Blood on the Sand
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (ACO) is a role-playing game. I know I said it was moving in this direction with last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, but this entry in the series is as much of a RPG as The Witcher 3. But where Origins last year pushed Assassin’s Creed further into RPG territory and further away from the focus of assassinations, ACO takes this series even further from its roots. In fact, this entry may as well be an entirely different franchise.
In ACO, you can select from the start whether you want to play as Kassandra (woman) or Alexios (man). Either way, you are a Spartan in exile, a descendant of Leonidas himself, during the Peloponnesian War. In the broad game world, Sparta and Athens are at each other’s throats. In the story’s winding path, you learn more about your destiny and how the Cult of Kosmos is attempting to leverage your bloodline to control the world.
This game is enormous, and I could spend hundreds of words describing just the game. Instead, I’ll sum it by saying this is a third person character RPG in a historical setting. Even though killing people isn’t your only course of action, most missions are resolved with murder and there are four different power structures to be murdered: the Cult of Kosmos, a seemingly endless string of mercenaries, an arena full of champions, and the national leadership of the Greek states. This may sound like a lot and it is; each of those is a different tweak on the game.
The cult is hunted through finding clues, usually by killing other cultists, sometimes through sidequests. Hunting the cult is some of the most fun this game has and it ties deepest into the main plot. While most cultists are just a name, some are given personality and character, and there are some genuinely surprising reveals.
The mercenaries hunt you when you’ve committed crimes, usually murder, sometimes theft or destruction of property. They’re an endless stream of difficult enemies with unique qualities (“takes less assassination damage”, “has a wolf companion”) in a way that sort of makes it like the Nemesis system in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, except this is far less fleshed out. It’s one of the game’s biggest missed opportunities. With any amount of personality ascribed to these mercenaries, it might have added something significant to the mindless murder, but instead it’s just another long chain of bodies.
The arena, by comparison to the rest, is fairly simple; fight waves of enemies in an arena and then kill their champion boss. The fights aren’t particularly different from what you do in the game world, but they do take place in an arena full of obstacles to avoid and exploit. There’s a story to this arena that’s worth seeing to the end, but that’s about it.
The least fun of these are the nation takeovers. You have to first lower national threat levels by infiltrating forts and destroying supplies, stealing their war chest, and killing their leadership. Then you can take to the battlefield in a mass combat scenario that’s a lot less fun than it sounds. It’s just a lot of the same combat except with more enemies on screen, and most of them are occupied in fighting other nameless soldiers that are on your side, until one of the two nations wins. Your influence is in killing enemy captains and heroes, which are just the same enemies except with more hitpoints. If you were on the winning side, you get a big reward of gear. If you were on the losing side, you still get some gear. It ultimately does not matter whether Athens or Sparta controls a region, so it’s really just another lost opportunity but maybe it’s commentary on the game world.
I highlight these power structures because they’re the vast majority of the game, and where it loses the most Assassin’s Creed flavor. The focus of these power structures is mostly built on killing the people at the top, which is what you’d expect an assassin to do, but you’re not playing an assassin. The word “assassin” might not ever be used in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Where Origins reduced the functionality of the “single-button murder” that was a staple of the series, it’s almost entirely removed in ACO. No longer does catching somebody by surprise and pressing the murder button kill them outright. For most non-fodder enemies, it only takes a large chunk off of their health. The satisfaction I derived from this game was looking out over an enemy infested fort, sneaking around to kill all of the fodder stealthily, and then getting the drop on the cultist, national leader, general I was there to kill and fighting them without backup because I killed all their backup. This is a formula Ubisoft has been building on since Far Cry 2. It’s still fun, but Assassin’s Creed used to make sneaking in and just killing that one target without engaging in mass murder feasible.
Another major change is the addition of dialog options. Sometimes, you can talk your way out of bad situations. None of these are influenced by your character’s stats, which are solely focused on how easily you can kill someone, so the choice of dialog often feels like a guessing game. ACO doesn’t pretend that these choices are particularly meaningful, except that at six points in the main plot they can influence which of the nine conclusions the story reaches. Even then, the results are largely the same but who comes to the end with you changes.
This is emblematic of ACO. It presents the illusion of choice, but there’s really not much choice at all. Your choices don’t have far reaching consequences for being a story largely centered around your character’s special bloodline. The game world is wide open but it’s a static thing. Killing one nation’s leader just results in another filling in their place. Killing one mercenary moves you up the ladder, but another mercenary fills in behind you. Random name, random traits, no personality. The only murders that count are those against the Cult of Kosmos, but even half of those are just faceless people. I found two of the last ones just sitting alone in the woods. It seems that as Assassin’s Creed has opened up the world over the course of the series, it has reduced the player’s impact on it. Prior games were more linear affairs that could do things like jump 20 years in the future, or kill major characters and show the impacts of those deaths. In ACO, no one’s death means anything. By the end of the game, my character’s actions have had no meaningful impact on the game’s world. Maybe it’s a direct contradiction of the game’s “chosen one” story, or maybe it’s commentary on the meta narrative of the series, which is that all of this is largely meaningless because this world has been simulated to completion. Ancient aliens solved all of this long ago and humanity is just going through the motions. The ones who thought they could change things were wrong.
In this Assassin’s Creed game, you are not an assassin, you’re not part of a group of assassins, and you hardly assassinate anyone. In most aspects, this game and Origins before it are unlike any others in the series, and they benefit from it in some ways, but calling them “Assassin’s Creed” is a misnomer. The game is still historical tourism, with appearances by famous Greeks such as Socrates, Leonidas, Herodotus, and Pericles, among others, but it’s otherwise an entirely different animal from the series that came before Origins. I look back on the 70ish hours I’ve spent in the game, and I enjoyed my time playing it, but it’s a sort of hollow enjoyment. This is a popcorn game, tasty but void of nutrition or substance.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 it's a huge, beautiful, open world full of things to do
Penalties: -2 you spend the whole game being told how important you are, but your actions don't make any meaningful impact on the game world
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 (still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Ubisoft (developer). Assassin's Creed Odyssey [Ubisoft, 2018]