Assassin's Creed Origins was a milestone in the series, a much-needed evolution of the formula and Odyssey continues on in similar fashion. It offers the same sort of open-world and RPG systems, but on top of the new setting, there's also plenty of important additions that further the RPG ways of the series.
It's mainly to do with choice and at the start the player is given an interesting decision to make. Will you play as Alexios or Kassandra? It's not like Assassin's Creed: Syndicate where you could play as both Jacob and Evie, here you'll choose one of the two descendants of King Leonidas and play as them through the entire game. The premise is that of an epic Greek tragedy. As a child you're separated from your family (these events are somewhat shrouded in mystery). You survive and at the start of the game you're a mercenary looking to make a living as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta begins. It's the golden age of Greece and the foundation of Western civilisation, and you'll trade wits with the likes of Socrates and Pericles.
The game takes place in 431 BC, that's four centuries prior to Bayek founding the brotherhood and, naturally, you're not an assassin in this game. You're not sporting a hood nor a hidden blade, at least not from what we've seen, but the core of the gameplay is very much the same. Perhaps most importantly there's no creed to follow, and so player choice comes more naturally. The ties to the franchise are there even without assassins as there's a connection to the first civilisation; the storyline of Layla Hassan in the present will continue from that of Assassin's Creed Origins. For those who want to dig deeper into the mysteries of the first civilisation there will be more optional present day gameplay to explore.
"We were very fascinated by Ancient Greece and especially the time of the Peloponnesian War," says narrative director Mel MacCoubrey. "This is a time where we can see Greece in its golden age. This is a time when Athens is booming culturally. But there is also this war that pervades the atmosphere around what is happening..."
We've hinted at the importance of choice already, and this is the first Assassin's Creed title to feature a dialogue system where your choices will influence relationships and events in both the short and long term, as you'd expect in games like The Witcher and Dragon Age. There's even romancing here, and during our playthrough, we tried to woo rebel leader Kyra on Delos playing as Kassandra. Sadly, at the final dialogue option, we didn't push ahead and it amounted to nothing. Romancing is one thing, but the dialogue system will deepen the relationships you have with all characters in Odyssey. One of them is Sokrates, who will likely be driving us to the edge of sanity with his moral dilemmas and comedic demeanour.
"The more we read about [Sokrates], through Plato's works we found out that he was very much somebody who would make people question their beliefs by asking them questions about their rationale, potentially making them change their opinion for a better or worse way," said MacCoubrey. "Sometimes it resulted in people throwing temper tantrums in the middle of the city. And so we really wanted to represent that as well as we could."
Choice isn't only present in conversations either, just as important is your choice of playstyle and abilities. Much like in Assassin's Creed Origins you have a three-tiered skill tree with both passive and active abilities. These active abilities are now mapped to buttons (fully customisable) and tied to your adrenaline bar. It makes for a more adaptable system and one that offers more player agency.
Many of these abilities are new, including a Spartan kick, a shield break ability, and healing. The Spartan kick (you won't be able to stop yourself from yelling "This is Sparta!") is particularly useful as it stuns and creates space between you and your opponent (in addition to dealing damage). Of course, the best part is when you sneak up on an unsuspecting guard keeping watch on a cliff and you send him flying as fall damage makes sure he's taken care of fully.
As we've said the game makes use of the foundation of Origins. You've got an eagle - Ikarus - to scout, mark enemies, seek out treasures and objectives. You can call a horse with a whistle. There are tombs to explore for an extra ability point and delicious loot. There are animal lairs to eradicate (we fought a huge bear on Delos) and synchronisation points to unlock fast travel and upgrade Ikarus.
We got four solid hours worth of hands-on with a specific section of the game about 20 hours in, starting as a level 18 character. The demo was limited to Delos and Mykonos, in the Eastern part of the sprawling map. This is what Ubisoft calls "regional content", as it feeds into the Peloponnesian War system but it's not really part of the main story. What was great about this demo was that it offered the full experience of these two islands, lots of quests and open-world activities, so it gave us a good sense of what the full game will offer. The variation here is very similar to what's found in Assassin's Creed Origins, but one area that's different to Origins and that harkens back to Black Flag is naval warfare on the open seas. In Origins the naval warfare was limited to scripted story beats, and to be perfectly honest it wasn't wholly satisfying. Here you're given a ship to man and upgrade and you'll be able to take on enemies as you wish on the open sea in between the many islands of the Aegean Sea.
Each region/city-state, like the Delos islands, has a leader. These leaders can be toppled, but they also support either Athens or Sparta and they create missions or contracts for you as a mercenary to take care of. These contracts can also be carried out by other mercenaries roaming the world, and if you create trouble for a leader they will put a bounty on your head and mercenaries will come searching for you. The bounty system works a bit like the wanted level in GTA and if you steal or kill civilians there's a price to pay, literally in fact, as you can pay coin to lower your bounty level in the main menu. All of this makes for a game that's more systems-driven than any other Assassin's Creed title we've experienced. Your experience here will be different from that of other players, not just based on your decisions and choices, but also depending on your chosen playstyle.
Aside from the fact that you won't be playing as an assassin in this game the biggest change is the addition of large-scale conquest battles. These are triggered events that allow you to fight alongside troops on a battlefield that reminds us of a Musou title. Once you've taken out enough grunts and captains on the other side a hero (a mini-boss if you will) will introduce himself and offer a sterner challenge. What's even more interesting about this is that while it takes place in a sectioned-off part of the map it still offers some of the systemic gameplay and open-world aspects found elsewhere. In our case, we'd taken out the opposing hero when a high-level mercenary who had been tracking us entered the battle. A much tougher opponent than the hero, in fact, and we were hard-pressed to finish the conquest.
With no creed in place and with choice at the core of the experience, one thing that will set Assassin's Creed Odyssey apart from the rest of the series is that it will offer alternative endings, even if narrative director Mel MacCoubrey is fairly reluctant to discuss exactly what this entails, for obvious reasons.
"It's important to know that there are both short-term and long-term consequences to your actions," explains MacCoubrey. "But as you progress through the main narrative you will be making choices along the way that will impact the way your Odyssey does end."
Odyssey is another highly ambitious undertaking similar to Origins in scope, this time under the leadership of Ubisoft Quebec, and there's every reason to have high expectations as the Assassin's Creed series returns a lot sooner than most of us were expecting. What impressed us the most about Origins was perhaps the level of polish that has been achieved across the vast open-world, and while it remains to be seen if Odyssey is capable of replicating this or not, what we do know is that it aims to push the franchise even deeper into RPG territory.
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