Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is wonderful - but it’s not an Assassin’s Creed game.
I had a conversation in my office a couple of days ago, and it left me wondering something pretty fundamental about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I was talking to one of my colleagues about it, saying how much Lachesis and I had been playing it and how much fun we were still having when another colleague piped up from the back of the office. I’m paraphrasing, but the conversation went something along these lines:
“I’ve been thinking about getting it, but I’m not sure if I’ll like it.”
“Which was the last Assassin’s Creed game you played?”
“It was a while back. Think it was probably Black Flag.”
“Wow, that was a while back. Did you play ‘The Witcher 3’?”
“Yeah. I loved that game, it was so good.”
“Well, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey probably has more in common with The Witcher 3 than it does with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.”
So what did it leave me wondering, I hear you ask? It left me wondering whether Odyssey actually needs to use the name ‘Assassin’s Creed’ at all. It's the best game to wear the “Assassin’s Creed” name that isn’t an “Assassin’s Creed” game.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise started its life as a demo for what would have been the next game in Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia series. When the pitch for it to become a PoP game failed, Assassin’s Creed was born. Comparing the game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time with the first Assassin’s Creed game, it’s easy to see the latter as a logical extension of the former - even the sand swept setting was kept in common. Looking back though, the jump from the one franchise to the next was nowhere near as great as the metamorphosis undertaken by Assassin’s Creed between 2015’s Syndicate and 2017’s Origins. Assassin's Creed as many of us knew it wrapped itself in a chrysalis and emerged several years later bigger, prettier, and bearing little resemblance to its original form save for its historical setting.
We started playing Odyssey all the way back in October. Since then, we’ve wracked up well in excess of a hundred hours wandering around Ancient Greece. We’ve killed an awful lot of people for a variety of different reasons, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it. And we’re still going strong. I wrote at the time that the launch of a new AC game was something that I rarely looked forward to but generally enjoyed and didn’t really expect to have anything more to say on the matter – but the more time we’ve spent with Odyssey, the more I’ve felt compelled to write something about it because of the sheer number of things that it does right; many of which would be beneficial in other games that I play.
Having an “open world” is no longer a big USP for a game. Where once players would be staggered by world sizes and graphics engines, these days having an open world is pretty much a base level expectation. Odyssey has an open world. An enormous and staggeringly beautiful one. The areas of it are level gated rather than placed off limits (old AC games would trap you in areas until you completed a certain amount of the story), and this open-ness permeates every element of the game’s design.
The open world leads in to an open quest system – where most of them can be completed in any order. There’s a dialogue system that doesn’t really indicate which is the ‘correct’ answer – leaving you to react to NPC characters in whichever way you see fit. The perk system is open – there are three trees that impact different elements of combat, but you’re free to pick from whichever ones you want and, critically, entirely re-spec your character on the fly if you feel the need to do so. Even the encounter design is open; forts and bandit camps may include enemies that favour an approach, but all of them can be done in whichever way you choose – whether that’s riding a horse through the gate and beginning a rampage or sneaking around and picking off enemies from distance and cover. You can even ignore these places entirely if you want to. This versatility is really what makes it possible for Lachesis and I to both play it and get something out of it. As a button basher she relies on a limited set of perks and tends to behave like a bull in a china shop, but she can generally accomplish what she needs to and enjoys playing in this way. I engage in combat in a more considered way, swapping out perks and weapons until I have a set that feed my adrenaline bar until I can become a blurred ballet of bloody death – just the way I like it. The only fights we’ve come across so far that couldn’t be completed by button bashing were the ones in the Arena and some of the conquest battles.
The game’s various systems feed into one another perfectly, giving a meaningful and gameplay-impacting incentive to engage with pretty much every piece of content the game has to offer. Early AC games had famously broken economies – Odyssey by contrast has one of the best in-game economies that I’ve ever seen. For example, defeating mercenaries gains you a discount rating with the game’s vendors and also unlocks engravings for weapons. The engravings can be applied to any weapon of sufficient quality and are tailored to specific stat increases – meaning that you can build a versatile loadout of weapons and equipment that will then allow you to spec your skill tree differently to give you even more offensive/defensive capabilities. It’s an incredibly intricate system, and one that rewards experimentation. A recent patch even dropped in transmogrification (that allows you to assign an appearance to a particular piece of armour – allowing you to look however you want while retaining the perks of a specific armour piece) – a feature missing from so many other games that would benefit so much from it (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you Destiny 2).
So, if the game’s open design and versatility go against the grain of what Assassin’s Creed used to be, what of the narrative? Well, being set so far before Origins, the links to all of the other games in the series here are tenuous at best and manufactured at worst. There’s an animus and we’ve seen a couple of brief modern-day bits of the story – but to be honest I really don’t think the game would have suffered in any way from them having been omitted entirely. In fact, I finished most of the modern-day sections and was left wondering what purpose they’d actually served other than to remind me that there was a bigger (and considerably less interesting) narrative playing out than the one that we were involved in. Honestly, it almost feels as though these sections have been shoe-horned in to justify the use of the Assassin’s Creed brand name – with little need for them (or it, let’s face it). In some ways, it’s the narrative area that feels like it’s changed the most.
The Assassin’s Creed games have always told good stories – I don’t think that’s really a debatable point. However, those stories were always delivered in comparatively linear chapters – each encounter would have a pre-defined outcome that a player was working to achieve. There was no flexibility. The move toward RPG tropes is probably where the franchise has changed the most – to the point that a lot of the best storytelling in Odyssey is actually off the beaten path, away from the main quest chains. The tale of Skoura and the Arena left me holding the pad, saddened and despondent as the reality of his situation kicked in. Supideo’s parents (it’s basically a re-telling of the tale of Oedipus) and their unexpected deaths. Phoibe and her willingness to help. Markos and his persistent loveable-roguish idiocy. The dialogue options – added to Assassin’s Creed for the first time here – act to open up or close off entire storylines. The game gave me an option to kill one NPC which, unusually, I didn’t take. Instead I humoured him – and the game rewarded me by spinning off into several other quests. One of these justified my decision to keep him alive, the other had me questioning it – and ultimately I was able to orchestrate his death from a distance. The last RPG that invested me and impressed me with such a level of open-endedness was The Witcher 3 – which will likely be remembered as one of the best RPG’s of the generation. There was a quest in that game – The Bloody Baron – that I’ve long held up as the benchmark for RPG sidequest design. Odyssey has several quests that are as good as that one.
And this, I guess, it why I really think that Assassin’s Creed needs to drop its moniker. I genuinely think at this point that the games are so far removed from what they were that retaining the pretence isn’t in anyone’s interest. I adore Odyssey – but I think I’d adore it even more if it wasn't obliged to pretend to be something it’s not. The modern-day storyline is a hindrance. The need to keep tying these games into a larger narrative is, to some extent holding them back. Part of me really wants them to become their own thing. Something new to embrace. That most dangerous, exciting, and hope-filled thing in gaming. New Intellectual Property. Give me a new historical period to have an adventure in every couple of years, with quests inspired by the beliefs and myths of the people of the time. I'll lap it up. It doesn't need to link to something older for me to buy it - and it doesn't need to owe another franchise a damn thing.