Assassin's Creed: Odyssey - An Early Review

I was quite shocked to see that as of this evening I have spent exactly 17 hours playing Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. It doesn't feel nearly as long, but this is probably an indication of how well the game has sucked me in. After 17 hours I have not gone very far in the story, so there will be no spoilers in this review.

If 'review' is what it can be called - most of my writing recently has been a write-up of an industry consultation with the intention of creating course ILOs (snooze) which doesn't lend itself especially well to trying to be emotive about video games, but I'll give it a go. Read on for my rambling thoughts on the first 17 hours of Assassin's Creed: Odyssey!

The Basics

I intend to do a good and a bad, but rather than an ugly let's open with just a 'things that are'. Because frankly there are a few things about Assassin's Creed: Odyssey that are not necessarily bad or good, but just need to be mentioned.

First of all, this is a big world. A very big world. After my 17 hours, my achievements tell me that I have discovered only 11% of the regions available, and honestly it really does feel like I'm only scraping the surface. Initially I considered this a good thing, but after more thought I am not so sure. Ubisoft has a knack for building huge worlds with not very much in them, which is a bit concerning considering the scope of this game. I'll get into more detail about what the world is populated with later, but for anyone who just wants to have a trek across a huge map will not be disappointed. And given how absolutely gorgeous the world is, that's not a bad idea!

There are two quest marker modes: exploration and guided. Exploration mode means that some quests don't have a marker, just a set of rough guidelines for where the quest can be found and a grand statement at the start of the game about this mode being 'new' and 'the way it's meant to be played'. Guided gives every quest its own marker which I switched to eventually because when you have over 20 quests tracked (more on that later) it becomes frustrating to miss one because it wasn't on the map. It wasn't necessarily difficult to find quests in exploration mode, but the extra bit of inconvenience wasn't worth it for the reward. Exploration mode has its merits, but I don't think the mechanic is quite there yet, and when there's an underlying need to just get things done (again, more thorough explanation later) it doesn't have a huge pull.

There is a new system for mercenaries, replacing Phylakes from Origins, which some have likened to the Nemesis system from Shadow of War-dor. From what I can see, it's really not. You can collect intel on mercenaries, who have strengths and weaknesses, but that's about the end of the similarities, except that you get to see nice models of them on a menu screen too. So while I understand the comparison, the similarities are very surface level, more in presentation than mechanically: the biggest feature of the Nemesis system is that the characters have a level of interaction with the player, which is just not present in Odyssey. You are ranked alongside the other mercenaries, and boost yourself in the rankings by taking them out - I'm not sure yet what the rankings actually mean or do for you, but I guess I'll find out. This is just another one of those things in the game that's there. It's good to keep you on your toes and introduces a bit of consequence for sprees. Plus, the list is constantly repopulated, so there is a never-ending supply of folk hunting you if you've annoyed enough people!

I've not been spending too much time with the new district dominance mechanic, which dictates that each region in the game is owned by either Sparta or Athens. Performing tasks for an invading force can weaken the defender's position, opening them up for a battle to potentially change the region's owner. I was concerned that picking a side when I first arrived in a contested area would equate to planting my flag, but I have since done quests for each side and changed one region's dominance twice with no visible repercussions... yet. It's hard to tell if that will play a role later on, but I've not had any indications mechanically or narratively that playing both sides is going to have any effect on how the game plays out.

The Bad

Alright, let's get the bad out of the way first. The first bad thing is the side quests. Now there are a number of proper side quests with real characters and short stories which are pretty good, but as previously mentioned the world is huge, and there just wouldn't be enough to fill it out. So there are bounty boards and randomly occurring NPCs and dotted around which repopulate over time. And there are just so many and they don't mean anything! Picking up a quest from a board usually goes as follows: go and meet a person. Conversation with person ensues with superficial dialogue options. Quest is given: either exterminate a person or persons, or deliver a package. Repeat infinitely, because the quests keep on respawning.

After a point you just have to start ignoring them. The completionist within me hates doing this, and I am quite frustrated at Ubisoft's apparent laziness in this area. I would be far happier with a smaller number of properly created side quests than these randomly generated fetch-and-carry or kill-X-people ones. This was a strength of The Witcher 3: some of the quests in that were clearly filler, but pretty much every single one had a proper story behind it which gave it a bit of character. Once again, Ubisoft has managed to lose that character in the mix of the faceless multitudes harping at you about bandits.

Another frustration about side quests is that some of them are timed. I wouldn't mind a multitude of tick-box quests if I could complete them in my own time: if I need to kill 10 bandits in Megaris, sure, I'll get around to it. Arbitrary time limits are a stress I could do without! And sure, 24 hours is a long time to get any of them done with no bother, but I have no guarantee that I'll be able to play tomorrow, so always feel that I have to finish any timed quests I have in a sitting. Perhaps it's petty gripe, but the whole addition seems completely unnecessary.

The gear system is a big improvement from Origins, but has a major flaw. Like the quests, there's just so much. Gear drops from pretty much anyone above the basic scrub level, making either whatever you're wearing obsolete after a few minutes or just clogging up inventory space. Gear has an armour or damage rating (depending on whether it's an item of clothing or a weapon respectively) and a set of perks. Initially I spent far too long looking at these perks, trying to decide what stats I wanted to boost, but soon discovered that they have very little effect, especially early on. I have found that even now it's much better to just pick the best armour rating, and I'll worry about my perks when enemies actually start getting difficult!

Another minor frustration was the odd distribution of enemy health pools. Some enemies of my level will take three or four solid quick attacks to deal with, whereas some of the mercenaries will take the same amount of damage and their health bar will barely move. This isn't a level scaling issue I don't think: they are my level, they don't deal an inordinate amount of damage, my weapons are up to scratch but they still have very little effect. There have been a handful of fights I've gotten into where at the end of it all there's just me and a mercenary who I just chip away at for ages, and it just gets boring. I understand that some enemies are going to be tanks but the levels we are talking about are bizarre, and I don't understand the reasoning behind it.

The Good

With the bad dealt with, there are a lot of great things about Odyssey. My absolute favourite is very simple: Kassandra. Kassandra is well written and wonderfully voiced, bringing loads of character to the game. She's bold and charismatic and everything you'd expect from a mercenary in Ancient Greece, with a unique attitude and an intriguing relationship with her past. The more time I spend with Kassandra, the more curious I am about what she's really thinking about what has happened to her and where she is going. I'm excited to see where the story takes her!

I mentioned this in my EGX blog post, but the powers are pretty great. The reworked adrenaline system lets you really pile them on, and I have been having a great time with them. They are a little step up from Origins, since with a string of them you can very quickly deal with a small camp of enemies which would have been easy for Bayek but taken a little while. Using them in battles is also ridiculously satisfying and once you figure out what works on who you'll find yourself tearing through scrubs on the field very quickly.

In general the combat feels very smooth, and rewards you for good timing and awareness of your opponents. Parrying becomes essential in tough or busy fights, and timing a dodge right can give you a good few free hits or enough time to power up a heavy strike. The best thing about it is that it feels like there are always options: light attacks, heavy attacks, powers or parrying - or even just running away - all have a place in combat. Once you figure out what that place is, pulling it off feels really satisfying and rewarding... even running away!

Navigation and movement have been nicely upgraded since Origins. The horse feels slightly faster and can get up much steeper ledges with ease, which is absolutely essential for Greece's hilly landscape. The player character has also been tweaked a bit, and is just that little bit more agile and quick. Almost every surface is very easily climbable, and scaling a big naked statue of Zeus takes no time at all. To top it off, fall damage has been reduced almost to zero, which makes getting around that much quicker and less tedious.

Then of course there's your ship. Again, a lot like Origins, just a bit better. Ship combat is quicker and feels satisfyingly weighty, boarding is now an option (and far more streamlined than in Black Flag) and of course there is the free open world element. Cruising about the mediterranean is just lovely, as one might expect, and when you can't find any pirates to hunt you can just let the winds take you as you kick back and listen to another glorious collection of shanties. While the addition isn't one I'd say was essential, it's certainly nice to have and has been well implemented.

I don't have a huge amount to say about the plot, but I like the way that the backstory has unfolded. In just a brief frolic on the starting island, a quick jaunt across the sea and a few mainland capers, which hasn't left a lot of time for the main story to bed in, but still through well placed flashbacks the story of Kassandra's past (and indeed further back) is taking shape nicely. Also, I just hit a pretty major story point which introduces who may be the primary antagonists, and am enjoying the direction the story appears to be going.

In Conclusion...

Assassin's Creed Odyssey is a really great game. It's very big, possibly slightly too big for its own good, but in its vastness there is promise. Moving around the world is exciting and engaging, luring the player in with gorgeous landscapes and spectacular views. The story so far has hooked me: it doesn't feel groundbreaking, but has me wanting to delve deeper. But shining brighter than the story and even the land of Greece in all its glory is Kassandra. I'm struggling to articulate why she is so compelling as a character: she feels real, with real depth and real motives. I feel that, as it stands, she is the strongest protagonist in an Assassin's Creed game to date. But we'll see what happens.

So there you have it: yet more rambling thoughts on something I know little about! The most prevalent feeling I have about the game is that I feel that I am only just starting my Odyssey. I am excited to see where it goes, and quietly hoping that the game holds itself together as I press on through. And with that, I'm off to stab some more ancient Greeks, pillage some warchests and kick a bear off a cliff. Chaire!