Last autumn, I started playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on the PS4. I’d had a mixed experience with other games in the series: I played a fair bit of Black Flag; watched a fair bit of Assassin’s Creed III; and played 15 minutes of Assassin’s Creed II before I ran down a street I wasn’t meant to go down yet, failed the mission with a “you can’t go that way” message, and immediately ragequit. Since that experience, Ubisoft and I had been on an extended break.
But I am a sucker for the classical world, the reviews were good, and the option to play as a female protagonist was a big draw (turns out they’re not that hard to animate after all). So I fired up the console, cocooned myself on the sofa, spent ages downloading updates, and then settled into the game.
Several months and 110+ hours later, I’ve completed the main quest, collected most of the achievements, and visited most of the expansive map. My time with the game definitely isn’t over yet – there are islands I haven’t even seen yet, major secondary quests that need completing, and I haven’t touched the DLC – but at this point, I think it’s safe to say that I really, really like this game. So here’s why.
A personal odyssey
You can choose to play as Kassandra or her brother Alexios. Obviously I picked Kassandra because I want to be a cool, tough lady with excellent upper body strength. I’m sure Alexios is fine, but it’s not like video games are short on opportunities to play as a gruff-voiced white guy with brown hair and stubble.
I really love Kassandra. Her voice acting is great, and her appearance actually fits her background as a muscular, battle-scarred fighter. You wouldn’t catch her dead in boob-plate armour – she wears the same kit as the men and rocks it.
The game’s plot takes Kassandra into the midst of the Peloponnesian War, a bloody conflict with the shadowy Cult of Kosmos, and uncovering the secrets behind some mysterious, otherworldly ruins. But even during these sweeping events, our hero’s personal struggle to terms with her family history and traumatic childhood is always at the story’s core. Turns out being the granddaughter of Leonidas comes with a lot of baggage.
Choices can have a long-lasting impact, and my lust for vengeance against the Cult of Kosmos sometimes led me to make rash decisions. Most of the time I was happy to live with the consequences of my actions, although I did replay a few hours near the end of the main story after a dodgy conversation resulted in one of my favourite NPCs being offed. So if you’re after the best possible ending, it’s worth using multiple save slots for your progress.
While the game has some filler sidequests, others have remarkable depth. My visit to Mykonos was a particular highlight. I was summoned to the island by a plucky group of rebels, who asked for my help to overthrow the island’s cruel, Athenian-backed leader. A small band of Spartans had also answered the call. I befriended Kyra, the hard-drinking leader of the rebels, and Thaletas, the Spartan captain with a questionable haircut. Both of them had conflicting ideas about how to seize control of the island. Additional complications arose when I realised I could romance either – or both – of my new allies, even though they’d already been getting pretty cosy with each other before I arrived on the scene.
As I continued my campaign to free Mykonos, more and more optional sidequests exposed these characters’ motivations, and messed up my plans and relationships. By the time my business on the island reached its bloody conclusion, I definitely felt responsible for the result.
Dozens of hours later, I still find myself popping back to Mykonos occasionally, hoping another sidequest appears to continue the story, or that I can finally convince my beloved to ditch the island and sail away with me. (Come on, Kyra! You know we’re meant to be!)
Geeking out about Greece
As a half-historical, half-fantastical tour of ancient Greece, this game was a delight. I’ve visited the Oracle of Delphi, the palace of Odysseus, and the ruins of Knossos. I’ve come face-to-face with hideous mythical monsters and lived to tell the tale. I’ve even fought in the battle of Thermopylae as Leonidas himself (not bad for an opening scene!)
The map in this game is enormous, stretching from Macedonia to Crete. Much of the main storyline takes place on the mainland, but there are plenty of islands to visit, each with their own personality and intrigue.
The world is colourful and occasionally fantastical. Massive statues of the gods often serve as landmarks. My first response when I got to Athens was to do some sightseeing – the view from the Parthenon is pretty spectacular. The wilderness is also worth exploring. I especially liked the lush Silver Islands and the autumnal slopes of Malis.
Do you like hobnobbing with historical figures? This game has more hobnobs than your nan’s biscuit tin. Enjoy Socratic dialogues with Socrates! Get drunk and bitchy at a party with Aristophanes! Fight by the side of Brasidas!
You can even be seduced by the scheming politician Alkibiades, portrayed here as the horniest man in videogames, and source of some very entertaining sidequests. (I hadn’t heard of Alkibiades before this game, but reading up on him was certainly worthwhile – the man was not dull.)
I wouldn’t really recommend Odyssey as an educational tool, but it definitely piqued my interest in some topics I didn’t know much about, and I may be picking up some more history books in the near future.
Cutting the crap
While there are plenty of things I loved about Black Flag – those sea shanties are one of the greatest video game features ever – it also had a lot of annoyances clogging it up which put me off playing more entries in the series. All of my favourite parts (shanties, sailing) seemed inextricably linked to the game and setting, while the dull bits (eavesdropping missions, anything Animus-related) seemed like inescapable parts of the franchise.
So I was thrilled to realise those awful eavesdropping missions were gone. And I’ve only been booted out of the main story and into modern life three times so far – one of those being a brief cutscene to pick the main character. There’s also no collectathon where you have to run across rooftops to find all of Thomas Jefferson’s letters or whatever. Nobody has even said the word “Templar”.
I’ll admit that I haven’t finished all the big quests yet, and more of this could still surface. But right now, this state of affairs makes me a happy girl. I know some people love all the Assassins versus Templars stuff, but it does absolutely nothing for me and I’m happy to be rid of it.
Sailing is back, though, and still fun. I enjoyed upgrading the Adrestia with new kit and shiny new sails and figureheads, and captaining her in naval battles. The shanty roster is much shallower, and there’s nothing here to rival my love for “Derby Ram” or “Fish in the Sea”. But cresting a wave under a full moon while my all-lady bandit crew chants the Homeric Hymn to Ares still provides a lovely thrill.
As for the bugs that have plagued previous releases… aside from some minor performance issues, it’s been pretty smooth. No inside-out heads in sight.
Climbing the skill tree
Levelling up gives you skill points, which you can use to unlock abilities. Some of these provide a permanent buff to your character, while others spice up the game’s combat.
The most famous one of these is the Sparta Kick, which is exactly what you’d imagine: you kick your enemy in the chest with a satisfying THUNK and they go flying. Plow more points into the skill and the THUNK gets bigger and they fly farther. This is obviously the first ability anyone should pick, and it never gets old, but I got a kick (zing!) out of other perks too. By the time I reached endgame and could chain my Assassin abilities together to tear through an entire camp of Spartans in a matter of seconds, I felt like a proper badass. I also had a tame wolf, which usually went down quickly in a fight but did look cool, so that counts for something.
There are three skill trees – Hunter, Warrior and Assassin. Hunter focuses on archery, Assassin on stealth and speedy kills, and Warrior on all-out melee combat.
Combat is not my strong suit in most games, but there’s nothing I love more than hiding in the bushes, painstaking luring my enemies over, and then hiding their bodies in a big pile (maybe don’t quote me out of context on that). So I dumped most of my ability points into the Assassin tree and specced out my armour and equipment accordingly.
Most of the time, the game was happy to let me play in my chosen style. But occasionally it forces you to fight your enemies in honourable open combat, usually in a battle sequence or when fighting a legendary boss. I always resented this. If I encounter a normal boar in the game, my response is usually to one-shot it with stealth, or to hide on a ledge and snipe it – why do I have to fight the Calydonian Boar and all its little piggy minions face-to-face?
Boss battles are very rare, but not a highlight when they do appear. There is a particular encounter on Lesbos which forced me to turn down the difficulty, not because it was especially challenging, but because my opponent was such a health sponge that it would have taken half an hour of grinding to get through otherwise.
A few more gripes
This is a big game – see 100+ hour playtime above – and not all the content in it is equally valuable. So most of my gripes come from what I’d describe as padding.
- Areas on the map can get repetitive. The map is gigantic and generally fun to explore. But while the landscape varies, there are certain points you’ll find over and over again – an Athenian military camp, a Spartan military camp, a bandit camp, a cave filled with more bandits or members of the Cult of Ares – and they all start to look the same after a while. 100%ing this map is probably not worth it. That said, I enjoyed clearing out forts, and freaky ruins or Cult strongholds were always an exciting discovery.
- Battles. Each region in the game is controlled by Sparta or Athens. When your deeds have weakened the current regime, you can participate in a battle to seize power for the opposing faction. This was another area where my lack of Warrior skills got me into trouble. I ended up just running in circles waiting for a special enemy to appear, rinsing them with all my Assassin abilities, then running in more circles waiting for my skills to recharge and the next special enemy to appear. This strategy was effective, but dull. I can see how battles would be more fun with a different skill tree, but I usually skipped them unless the plot required it.
- Tomb raiding. Scattered across the game’s map are ancient tombs which give you the chance to get an extra ability point. I really could have done without these. They all look identical, the “puzzles” barely even deserve that description, and I got really bored of being attacked by snakes. I did them anyway, because ability points were worth it, but they were universally tedious.
- Landfill quests. Some rando NPC asks you to kill the nearest baddy or group of baddies. You do this and return to them with an economically vague voice line: “Your man is dead” or “I took care of them. Every last one.” At first I wasted a lot of time picking up these quests because I hated leaving things unfinished, but they are literally endless and there’s no point unless you really want to grind XP – something which I haven’t found necessary. I’ve been ignoring these for 80 hours now and I don’t think I’ve missed anything.
That said, almost all of these annoyances are optional. There’s no reason why I would have to clean out another bandit camp again at this point other than the satisfaction of ticking it off on the map. It’s just a bit of a downer when I chase down that mysterious question mark on the horizon and find it’s exactly the same as the last mysterious question mark.
Enough about this game already
Minor grumbles aside, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a blast and I’ve been happy to give it so much of my time. There have been several nights where I tell myself I’m going to just finish one more quest, just see what’s on the other side of that hill – and then suddenly it’s 4am. It’ll be a while until I completely run out of things to do, but I’ll be sad when that day happens.
I think a lot of people have probably skipped this game because of bad past experiences or horror stories from previous Assassin’s Creed games. It’s fair to say this series has a rep for churning out buggy messes, and that’s not undeserved. But if you’re interested in an open world game with a great setting, an immersive plot and a really addictive gameplay loop, give Odyssey a go. Because I hope you’ll have as much fun with it as I have.