Hello and welcome to Writing on Games. I bet you’re wondering how I got into this situation; running away from not only the target of my mission, but numerous bounty hunters as well as a bunch of surprisingly high-level chickens and, what’s more, that all of this is happening in an Assassin’s Creed game—perhaps the originator of the Ubisoft open world formula that had become so stale, so predictable in its overuse that I didn’t even bother playing last year’s Origins I had so tired of the series. I’ve often thought of Assassin’s Creed as overly self-serious, more concerned with railroading players from tower to tower, from filler side mission to filler side mission than providing anywhere near as open an experience as its environments would suggest. We still have all the trappings of an Assassin’s Creed story here too; an unbearably daft and unnecessary future plot (replete with one of the wildest text-based exposition dumps I have ever seen in a game) as well as a narrative you might actually care about if its characters didn’t come and go so suddenly, their motivations changing in an instant, resulting in a larger story I found difficult to care about much at all.
And yet, here we are, with one moment of many in which the carefully controlled systems of previous instalments seemingly fall away; the world feels vibrant and alive and I care about the guy running away from these chickens as a result and, well, I guess I’m kind of invested in an Assassin’s Creed game again. So what the hell happened? One of the key differences in this instance, for me anyway, is that we now have main characters grounded in their ability to care about the larger fluff exactly as little as I do. Alexios (the character I picked at the start) is a loveable rogue, not dissimilar to the Ezio we see at the start of 2; a charming, troublemaking womanising mercenary looking for a bit of fun. Except here, the story isn’t so concerned with character growth or progression per se; those qualities aren’t used to illustrate our characters’ relative immaturity before their motivation into more noble heroism by some recent, tragic event.
Said event here occurs decades prior, and we happen upon a character who has long since formed their own personality in the wake of it; who isn’t concerned as much with being a good person as they are with their next payment. At most the main character shows interest in the lives of those around them but their biggest motivation remains familial; with most interactions involving the more convoluted overarching plot playing your character as delightfully fish-out-of-water, trying desperately to relate it all to their humbler way of life. Your character’s more light-hearted temperament makes for a welcome change of pace from previous entries and, what’s more, for the first time in any Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played, this characterisation is at least in part bolstered by your gameplay; the leash is loosened to a certain extent and the game allows for the possibility of true, open world chaos. There’s no limit to the amount of bystanders you can club out of existence.
Fights will happen between NPCs in the world; they can be attacked by animals in the wild. Your quest-giver can get caught up in hunting you down for seemingly no reason. You can be mid-battle only to find your tracker going nuts as numerous bounty hunters trail you, leading to a spontaneous, hilarious and weirdly tense game of priority management; weighing up the benefit of completing your mission vs running away, sorting your bounty and coming back when your target is more isolated, all while you sidestep multiple enemies each with their own reasons for wanting you dead. A misplaced swing can result in the much-talked-about high-level chicken wanting to get in about it, which is truly up there as one of the funniest, most unexpected moments I’ve had in a game in some time. None of it is written into the story but the fact that these situations are even possible says a lot about your character and the world they inhabit and crucially it’s up to you how you navigate these emergent moments, potentially turning what was once the pinnacle of open world checklist ticking into a full-blown RPG experience.
And the game’s new dialogue system, despite appearing fairly simplistic, does a good job at highlighting this; allowing you to subtly contextualise the good things you do as selfishly motivated, or flat out allowing you to do purely selfish, unrealistic things, to flat out go against decisions you have just made in cutscenes because, in the context of a video game, that can be funny. This morally flexible characterisation affords both writers and players carte blanche to bask in the Dionysiac excess of not only Ancient Greece, but of the fantasy of video games in general; the game allows you to be a bit of an arsehole if you want. That the world can fall apart in such glorious ways has the potential to turn into a legit story device; at its best the game manages to strike this delicate balance between allowing you to lose yourself in the outward beauty of its open world while embracing the potential goofiness within it.
See, Odyssey’s relative unpredictability lends the open world a vastness that many similar games have failed to achieve; it’s bigger than you, not built purely to facilitate your progression through a series of filler objectives. There’s something potentially Red Dead-esque to the frontier presented here; its surprisingly stunning and colourful beauty belying its ever-present, unseen danger. Despite the sea itself being fairly empty, there’s a real sense of scale to the ships as the waves cause them to tower over you. While the act of traversal itself feels decidedly basic after so gleefully swinging through the streets of New York, riding through the wilderness only to come across a strange detail in the world – people worshipping at a hilltop altar, a massive statue of Sisyphus carved into the hillside – has the potential to evoke an exploratory curiosity akin to that of Breath of the Wild.
The fact that I’m making those comparisons, that the game honestly brought to mind some of the most well-realised open worlds out there, says a lot about how far the series has come since its inception. That said, you’ll notice I’ve used the word “potential” a lot. The game at multiple points shows the potential for true open world greatness. It’s just a shame then that in all other aspects, Odyssey seems hellbent on robbing the world of this magic, by consistently foregrounding the fact that it’s all governed by numbers to an alarming degree. Those damn numbers are absolutely everywhere you look, the boundaries between enemies one can and can’t face and by extension the areas one can and can’t explore incredibly blunt; this number doesn’t match this number, so it’s no-go, friendo. A wild pack of wolves ambushing you on your travels is more irritating than scary because you don’t see a pack of wolves; you see a cluster of level 20 enemies when you’re only level 10—if your number were higher (and that’s not even a number you control by putting points into strength or dexterity, for example, it’s just a level), they would arbitrarily bear less of a threat.
Combat is assuredly more tactile than in previous entries I’ve played, but if that number above an enemy’s head is too high, you’re going to be hitting that R1 button for a while as they soak up an inconceivable flurry of dagger cuts. The Mercenary system fails to capture the more mischievous political games you could play in the series it clearly took its influence from, where you would recruit orcs and place them in the hierarchy, which would in turn affect your navigation of the world; the Mercenary system functions as little more than a wanted level, while the recruitment system you might otherwise associate with it merely adds more numbers to your ship, not dissimilar to the wealth of number-driven loot you’ll pick up from fallen foes. The absurdity that you even have to consider things like the level of a chicken that might get caught up in a fight is as beautiful as it is strangely frustrating in how it shatters any notion of vitality and vibrancy in the world’s character.
It brings the unbelievable scale of that world right back down to its most basic, segmented systems; the seams between them fully on show. Raise this bar, climb this tower for a fast travel point, try to discern the icons vomited onto your map for the sake of experience… it all reminds you that, above all else and despite the changes made to shake off the series’ previous reputation and provide a more immersive experience, Odyssey is still a Ubisoft title at its core. Unfortunately, these problems, the ways in which numbers rule this world with an iron fist, are only compounded by Odyssey’s in-game monetisation. It’s something I don’t normally focus on in reviews because, in almost every case I’ve come across, the ways in which you can boost your single player experience often seem stupidly extraneous. While the dark cloud of microtransactions loomed over my experience with the latest Deus Ex, for example, it didn’t change the fact that by the end of that game I was so praxis kit rich without spending a penny that I was long since shovelling them into abilities I would never use.
Here there are straight up numeric brick walls placed on your progress at certain narrative beats. Suddenly one enemy will appear, five levels above your own, spongier than even the regular enemies, that after many successful missions will take you down in one hit purely based on your experience points. Progress barriers like this utterly kill the story’s pace as you’re subsequently forced to wander around trying to find anyone who can offer you the same “destroy such-and-such warrior camp” mission over and over again (sometimes with the same voice lines used, they’re that meaningless).
All in an attempt to eek that meter up just a tad, with said level restrictions largely keeping you from exploring anywhere other than places you’ve already been, because again, you’re not levelled high enough for the quests you could find there; the story hasn’t taken you there yet. It’d be user-unfriendly design that goes against all of the game’s best qualities on its own, but when you throw in the fact that there’s always that means of speeding up the process lurking in the background, it’s hard not to feel like there’s something… slimier at play here.
The reality is, however, that the drip feed of numbers has done little to dissuade me from repeatedly coming back, from feeling that the series is, if not in the best place it could be, at least pointed squarely in the right direction. A lot has been made of the last two games in the series moving Assasssin’s Creed more towards a kind of Witcher 3 framework and while that is definitely true, the game that kept popping into my head while playing turned out to be Watch Dogs 2, even if it was in a slightly more abstract sense. It was yet another Ubisoft open world game set within a franchise whose previous entry failed to impress. The most recent title’s focus on characters with less-than-heroic motivations (heightened by the gameplay’s more hands-off approach and a focus on player-driven shenanigans) made for a far more surprising experience than its lineage would suggest. I actually went back to my review for Watch Dogs 2 after writing this and found that many of the feelings I expressed in that video were remarkably similar to Odyssey’s evocations and how, at its strongest, the game gave me hope for the future of Ubisoft open world games.
And while in the two years between those titles it’s perhaps true that not much progress has been made on that front, Odyssey has done enough in terms of the scale of its world, the nuance of its tone and the chickens it forces me to run away from, to at least rid me of the fatigue that so turned me against the series in the past. So I hope you enjoyed my piece on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. If you did and would like to help directly support the work that goes into the show, you can always support me on Patreon like the wonderful people on screen, who themselves get access to goodies like episode soundtracks and exclusive written articles. Special thanks go to Mark B Writing, Rob, Michael Wolf, Artjom Vitsjuk, Timothy Jones, Laserpferd, Cole Mendell, Spike Jones, TheNamlessGuy, Chris Wright, Dr Motorcycle, Ham Migas, Travis Bennett, Zach Casserly, Samuel Pickens, Tom Nash, Shardfire, Filip Lange, Ana Pimentel, Jessie Rine, Brandon Robinson, Justins Holderness, Christian Konemann, Mathieu Nachury, Nico Bleackley, Nicolas Ross and Charlie Yang.
And with that, this has been another episode of Writing on Games. Thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next time. .
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