The start of Assassin's Creed Odyssey sees King Leonidas in a familiar position. It's 300 all over again as against all odds the Spartans fend off the Persians only to be betrayed. It's an introduction players will recognise (most likely from Zach Snyder's movie) and it also introduces players to two of the main new features all in one fell swoop, the character abilities (Leonidas is naturally a high-level character) and the large-scale conquest battles.
"What I like about the Spartan angle is that it's something that's very accessible for our audience, for the people who like video games," says seinor producer Marc-Alexis Côté. "Everybody when you say Sparta thinks about 300 and it forges an image of what the game could be. It's the reason why we begin with the battle of the 300, because it's something that will ease you into this experience that we have built."
We're then treated to a present day sequence starring Layla Hassan, we're not going to spoil the present day scenario fully here, but basically she has come across a relic, the broken spear of King Leonidas, and there are two strands of DNA on it and this is where the player gets to choose to play as either Alexios or Kassandra, both ancestors of Leonidas. This is where you pick to play as either brother or sister. It's not two different stories, instead regardless of who you choose you end up as the older sibling who for a reason we won't spoil here finds him or herself exiled as a child. We're not allowed to explain exactly how this comes to happen and in fact, we've only witnessed brief flashbacks and the actual truth behind this is something you're going to have to play through the full game in order to uncover.
The family mystery is one of three major narrative pillars, and the one Ubisoft Quebec considers the main one, comparable to the main narrative of Origins with Bayek and his family. Then there's the Cult narrative, which ties to the family narrative in that these are the people responsible for the fate that befell your family. Finally, there's a third pillar to do with the First Civilisation, and this is represented with mythological themes and has ties to the present day story of Layla Hassan.
If our first taste of Odyssey allowed us a look at the what the content to do with the Cult, hunting down those who wronged your family (the E3 demo on Mykonos, considered regional content), then Gamescom offered a look at the first civilisation ties, through the Medusa questline (endgame content on Lesbos). It's important to note here that Odyssey doesn't tread into fantasy territory with its take on mythological creatures, instead, there are explanations tied to first civilisation artifacts. Finally, this look at the start of the game offered insight into the main story of Odyssey, why you're a Spartan in exile, and what your motivations are as you search for the truth behind what happened. We got to play the first two acts, roughly seven hours worth of gameplay on PS4 Pro.
The game starts out on the island of Kephallonia (Cephalonia), west of the Greek mainland, where Alexios or Kassandra washed ashore as an orphaned youngster. Fast forward to 431 BCE, you're a young man or woman, a mercenary (misthios) and a fairly capable one at that. You're first made to deal with a couple of thugs sent by the "Cyclops", a kingpin type who's apparently not too keen on our hero/heroine. This sequence immediately introduces you to the sort of choice and consequence gameplay you'll find in Odyssey. You can opt to just administer a beating and let them off with a warning or kill them. We opted for the former, and just a bit further down the round they were joined by a couple more thugs who attacked us on sight. That's a short-term reaction, but there are also more longterm consequences to your choices. We also meet a young girl named Phoibe right at the start, and she plays an important role in the early part of the game and your relationship with her is also one that will be affected by how you choose to deal with certain events.
It turns out a man named Markos saved you and raised you as you washed up on Kephallonia. While you're a misthios now, he's something of a small-time swindler whose latest scheme involves running a vineyard. You'll soon find out that Markos borrowed money from the Cyclops to buy the vineyard, and knowing next to nothing about making wine, he's not able to pay what he owes. A pretty convenient set up for some early fetch quests, but ultimately dealing with the Cyclops will open up the storyline involving your family.
We mentioned Phoibe earlier and the young girl will be involved in a side quest that is another great example of how choices change the world of Odyssey. Phoibe, who adores you and almost thinks of you as a God, asks you to help her friend who lives in a nearby village, apparently, it's been hit with an illness. As you get to the region you see burnt down houses and a priest with soldiers holds a family captive. You can choose to let them kill the family, possibly allowing this deadly disease to spread, or allow the priest to go about his business. Your relationship with Phoibe will be affected in the short- and long-term, but perhaps more importantly if you return to Kephallonia later on in the game something dramatic may have come to pass. It's nice to see here that there's no magic concoction you can search out by mixing herbs, instead you're faced with a decision that has severe consequences either way.
You learn of a group of foreigners, possibly in league with the Cyclops (he's not a mythological creature, by the way, just a large man who lost one of his eyes), and you go to take them out in an abandoned house they've made their own. Turns out this was a test by someone called Elpenor, and he's not done with the tests, as he wants you to collect Penelope's shroud (or part of it) on the nearby island of Ithaka, in the ruins of Odysseus' old palace (an example of how history and mythology are woven together in Odyssey). Here we retrieve the shroud, proving our capacity to Elpenor, but we also run into a woman named Odessa, claiming to be a descendant of Odysseus, who'll have her own questline and side story as we made it to the mainland.
The reason why Elpenor tested us is that he wants us to go to Megaris on the mainland where war is raging between Sparta and Athens and assassinate a famous general, The Wolf of Sparta, and we soon realise there's a more personal reason to confront this Wolf, one to do with your family.
But we need a boat and as luck would have it, the Cyclops shows up on the island with a boat. A mini-boss battle and a grateful captain called Barnabas later (a captain who almost met his end as the Cyclops threated to shove his head into a boiling kettle) we have a boat and are sailing for Megaris.
While the branching narrative and choices are the biggest new addition to the Assassin's Creed formula, from a minute to minute perspective the biggest change compared to Origins is the way abilities work. It's an action-RPG staple, and if you've played Diablo you'll have an idea of how it goes; you build adrenaline to be able to fire off abilities, and this along with the lack of a shield means that combat is much more aggressive in Odyssey. It pays to go on the attack, and naturally it also pays to parry, block and dodge, but essentially the combat has been designed to promote risk-taking to a higher degree.
These abilities are organised into three skill trees; hunter, warrior, and assassin. Roughly corresponding to ranged combat, melee weapons, and stealth. As you'd expect there are some real gains to be had if you focus your skill points in one area, but much like in Origins, you'll be able to spend points anywhere you like, with various restrictions based on character level and story progression for certain abilities or ability levels. Unsurprisingly we opted to spend some points early on in the Warrior tree. This is where you'll find the Bull Rush ability (charge in a straight line and do plenty of damage to the enemies you hit) and the much talked about Spartan Kick ("This is Sparta!"). The spartan kick may sound a bit silly, but it's a great tactical tool as it's adrenaline cost isn't that high and it sends your enemy to the ground where you can follow up with a few cheap shots. At the second tier, you'll be able to unlock Second Wind which lets you replenish health (25% at its first level), and there are also passive abilities that increase your armour rating and weapons damage handsomely. For most players this will be a good place to start to increase your survivability in Odyssey.
The hunter tree has a few key abilities too. One we unlocked very early on is Sixth Sense that slows down time as you aim with your bow. Vital to getting in a couple of headshots before they come into melee range. Devastating Shot is a special ability that allows you to deal massive damage with a charged shot when in stealth.
On the assassin side of things, we dabbled with Shadow Assassin which allows you to do more damage from stealth, while Rush Assassin is an ability which lets you dash into an enemy from stealth to deal massive damage with the spear of Leonidas.
"Abilities dramatically change the way you approach combat," says Marc-Alexis Côté. "Speaking of combat there is one thing that we removed, the shield. Because we noticed that people were very defensive. When you give them a shield, people tend to turtle behind the shield and take a very defensive posture. We think that the game is more fun when you are on the offensive."
Overall, these abilities make for a very different combat experience from Origins even if much of the fundamentals are the same. It feels a bit more expressive and it's a bit more intuitive to find ways to tackle stronger enemies with specific skillsets.
Captain Barnabas is more than happy to have us command his ship after we saved him from becoming an ingredient in the Cyclops's stew. He introduces us to some of the ship mechanics as we sail for Megaris. We can recruit new ship mates for instance, and assign key crew to grant us bonuses with arrows or spears. You also upgrade things like the ship's hull and as this will work as your base of operations through the game it's a place you'll no doubt want to keep on top of, even if the ship wasn't used much as we played the first two acts.
An interesting element of the ship experience are the shanties your crew will sing. Naturally, there isn't much in the way of records in terms of what sailors may have been singing in 431 BCE, but a lot of work and research has gone into creating shanties that reminded us of the pirate shanties of Black Flag.
"What we're doing is working with experts, working with historians, doing a lot of research ourselves, and we've created songs," says audio director Lydia Andrew. "So for example we said what kind of songs do we think sailors would sing on a boat? Okay, well, they'd probably sing songs about missing their family, or songs about the battles they've been in, or the Gods of the sea, or a girl they're in love with or a boy they're in love with or something like that. We did a lot of research and found ancient Greek texts that would cover those subjects, from plays, from poetry, and some songs as well, and then we worked with a composer in Athens and he created these really great melodies and harmonies that the choir sang."
Megaris is located fairly centrally on the Greek mainland and as we arrive there the Peloponnesian War is in full bloom. It's not as easy as walking up to the Wolf of Sparta, the big general and assassinating him and instead, we need to do some favours for the Spartan army that's struggling a bit against the Athenians in this region. This introduces us to how we'll be taking over regions by completing various missions, weakening a leader, taking out that leader, and then fighting a conquest battle, something we'll no doubt do more than a few times over the course of Odyssey. Once you've conquered the region for Sparta a Spartan leader will be put in place and so potentially you could later take him out.
If Kephallonia provided an introduction, then Megaris allowed for a more complete picture of what the Odyssey experience will be like, and it's a varied mix. One interesting aspect is characters you meet, romancing options, and the likes. Our Kassandra tended to be a bit of a flirt, and Odessa, who we first met at the old ruins on Ithaka is one character you can potentially romance. We met her again in Megaris, where she found herself in conflict with the ruler of the city, apparently, he was after her lands and apparently she had gotten rid off a suitor the mayor had set up for her in a scheme to secure said land. And so you had something of an investigation to conduct. Ultimately, we sided with Odessa, but our romancing plans failed, instead we recruited her for our ship. If we hadn't saved her from her cage on Ithaka, none of that would have happened.
It's not just a convenient coincidence that you're a mercenary in Odyssey, there's a whole Mercenary system where you rise in rank as you take out the competition, and as you progress this will unlock bonuses to your character. You'll run into Mercenaries along the way, some will be coming for you if your bounty level is high enough, others will have no business with you (and may be higher level so you'll want to avoid them anyway). Others, like Hyrkanos the Cunning, have ties to the story, as he was helping Athens against the Spartans in Megaris. It's an interesting way of handling this and ultimately it feels a bit more integrated and fleshed out compared to how the Phylakes worked in Origins.
It's not without an air of confidence that Ubisoft Quebec has been showing their game. Between the E3 demo, the Gamescom demo, and these first two acts we've already spent a dozen hours with the game, something that's unheard of with this sort of story-driven action adventure or action-RPG. They have reason to be confident, as Odyssey really does push the innovations of Origins much further, but it's also a bit too soon to tell whether the narrative, the level of polish, and the overall mix of activities will rival the excellence found in Assassin's Creed Origins. What we can say is that it's going to be one massive adventure and that even though it builds on the mechanical foundation of Origins it somehow manages to be very different too.