Assassin’s Creed Odyssey came out about a week ago and I decided to pick it up. I hadn’t purchased an Assassin’s Creed game since Unity came out in 2014, but all the pre-release developer diaries got me very excited about the changes to the franchise. Bringing back naval combat, doubling down on RPG mechanics and character building, the series had clearly changed since I last played it and I wanted to see what one of my previously favorite franchises had become. I’m about 20 hours into the game at this point and I feel like now’s a good time to reflect on my impressions and experience with the game so far.
I want to start with Odyssey’s story. It’s surprisingly good. Assassin’s Creed games tend to stick to a repetitive revenge story formula, and Odyssey certainly has elements of a revenge plot, but it isn’t as straightforward as in past games. There are some complicated motivations pushing the player forward and it’s been exciting to watch the plot unfold, especially since players are able to make decisions that affect the narrative state. I also love the setting of Ancient Greece. It’s rich with culture and history, and the war-torn region makes for a strangely inviting backdrop.
The gameplay itself is also engaging. Sneaking through areas feels like a viable option even though you’ll need a certain character build to make it truly effective. Fighting enemies is way more entertaining than in earlier entries thanks in part to the many flashy abilities you can unlock. Naval combat is flat out fun. And the world is gorgeous to explore, but it does feel significantly flatter than I’m used to in Assassin’s Creed games.
This isn’t a surprise, there were no cities on the vertical scale of Rome, Paris, or even Jerusalem in Ancient Greece, and the buildings were certainly less densely packed together, but it still feels strange to play an Assassin’s Creed game where parkour isn’t the game’s navigational focus. What’s even stranger, however, is that I still haven’t performed what I would consider an actual assassination. I’ve killed a number of people, but previous AC games used assassination missions as the big set-piece moments of each game. Missions like that don’t seem to exist in this game. That’s a sacrifice made for the sake of gameplay consistency, however, because this series is now a true blue Role Playing Game rather than a straightforward action adventure. At this point, it may be more RPG Creed than Assassin’s Creed.
Character building is a lot of fun and unlocking new abilities is both exciting and rewarding. Players can interact with most NPC’s and get different perspectives on the war. And side missions aren’t just random arbitrary objectives. They’re the same kind of simple fetch quests or go here and kill the enemy quests we’re used to in RPG games, but they at least have interesting in-world contexts like helping an old friend by taking out a gang of bandits or gathering ingredients to make the Ancient Greece version of viagra.
But any RPG measures progress by your current level and AC Odyssey is no different. Although I’ve reached the point where I can effectively go anywhere, many of the islands I have landed on contain enemies that are WAY past my level. Level gating in this game is pretty severe. It’s almost impossible to one-shot assassinate a regular enemy that’s one or two levels higher than you, and higher level enemies can be a nuisance to defeat in open combat due to their high health. So if you land on an island with higher level enemies you can either a: quietly sneak through without doing any kind of fighting or assassinating or b: leave. Neither option is very fun. So even though the game world is completely open to me now, I still feel funneled in a certain direction, which is weird considering how many times the game has encouraged me to freely roam wherever I want.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey also really pushes you to engage in the MANY system mechanics that require your attention. There is weapon engraving and upgrading, resource gathering, ship upgrading, recruiting lieutenants, mercenary hunting, nation conquering, and cultist assassinations. Although they all work and provide unique incentives to explore the world, it can be quite overwhelming to know where to begin or which system to focus on at any given time since aimlessly wandering rarely brings any true progress. It’s also in these systems that we see a number of AC Odyssey’s influences and it’s within these influences that I get a better sense for this game’s identity.
The developers made a point of citing the Witcher 3 as one of their primary influences and that game’s effect on Odyssey’s questing structure and story focus is quite obvious. However, the game also pulls from Breath of the Wild in its emphasis on giving players the freedom to explore an open world without requiring a mini-map and objective markers, and allowing players to go anywhere and climb anything. Another inspiration is shown through the Mercenaries system. Mercenaries in the game are stronger enemies with specific weaknesses and strengths you need to discover, they can hunt you, you can hunt them, and you can recruit them into your ship’s crew. Sound familiar? It’s essentially the same thing as Middle-Earth Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system. Odyssey also copies one of that game’s signature abilities, the shadow strike, with the skill Rush Assassination. In a lot of ways, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey feels like a hall of fame exhibit for this console generation’s most successful mechanics.
All in all, Assassin’s Creed has moved very far away from the series I used to love. That’s not a bad thing, I’m thoroughly enjoying AC Odyssey and at 20-hours in it still feels like it’s getting better each time I pick up the controller. It’s just hard to think about this as an Assassin’s Creed game. At one point, about ten years ago, that franchise was unique in its blend of stealth and action, its use of parkour navigation, and the freedom it gave players to explore. Now, those elements are far more common in the games industry. Assassin’s Creed had to evolve, and the developers did so by identifying some of the best mechanics of this console generation and adapting them to fit their purposes. It doesn’t try anything new unless you consider the mashing together of all these different design principles unique. And I would. In what other game can you experience the systemic thrills of Shadow of Mordor, the open freedom of Breath of the Wild, and the story-focused questing of Witcher 3 in the span of just ten minutes? I can’t think of any. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey wants you to have everything and I have to admire that ambition.
It’s possible that this game loses steam in the later hours. If the story doesn’t hold up or if the level gating remains a problem, I could see the experience becoming one big grind that buckles under the weight of its overwhelming systems and ambition. For the moment, however, I am simply having fun with this mesmerizing and impressive game.