Game Review | Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Game summary: Set in 431 BC during the Peloponnesian War, play as either a male or female mercenary as you embark on your own epic odyssey to become a legendary Spartan hero in a world where every choice matters. (IMDb)
I've always enjoyed the Assassin's Creed series to a certain extent, but haven't found them truly engaging since the second game featuring Ezio Auditore as the main character, Brotherhood. The truth is, the series never really evolved all that much from that point, leaving many - including me - feeling that it had already peaked and was desperately trying anything to stay relevant.
I have played Origins a little, and that certainly felt like a step in the right direction, but the characters, story and setting weren't quite enough to hook me and I gladly moved on to Odyssey when it came out and got great reviews. It also helped that, for the first time in a lengthy series, you could actually play as a female character for the entire story.
As much as I liked Aya (Origins) and especially Evie (Syndicate), neither of them are a match for Kassandra, wonderfully brought to life by an incredible performance by Melissanthi Mahut. Honestly, she might just be my favourite female character in gaming - at least putting up a damn strong challenge to Jennifer Hale's Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series.
It's not just the range Mahut displays, which is impressive in itself, but how seamless the transitions are from one mood and/or tone to another. Part of this is due to some excellent writing, but most of it does come from one of the best displays of voice-acting you'll ever hear. Or to put it simplest: I listened to a lot of dialogue across the course of my 130-hour odyssey and never grew tired of listening to Kassandra speak - in fact, I wish there had been more incidental dialogue so I could hear even more.
I mentioned Mass Effect and Commander Shepard briefly, and Ubisoft seem to have perfectly slotted into the space left by BioWare deciding that a multiplayer looter shooter was the way forward. This does make it a bit tricky to appraise Kassandra as a character, because you might choose to play her as a ruthless killer, but my character was a caring, but firm warrior who tried to forgive where she could.
Sometimes this would come back to haunt me, but it more often than not resulted in simply feeling immensely satisfying to take the nobler, higher ground and being proved right to believe the best about some of the people you encounter. There are moments where you can joke around, or it feels truly cathartic to fly into a rage and tear the truly despicable monsters you encounter to pieces too, so you're not stuck to just one approach if you want to really immerse yourself in role-playing.
The thing is, with Assassin's Creed Odyssey containing so much enjoyable content, it can also be tricky (and full of spoilers) when discussing the other characters in the game - you might never encounter some of the people I did, and I may not have met some of the people you will. Or you might never encounter them because you prefer to focus on the main story rather than exploring out and seeking other adventures.
I think the best way to put it is that the quality of writing and level of performance does depend on the importance of the character to the plot. Most of those critical to the central story-line are well fleshed out and benefit from great performances, but there are some characters such as Kyra who has her own story that plays out and is one of the best personalities and performances in the game despite having nothing to do with Kassandra's aims other than helping her along the way.
The characters and their involvement in Kassandra's odyssey felt well-paced, with some being given distinct sections of the game to become involved in the story. It helps to divide the game nicely into 'chapters' that could almost be games on their own, or episodes in an on-going adventure - perfect for those like me who love seeing as much as they can in the games they play.
This continuous change in secondary and tertiary characters also help to keep things fresh. I love the characters BioWare created in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, but you tend to keep the same crew from the moment they join you until the game is over - I don't think that would really work over the course of such a lengthy game like this.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey does have some supporting characters who do spend a lot more time with Kassandra than others, but it's easy to leave them behind for lengthy stretches and explore completely solo if that's what you'd prefer to do. Even when you do have characters accompany you, they're never a hindrance to the player, nor do they ever detract from the fun you have.
The enemies you face don't fare quite as well, but I would still argue that none of them are poor - at worst, they are generic antagonists there to be obstacles to the player rather than full characters that stand out in any way. On the other hand, there are some truly despicable characters who you 'll enjoy hunting down and killing - whether that's because of their words, actions or both.
I will also mention here that some enemies only exist because of your choices, while you can also apparently avoid others pitting themselves against you depending on your own decisions. It's just another example of the polish lavished on this game that I could make a completely different decision to the next player and end up with different enemies at certain points while still feeling like an intended course of events.
It does go without saying that the villains in the main stories are the best in the game, primarily because they have to be! Because they are pre-determined opponents, they can be set up and provided with greater depth than those in side stories or random encounters. The only real issue - and a nitpick at that - is that there is no real single 'true' villain to defeat.
This doesn't leave the game lacking in any kind of catharsis, or even a criticism at all really, but just a heads-up that you should get used to taking on organisations rather than powerful individuals. It is something that comes about because of the the central stories are structured - and yes, I do mean central stories plural.
The are three main plots to follow through the course of Odyssey, each of which are excellent in their own right, but they never quite come together as a fully cohesive experience. Unlike The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which near-flawlessly moved from one plot thread to another and back again, Odyssey's stories are almost completely separate from each other and feel that way.
Dealing with your family and its history is one of them, Kassandra's nature as part of a very special bloodline, and her on-going struggle against the Cult of Kosmos - all set against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War. While these stories do crossover in many ways, they are still three distinct storylines that each lead to their own particular endings, rather than coming together for a grand finale.
There's nothing really wrong with this approach - and many may appreciate the opportunity to focus on something else for a while if one of the stories starts to become boring - but many players might find having multiple core narratives a drain on their attention. I will concede that if you were racing through the stories, you might well burn out very quickly.
Then again, this is why it's such a good thing that the side stories can be as amazing as they often prove. I'm not talking about the randomly-generated tasks and missions you can pick up inmost settlements, but rather the mini-stories that usually take place in a single area and form their own little arc while contributing to one of the central plots.
Much like The Witcher 3, a lot of the best writing can be found in these shorter, more self-contained adventures simply because they do tend to be more focussed on a specific goal and usually against well-written opponents that are tailored for that particular story-line. You can also experience more than one of the best romances in the game during these mini arcs, which is the icing on the cake.
I don't think you could make an on-going story out of these arcs, using each smaller adventure as the next 'chapter' to be told, but they do make for a nice break from the norm and almost act as a refresher for the game. Just as you might be getting bored being in a certain area with the same characters appearing, you'll be sent off to see someone and spend a couple of hours with them instead - simple, but effective.
As for the locations you'll visit, it's amazing how much variety there is in the 'Greek world' and how many different kinds of landscapes you'll experience - some of the scenery you'll witness is just jaw-droppingly beautiful to behold. Some might complain about the size of the map (I have no idea why), but when it allows for visual variety like this, I'm not going to complain.
There are settlements destroyed by volcanoes and covered in ash; valleys that can be rocky, filled with trees or simply covered in grass and flowers; barren battlefields littered with bodies and armour; and lush woods, forests and farmlands that add a huge variety of colour to the experience. There's really only snowy conditions missing, appropriately located only at the tops of mountains.
Again, it very much reminds me of The Witcher 3, and how naturally each kind of environment flows into the next. Greece actually feels like the real place it is and we're just playing out a game in this real location; one of my issues with Breath of the Wild was its failure to match this and Odyssey avoids making the same 'mistake'.
It's not just the natural scenery that looks great, but everything else. I wouldn't say that this is the best-looking game I've ever seen, but it's pretty close and especially admirable for just how much there is here that had to be worked on for an unfathomable amount of time to look this good. Odyssey looks amazing in still images, but really comes alive when in motion.
And that motion is fantastic. I've only played Kassandra, but she is astonishingly well-realised when it comes to movement and the quality of animation. She actually feels like she is a solid presence in the world, and you can feel the physical exertion that some moves require from her - unlike the Uncharted series where everyone bounces around like they weigh barely anything.
If you stick to the same weapons and the same way of playing through the game, it does slowly become noticeable how many set animations there are in combat - but that's your choice. If you choose to play like I did, sticking to bladed weapons like daggers and swords, then I'd bloody expect there to be some repetition across well over a hundred hours of gameplay!
Even then, each type of weapon has its own animations for 'regular' combat, special finishing moves, and also assassinations. The time it must've taken to motion capture the many animations for one type of weapon is astounding, and that's the case for half a dozen weapon types here. Or, like I did after collecting the Wonder Woman-styled Amazon armour, you can put the weapons away and pummel enemies with your fists.
What weapons (or fists) you choose to fight with will probably depend greatly on your style of play, with three skill trees - Hunter, Warrior, and Assassin - giving you multiple ways to engage your opponents. Another example of how well-designed everything is in Odyssey is that you can mix and match between skills and still feel powerful - you don't have to focus on just one.
Don't get me wrong, you probably will end up picking one style to pursue to the end because there are some pretty great abilities locked away at the tops of those trees. The thing is, none of them ever felt truly essential to take; some were definitely more useful than others, but there's nothing that really acts a crutch that players should always take to enjoy themselves.
Regardless of the skills and improvements you can unlock, each style of play still works on a fundamental basis and can be used comfortable in combat. I didn't pay much attention to the Hunter tree, which centres around archery, but still used my bow a hell of a lot throughout the course of the game, either causing distractions or sniping enemies from a distance.
I can't even begin to imagine the headaches that must've been caused trying to make all these things balance out - and it only becomes more impressive when you tie the combat into the movement system, which is probably the best the Assassin's Creed series has had so far. It isn't just the animation that makes it feel so good, but the fact that it's freeing while still having restrictions.
Going back to Breath of the Wild, I never liked that Link could suddenly scale (almost) any surface as if he was Spider-Man - and without any explanation either. It felt very much like a gameplay mechanic that had no logical way of being introduced, so they didn't bother trying. At least the Assassin's Creed series has had climbing as a core part of the series from the get-go.
Then there's the Uncharted series again, where climbing is usually dependent on specifically-coloured surfaces to let you know where to go. In Odyssey, if something looks like it can be climbed then it probably is something you can make your way up or over. It's honestly fun to have a game that lets you loose to climb what you want - as long as you don't get stupid about it.
As for descending surfaces, which can come in very useful if needing a quick exit, I am so grateful that Kassandra has a stronger connection to the particularly enhanced bloodline she comes from and the fact that fall damage quickly becomes a minor annoyance, before disappearing entirely - launching yourself from the ramparts of a fortress, or leaping from the top of a cliff is up there with web-swinging in Spider-Man as one of the most exhilarating methods of movement in gaming.
There are contrasts to this when it comes to other forms of transportation: horses struggle with steep climbs and often refuse large drops - which you'd expect from an animal that very much wants to stay alive! But I do like that, once on a suitable path, you can let your horse carry you to a way-point - or as close as it can get - giving you a chance to relax a little.
Travelling by boat is probably the most tedious, although it does depend on how many naval battles you decide to involve yourself in along the way. There's obviously less variety to the scenery to enjoy - although there are moments with some incredible lighting effects that make some journeys beautiful - so it's usually best to travel long distances through fast travel points rather than sailing there.
It's a bit of a shame that's the case, as a lot of the map is open water; incredible lighting and some ferocious storms aren't really enough to make up for it. Naval combat is fun though, if a little simplistic compared to previous titles in the series - although it can be easy to sucked into lengthy battles that prove a drag. Sea battles become boring pretty quickly as the simple mechanics means there's very little from one battle to the next.
Then again, it does only make up a very small portion of the game and I can't see how you'd change things without diverging even further from reality. You can generally avoid them if needed, or run away and come back later after you've done some other activities to break up that monotony - and Odyssey has a lot of activities to keep the player busy.
You have the three core plots that are full-game length in their own rights each; the mini arcs that take place inside them; side quests and missions that can take any number of different forms; the above naval battles; mercenaries to take on, climbing the ladder until you're number one; an arena to fight in and much, much more - all before taking into account various forts and camps scattered across the map, in addition to the various viewpoints that act as fast travel beacons.
I've seen a lot of people complain about just how much stuff there is to do in Odyssey and it does seem to be a common complaint about games packed with things to do but I can't understand it. The massive, massive majority of these activities are entirely optional and can easily be skipped, with little reason to do them other than because you're a completionist - which is hardly the game's fault!
What I like most about these activities - and I'm sure this is intentional on Ubisoft's part - is how they maintained my interest in the game and kept me playing it thanks to each type of activity taking varying lengths of time. Again, it's that choice that Odyssey gives the player that I appreciate so much - there's always something you can do regardless of how much time you to spare.
Only got 5-10 minutes? Clear out a camp, climb a viewpoint or take on a mercenary. Have hours to spare? Dig into the main quest or some of the longer side stories and enjoy the story. And you can mix and match what you want to do if you have varying times in-between those two extremes. So few games offer that choice to the player and it's very much appreciated here.
There are too many games that have either set amounts of time per activity, or give the player no indication how long a section might last. In both these cases, you need to set aside time to make sure you don't leave something unfinished or incomplete - in Odyssey, if I had twenty minutes to spare, I could load the game and check the map, picking something to do that fitted into my schedule, rather than the game imposing on me.
And from the fact that I've passed the 130 hour mark shows just how well it worked. No other game could really compete in the time it took me to finish Odyssey's base game experience as a result, which - again - shows how damn well this game was designed players interested. And that wasn't just the content released with the game either.
Ubisoft have been incredible in adding new stuff to the base game since it launched, including multiple fully-fledged quests with new voice acting and characters completely free of charge - and the last one still isn't out yet! It's over six months since the game was first released and they still haven't finished adding free stuff for players - how many developers do that? And with this level of polish?
I'm ignoring the huge amount of customisation added to the store, but there have been other outfits and weapons added, bug fixes and a New Game+ mode, in addition to the the many extra quests. I'm half-tempted to start an NG+ game so that I can effectively play as Wonder Woman from the start, but I really need to finish what came with the Season Pass first and have a huge backlog of other games to work through too.
Yeah, that's just a reminder that everything I've brought up so far is just the basic stuff - I got the edition that included not just even more major quests with their own, separate story-lines to progress through but also the remastered versions of Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed: Liberation. Honestly, if I was to play through everything included with what I paid for, I probably wouldn't need to touch another game for the rest of 2019.
All of this does make it hard to judge how the Assassin's Creed Odyssey experience ends though. The three central stories never come together and, while certainly not even close to being poor, do feel a little anticlimactic compared to the epic journey you undertake to get to the various ends of each plot. However, it's another point in the franchise's favour that it makes perfect sense to keep playing after the stories are over.
Part of the post-game support Ubisoft have given the game has included new tiers of mercenary ranks to ascend; new pirate ships to battle; even more viewpoints to find and climb; plus all the procedurally-generated bounties and quests to keep you busy even if you've completed everything else. It's not an MMO, but it's certainly a world that you can keep coming back to and finding even more stuff to do.
One final word for the sound design and music, which haven't come up so far in the over-4,000 words in this post. There's obviously not enough music to fill a game lasting well over 100 hours, but it's enjoyable enough to listen too, while never feeling intrusive or repetitive no matter how long you play. And it does help to add to the atmosphere, giving the game its own identity while still feeling like it belongs as part of the on-going series.
The sound design is equally good, adding to the world and giving everything the weight it deserves to match the action. The noise of combat adds to the exhilaration, while the crashing waves against the hull of your ship prove equally effective at calming and relaxing the player. I've used the word 'polish' a lot, but the game deserves it - every part of the sound is just as perfectly-tuned as you could possibly want it to be.
This is a huge game that may prove intimidating for some players, and even aggravating in its epic scope for those who like to 100% complete their games. Neither of those are the game's fault, as the single best thing about Assassin's Creed Odyssey is just how much choice it gives the player in how to play. I certainly got way more value for money than I could have ever anticipated.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey was not just my favourite game released in 2018, but is also one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I've had since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It's not perfect, but gives the player so much content and so much choice in how to play it, that it's flaws are minor quibbles at worst. It'll be interesting to see how the next entry can possibly top this.
Why a 10/10? If the lengthy post wasn't enough, I'll try and boil it down here. First off is the first opportunity to play through a main series Assassin's Creed title from start to finish with a female protagonist who is brought to life wonderfully by everyone involved in her creation, but especially Melissanthi Mahut.
Outside of Kassandra, it really is the variety and polish that sealed the deal for me - there are so many different things to do and they are implemented so well that it's ridiculous. I don't think that there's any part of Odyssey that is the single best 'thing' in its field in gaming - but neither do I think there's any other game out there that offers so much and such variety to this level of quality either.
The last key ingredient for me is how much choice the game gives the player - and I'm not just talking about how you can define Kassandra or Alexios for yourself; and neither do I mean the effect your decisions can have on the how the story unfolds. It's the choice in how you play the game that's the single most impressive thing about this title.
It isn't just about how you can switch from one style of playing to another thanks to very well-balanced skill trees of the fluid-as-hell combat and movement systems - it's the fact that you can define what style of game this is for yourself in addition to simple difficulty levels. That level of choice starts before you even begin the game.
If you don't like heads-up displays and dislike 'hand-holding' in games, you can turn it all off and figure out where to go from loose descriptions and having to discover the world for yourself much like with Breath of the Wild. If that's a little too intimidating for you, there are any number of assists you can turn on to help you out and ensure you enjoy the experience more than if those options were unavailable to you.
Which brings me to my main reason for liking Assassin's Creed Odyssey so much: it respects the audience and allows players to decide how they want to experience it. So few games do this - even from other major publishers - and it's just refreshing to have a title that fits you and your life rather than forcing you to make time for it. More of this please, Ubisoft.