Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: visual spectacle delivers underwhelming tale

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: visual spectacle delivers underwhelming tale

Every couple of years, I feel the familiar pangs of nostalgia urging me on to try the latest Assassin’s Creed. Each time, I go in with tentative optimism. Perhaps they brought on new writers this time. Oh, this one has branching dialogue – maybe the narrative will finally up its game? For quite a few of the last entries, I’ve been disappointed. While the rapid advance in gaming technology and hardware over the past decade has resulted in ever-increasing render distances and greater graphical detail than ever before – and Ubisoft has certainly mastered AAA water and volumetric lighting – the narrative has increasingly taken a back seat to the games’ visual presentation.

A Visual Treat

Which is why I’ll get this out of the way first. As nearly every review of this game states, the world is impressive for its sheer size and graphical fidelity. The colours of the billowing Spartan and Athenian sails are vibrant, the seas alternatingly calm or choppy – no doubt you’ll find yourself lost in this stunning reimagination of ancient Greece. For the first few hours, I was thoroughly charmed (and a bit overwhelmed) with just how much of the map lay unexplored ahead of me. Odyssey is the type of game that you can easily sink a hundred-plus hours into and still have areas left to explore.

Alexios riding his horse in a village
A boundless open world
Image: Ubisoft

Infiltrate, Loot, Kill – Repeat

A few hours into the game, the cracks start showing. Odyssey follows a similar template as Origins, wherein you hunt down members of an ancient cult in a bid for revenge. What could be salvaged of this now-tired trope in the franchise is doomed by terrible writing. Odyssey joins a slew of previous titles restricted to an adults-only audience for its gore and violence where story was clearly an afterthought. Dialogues are hilariously simplistic with no nuance to them. The modern-day storyline (and for once I agree with the fans on this) is a pointless mess, with Layla acting out a cheap copy of Desmond’s storyline. The Assassin-Templar conflict in recent years has been reduced to ‘we need to get to a powerful artifact before the other side’ rather than focusing on their ideological struggles or character development.

It is also here that Odyssey reveals its (one of many) Achilles’ heel: framing the narrative through the constraint of (extremely) repetitive gameplay. Often, the only way for the story to move forward is for Alexios (or Kassandra, depending on who you play as) to be asked to fetch an item from a heavily guarded area or wipe out a camp of bandits. Almost all missions follow the same format: travel to your destination, infiltrate a camp, eliminate your targets, and return to collect your reward. At times there are slight variations to this – you may need to escort an NPC to safety or fight off wild animals to fetch some herbs, but these are few and far between.

Alexios infiltrating an enemy camp
Infiltrating an enemy camp
Image: Ubisoft

This is not to say that this has never worked in the history of gaming. Death Stranding pulled it off thanks to its weirdly zany storyline and transcendental soundtrack. The originality of the ideas it brought to the table along with the cinematic presentation were enough for me to overlook the fetch quests that made up the entirety of the game. Many missions in Red Dead 2 involve shootouts, however the writing is on par with some of the best dramas on television and keeps you thoroughly invested. Odyssey makes its repetition more frustrating as it has neither good writing nor an original idea (at this point in the franchise’s lifetime, at least). On top of this, it also doubles down on its RPG elements, particularly the leveling system. This gatekeeping results in having to grind pointless side missions until you reach the required level to take on the next mission. Gear is dropped on almost every enemy body or treasure chest you loot, drowning you in choices until it stops mattering what you have equipped as long as it’s the strongest weapon in your inventory.

A Greek Tragedy

It is unfortunate that in a bid to keep as many paths open for the player as possible, a lot of historical content is left unexplored in what could essentially be an excellent history simulator. For instance, the conflict between Athens and Sparta plays a key role in the game, with Alexios able to weaken the defences of a region and participate in a conquest battle to determine which side takes control of the area. Despite sinking over 80 hours in this world, I have no idea why the two armies are fighting each other. Do they simply lust for war? Was there any political motivation behind their conquest? The effects of the war on the common folk aren’t fleshed out either (something The Witcher 3 excelled at).

A conquest battle taking place in Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Conquest battle
Image: Ubisoft

A lot of the historical background which players were used to looking up from the Codex (think AC’s version of an abridged Wikipedia for the time period it was set in) is gone with the removal of the feature since Origins. Instead, we are left with a shadow of the Codex – a filter on the map that gives you a couple of lines about prominent historical sites.

The Fate of Atlantis

The DLC conjures a whiff of fresh breath with its Horizon-esque fantasy rendition of the underworld designed as a training course for Alexios. It is not long before it falls victim to the same underlying structural issues that plague the base game, most of all an incessant push to perform repetitive enemy camp infiltrations to diminish Persephone’s control on Elysium. The quests also seem to have very little impact on the main DLC storyline here. I completed an entire sequence of missions helping the gods quell rebellion on Elysium, despite which the quests to assist the rebels remained available. Nor was I given any indication in the story if my actions had changed its direction or not.

Conclusion

Odyssey serves up a stunning world which is as dazzling with its graphics as it rings hollow with its narrative. Repetitive quests and poor writing put this game at odds with its beautiful rendition of ancient Greece, as the removal of the Codex and a heavily enforced leveling system suck the joy out of natural exploration and adventure. Icons indicating the outcome of branching dialogue take a lot of the fun out of them as you know exactly what picking an option would result in. At the end of the day, it delivers exactly what you’d expect a modern-day Assassin’s Creed to – and I wish this wasn’t the case.

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