Assassin’s Creed’s transition from an action 3D platformer (you know, with all that climbing and parkour), to full-blown open-world RPG seemed complete with the arrival of the incredible Assassin’s Creed Origins. Bayek and Aya’s building of the Brotherhood was laid bear for us to witness, and help create; with much blood spilled in an effort to thwart an encroaching and ever-growing network of (subjective) evil. And many thought, when the credits rolled, that the next adventure would see Aya taking lead as an Assassin in Rome.
That game is likely yet to come, but before Ubisoft Montreal does whatever it is they will with their sequel to Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft Quebec has been quietly working on a game that precedes Origins by a measly 400 years
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes players to Ancient Greece -- 431 BCE, to be exact. Where that transition to ‘full-blown’ open-world RPG actually continues, and deepens even further.
Ahead of Ubisoft’s pre-E3 press conference we actually managed to sneak in a solid hour or so of hands-on with the game on Xbox One. And from the outset, despite a familiar visual sheen and presentation, the changes in Odyssey over Origins were pretty apparent, and alarmingly abundant. There’s an emphasis with this outing centred around player-choice. And an interesting term was thrown out to us: “spectative storytelling”. What this means, explained senior producer, Marc-Alexis Côté, was that Odyssey would do away with traditional non-interactive cut-scenes (to a degree), and give gamers a player-driven choice-defined narrative.
Unfortunately in an hour of game-time, exploring the depth of this was impossible, but out of the gate a new dialogue system with varying degrees of expanded exposition, choice and consequence, and an ever-branching tree of player choice and gameplay option was on show. And if the team nails this in the way they described, it will be another revelation for the series. But they’ve gone even further with new systems, directives and options for the player.
And the word “options” here is poignant. Because while traditional AC pillars remain in traversal, stealth, combat and more, there’s a greater emphasis on decisive -- and divisive -- action. For example, a new option is Conquest Mode -- here, the player tackles a new Nation Power system (given there are multiple nations you encounter throughout Ancient Greece and the Aegean Sea) where you work to sabotage and weaken a nation’s power (naturally), and when ready, based on decisions you’ve made through the earlier-mentioned conversation and choice combinations, you can enter Conquest Mode -- a true 150 Vs 150 soldier battle where you also join the fight on the battlefield.
In pre-release form, it was a little clunky, but that’s to be expected this early out of the game’s October release. And if this gets the polish it so rightfully deserves, it’s going to add an entirely new, fun and engaging layer to an already systems-packed game. Moreover, the High Seas return in spectacular fashion this time around, with our main protagonists Alexios and Kassandra (the player can choose to play through entirely as either a fully voiced male or female), able to board their own ship and sail anywhere. It’s allegedly an ungated game-world, though if Origins is anything to go by players will be looking at recommended level areas, but there’s depth here too, even beyond that we experienced in the seminal Black Flag.
Not to say it’s still not arcade in its delivery -- there needs to be an element of fun when you’re presenting so many disparate design concepts as a cohesive whole. So in this sense, what you need to consider is the short naval battles of Origins, but now there’s more danger on the ocean. There’re more ships, so there’re are also more opportunities. After playing Skull & Bones at last year’s E3, it felt like that concept had been stripped of its multiplayer and baked into Odyssey, with a greater emphasis on it being living in the world as it’s happening around you. With nice touches, like the bodies of the fallen ship you just defeated coating a place in the ocean with blood, thus attracting sharks who will, 100% confirmed, eat the dead. (In fact you can Spartan Kick someone off a ship and that will also attract sharks, thus is the nature of the game’s predator ecosystem.)
Our story is still shrouded in some mystery, outside of both Alexios and Kassandra being of Spartan heritage. We can deduce that they were once discarded as many ‘weak’ Spartan children were, but somehow survived and we’ve been told the premise heavily leans on the narrative structure of a Greek tragedy. In fact, “live your odyssey” was a dot-point in our presentation, once again bringing everything back to player-choice. Layla Hassan from the future side of Origins also returns here, joining the two games together. While we were also treated to some time in-game with Socrates and it was reinforced that one of the narrative pillars here was to bring players to a meeting point with “the Fathers of Western civilisation”. And even though nothing was confirmed, it’s not a stretch to consider that because Origins gave us the birth of the Brotherhood proper, Odyssey is likely to give us the birth of the Order. Especially when you consider they were already very much in power at the outset of Origins. But that’s just my speculation at this point, so take it with a grain of ancient Aegean Sea salt.
And back to the RPG additions over last year’s release, Odyssey also introduces the concept of basic consequence. Where in Origins seeing loot lead to a mashing of Y for collection, in Odyssey some loot is actually owned by NPCs, and stealing it will generate unique responses. And the same goes with violence -- some peds will just run away, while others will confront you. Bounties can be placed on your head, while confrontations with some AI will offer you a chance to spare and “recruit” them, instead of indiscriminately killing them in the event of a victorious battle. Recruited NPCs will join your ship crew, and the studio has promised that your ship is very much your home in the game (which makes sense given the breadth of islands you’ll be visiting), and it will feel that way. Customisation is on the cards, but how deep this goes remains to be seen.
We took a lot out of the experience, despite a short amount of time with it, and definitely feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. The embrace of the romantacised 300-inspired Spartan warrior is heavily -- and welcomely -- in check with the “This. Is. Sparta!” kick front and center. Combat needs its own deep-dive (so stay tuned), but is an equally evolved system from Origins, with learnings taken fully into account, alongside more RPG aspects in equal measure. The game’s visual look and feel is familiar, but there’s a lot here that actually separates Odyssey from Origins, in a positive way. We’ll have more in the coming days, but for now, it’s all Greek to me.