Hot on the sand-swept heels of 2017's Assassin's Creed Origins comes the latest entry in Ubisoft's decade-old chronicle of stabbings through history: Assassin's Creed Odyssey. The series is taking a jump even further back in time – nearly 400 years – to ancient Greece, to the time of Sparta and Athens, when belief in the Gods was still strong, and the pillars of the Greek civilization dotted what seemed then like the entire world.
After the utter triumph and revival that was Assassin's Creed Origins, I was excited to see how Odyssey, developed in concert with rather than in response to Origins, would fare.
In Assassin's Creed Odyssey, you play as Alexios or Kassandra, a pair of siblings growing up in Sparta. Unlike Assassin's Creed Syndicate, you don't play as both; you pick one at the beginning, and that's your character for the game. After growing up on a small, rough island, your character of choice – I went with Kassandra – is eager to make it out into the world. She quickly finds that many eyes are on her, and she's entering into a wide, corrupt world where secrets have their own secrets.
Eyes Full of Color
One of the hallmarks of an Assassin's Creed game is the length of the credits. Right from the beginning, they've been so long that your controller can go idle and your screen dim from lack of activity twice over. With Assassin's Creed Odyssey, you can see why literally everywhere you look.
The ambition in Assassin's Creed Odyssey is on a scale that I don't know that I've ever seen before. Where Assassin's Creed Origins encompassed northern Egypt, Odyssey feels like it captures the whole of Greek civilization. Almost all of ancient Greece is present and accounted for in Odyssey, and it's absolutely staggering just how big it is. I feel like I could explore it for two or three hundred hours and still have areas left un-traversed. It's intimidating.
Even more staggering is just how absolutely gorgeous all of it is. It's beautiful. It might be one of the most beautiful console games ever, standing shoulder to shoulder with Forza Horizon 3 & 4, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and God of War, among others. It's in very impressive company, in other words.
The world of ancient Greece is rendered in full color here, with as much visual variety as you could hope for. One island is awash in cherry blossoms. Athens has massive, colorfully painted statues everywhere you look. Some smaller islands have little more than a few trees, while others are covered in verdant grass and impressive forests that feel as big and dense as a real forest rather than a facsimile of one. Cities like Athens and Argos are big enough that I feel like I could get lost in them if I didn't have an overworld map to reference.
But what I count among one of Odyssey's greatest strengths, I'd also peg as one of its biggest downfalls.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey is just plain too big.
If you stand on the diving board above this reflecting pool of a game, tempted to drive in and explore the gorgeous tiles one by one, beware – you might break your neck. For what Odyssey has in beauty and ambition, it lacks in depth and cohesiveness. This is a wide pool, but a shallow one too.
Make no mistake: if you're one of those people who buys Assassin's Creed games and not much else, this game might last you longer than any single Assassin's Creed game to date, but that's not always a good thing.
Are we THERE yet?
After three dozen hours with Assassin's Creed Odyssey, the thing I remember most isn't the beautiful vistas, but just how long everything takes. And I mean everything.
The world is so big that getting around is always at least a 10 minute trip. And woe be to you if you didn't remember to climb up to that synchronization point, because you'll have to get back there all over again. Or if you got there and then died immediately when three boars attack you out of nowhere (no that's not extremely specific at all), you'll be making that trip again, too.
PROTIP: Use the quicksave feature constantly just so you don't have to haul ass back to the same spot again.
Interestingly, though, this game does away with fall damage. I think this is an acknowledgement by the developers that there aren't enough tall structures to jump off, just cliff faces. It cuts into the believability of the game (not that falling 6 stories into hay is particularly believeable), but it's one of the few ways Odyssey feels faster.
But it's not just traversal that takes forever, something that seems especially apparent so close to the release of Insomniac's Spider-Man, a game that took the idea of "it's not the destination, it's the journey" to heart. It's everything about the game.
This is madness! This is a 300 reference
Combat is at the core of Odyssey in a way it hasn't been previously in the series. When I get into fights in this game, it feels like the developers who created it were very proud of their combat system.
The thing is, I can't tell for the life of me why. Fighting in Odyssey is not fun. It's frustrating, and not even frustrating in the fun Dark Souls way.
Actually, that's a good jumping-off point. When I fight in Odyssey, I feel like the combat team took some wrong lessons from Dark Souls. Namely, that every single fight should be potentially lethal for the player character, and that every mistake should be punished severely.
That works great for a game as tightly designed as Dark Souls. There, every corridor is laid out to give you a certain combat experience. And the entirety of Dark Souls would fit into a back alley of Assassin's Creed Odyssey. In Odyssey, combat is a constant. Wherever you go, you're fighting, and it's never fast.
Also, in Odyssey, the game levels up with you. On the upside, this means that going back to old quests later gives you a challenging experience and enough XP to make it worth your while. On the other hand, it also means that the sense of getting more powerful is almost non-existent.
One way this manifests is in the way the game handles assassinations. One thing that made Origins stand out was that you couldn't just assassinate any old guy. Most enemies you could shank, but higher-ranked enemies required fighting. There was this good balance of being able to stealth through things and fight things. That's back again here, but instead of applying to a couple guys here and there, about a quarter of the soldiers you'll encounter can't be outright assassinated.
Odyssey has an entire skill tree devoted to assassination over combat, but the game will constantly put you up against these enemies that can't be assassinated, and so, instead, you're forced to fight them. It both feels like I'm being forced into and punished for getting into open combat. Worse yet is that levels aren't so much a gap as they are a cliff. If you're two levels lower than a random henchman, you're more likely to die
If the combat were fun, that would be fine, but here in Odyssey, it just feels messy. Gone are the days of being surrounded by enemies that wait for you while you fight their friends. That means, though, that five or six enemies can all take a swing at you at once, and at least in the beginning, that meant I was dying during combat a lot. It wasn't until I was about 20 hours in that I started to feel like I had enough power to consistently make it through fights.
One thing that does feel good, though, is the way the game integrates active abilities you can pick up as you level up. One of the earliest ones is the classic Spartan Kick we all remember from 300. You can assign each ability to a combination of one of the left shoulder buttons and one of the main face buttons, giving you a quick and easy way to use up to 8 special abilities, without a single one of them confined to a specific button press. I felt like this let me make Kassandra's fighting style more "mine" – but again, that took a solid 20 to 25 hours before that started to happen.
Side Quests Forever
While you can roam the open world and find plenty of people and wildlife to stab, though, the main brunt of the action is in the game's many, many, many quests and sidequests.
While Odyssey has its share of story quests, one feature that's new this time around is what looks like a bunch of procedurally generated timed quests. These quests are simple things like finding and stabbing certain types of soldiers, or getting into your boat and taking down ships belonging to certain factions.
I'm surprised that Ubisoft went this direction. We witnessed a similar quest style in Fallout 4, and while it's tempting to follow those quests in the moment, players began to realize just how empty these quests felt before too long. The idea of everlasting, regenerating content is a nice one, but players can tell the difference between missions meant to be played and experienced and missions meant to keep us just-one-more-ing our way through missions.
The curated story missions range from interesting to tedious. I remember listening to a developer on Cyberpunk 2077 talk about how they would iterate on a mission over and over before realizing it wasn't working and finally dropping it. Ubisoft seems, instead, to have said at some point "if you've started work on an activity, finish it, we'll ship it." Everything is in here.
That goes for the game's optional and not-so-optional systems, too. For example, much like in Assassin's Creed Origins, you'll end up hunting down members of a conspiracy. Only this time, there's about five times as many people in this conspiracy (it's like 35 or 45, seriously) and less work has been put into each of them than we saw with the ones in Origins. You uncover clues to hunt them down, but sometimes the clues are really vague. E.g.: "Help people near this area", but without any further elaboration until you happen to stumble across the right storyline in the right district and run the storyline far enough along to matter.
If you commit crimes in the open, you'll build up a bounty and one of 50 increasingly dangerous bounty hunters will take you down. But because they just run straight at you, you don't learn anything about them, or get to know them, or even see their fighting style. I didn't even realize they had backstories hidden in menus until far into the game.
There's a 'war' system in Odyssey that lets you do things like burn supplies and steal funds from a given Greek nation state until it's vulnerable, at which point you can side with Athens or Sparta in a battle to decide who is dominant. Even after well over 30 hours of game, though, I can't tell for the life of me what the point of it is. It feels like a feature that the team meant to integrate into the game but didn't finish. It was functional, though, so they left it in.
Odyssey takes the RPG elements of Origins even further, too. You can level up yourself, your Spear of Leonidas, you can level up your weapons and armor and then further level them up with additional "Engravings" that give them an extra stat boost or modifier; and you can level up your ship's armor and weapons. You can level up everything. But the constant stream of new gear means that you're either dumping money into the leveled-up gear or spending tons of time in menus picking out which assassin hat you want to wear.
It almost feels like Ubisoft is deathly afraid I'll get bored with its game before the growing number of Ubisoft studios working on the game can release DLC for it.
The number of things you can actually do in Assassin's Creed Odyssey is as staggering as the game's size, but in this case I can't really call it a compliment.
You got character, kid
That brings us to the characters themselves – the people that fill out this gorgeous, oversized world.
As I mentioned earlier, I chose Kassandra as my protagonist from the two available siblings. This, like the graphics, is one part I'm unquestionably happy with. Kassandra is a fun character to play as. I like her design and the voicework that brings her to life. I like picking out cool armor for her, and she's a blast to watch during cutscenes. I imagine that her brother, Alexios, got as much attention as she did during development, but I can't speak directly to that.
Other characters, though, don't get the same attention. While there are a few other good characters, most of the people you meet in Odyssey aren't particularly memorable.
That goes double for the much-vaunted "romance" options. This feels like another half-baked leave-it-in part of the game. If this is what the people in charge of Assassin's Creed think romance is, count me out.
Where games like Mass Effect, Fallout 4 and Dragon Age had you going on lengthy quests and spending time with the characters you wanted to romance – and then making that part of the story in best cases (see Liara in Mass Effect, whose romance lasted through three games). But "romance" here is just hookups. You'll meet a character, do maybe a single quest with them at most, and then you might get a dialogue option with a heart next to it. The exchange amounts to both of the characters agreeing that they're horny, and then the screen goes to black or the door closes.
I'm all for characters being able to express a variety of sexualities in the game, but never once is this taken into account in the story. Kassandra isn't ever characterized as a sexual person who has a hard time forming close relationships, or as a polyamorous person, or anything like that. It's just totally disconnected from the story. You can boink characters. That's it.
It's just present enough to make it a bullet point on the back of the box, but not enough to make it worth pursuing in the game.
Similarly, the act of choosing your dialogue options feels superficial for the most part, and isn't very well integrated. I had one conversation that went something like this:
>Pursue Revenge >Reunite Family
Me: "We should pursue revenge!"
Them: "We should reunite our family."
Me: "Yeah, let's reunite our family."
Them: "But we need to get revenge."
I mean, what? This wasn't even two different conversations.
A minor choice early on in the game led to me letting some sick people live. Later, I find out that their sickness has taken root as a plague back on my home island. Going back home, though, it doesn't seem to have changed much about the island. Worse, when my ship's first mate delivered the news to me, it sounded very clearly shoehorned in – about as organic as a barrel of chemicals.
I mentioned before that Odyssey was developed alongside Origins, and it shows. There are clear, obvious similarities between the two. But it's obvious that the Odyssey team did not get the chance to build on what worked about Origins, or improve on what didn't work. Instead, we get a similar system that's broken in different ways.
I'll admit I have a bias here: I'm a huge fan of ancient Egypt. I think it's a massively underused setting. I also think Origins did an incredible job of making it feel real and lifelike. As often as Origins felt lifelike, though, Odyssey felt lifeless. If you stand around too long, you'll see just how much of this game is a theme park ride waiting for you to activate it. You're not meant to become familiar with any one spot, either, because the world is just too big, so you never get used to navigating the game the way I felt I did in Origins. Kassandra is fun, but she doesn't feel like a part of the world the way Bayek did in Origins.
After what a blast last year's Assassin's Creed was, I find myself frustrated. I played that game until I had all the achievements, and then I kept playing to experience the DLC. I find myself wanting to go back to that world, rather than experience more of Odyssey.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey isn't bad. It really isn't. The world of ancient Greece is so far beyond beautiful that I can't stress it enough. If Ubisoft releases an educational mode as it has before, that'll make for an incredible way to see what this part of the world probably looked like 2500 years ago. But the game itself has been a slog for me. I didn't finish the game, and I do plan to continue playing it, but after close to 40 hours with the game, I'm far enough in that even the most stunning story revelation couldn't drastically change my opinion about a game. If a game takes 15 or 20 hours, or even 40 hours to 'get good,' then there might not actually be a good game there.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey is worth checking out just for the vistas, but maybe set it to easy. Turn off "Exploration" mode. Skip the procedurally-generated quests. Don't play for too long at once. And if you try to dive deep, expect to hit bottom real fast.
DISCLAIMER: We received a code for Assassin's Creed Odyssey from the publisher and played the game for 36+ hours on Xbox One X before starting this review.
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