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The Assassin’s Creed franchise has struggled to find its footing for quite some time now. Starting off as an action-adventure game, the series slowly evolved through the years, experimenting with heavier stealth mechanics in Unity and Syndicate, adding naval combat in Assassin’s Creed III and expanding upon that with AC IV: Black Flag, and all the while tweaking the games’ combat mechanics with each installment. Ultimately, the series seems to have decided on a working formula with 2017’s Origins, as this year’s Assassin’s Creed, Odyssey, brings back that similar feeling of open-world exploration while adding a fresh layer of color, combat, and customization to the mix. Odyssey achieves a perfect blend of old and new – maintaining its action-adventure roots and shifting the franchise into RPG territory – making for a bloody delightful experience that I could barely pull myself away from.

For the first time in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, players can pick their own protagonist – just one of the many new features in Odyssey. One of two siblings, either Alexios or Kassandra, can be chosen to lead the journey throughout the entire game. Although Kassandra has been confirmed as the canonical Assassin lead, I chose to play as Alexios, as I felt I could relate to his story better. While the overall plot remains the same, both characters have their own unique relationships with the world around them. This is due largely in part to dialogue options – the most impressive new feature in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Dialogue options completely change the series as we know it, for players can now alter the “historical events” with their own choices. These range from accepting fetch quests only to lie to NPC’s and keep whatever they were sent to find, to romancing multiple different NPC’s – a first for Assassin’s Creed. Dialogue options not only affect the player’s relationship with the game, but they also influence the main character’s (in my case, Alexios’s) reputation in Greece.

Odyssey takes place in ancient Greece, and it’s arguably the most vibrant setting in the series since Unity‘s French Revolution. I frequently found myself thinking back on Unity, and probably not for the reasons most people would. I actually enjoyed Unity a lot, mostly for its massive, beautifully-cluttered scenery that always felt breathing and lived-in. While Origins had an expansive landscape as Odyssey does, it failed to fill its world with enough community and fauna to feel natural. Odyssey hits this nail right on the head; Ancient Greece is teeming with art and culture at every turn. Historical landmarks abound, and figures like Herodotos, Perikles, and Sokrates provide helpful information regarding the legendary empire. On top of this, there is a considerable amount of forts, caverns, mines, mountains, and various biomes to explore along your journey. Greece is full of things to do, and I never got tired of doing them. It is a real shame, however, that the Codex is nowhere to be found in this installment, as I would have loved to read about the places I discovered. Removing that historical focus from a series like Assassin’s Creed felt like a glaring mistake, and it will certainly be missed by fans like myself.

The story of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is perhaps its weakest attribute, in both the past and present day. Origins’ female protagonist, Layla Hassan, heads to London along with some new Assassin buddies in order to uncover the mystery of Leonidas’s spear (which Alexios once had in his possession). I am a huge fan of the present day storyline in Assassin’s Creed. However since Origins shook things up with new Animus technology, crossbreeding game canon with movie canon, and references to William Miles’s actions in the AC expanded universe (i.e. books, comics, etc.), the present day plot has begun to fall apart. I imagine this would feel even more confusing to someone who doesn’t follow the present day story outside of the main game series. That being said, Layla hooks into the Animus to find Alexios’s spear (for seemingly no reason) and gets sucked into a story of family and vengeance in 431 BCE. Unfortunately, Odyssey‘s historical plotline falls victim to its own elegance, in that the world is so overwhelming, the main storyline is vastly overshadowed. Sure, this is to be somewhat expected in a 60+ hour campaign. But I found myself getting more attached to some side quests, and simply exploring each region, frequently neglecting the primary task at hand. Does this mean the story itself isn’t compelling? Not necessarily; Odyssey‘s focus on family drama amid a dying empire is rather exciting. It’s just a shame that the vivacious setting is such a double-edged sword.

Considering Odyssey‘s storyline takes place during the great Spartan-Athenian War, this conflict bleeds through the entire narrative. Each nation is controlled by either a Spartan or Athenian leader and, being a mercenary, Alexios can freely choose which side he wants to fight for (or stay out of it completely). Actions can be done to lower nation power in every location. These range from assassinating a heavily-guarded leader, to destroying supply caches, to simply killing Spartan or Athenian guards in the area. Once nation power is low enough, a full-scale battle can be triggered. Alexios can then choose to fight alongside the defending force, and reap a hefty reward, or fight alongside the attackers for a more challenging, yet rewarding, skirmish. After the introductory quest that teaches you about national power, this whole gameplay aspect can be avoided entirely. However, this is where Odyssey really shines. Not only is this a showcase of how many NPC’s can be onscreen at a time (spoilers, about a hundred!), but also it’s a testament to how much you have mastered the brand new combat system. These nation battles are tense, challenging, and downright epic. Here’s hoping they become a series mainstay, as they provide a pleasing breath of fresh air to the franchise.

Assassin’s Creed is no stranger to combat evolution. Nearly every new installment alters the combat system in a way. Where earlier games saw Altair and Ezio holding down a button to automatically counter attacks, Odyssey flips the script and makes parrying feel fluid and overwhelmingly satisfying. Mapping counters to the left and right bumpers is an amusing choice, and it definitely requires some practice. But trust me when I say that successfully countering an enemy attack in Odyssey is one of the most fulfilling experiences in a video game. Even better, once blades start flying and time slows down upon that perfect dodge roll, I could practically feel the adrenaline coursing through me. Long story short, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has the most thrilling and cooperative combat system since ACIII. Come to think of it, Odyssey feels very similar to III, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Returning to the franchise in Odyssey is naval warfare, and while this did make an appearance in certain Origins levels, Odyssey completely restores ship combat to its former glory. Assassin’s Creed introduced naval exploration in ACIII, allowing Connor to fight British forces on the sea. Crafting was also enhanced, upgrades could be made to your ship, and naval contracts could be assigned which would provide more supplies upon completion. Black Flag took things even further by turning ship combat into an all-out simulation. More weapons were usable, ships could be boarded, and the ocean was made into a separate game world altogether. Odyssey takes everything I love about ship combat in the Assassin’s Creed franchise and packs it into one game. Sailing a ship is easily done, as your crew rows and sings shanties (which were sorely missed in recent installments). Whales, sharks, and dolphins inhabit the waters as you sail across the open ocean. Naval missions can be accepted from your ship’s deck, overflow from your inventory can be stored in a chest onboard, and your ship – the Adrestia –  can be called to any port, or fast-traveled to at any point. Ship combat is frantic, yet bare-bones in the best way. Only javelins and spears are at your disposal, with fire upgrades available over time. Disabled ships can either be boarded or rammed, to loot their precious treasures. Simply put, this is the most fun I have ever had on a ship in a video game, hands-down. Leave that simulation nonsense to the upcoming Skull and Bones; Odyssey provides just the right amount of naval warfare an Assassin’s Creed game needs.

While naval combat may take a step back in the right direction, Odyssey shifts the franchise deeper into RPG territory, and surprisingly it works like a charm. Origins was the first game to really provide a deep layer of role-playing game mechanics to Assassin’s Creed, what with the open-world exploration, the in-depth crafting system, and the multiple levels of equipment ranks. Odyssey builds on this by turning the skill tree into a branching web of attributes, allowing the player to shape their Alexios or Kassandra into the almighty hero they desire to be. Skill points are awarded upon every level-up, and the ever-growing list of attributes makes sure that no two Assassins will be the same. On top of this, the gear and weaponry possibilities are endless, with countless swords, daggers, staffs, spears, bows, and more to experiment with, upgrade, and customize with new engravings that can provide skills like “+5 headshot damage,” “+8 poison damage,” or “+10 critical hit chance.” As someone who tends to shy away from expansive role-playing games, I was extremely overwhelmed by Odyssey‘s RPG system at first glance. However, over time I learned to dive right in, and I soon found myself taking an extra half hour after every play session to just compare the gear in my inventory and upgrade Alexios so he’d be ready for next time. I absolutely loved this aspect of gameplay. It made me feel more connected to my character, as well as the world around me. It influenced my decisions like “should I bother infiltrating this fort and endangering myself for that helmet?” or “should I give this guy his sword that I found for him, or take it because it’s better than mine?” Furthermore, upgrading my skills unlocked new combat abilities for both melee and ranged attacks, which made Alexios stronger and more prepared to fight for higher-level equipment. I am not ashamed to say I found myself getting incredibly lost in the world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; finding my way was the most gratifying part of the adventure.

Unfortunately, not all adventures are enjoyable from beginning to end. Further disappointing is the fact that Odyssey‘s worst quality was made apparent in the very first hour: the inclusion of bounty hunters. Much like the Phylakes of Origins – high-leveled military police who will attack on sight – bounty hunters and mercenaries roam the Grecian landscape in Odyssey, hunting you down for performing bad deeds. The only good thing about these bounty hunters is they are just that: bounty hunters. Only if you have a bounty on your head will they attack you, otherwise you can sneak by unprovoked. Sadly, nearly every action can be considered a crime in Odyssey, from looting the wrong chest in front of an NPC to killing an enemy soldier (which is still considered murder, buddy). This will cause every bounty hunter in the are to track you down, no matter what level you are. Now you can see my dilemma, as I was almost immediately hunted by a level three bounty hunter at the game’s outset. I saw him running all around Greece, on foot, menacingly, from the very beginning. The moment I accidentally stole something from a merchant, there he was, beating Alexios to a pulp. It’s just an undesirable feature, being chased nonstop by roaming psychopaths. Sure, you can pay a substantial fee to clear your name. But when killing another enemy is just going to bring the bounty back, what’s the point? Playing Odyssey while constantly under stress due to unnecessary evil forces made the tone of the game very unsettling. Whenever I encountered a mercenary it took me right out of the experience, and while I enjoyed killing and looting their corpses for some expensive gear, I wish these overpowered menaces would stay the hell out of my relaxing exploration sessions.

As I mentioned before, I never once got tired of exploring in Odyssey. I frequently found myself opting to travel on horseback to each objective, rather than fast-traveling, simply because I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful scenery. Forests, especially, blew me away every time I entered a shady area. The overabundance of trees, bushes, and grasses made me feel like I was really there, and the various animal types provided unique challenges, from wolves and bears to boars and even lions. Exploration also provided resources which I used to upgrade my weapons and the Adrestia. Iron and wood can be found while galloping through forests and across mountains, and leather can be acquired by hunting moose and goats. The world is living and breathing, the sun rises and sets, rain falls, waves crash, even the terrain shifts from swampy marshes to dry deserts to flowing waterfalls. Odyssey may very well be the most beautiful game in Assassin’s Creed history. Even dialogue animations are on point, with full-motion body movements and rarely any glitches to be found at all. The attention to detail is stunning, from the devastatingly brutal finishing moves to the blood that washes off Alexios’s clothes when he dives into the water. I can’t remember the last time a video game made me exhale with an audible “wow.”

Throughout Assassin’s Creed Odyssey I felt compelled to visit every synchronization point, and with every leap of faith, I felt more sucked into the world at hand. From every side quest to every weapon upgrade to every cultist kill – which added yet another layer of things to do in the world, in order to uncover a mysterious plot against the Grecian government – I never wanted to put the controller down. I must admit I was a bit wary when Odyssey was first announced. I thought “How can multiple protagonists and dialogue options, coupled with a fairly boring-looking time period make for an entertaining Assassin’s Creed game?” Thankfully, after playing countless hours and barely scratching the surface, I can say with the utmost sincerity that Odyssey is one of the greatest Assassin’s Creed installments Ubisoft has ever created. Its overall storyline may have its dips, and those damn bounty hunters may provide an unwanted level of fear and annoyance to a rather pleasant game world, but all in all an enjoyable experience is to be had with Odyssey. One last note, I highly recommend playing the game in Exploration Mode as opposed to Guided Mode. You are given the choice at the start of each playthrough to either play the usual “your objective is right here” method of gameplay, or a brand new mode that basically says “your objective is in this area,” merely pointing you in a direction and sending you on your merry way. Trust me, your Odyssey will be so much more engaging by figuring it all out on your own in this manner. Like Homer said in his own Odyssey: “A man who has been through bitter experiences and traveled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” I was a little nervous at first, but as I said before, getting lost is half the fun.

4/5

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