Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Developed by: Ubisoft Quebec
Published by: Ubisoft
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
The Assassin’s Creed series is known for making playgrounds out of history. From the banks of the Nile in ancient Egypt to the cobblestone streets of Victorian London, the games hopscotch through momentous epochs in human civilization, trailing intrigue and corpses in their wake. “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” uses the Peloponnesian War, which ensnared Athens and Sparta between 431 and 404 B.C., as the shell for its heroic story. Befitting its name, “Odyssey” is a mammoth game, the kind into which one can sink a few dozen hours and still have a staggering number of tasks before the credits roll. Because many of those things are similar to one another, the game straddles the line between being content rich and content superfluous. (I’ve found myself waffling between those two perspectives so far during my time with it.)
In “Odyssey,” players can choose to play as Alexios or Kassandra, two estranged siblings. Depending on your choice, you will follow one sibling as he or she moves from the periphery to the center of power in the Greek world — the court of Pericles — and beyond. As someone who lived in Athens for a couple of years as a child, I found myself almost immediately disarmed by the setting. I was so taken with the game’s evocation of Mediterranean beauty — that sky! those beaches! — I forgot to unlock fast travel, which allows you to zip between certain points in the world, until I was several hours into the game. Given the number of Ubisoft’s open-world games I have played and my usual inclination to hook up shortcuts as soon as I can, I assure you that I was surprised by my neglect.
The developers have been vocal about incorporating more RPG mechanics into “Odyssey,” such as branching dialogue, unforeseen consequences tied to players’ choices, and the ability to romance different non-playable characters (NPCs), yet no one would accuse the game of rewriting the conventional RPG. Early on, I couldn’t help but think that “Odyssey” felt like a post-“Witcher 3” game after I encountered a family in what remained of a plague-ravaged village. The family was about to be executed when they begged me to stay the hand of the men who meant to kill them so as to contain the plague. As I left them to their fate, it seemed to me that the lose-lose predicament in which I’d found myself (I’d guessed that if I let the family live they would have infected others) felt very much like something out of the Witcher’s nebulous ethical universe.
During my time as Alexios, I enjoyed hobnobbing with the luminaries of antiquity. I asked Hippocrates an impertinent question about his legendary baldness, I watched Herodotus draw many long faces while discussing the imbroglio between city-states and, at a symposium, I helped Sophocles prank Aristophanes. Though none of these characters stuck me as particularly deep portraits of their historical counterparts, the classicist in me enjoyed the fantasy all the same. The overall amount of historical details referenced in the game is entrancing.
Apart from gawking at the game’s scenery and generally welcoming its conversational offerings, “Odyssey’s” action has yet to yield many water-cooler moments. In gameplay terms, this year’s Assassin’s Creed feels a lot like last year’s. I find it hard to get excited by the number of missions in the new game that require one to skulk around fortified areas to steal things when the places in question so often appear similar to one another. Moreover, it’s easy enough to exploit enemy A.I. so that cat-and-mouse routines quickly descend into folly. (A simple way to cheese the game is to stand on a tall building with a broad roof and pelt the enemy patrols below with arrows, then lose their attention by sneaking over to the opposite end of the area.)
Of the many scrapes I’ve gotten into the most memorable showed how “Odyssey’s” gameplay systems can mix and, on occasion, produce a novel result. After amassing a sizable bounty on Alexios’s head, I attracted a formidable band of drachma-hungry mercenaries. I did my best to throw them off Alexios’s trail before going on a quest to kill a mystical boar. While fighting the boar, I drew the attention of two of the mercenaries that were hunting me. Then I watched as the mercenaries tangled with the boar while I shot arrows at everyone from afar; I love it when my enemies make life simpler for me.
Similar to last year’s “Origins” players also take on the role of Layla Hassan who is reliving the “genetic memories” of Alexios or Kassandra in the present via a machine designed for such activity.
It has been more than a decade since the original game introduced this contemporary plotline, but I still dig the idea that the player is playing a character who is using a machine developed by a corporation to access the memories of people from the past. That scenario has always struck me as cleverly self-reflexive, a deft way for the storytellers to acknowledge the games’ artificiality, not to mention their place as corporate products.
“Odyssey” will please those who are likely to be pleased by another “Assassin’s Creed” game, but anyone with a shortage of time on their hands may want to go sightseeing elsewhere.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: