“With great power there must also come — great responsibility.”
Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962)
Assassin's Creed: Odyssey
Red vs Blue vs... who?
After a glorious foray into ancient Egypt with Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft played it somewhat safe and by breaking their “we’ll stop releasing an AC annualy” pledge, they used as many assets as possible (including most of the voice actors, sans the main characters, of course) from the previous installment to breathe life into a time and place in human history that is still both studied and celebrated today. So Ubisoft got greedy! And, I believe, we should all be collectively thankful for it.
Much like every previous installment, the first “protagonist” we are introduced to before every AC title is the era in which it takes place. This is no different here. The year is 431 BCE. Athens, having taken the helm in laying some serious leather and steel on Persia (even as far as its own territory), begun gathering the rest of Greece under her bosom (see: controlled and dominated the Greek city-states), in hopes of controlling the entire “nation”. Amidst the states of course, there was one that didn’t feel like bendin’ that knee. And if you are unfamiliar with that part of history, I am pretty sure you’ve already guessed which state that was.
And thus, one of the most famous wars, in both significance and symbolism, broke out: The Peloponnesian War. Red vs Blue. “Brawn” vs “Brain”, the “old” way vs the “new” way. The oligarchs who (rightly?) refused to join the rising new superpower. Don’t look for wrong vs right (or right vs left…please…), the Peloponnesian War is an intriguing, deep and multilayered event in Ancient Greek history that took maaany years to boil and almost another thirty to resolve! And so, this is precisely where you, as the player, are dropped in. But who are “you”?
Who am I, again?
Within seconds of starting the game you take control of the mighty Spartan King Leonidas as he and the rest of his men tangled with Xerxes’ Immortals on the beach at Thermopylae, which acts as both a (very short) narrative introduction and tutorial. Don’t worry, there’s no spoiler here, this is pretty much in the synopsis of the game wherever you look. Why is Leonidas significant? Well, once you finish the tutorial you are prompted to select between two Spartan siblings: Alexios and Kassandra.
Choosing one sibling over the other sets up a large portion of the game, as you begin your Odyssey looking for…. Something (don’t look through my words trying to see what that is, it is futile)! As one of the Spartan protagonists, you are armed with both the shattered top-half of Leonidas’ spear, which pretty much acts like the “wrist-blade” for this title, AND his very own blood in your veins seeing how you are his grandchild. Again, this is all simple, well-known setup as already presented by Ubisoft.
By some unfortunate circumstances which I won’t mention here, the character you choose, ends up at a young age on the island of Kephalonia in the Ionian sea where he or she, becomes a mercenary as an adult! And boom, off you go!
Fighting the good fight
If you are an unfamiliar with the previous title, Origins, you will be taken aback by the volume of changes that Ubisoft has presented to the AC combat system. In other words, it is completely different. The combat system is now fluid and open without single-button kill counters. On the contrary, positioning is now extremely important as you find yourself dodging and parrying as much as possible while keeping an eye out for the different types of attacks that the enemies will throw at you. If you think this sounds somewhat familiar to Dark Souls and other such titles then you are bang on the money. Although AC is not as brutal as THOSE games with the damage you receive (well, play on hard if that’s your kink!), the idea here is very similar. The combat no longer takes seconds and requires some strategic thinking on your behalf, using everything in your arsenal to deal with each situation and enemy differently.
The gear system from Origins returns, where you can either sell or dismantle items in your inventory for money or materials in order to create better gear, craft arrows and upgrade your ship??? Yeap, that’s right. So let’s take another step back…
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey took the idea behind Origins and blew it up considerably! Ubisoft’s monster title is now more of an RPG than ever with dialogue options and an in-depth gear system which includes DPS on weapons, armour count on armour pieces, engravings that act as “runes” on your items and an actual skill tree (Hunter, Warrior, Assassin)! The latter addition literally doubles the fun in combat when compared to Origins, as you can have more than eight abilities mapped on your controller at any given point to aid you in battle (in addition to the classic assassinations, light/heavy attack, dodge and parry).
Playing the game
I did mention the ship, so let’s drop some “low-down” statements here. AC Odyssey implements literally everything that Origins had brought to the table with brand new combat tricks AND the entire feel of Black Flag! Essentially you set of on your very own odyssey (it’s there, in the title folks) with your ship and crew. The seas are filled with red and blue sails as the Peloponnesian War is in its infancy at the early stages of the game, with states on land also belonging to one of the two factions.
This took me a tiny portion of time to comprehend so here’s a small tip: As the protagonist, you may be Spartan, but you are NOT siding with Sparta by default. In fact, being a misthios, means you side with whomever you see fit at any given point as you go to “town” on each state, weakening the local leader by clearing forts (after you scout them with your eagle, Ikaros, yeap this also returns from Origins), burning war supplies and then assassinating him! Is that it? Nope! After you do that, the conquest battle for the region is unlocked and you can join either faction in that specific melee, with the hardest of the two choices offering 2 Epic gear instead of 1 (you choose between attacking and defending faction, each varying depending on which state you are currently.) And this is just one of many side quests on offer as you continue your journey with either Alexios or Kassandra.
Speaking of the two siblings, whereas Bayek in Origins was a predetermined, sorrow-ridden ancient warrior on the path of vengeance, the Spartan siblings are (almost!) blank canvases on which you decide what to draw. Granted, the palette you are given is not as rich or varied as one found in a full-blown RPG, but nevertheless you are given choices with a small assortment of results and paths all the way to the multiple endings on offer.
War on land is a crunching, steel-on-steel affair, but war at sea is an entirely different beast. The naval combat from AC III, Black Flag, Rogue and Origins returns, with arrows, javelins and boarding still being part of the fun. Ram, jibe and volley your way to a glorious boarding of your Spartan/Athenian/Pirate enemy with victory offering slight ship repairs and plenty of loot!
*Takes a deep breath* We are hardly there, so hang on! I need to emulate just how vast and beautifully overwhelming Odyssey is…
Did I mention that you can practically recruit any enemy (with the exception of some elites and main characters?) and use them as lieutenants on your ship, with varying bonuses? Nope? Well, I just did! It has to be said that it tends to become rather hilarious at times, with you Sparta-kicking (actual ability in-game! You may yell the famous quote each time, if you please, about “this” being “Sparta”) someone on hard, cold marble, only to offer your hand and a job the very next second! They can’t really say no…
With the appropriate ability unlocked you can also tame one of MANY land animals on offer and have them as your trusted companion, from an assortment of boars, wolves, bears, jaguars, lions etc. Many of the hundreds of legendary mercenaries that roam the map looking for epic fights with other renowned individuals (such as yourself) also have their furry companions with them! What? Mercenaries? Yes, the phylakes from Origins are back but this time, ooooh this time, it gets real. The more you steal, kill and affect any state you are in you gather notoriety (similar to GTA’s star system and many others), gathering the attention of nearby bad-asses whose only purpose is to track you down and pick a flippin’ fight! The menu for these mercenaries will probably prompt memories of the Shadow (Mordor and War) titles in your mind. Some skill tree abilities are also direct “inspirations” from Talion’s adventure, you’ll see, it’s there. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not, due to their accurate implementation. Meanwhile, dodging at the right instant grants you a moment of respite as time slows down, very similarly to Breath of the Wild (and many other games).
Odyssey borrows just the right brush-strokes from other titles, something already evident from Origins: As a dev, you need to keep your eyes open. What is your successful opposition doing with their project? Is it worth looking into? Even the mighty CD Projekt Red is “guilty” of this, when it comes to the eagerly awaited, Cyberpunk 2077, as the gameplay trailer confesses! Nothin’ wrong with that folks! Research, adapt and improve.
Before I stride onto the presentation and world of Odyssey, it needs to be said that amidst the War itself, a third faction lurks just beneath the surface. You can easily search the web to uncover the name and function of this faction, but you won’t get it out of me simply because “their” part in the narrative of this game makes up a significant bulk of the story! This is where the “Assassin’s Creed” part of the game takes place. You know, the classic “Templar vs Assassin plot” and what have you. Or at least the origins of that… which begs the question of why did they name… never mind…
Working your way in bringing down this faction presents a sublime challenge that requires investigation on your behalf, as you slash your way through multiple “snakes” attached to one “head”. You see what they did there, right? Yeap. Great blend of myth and realism. Something which you’ll come across aplenty in Odyssey in different shapes and forms.
The center of the universe, circa 431 BCE
Was Origins beautiful? Absolutely! Sprawling deserts peppered with patches of verdant oases and ancient mystifying structures. What of Odyssey? Well, Ubisoft has come up trumps once again. The art, architecture, vibe and feel of Ancient Greece explode on your screen. For decades we believed that most of the Hellenic states were just…white! Sheer folly! Gigantic bronze sculptures with teal, red and orange gleam in the sun, surrounded by red rooftops in an explosion of colour! Sure, there’s plenty of white marble, but this pretty much lays the myth to rest as the well-researched team at Ubisoft brings Ancient Greece to colourful and vibrant life. This goes, too, for the characters you meet.
Although some of the meetings you will have with pivotal historic figures might seem somewhat forced at first (In the vain of “Oh, hi misthios, it was about time we met. I am ‘X’, the so-and-so of this so-and-so”), once the introduction is out of the way you are presented with a wonderful representation of what these people stood for and who they were as evident in historic texts. And we are talking about a Who’s Who of the era! If you can think of him or her as you read these words, YEP they’re there! Who? Yeap, keep thinking. Yes and yes, aaaand yes. They are all there, and they are all wonderfully realised. From sophists, to leaders, playwrights, generals, politicians and warriors. They, are, all, there.
The nature of Ancient Greece literally steals the show, as you gallop on plains, through forests exploding with colour, towering mountains, famous sites (already mentioned Thermopylae) and cities sprawling with life and civilization. Then, there’s the sea. By the gods, this is the sea we deserved since Black Flag. Remember the very limited diving bell missions? Or the fact that you could not dive ANYWHERE you wanted? Gone and gone. The archipelago of the Ionian Sea, the Mediterranean, Aegean, Cyclades, ALL OF IT, completely open for diving and exploring at extreme depths! But is it worth? Oh yes it is! A huge number of shipwrecks and sunken temples wait at the bottom of the sea for you to plunder and explore, as you are surrounded by schools of fish and the flora of the earth’s mother. Dolphins, WHALES, manta rays, you name it. Oh…. And great white sharks. They are there and they are awesome! You will find them circling your ship during fights, waiting for a quick meal, stalking you through kelp as you loot chests in underwater Minoan ruins, shipwrecks and temples. They drop leather though and valuable teeth, which is good! So have at them. Watch as the enemy’s ship is slowly given to the sea after one of hundreds of naval victories you will enjoy, with the corpses of the hapless sailors slowly floating to the surface as a stark buffet for the finned menaces (Sparta-kick a sailor in the water when they are around, oh the fun!!!) It goes without saying that all of this can happen at day or night, seeing how a full-day cycle is available for you (like Origins, you can meditate to change the time of day).
OK! Ok… I will move on to a verdict. I simply must.
I have to confess. I am slightly biased when it comes to AC: Odyssey. Firstly, I am a native speaker of the Greek language, and part Greek, the impact of which cannot be overstated nor overlooked when playing through it. You feel that tingling sense of familiarity as you tread locations that you’ve enjoyed books about, hell, even visited in real life. All trapped in a vivid, interactive time capsule. You enjoy conversations in Greek as you walk the streets of Athens (our very own Anthony Skordi who also voiced Admiral Garrick Versio in Battlefront II, The Dealer in the Hand of Fate games and Leviathan himself on the Mass Effect 3 DLC but also George Georgiou who handled the role of the sniveling slaver Razdal mo Eraz on the titanic Game of Thrones TV series both gave their voices for the game. Oh yeah, Even famous voice actor Elias Toufexis got involved, how could he not), priestesses hauntingly chanting to the gods above across the land (splendid performances too) as history unfolds before you. I also did one of my A-level GSCE’s on Ancient History! Which, at the time, was focused on…* TA-DA* the Peloponnesian War, as per the writings of the historian, Thucydides (and not Herodotos, bloody embellisher… I wonder if there was a reason he embellished so much…), therefore this game had me at “hello”!
I mentioned the performances up top, and it has to be said that Michael Antonakos (Alexios) falls VERY short of the lively Melissanthi Mahut (Kassandra). Although some of the writing in the game feels occasionally forced as stated above, the story itself is compelling if not slightly predictable at times. You still want to know what happens, however! It is a, proverbial, page-turner of a saga written at a wonderful time in history. And yes, if you are wondering why I forwent any mention of the “future day” segments, it’s because they are a complete afterthought at this point! A tiny morsel of narrative on what is a banquet of a story unfolding during the Peloponnesian War!
The graphics? Come on, it’s 2018, you only report on graphics if they are bad these days right? They are wonderful, nothing else needs to be said. Animation? Can be clunky at some rare times when assassinating fools but it NEVER ruins the experience. The score, by Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, is unique amidst every other AC soundtrack so far in that it was very carefully constructed to avoid being overwhelming. It’s always there, weaving its way above the air during a naval battle or dancing around a vicious melee somewhere in Fokis with the tambourine pulse and mandolin/bouzouki (naturally!) melodies setting the pace. Of course, haunting vocalisations occur frequently to great and subtle effectiveness. If you expect bombastic passages and crescendos with strings and brass, look elsewhere. With the exception of a bassline that acts as the ground of most of these compositions, Henson and Smith wanted to keep this as Greek and as Ancient as possible. It really, really works! You’ll be getting up in the morning and humming the mandolin/bouzouki melody for days. Does it beat the chilling violin melody from Origins? For me, it’s a ‘no’ (listening to it as I write these words, fighting all the hair on my body). Having said that, both Sarah Schachner from Origins and Henson/Smith from Odyssey brought their respective eras to life through their compositions. And we thank them for it.
AC: Odyssey is an experience. A massive, overwhelming experience. There will be times that you might feel the story bloat slightly as you are forced to level your character up in order to ATTEMPT to complete the next part of the story, but by the gods, it never gets boring as you play through it! You’ve probably heard that it takes 40, 50 hours to complete with minimal sidequesting and that is very much true. You will get every bit of bang out of your buck with this title, no matter which edition you decide to purchase. By far, and wide, the greatest digital representation of Ancient Greece in the history of gaming. We still love you Total Wars, but this is different. Very different!
There you have it, a massive, overwritten review of a game that will, enjoyably, take up a significant chunk of your time to complete as the AC series finally takes a full step into its own new era. The synchronisations are there, the free-running is there as are the assassinations. But this is no longer the AC game you remember. This is a new, fresher take on AC. One that is most welcomed by a player who has played them all and grew increasingly tired of their feel in the post Black Flag era (which was the last AC then to try something truly different). Origins was fantastic. Odyssey takes that and doubles it in gameplay and sheer size.
Now, Ubisoft. We’ve seen your Egypt. We’ve seen your Greece. Come on.
We all know that it’s coming and we’ve all been collectively screaming for it. You have 2019 off, but I wholeheartedly expect to see gleaming katanas and cherry blossoms dancing in the wind when you finally unveil Japan as our next AC destination when E3 comes around next year. I know it, you know it. Let’s do it!
Until then, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey will keep MANY a gamer occupied. Chaire, misthios!
(Major kudos to G3 Great Games for the collaboration and the review code they have provided for Assassin's Creed: Odyssey)
All images are property of Ubisoft Entertainment SA