One of the biggest advantages Assassin’s Creed Origins had before its release was that it wasn’t following another Assassin’s Creed game. The series had famously taken a year hiatus to go on a post-grad style journey to figure itself out. When it came back, it was familiar but different, a wiser and more confident game than previous entries.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey doesn’t necessarily have that luxury. Following Origins wild innovations on the series’ then-stale formula, Odyssey seems at first like yet another retread in a long line of Assassin’s Creed retreads. Odyssey’s surface-level features look like screaming omens that Ubisoft is returning to that slippery slope of compulsively releasing Assassin’s Creed games every year.
And, to some degree, they are. Odyssey’s overall structure is basically a copy-paste of Origins’. You go to a place, scan the environment with your eagle, highlight the enemies and treasure chests, and do your thing. Climbing works in exactly the same way, as does stealthing through bushes and tall grass. Horses can still follow the road and automatically walk to whatever objective you set. It will all feel very familiar.
In order to differentiate it, Odyssey’s developers are taking a hard turn towards Origins’ paper-thin RPG mechanics and all but turning the game into a full-fledged role-playing game, complete with upgradeable abilities, even more weapon stats, binary decisions for accepting quests and interacting with NPCs, and even romance options.
Turning Assassin’s Creed into an RPG series “is a better way to explore these vast open historical worlds that we create,” creative director Jonathan Dumont told me at the event. “Instead of doing more of a surface treatment, we go more in-depth with it. It allows you to discover more things, it allows you to spend more time with the game. We spend quite a bit of time constructing these worlds to be good historical fiction for our players—to learn things, to spend meaningful time with the game. Transitioning to RPG mechanics is a better way of giving players a more meaningful time with the game.”
It’s unclear how much depth all these new RPG mechanics will lend to the experience based on the Gamescom demo I played. The demo dropped me into an end-game area where all the enemies were level 50 as level 50 Kassandra (or Alexios, depending on your preference) with all of her abilities unlocked and gold, legendary gear equipped. I hadn’t put in the work to earn the abilities, and any relationships my character might have developed over the course of the game played no bearing in what I experienced. Without having that history, it’s hard to tell if all the new RPG mechanics introduced in Odyssey will significantly deepen the experience or if they will just be more boxes to check.
The real stars of the show in my demo were the new abilities. Thanks to Kassandra’s Spear of Leonidas, a First Civilization artifact, I was able to pull off some devastating special moves, given I’d built up enough of my adrenaline meter to use them. Clearing out a mob of enemies with a powerful AOE attack got me out of more than couple tight spots. Raining down an artillery barrage of arrows while hidden in the brush was a great ambush. Sneaking through a base by chaining stealth moves that let you throw a spear into an enemy’s chest and teleport over to him will make you feel like an ancient Greek ninja. Being able to trade adrenaline for health definitely saved my life. And, best of all, I spartan-kicked a bear to death.
Let me repeat that.
I spartan-kicked a freaking bear to death.
These abilities were spotlit in the demo’s crowning achievement: fighting Medusa. Yes, Greek myth is alive and well in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, thanks to some nifty narrative tricks involving the First Civilization and their myriad artifacts, which the writers are seemingly handing out like candy in this game.
The side mission I played in the demo involved a love story between two women on the island of Lesbos, which might be the first instance of two Lesbian lesbians in a video game. Great job with the wordplay there, Ubisoft. Whichever writer came up with that gem deserves a cookie.
The mission started with a mob on the verge of stoning Bryce to death because she traveled to the nearby Petrified Forest with her lover, Legia, and returned alone. Bryce swore that a monster called the Slithering Terror took Legia, but the mob blamed her for Legia’s disappearance. Kassandra, therefore, promised to help Bryce rescue Legia, and when the mob wasn’t cool with that plan, Kassandra straight up killed them all and left with Bryce.
The Petrified Forest was one of the more evocative and unique settings I’ve experienced in an Assassin’s Creed games. The forest itself was foggy and spooky, like a more serious version of Breath of the Wild’s Lost Woods, and littered with statues of men frozen in stone. After making it to the monster’s temple, Bryce and I realized that we needed a key to get in, so I traveled on Kassandra’s massive ship to another island that was inhabited entirely by warrior women who, for some reason, were not being cool about me searching the nearby caves for the key. They weren’t even using them!
Eventually, I got the key and made my way back to the temple, which just so happened to be the home of Medusa, formerly Legia who was transformed into the Writing Dread herself by an apple of Eden. Medusa boasted four different attacks: she could summon stone henchmen, she could hurt Kassandra and turn her to stone with her laser-beam eye attack, she could summon rocks or something to fall on Kassandra from the sky, and she had a devastating grab move that would deal a ton of damage if she caught Kassandra with it. Not having played Origins for at least six months meant the Medusa fight was a crash course in the game’s particular style of combat.
The abilities came in handy when facing off against this snake-haired horror. Medusa’s laser attack meant I had to constantly take cover behind nearby pillars, so closing the distance was key. Thankfully, I’d equipped a dash move that let me close the gap quickly and deal a decent amount of damage on top of that. Another close-quarter move let me pull of a quick, hard shot against the beast. Most importantly, the healing ability let me make up for the times Kassandra was stupidly poking out from behind a column. This was mostly my own fault, but Odyssey’s movement is still a little clunky and floaty, making precise movements more annoying than they need to be. You can watch the entire fight here.)
Fighting and slaying Medusa was fun, though using the abilities out in the open world is probably a better way to experience them. Using the enemies as fodder for charging your adrenaline and then freestyling with Kassandra’s super powers is a blast. It adds a level of experimentation and newness to encounters that Origins never managed to capture.
The only problem is that Odyssey’s control scheme is stacked with abilities, and it leaves behind some of the more basic necessities, like defending yourself.
The button that lets you activate your spear abilities is the same button in Origins that let you block and parry. Therefore, the block button requires players to hold both the right and left bumpers. Even worse, if you want to parry an attack, you have to carefully time pressing both buttons at just the right moment. Odyssey seems to compensate for this by giving Kassandra or Alexios a new dodging ability that briefly slows down time if you dodge right as an attack is coming in, which obviously creates an opening for counters. The problem is that, like I said, Odyssey’s movement is still rather clunky and unpolished compared to other third-person action games, and the fact that you can’t dodge out of queued attacks betrays the fast-paced, reaction-based combat system that the game’s going for.
The bow also has special abilities that will require you to hold the left trigger to aim, hold the left bumper to bring up your abilities, and then press a face button, all while aiming your arrow. It also transfers some bow abilities from Origins—like the long bow’s awesome guided arrow ability—and turns that into a Spear of Leonidas special ability that uses adrenaline.
These sort of changes might not seem like a big deal, and I’ll probably get used to the awkward blocking mechanic, but I do think it’s a pretty decent metaphor for my experience with Odyssey so far: It’s offering a glut of new features and contents, but at the cost of what made Origins so streamlined and interesting. The last game’s combat was so refreshing because it was simple yet physical and still left enough leg room for what the series is most known for: stealth.
Odyssey’s over-the-top special abilities will make players feel like ancient Greek superheroes, but it’s at the cost of its older sibling’s more elegant combat system. From what I’ve played so far, I think it’s shaping up to be a worthy sequel to Origins, and I can’t wait to play the full version and once again immerse myself in living history. I just hope all the different button combos won’t give me a hand cramp while I’m doing so.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey launches on October 5th for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.