Assassin's Creed Odyssey's Bold New Direction Is Embracing Ubisoft's Games as a Service Future

Assassin's Creed Odyssey's Bold New Direction Is Embracing Ubisoft's Games as a Service Future

Ubisoft is still not done with the ongoing odyssey of Assassin's Creed.

Assassin's Creed Odyssey was intended by Ubisoft to be the lengthy journey the name suggests. The subtitle comes from Homer's Odyssey, an epic Greek poem telling the journey of Odysseus as he attempts to get home after the fall of Troy. His trials and tribulations are one of the oldest formers of Western literature, the title of the work even extending to become a word in our general lexicon. Given that Ubisoft has no plans for an Assassin's Creed next year and content plans for Odyssey stretch into summer, Assassin's Creed's latest adventure really does feel like an odyssey, in all senses of the word.

I have clocked more than 100 hours into Assassin's Creed Odyssey. That seems like a lot, but we've entered an era in video gaming where games are built to suck anywhere from 50 to 100 hours of your time. This year alone saw Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Dragon Quest XI, Red Dead Redemption 2, Monster Hunter: World, and several Yakuza titles. The biggest games want more of your time, and in the case of some of them, additional content means there's always a reason to come back.

The Greek Epic Cycle: The Odyssey That Was

Assassin's Creed Odyssey is the latest step in an evolution that began with 2017's Assassin's Creed Origins. Following a low period in sales and reception, Ubisoft rethought its flagship franchise as an action role-playing game (RPG). The hooded protagonists, stealth gameplay, and parkour action remained, but Origins leaned the game's structure towards scripted conversations providing context for your actions, experience levels, and a host of equipment looted from your enemies.

Assassin's Creed Odyssey dove into the change head first. Like Assassin's Creed Syndicate, the previous title from Odyssey developer Ubisoft Quebec, players could choose between male and female protagonists. Unlike that title, your choice started at the beginning of the game and didn't dictate the story you were experiencing. Whether you chose Kassandra or Alexios, the adventure morphs to your choice: the unchosen character becomes the baby lost in a family tragedy, while your character becomes the Misthios, a soldier for hire.

Odyssey begins on the island of Kephallonia, but the game itself opens up some five hours in, once you gain the captainship of the ship Adrestia. It's here that the scope of what Ubisoft Quebec has built becomes apparent. Assassin's Creed Odyssey is a grab bag of some of the best features of Assassin's Creed games. From Origins comes the action-RPG leanings and equipment, from Black Flag comes the freedom of the ocean and ship-based combat. The theme park of history aspect of the entire franchise stays at the forefront, with players meeting Herodotus, Hippokrates, and Sokrates in person while visiting landmarks like the Acropolis, the Tomb of Leonidas, and the giant Athena Promachos statue.

Where Assassin's Creed Odyssey distanced itself from its predecessors though was the story. Like Bayek in Origins, Alexios or Kassandra spend a lot of their time talking to citizens, learning about their stories and problems. What changed in Odyssey was a focus on narrative as a vector for missions, in addition to a dialog choice system allowing players to put their own spin on the Misthios.

Odyssey's main story is the same nonsense Assassin's Creed is known for, with a war between two ancient orders-the Misthios' friends and the Cult of Kosmos replace the normal Brotherhood vs Templar conflict-and a heavy dose of the alien-like First Civilization rooting around in the background. (Note: I'm very invested in this nonsense at this point.) But the real meat of the game are the side quests. It's there where Ubisoft Quebec has more fun and asks deeper questions.

On the island of Lesbos, helping a woman find her spurned lover ends in a heart of stone, as you face up against a creature from Greek myth. Maybe you help a lonely young girl literally make some new friends for herself, or shatter her delusions. A healer in one region is struggling with the revelation that his grandmother was an Oracle and may have led to the deaths of many. In Phokis, there's a young man who has jailed himself because of the Oracle's prophecy that he will be bring harm to his parents, unwittingly realizing that his actions cause the prophecy come true in the weirdest way possible.

This is where Assassin's Creed Odyssey flies close to the game it's obviously trying to reach: CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Odyssey doesn't quite get there, but it's close enough and the excellence of the side quests feed into the exploration. The main plot of the game will only lead you to around 40 percent of the map, so you'll want to explore the rest to see other stories, find other landmarks, and tackle other mythical marvels. It's not enough to have a wide open map full of visual variety, you also have to have a reason for players to seek out the next shore.

Assassin's Creed Odyssey doesn't entirely stick the landing-Conquest Battles feel useless, the level tuning needs work when it comes to stealth in particular, and mercenaries feel like they could use more fleshing out. But overall, it's an excellent follow-up to Origins, and in a world without more The Witcher 3 on the near horizon, it's a welcome release.

The Legendary Journey Continues

One stand out aspect of Ubisoft in recent years is its commitment to further content and improvements. Just prior to launch, the publisher revealed an extensive roadmap of future content. That roadmap showed the first story arc of downloadable content starting in December, "The Legacy of the First Blade," with one episode every six weeks. The second story arc, "The Fate of Atlantis," will begin in the spring with a similar release cadence.

The Legacy of the First Blade's first episode is out and to be honest, it's a bit underwhelming overall. There are no new mechanics, outside of a single new move. Instead, it adds another hit list of NPCs for players to take down: the Order of the Ancients, who will later go on to harry Bayek in Assassin's Creed Origins. Instead, the best part of Legacy of the First Blade is meeting Darius, the first assassin to use the Hidden Blade weapon that's the second visual signifier of Assassin's Creed. The story begins to unravel Darius' past, but it also forces the Mithios to confront the murder and carnage they leave in their wake. Mechanically, it's the same as before, thematically, it's a solid exploration of your actions in the base game.

Punctuating those episode releases are smaller content drops. There's a series of side stories called The Lost Tales of Greece. The second of these saw you meeting a woman who eventually claims to be the goddess Athena. Her small run of missions has the Misthios making more moral choices: when a pack of lions threatens a village, do you respond by murdering them or finding another way? This smaller story also sees you heading into the Foundry of Hephaistos, a live volcano that hides a hidden tomb. Epic mercenaries were supposed to drop before now, but Ubisoft has had trouble getting the system working, and the similar Epic Ships are rather easy to take down.

More important than the smaller story additions have been the game tweaks Ubisoft has offered. First was the visual customization system, one of the best additions to the game. The visual customization system works like the transmog system in World of Warcraft, allowing you to lay another unlocked visual appearance over your current armor. What it provides is flexibility and more personalization. Instead of having your equipment determine your look, you can set your Alexios or Kassandra as a sneaky Assassin, complete with the classic hood, or an armored Spartan warrior with full plate armor and a helmet of colorful feathers. Hell, you can get goofy with it if you want, as there are few restrictions on the system.

Two weeks after the visual customization system, Ubisoft also added Mastery Levels to Assassin's Creed Odyssey. In the base game, once you reached the original cap of Level 50, you'd stop gaining anything worthwhile from leveling up. Mastery Levels offer you the same Ability Points at each level, but you can then spend those points on 72 different bonuses, with a total of 20 levels for each bonus. There are straight damage increases across the Warrior, Assassin, and Hunter branches, but there are also things like improved armor penetration. It continues to give players rewards for exploring original and new content.

Mastery Levels at work.

Those are the major changes, but Odyssey has been the recipient of several smaller ones. The level cap has been raised to Level 70. Photo Mode received new options, like being able to hide the UI at the press of a button (why was this missing before?), and the ability to reduce fog or increase bloom. Dismantling or selling items was made faster, and players can set arrow crafting to automatic, prevent you from running out of valuable arrows in the middle of a firefight. A few Mythical Creatures have been added as challenges around the world too.

2017's Ghost Recon: Wildlands is still receiving new content as of...oh, as of yesterday. So, you can expect Odyssey to keep getting this treatment until Assassin's Creed 2020 hits, and that's fantastic.

A Changing Context

One interesting thing that's happened in these two months since Assassin's Creed Odyssey's release has been things outside of Ubisoft's control: other titles. Every game exists in a certain context, compared to the games that came before and the games released around them. It's why a sequel can repeat the successes of its predecessor, but be more poorly received. The first game might be a pioneer, while the second or third entry is the also-ran.

Red Dead Redemption 2 was the the lumbering juggernaut of the industry. Every other title did its best to come out before Rockstar's Western magnum opus, because they knew it would suck up most of the oxygen in the room. There were people that stopped playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, or didn't pick it up in the first place, in order to make room for RDR 2.

Yet Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very idiosyncratic style of game. It wants you to soak in the world that Rockstar has created. The animations are slow and laborious, the interactions are many, and the developer made sure to focus on the details. There are fast travel options, but they're spread out enough that you still need to go from place to place on horseback, giving you time to check out the lazy countryside. A small thing like the act of looting takes several seconds, and if you have to loot a whole area of corpses, you can expect to be there a while. And RDR 2's mission structure is a stringent one: you complete them in the way Rockstar intended it, or not at all.

If you can give yourself over to what Red Dead Redemption 2 is, it's a fantastic experience. If you can't, Assassin's Creed Odyssey suddenly looks more enticing. The latter is more game-y, allowing you to loot quickly, even when you're riding by on horseback. Fast-travel is ever present; you can go sailing or horseback riding if you want, but if you don't, Odyssey isn't holding you back. Missions tend to be more open: Odyssey tasks you with killing someone or retrieving an item, and how you do that is up to you. Assassin's Creed Odyssey is about playing and enjoying the world Ubisoft created, and once you've played Red Dead Redemption 2, that's something you can appreciate more.

Likewise, on the other end there's Bethesda's Fallout 76, a game heavily focused on multiplayer. For its West Virginian adventure, Bethesda decided that other players would be the only people you saw. This means Fallout 76 lacks the dialog options and memorable NPCs that categorized previous Fallout games, all in search of a more survival-focused experience. It's an interesting experiment, but it's one that some players have revolted against. If those hallmarks of Fallouts' past are what you're looking for, Assassin's Creed Odyssey looks more enticing again, with its host of side missions, dialog choices, and unique characters.

If Origins was the beginning of something new for Assassin's Creed, Assassin's Creed Odyssey firmly moves the series in that new direction. And given the record-breaking sales and general reception, it's looking like the change was a successful course correction for Ubisoft. Two months later, what we have is a game that continues to improve, adding more places to explore, while also papering over the issues of the original release. Like most games these days, what you purchased at launch isn't quite the same experience you're playing now. In Odyssey's case, that's been an improvement on several levels, and given that, I can wait to see where the game finally ends up when the next Assassin's Creed is on the horizon.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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