It's been a while since I picked up an Assassin's Creed game, but the Black Friday PSN sale (combined with the news that PS4 games will be able to carry over to the PS5, making digital downloads/purchases much more resilient) offered a deal too good to miss. Plus, since The Wild Hunt, I've not really had a good story-based game on the go, and I really enjoyed playing through AC1 and AC2 back in the day. Well, the franchise has certainly switched things up a bit since then; some bits for the good, some bits for the worse.
To begin with, the impact that The Wild Hunt had on open-world games is so readily apparent whilst playing through Odyssey that it sometimes feels like they're just trying to rip-off CD Projekt Red's masterpiece. Unfortunately, whilst AC:O manages to clone a lot of the feel of the side quests, collectables, and game mechanics of the Witcher franchise, the writing is never quite up to par. There are a few notable side missions, such as the quest where everything goes wrong (you accidentally cause the local blacksmith to trip and kill himself; the local warrior becomes convinced her fancy new horse you fetch her is a pegasus and plummets off a cliff to her death; the pirate ships you sink turn out to be local reinforcements in disguise etc. etc.), or the fake almost-parody of the classic Odyssey myth with Barnabas, but there were few truly memorable moments or side characters that I cared about at all.
Instead, the main plotline is where Odyssey does its best work. Whilst it gets off to a slow and slightly baffling start, with an overly stressful tutorial built into the fight of the 300 Spartans followed up by a time jump to a character with no back story, context, or guidance, once you make it to mainland Greece and uncover the main story arc it hooked me in and refused to let go. The whole Cult concept is a pretty simple one: create a league of shadowy, utterly evil villains, and slowly unmask them, assassinate them, and move on to the next. Some Cult members are just stumbled upon, others take lengthy work to uncover, but they always felt like a worthy opponent. I also enjoyed the fact that there are a few whose fate is flexible. One Cult member appears to be blackmailed into his deeds and you can choose to save his family and help him walk away from the Cult, or simply kill him. Then, of course, there is Deimos, your sister (or brother, depending on which gender you pick during initial character setup). Play your cards right and she doesn't just leave the Cult, she'll join you in helping destroy them.
Because woven into this fairly simplistic tale of Good versus Evil is your own personal quest to discover what happened to your family. As you begin to realise that your sister's sacrifice as a child – an event that saw you thrown from a mountain as punishment and your mother exiled – was all part of a grander plan, you slowly piece together your past. This works, to an extent. As mentioned, it means your initial ten or so hours with the game is just a baffling sequence of things happening to you. Only in hindsight does the story actually take shape. That's a shame, because with a little more context (and a few less flashbacks) the early game would be a lot more enjoyable.
That element of shaping the story alluded to with the Cult and your family is found throughout AC:O, another element seemingly borrowed from games like The Witcher. Whilst it does give you some depth to the story, it seems like very few of your decisions really matter, and worse, quite often it locks you into a binary choice when there are other, much more obvious choices your character could make. It's not uncommon to be forced into a kill/release dialogue option, or to be made to choose between two sides of a story, when in reality the answer would be to investigate further. A prime example is one of the later quests with Barnabas, where you discover that someone in his family is betraying his home island to the Persians. Not only is his actual family structure irritatingly obtuse (I think the ultimate villain is an adopted friend? It remains unclear), but he forces you to decide which of the two men is to blame before you have any real evidence either way. The real decision would be to investigate further, ask them some questions, try to actually do some detective work, but instead they obviously grew bored of the writing the story so just arbitrarily end it early.
Elsewhere, you're forced into helping some characters that are simply annoying, such as a woman who believes herself to be the descendent of Achilles (or Hercules? I can't remember any more). I honestly didn't care at all about her, and yet for some reason I was able to romance her? Despite the fact that we'd barely interacted and she wasn't a likeable character at all? The fact that she later crops up again in a far more interesting plot, just felt like they wanted to flesh her out and sticking in a romance option was the best they could come up with. Speaking of, yes, there are romance options and you can sleep with various characters throughout the game (*cough* Witcher *cough*). There is absolutely no impact on the plot for doing so, romance dialogue options are literally highlighted with a heart emoji, and the actual deed is done off-screen, so these are a pretty pointless addition. The only positive about them is that the game doesn't care what gender you pick at the start, you can still romance the same characters, which means same-sex relationships are very much on the table and actively encouraged.
Luckily, a lot of the more prominent characters are well fleshed out and do drive emotional plot arcs forward. Plus, it wouldn't be an Assassins Creed title without plenty of historical cameos, and it remains genuinely fun to get to befriend the likes of Plato, Hippokrates, and Herodotos. Some, such as Alkibiades and Brasidas, even become pivotal enough to make their side quests some of the more interesting, just to dive a bit deeper into their personalities (even though they're frequently just standard fetch quests or protection missions). Unfortunately, that same historical bent means that your control over their fate is largely sealed; no matter how you play the game, for instance, Brasidas will die. In fact, AC:O had a nasty habit of taking the only characters I really liked and killing them, though I was glad that Barnabus (the ship's captain) survived everything, and happy that in at least one case your actions could result in sparing a genuinely likeable character: Roxana, the only romance quest that came close to actual emotions, and whose victory at the Battle of One Hundred Hands can be turned into convincing her to help you defeat the Cult rather than entering into one-on-one combat.
Speaking of which, the combat system has, um, changed a bit. I still found it enjoyable (once I'd worked it out, at least 😂) but the fluidity of movement I remember being a hallmark of the series is somewhat absent. It's near impossible to string more than a half dozen moves together, even when fully levelled up and with maxed out skills. Similarly gone is your ability to blend with a crowd, which forces you into a lot of "whistle and wait" tactics if trying to actually play stealthily. The other hallmark mechanic, free running, is still wonderfully present, making cross-continent traversal much more enjoyable than many similar games, but unfortunately there's just very little need for it. The architecture in the game is beautiful and (I'm led to believe) fairly realistic, but it doesn't suit the rooftop-assassin gameplay of the original series. I'm sure part of that is explained by this being a prequel and technically predating the Assassins as an organisation, but it still feels like a bit of a shame. Sure, you aren't going to get wrist-daggers (and the Spear of Leonidas is a fun stand-in), but I would have liked at least a bit more of an assassin-y feel to the game.
Whilst a lot of AC:O does feel like The Witcher-lite, it does get some things very right. Underwater gameplay is improved immensely by the simple addition of an "ascend to surface" button, making getting trapped due to weird 3D movement glitches much easier to overcome. Whilst I didn't use it much, the ability to lock your horse onto a specific path on the road was appreciated at times. Bigger improvements again are the complete lack of inventory weight (thank Zeus!) meaning that you aren't constantly micromanaging a totally pointless part of the game, and the fact that weapon upgrades actually felt like a valid progression path. Sure, loot tended to include higher-level weapons, but between enchantments and upgrades, you could always get the gear you liked to a similar level, letting you equip for your play style a lot more readily. I do wish there was a smidgeon more flexibility in the enchantment mechanic, and I had absolutely no idea about the fact that your boat has a long-term storage chest on it until I'd literally completed the game (!), but overall it was a notable improvement over anything I've played before.
Less improved was the economy system. Sure, you don't need to worry about how much gold specific traders have (they're all immensely wealthy) and there aren't too many MacGuffins, but you still have to manually go through every damn item that you want to sell, individually, one-by-one. I have no idea why games insist on this irritating mechanic, yet somehow it persists. Unless, of course, there was some button combo I was meant to use. Because AC:O is just bad at tutorials. For the entire 150+ hours I played it, I just had to be frustrated at the consistent reminders of how to swim, how to use your eagle Ikaros, and what message boards were for. It would frequently pause the game in the early segments to flash up mini-tutorials that I already knew and had already been using. And yet, there are bits of the game I've never been told about. It took me over a 100 hours to really work out how to take part in ship battles, which I absolutely despised as a result for most of the run-through, just because I couldn't work out how to get javelins to work consistently. I only discovered that you could hurdle things around the same time because of a loading screen prompt. And I accidentally stumbled on the "auto craft arrow" option thankfully early on. Oh, and I still have no idea what the two different modes really change; I stuck with the default throughout and constantly wondered if I'd enjoy the game more without it 😂
And then there's the sci-fi stuff. Look, I enjoyed the core story in Odyssey. I really got into the Cult plot, I found the mysteries around my family intriguing, I was even hooked in by the historical sub-quests, and of course, I loved travelling around ancient Greece, seeing things like Delphi and the Parthenon in all their glory (I mean, that ivory and gold statue at the Parthenon is phenomenal, even if a lot of the giant statues are fictional in the game). But I just don't care about the whole Animus gimmick. I didn't understand the modern plotline at all, it had no relevance to the wider story, and it was just boring. I still kinda enjoy the whole "Precursors" set up and it was genuinely fun tracking down and battling Medusa, the Sphinx, the Minotaur, and the Cyclops (even if the latter was overused; there's a whole bestiary of Greek myths to choose from, but we get Cyclops x3), so having them be alien tech was a neat-enough way to keep the immersion of the ancient world, but I still have no idea what happened in the end sequence in Atlantis. And what's more: I don't care, either.
I'd much rather be running around with the Daughters of Artemis (in spite of their, um, questionable environmental messaging), investigating Cult clues, battling in the Fighting Pits, exploring the Greek archipelagos, or leaping off the outstretched trident of a colossal bronze Poseidon. That stuff was hugely fun, rarely felt repetitive (even when it factually was), and consistently entertaining. So, Assassins Creed, just give up on the Isu, or let them be a pointless mystery you use to handwave away some of the magic. Just let me be a Greek mercenary with infinite fall damage, precognition, and the ability to Warg into an eagle without having it need to be some VR game from the future.