This October saw the release of two epically large open-world games: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2. It isn’t fair to pit these two against each other for the sake of determining which is better. It’s Red Dead Redemption 2. That game had the benefit of nearly eight years in development and a relatively blank canvas to paint on while Odyssey had half that development time and the burden of being the tenth entry in a franchise. Yet understanding where that gap in quality stems from holds an interesting and valuable discussion. In the case of these two games, it comes down to the design and feel of their open worlds.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a great game. It has its problems, namely a restrictive progression system that frequently turns exploring the open world into a repetitive grind, but on the whole, it is a very entertaining adventure. Constructing the character build you want to play as makes every new level a reward, inserting your decisions into the primary and secondary narratives gives players choice over how the story pans out, and the variety of gameplay styles allows players to drop anything they find boring and explore a different aspect of the game that is more to their liking. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey wants players to feel ownership over their adventure, and that’s an admirable goal.
In many ways, Red Dead Redemption 2 has the same goal. Players have the freedom to interact with the game world in a variety of nuanced ways. Customizing your character’s attire, equipping items that grant perks to augment your playstyle, choosing to save or rob the strangers you meet on the road, Rockstar’s western allows players to craft their experience of America’s frontier to their liking. That’s where the similarities end for the most part, but the way that these two games go about delivering this sense of freedom is what ultimately sets them apart.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is overladen with systems. From assassination targets to nation conquering to naval combat, the sheer variety of gameplay mechanics is what’s most impressive about the title. And also what prevents it from being a truly top-tier game. In my impressions from the game, I called Odyssey a “hall-of-fame exhibit for this console generation’s best gameplay mechanics.” As I’ve thought about the game more, that analogy only feels more accurate, because while each of the systems is thrilling in a vacuum, you can only be immersed in one of them at a time. It’s as if they’re separate, their rewards and consequences localized to each individual system. Lowering a nation’s power doesn’t make flushing out cultists any easier, and recruiting large numbers of enemy soldiers to your cause doesn’t seem to affect your ship’s crew size at all. Like a museum exhibit, taking information from one system can inform your understanding and appreciation for a different one, but they don’t interact with one another. This prevents Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from being more than the sum of its parts.
If Odyssey is a museum exhibit then Red Dead Redemption 2 is a tapestry. Rather than having overarching systems, this game weaves together subtler mechanics to create something much larger. Interacting with town denizens allows players to sculpt their personal relationship to the game world with a surprising amount of flexibility. Hunting is deeper, more complex, and, as a result, more rewarding than in any game I have played. Doing activities to earn money and improve your group’s campsite emphasizes its sense of community, a central motivation in my drive through the main story. Your “Wanted” level is measured by the amount of crimes witnesses have seen you commit, companions will come to you with optional activities to earn money, weapons degrade when they’re used, and horses bond with you over time. There is no shortage of systems present in Rockstar’s open world, yet each of them weaves into one another to create a single impression: this world is alive.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is driven by systems. Like any good RPG, they are overt and measured so that the player knows exactly where they stand at any given time. That’s what Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is, an RPG. Red Dead Redemption 2 does verge on being an RPG. There is a lot of player freedom and choice, but it lacks a lot of the genre’s most important archetypes. Very few of Red Dead Redemption 2’s systems are measured. There is no leveling up in the game which means you can enter any territory at any time and the only way to improve as a hunter is to get better at the activity itself, not through unlocking a new “hunter” skill. This is what makes the game so special. Your actions have meaning and consequence like in an RPG, the story and characters are deep and exciting like an RPG, but the game is more interested in your behavior than your progression through a series of systems.
Arthur’s “Honor” rating, whether you’re playing as more of a good guy or scumbag, is one of the few systems that is measured, but the results of playing to either extreme vary significantly from other games. People who you save from imminent death might appear later and reward you handsomely while gunning down loads of people could lead a relative of one of your victims to hunt you down. The consequences of your actions just feel less gamey, as if they stem from a real world that is functioning independently of you. Of course, that isn’t the case, but the results are tied together with such subtlety and across so many interconnected actions that the seams with which the tapestry is sown are difficult to distinguish. Your reward for engaging with the game world is the world itself, not an ever-increasing number next to your character name.
The frontier in Red Dead Redemption 2 is a world that actively resists the player. It is wild, immeasurable, and feels independent, almost indifferent to the player’s whims. It isn’t the kind of place to be conquered. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, on the other hand, is heavily quantified and practically begs the player to become its master. The game almost seems to draw attention to its artificiality. That isn’t to say that the world of Ancient Greece isn’t immersive or impressive, it certainly is, but while playing it I have always had the conscious awareness that I was inhabiting a game. With Red Dead Redemption 2, there have been numerous moments where I have forgotten that I was playing a video game, where I simply existed in the wondrous, untamed world. That’s the difference. Where Assassin’s Creed Odyssey feels rigid and mechanical, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels alive and free.