Written by guest author Paul Davies.
Shades of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag bring excitement to the role-playing complexities of Ubisoft’s latest experimental voyage through ancient history. SA Gamer got invited to play seven hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from the very start. Here’s how time flew:
Despite the desert heat, and bold determined hero, Assassin’s Creed Origins felt like quite a cold emotional journey in the company of Bayek of Siwa. Perhaps owing to the grim nature of our hero’s reason for being – the murder of his beloved son – there was almost a funereal mood hanging over the whole thing. Egypt, too, was dry and desolate although the various biomes were varied as could possibly be. Origins was fulsome and engrossing. Fun, though?
Sun, sea, sand, and sects
Perhaps if we align Origins and Bayek with the first Assassin’s Creed from 2007, and Odyssey with Black Flag from 2013, you’ll better understand how the latter feels in terms of theme and gameplay. There’s something immediately more buoyant and broadly appealing about the setting of Ancient Greece, reminiscent of swashbuckling Hollywood romps, and of course, greatly enriched by some of the world’s most famous myths and legends. So, the first thing we want to emphasise with Odyssey is how vibrant the experience is compared to Origins. You can almost smell the Mediterranean sea breeze. It’s a holiday mood. Well, it kind of is.
That we start out on the beatific Greek isle of Kefalonia (‘Kephallonia’ in-game) really sets the tone, as we are introduced to its charismatic characters and natural setting. Knowing that this adventure also entails a significant amount of seafaring is also enticing since the ship battles and diving of sunken wrecks previously made Black Flag seem much more epic. Again, the pyramids and searing heat of Origins were impressively imposing; it’s mainly that the promise of island hopping and taking a dip in the Aegean is honestly more scintillating.
In terms of how Ubisoft is framing Odyssey within the bigger picture, this is largely a quest in pursuit of the First Civilisation. For our playthrough, however, we were focused on what Ubisoft terms as the ‘family story’ arc of Odyssey, involving one of two lead protagonists, Alexios or Kassandra. We chose to lead the latter into battle between Sparta and Athens.
Kass is extraordinarily cool
Though you are reminded that playing Alexios or Kassandra does not affect the gameplay, including the romantic relationships they may fall into, we’d say that the choice does affect presentation. When we first meet Kassandra, she’s roughing it out as a mercenary for a merchant called Markos. In terms of armour, Kass is wearing not much more than a loose-fitting rag, which accentuates her powerful physique. Of course, Ubisoft’s artists have made her attractive, but it’s more like observing an athlete… or an MMA fighter. It is so satisfying to act tough as Kassandra, while demonstrating a heart of gold to her young friend Phoibe. Our first thoughts as the early fights got underway was just how much Assassin’s Creed has missed a crap-kicking female lead to carry a dramatic tale on broad sun-kissed shoulders.
Slice and dice, Spartan style
Possibly, for fans of the Assassin’s Creed series, one of the most challenging new aspects of Odyssey is the comparatively extreme focus on combat. Sure, the series has always featured the sword fights and use of improvised weaponry and context-sensitive moves, but previous games didn’t dwell too much on the mastery of mechanics. In Odyssey, there is now a wide range of techniques to acquire and then master, requiring manual dexterity on an elevated level that some players may feel is beyond the scope of a good old action adventure.
One-on-one matchups, such as duels between our hero and a high-level mercenary, can feel like something akin to Soul Calibur, with accurate timing needed to dodge-roll, block and parry. During the grand scale battles, which are a new addition to the series, this can resemble the musuo games of Koei and Omega Force, such as Dynasty Warriors. Though it is thrilling to rip a shield away from an opponent to open them up for an attack, bull-charge, or Spartan Kick them to the ground, we did start to consider how very far from the simple button-mashing exploits of even Edward Kenway this has come. For our money, it’s great. However, if your enjoyment of Assassin’s Creed is more stealthy and strategic, the demand to partake in such lengthy and often gruelling combat scenarios could become an obstacle.
Roleplaying, and re-rolling the dice
As you are no doubt aware, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is proudly presented as an RPG-like experience, meaning that Skill Points are acquired and spent on a range of hero capabilities. By choosing to allocate between three distinct Skill Trees, players can frame the way that most of the action – outside of the large battles – plays out, favouring Hunter, Warrior, or Assassin roles, or a balance of all three.
For the most part, the game does reward choices in how ‘your Odyssey’ pans out. Meaning, that an Athenian stronghold can be chaotically ransacked or else more elegantly dismantled, depending on the player’s approach. Perhaps because we started out playing Assassin’s Creed as Altaïr in 2007, we generally favoured stealth-oriented methods, leading to problems when full-on confrontation became a necessity. It’s a relief that all Skill Points can be reallocated at any time, to suit the melee combat of a Warrior, or ranged effectiveness of a Hunter.
Somehow this doesn’t quite fit the consequences narrative that Ubisoft is going for quite as neatly as the dialogue with NPCs. In a way, though, it’s only like managing a load-out in any strategic action-oriented game. We might’ve preferred something more organic and rogue-like, but this would likely cause frustration owing to jarring difficulty spikes.
One play-through, your play-through
While the combat and stealth mechanics are rather laid bare by the Skill Tree system, the spell cast by the story content remains powerful owing to the nuanced NPC dialogue and consequences of our decisions. Many times during our lengthy play session, our assigned ‘demoist’ pointed out how one course of action, intentional or otherwise, would mean different dramatic outcomes with immediate effect, or unlock narrative curiosities further down the line, which made the game feel more personal.
The game isn’t engineered to encourage ticking off all the Achievements/Trophies simply by saving certain checkpoints. We are meant to experience the trials set before Kassandra or Alexios by following our truest, heartfelt intentions. Sometimes a line of dialogue is used to colour Kass or Alexios in the way that we wish to see them, as brash or calm. Oftentimes, we can change how an NPC behaves toward our protagonist, possibly losing or gaining their support. Occasionally, an entire sequence can be triggered or forever remain a secret owing to decisions made during a peaceful conversation, or how a particular situation is handled.
For these reasons, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey certainly transcends so much of what has gone before and feels more accomplished as a result. Though we cannot commit too much to an opinion ahead of review, there’s every chance that Odyssey could become the model for a new era in open world adventuring, very much of its time, and proving much more versatile.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on 5 October 2018.