart icon next to it a couple of times. It might as well say “swipe right.”
I wish the character leveling system was as insignificant as the dialogue. As with Origins, you level up as you play and probably won’t be able to kill those who are 3+ levels above you. This was never a huge problem in Origins because you were always a high enough level for the areas the story took you to. Not so in Odyssey. There are a couple of points in the story where the required level jumps by about four levels so you’ll have to go elsewhere to level up. Fortunately, a lot of the side quests are well worth completing, however many aren’t and it’s tough to know which are which until it’s too late.
The worst part of this system is the effect it has on the whole “Assassin” part of Assassin’s Creed. If any enemy is a higher level than you, you almost certainly won’t be able to assassinate them with a basic stealth kill. That’s annoying but manageable. The real problem comes in when you can’t even kill enemies of the same level. Or, you kill one enemy, but then for some reason can’t kill the next even though they are the same level. It doesn’t appear to be related to armor because some enemies not wearing armor can’t be killed when the heavily armored ones can.
There are some skills that help mitigate this, but they introduce problems of their own. For example, you can acquire the ability to perform a critical assassination by using up some of the adrenaline meters that you build with successful attacks. However, this means that when you sneak up on an enemy, you’re presented with two possibilities and you have to quickly decide which is most appropriate. Do you use the regular stealth attack or the critical assassination move? The HUD often shows the stealth attack as being insufficient for a complete kill and yet quite often this is wrong. After 60 hours, I still couldn’t predict with any degree of certainty whether I would get a stealth kill. This uncertainty is also a problem with the special moves, such as the ones that let you kill multiple enemies. You’ll know how much damage you’ll do with the first attack, but the rest are a complete mystery. Everything becomes a guessing game which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to remain hidden.
Ultimately, the leveling system offers no positives to counter the negatives. Enemies always scale up, so even at level 50, you can still be quickly killed by a dog who shouldn’t pose a threat to a tame cat, let alone a bad-ass assassin. It could be argued that the enemy levels are required to stop you going to later story missions from the start of the game, however that doesn’t need to be a big deal. I went to a few forts before I was supposed to and when I went back as part of a story mission, the fort was repopulated and the new quest item had spawned in. This could easily be applied to the other story missions.
You have to wonder why the leveling system is there in the first place. Well, look no further than the in-game store. Actually, you might need to look a bit further. It’s a big store with a lot of pages. Look for the time savers tab. You’ll have to go past the featured tab. And the add-ons. And packs. And gear. And ship. Found it? Okay, good. You can pay $10 to level up 50% faster and boy would that have been useful. A lot of the end-game content requires you to be level 50. I made it to level 46 before I got too bored to continue. I could defeat many of the level 49/50 enemies, however I couldn’t equip the gear they dropped because my level was too low. In the end, a few particular fights blocked my progress and I didn’t have the energy to carry on.
As with many Ubisoft games, Odyssey doesn’t know when to stop. There’s an entire battle system that I barely engaged with. You need to support either Sparta or Athens to weaken a region and then attack or defend it. This is completely disconnected from the story and feels like little more than an excuse to shove in large battles that test the frame rate more than the player.
There are also mercenaries that attempt to emmulate the nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor. It fails miserably. Mordor‘s system worked because the orcs had personalities. The mercenaries in Odyssey have less personality than the offspring of Link and Lara Croft. They’re just a nuisance who insist on fighting at the worst possible moments and keep getting randomly generated no matter how many you defeat. Origins‘ limited number of bounty hunters were far more interesting.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey ends up being a textbook example of how you can have too much of a good thing. I enjoyed clearing out forts in Origins, and for about fifteen hours I enjoyed doing it in Odyssey as well. But nothing changes. You keep doing the same thing again and again, and the gameplay, while fun, is nowhere near compelling enough to justify you spending over seventy hours on it. Thank God there’s not going to be an Assassin’s Creed game in 2019. I need a rest.