Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is huge. Each new boundary is broken down the moment you reach it, the game world spilling out and expanding further and further than you can possibly imagine. It is big in the same way the Great Pyramids or Empire State Building are big, the result of untold amounts of labor and artistry distilled into something remarkable yet intimidating. It’s not a sandbox. It is a world, with all of the beauty, anxiety, and inconsistency that entails.
This post originally appeared 10/1/18. We’ve bumped it today for the game’s release.
Odyssey takes the franchise further back in history than ever before, following a mercenary in the Peloponnesian War, circa 430-400 BC. For the first time in the franchise, players can choose which protagonist they play as for the whole game: a man name Alexios or a woman named Kassandra. They hold the spear of the fallen Spartan king Leonidas and travel with their pet eagle, Ikaros, which earns them the nickname “Eagle Bearer.” After being forced to flee Sparta at a young age, they’ve made a new life as a small time misthios, a mixture of professional mercenary and low-level adventurer.
As a result, Odyssey’s storytelling often feels fractured and lacking in confidence. Whereas early titles like Assassin’s Creed II wove its plot threads into one bold narrative, Odyssey allows the player to engage with them at their preference. While there’s an appeal to allowing that sort of player choice, it’s a instance where accommodating for the player ultimately weakens the game’s overall storytelling impact. It’s as if Odyssey is embarrassed to be an Assassin’s Creed game, leaving the more avant-garde or commentary-laden narrative frames on the periphery lest players have to engage with anything too challenging or outside of standard big-budget video game fare.
Odyssey might struggle in creating a broader narrative, but it soars in smaller moments. I’ve stood in front of crowds and debated rhetoric with Sokrates, who is as likable as he is annoyingly persistent with his questions. I’ve stood paralyzed with indecision in the aftermath of a battle, unsure if I could bring myself to assassinate my target upon learning their true identity. I’ve helped playwrights use their art to turn the populous against corrupt rulers. In these moments, Odyssey manages to deliver an engrossing portrait of a time and place where idealistic notions of governance and jurisprudence clashed with the stark realities of human ambition. These moments help drive the player forward in spite of a central character conflict that never really lands.
Befitting its namesake, Odyssey’s best moments are off the beaten path. Odyssey’s side-quests, while never reaching the same sophistication as The Witcher 3’s, help counterbalance the main narrative’s inconsistent presentation by giving the player a chance to engage with the complexities of the setting and Grecian society. These are the moments where Odyssey can and does manage to explore topics such as sexuality, gender and justice. A quest with a sexually frustrated older woman can end with your character offering her some succor that helps reinvigorate her love-life. A quest to intercede on behalf of a woman on trial for sneaking into the Olympics places you on one side or another of Greek society’s attitudes toward women. Not every quest is so memorable. There are plenty of one-off cases where you’ll deliver bear pelts or fight off bandits. Most at least feature likable allies and even a few surprising twists that makes it worth talking to every new person you meet along your journey.
This open world romp comes paired with decisions that are disappointing, marking an erosion of identity and vision that’s grinds Assassin’s Creed into something unrecognizable from the first half-dozen games in the franchise. Some people might appreciate that, but I think those games were more daring than we often acknowledge. This was a series that used a meta-commentary frame to comment on its own design. It painted surprisingly human portraits of both heroes and villains. It was a series where George Washington was shown to be as villainous and flawed as any Templar, where Ezio Auditore grew from hotheaded lothario to wizened master assassin thanks to careful character writing. When the time came for tie-in DLC for Black Flag, Ubisoft opted to tell a story of Haitian liberation and use its mechanics to explore the blackness of its protagonist. When they imagined what Templars and their allies would look like in the 21st century, they gave us a bunch of latte sipping project managers and Supreme Court judges. Odyssey’s eagerness to please everyone has created a world worth exploring but it comes at the cost of a clear vision. I can’t entirely tell what Assassin’s Creed is anymore, other than a name on the package meant to help sell a product.
And then there’s the final quarter of the game, an immensely impressive and largely optional chunk of content that is drenched inAssassin’s Creed tropes. The game’s most Assassin’s Creed qualities, it turns out, are tucked into an ending many players won’t experience. Odyssey’s narrative structure perplexingly leaves its most shocking and thematically interesting plot threads as skippable side content. Halfway through the game, the player is able to hunt for First Civilization artifacts for the purpose of sealing away a great power from conspirators who would misuse it. Collecting the required plot items involves coming face to face with the source of numerous Greek myths such as the Medusa who has been shown off in pre-release demos.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s defining characteristic is how often it seems to be anything other than an Assassin’s Creed game. It admirably copies The Witcher 3’s form, crafting a near-fantasy setting that feels worthy of the legendary creatures and storied heroes it contains. By itself, that world—which could have been its own new Grecian fantasy franchise—is a lot of fun to explore. But Odyssey shines best only once it embraces the strangeness that helped make the franchise so noteworthy to begin with. You can play Odyssey however you want; as an exploration game, as a new open-world RPG, as a historical narrative. But it works best once it finally, after many hours, gives you the chance to treat it like an Assassin’s Creed game.