My Odyssey

Sometimes, instead of playing D&D, our group would get together and play a console game. Usually, it would be something we could take turns at, a perennial favourite being Katamari. Then we might fight it out with Super Smash Bros Brawl or, before Twitch was a thing, watch one person play Halo, Portal, or, in one memorable instance, Assassin’s Creed.

It was early 2008 and we’d never heard of this game, but it looked fun. Kind of like Prince of Persia, but with a much bigger world and story. So I bought a copy and played it through, experiencing the usual arc of new game discovery. In addition to learning how to make Altair run and jump and climb, there were extra senses and puzzles and things to collect. It was hard and frustrating, then not so hard and fun in that ‘I’ve accomplished a thing and I really want to accomplish the next thing’ way, then amazing, and then… wow. There was a story here, something deeper than an overarching reason to kill stuff and collect stuff. The best part for me, though, was the fact you didn’t have to fight your way to every victory. A lot of the time, you could sneak around the bad guys, pull off one spectacular kill, and run away.

This wondrous game had also solved the inconsistent puzzle of death and resurrection. Because the player character was reliving the memories of ancestors through a device called the Animus, death was really just desynchronization. Reload and try again.

Perfect game was perfect.

You can continue reading the highlights of my Assassin’s Creed journey in previous posts. (Assassin’s Creed III, Black Flag, Syndicate, Unity, and Rogue.) Today, I’m going to leap forward twenty or so years to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which I just finished, bringing me up to date and ahead of new releases for the first time in ten years.

I’ve loved many of the ACs between then and now, most notably Ezio’s story in Assassin’s Creed II. Odyssey was like playing the game again for the first time. I was immediately swept up in an immersive story and my adventures—no matter how mundane—remained driven by that story until the final cut scene.

A note before reading forward. Although I’ve endeavored to avoid spoilers in The Good, I can’t avoid them in The Bad. Paragraphs containing spoilers will be tagged in red with SPOILER and END SPOILER

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The Good

In Odyssey, you get to play a male or female protagonist and the game feels equally relevant to either gender. It’s seriously annoying to play a female character in a game that is obviously designed for a male character. The dialogue is always off or, worse, the developers have tossed in a couple throwaways for the female version that are sexist at best, downright insulting at worst. Not so in Odyssey.

I played the game through as Kassandra and found myself rewarded by a rich, tailored to me and my playstyle experience. For the most part, the NPCs I interacted with didn’t care if the player character was male or female, even when they were offering fun between the sheets. But where it mattered—in quest conclusions and cut scenes—they know who you’re playing. It makes a difference and I found the experience wonderfully refreshing.

The story is fantastic and has enough depth and breadth to encompass nearly all you do in the game. I love open worlds, but so often find the overarching story isn’t compelling enough to direct all that you do, meaning you can side-quest your way to oblivion, literally passing years, all while doomsday is waiting on you. In terms of immersion, this is always a bust. The game might be fun, but the story is a fail. Not so in Odyssey.

It took me 120 hours to complete the main quest(s), played over a period of 4-5 months. Some days I would spend two hours hunting and sacking pirate ships in order to upgrade the Adrestia. Others, I would raid forts to gather the materials needed to upgrade Kassandra’s armor (which becomes increasingly unnecessary as you advance through the main plot—but I just liked raiding forts). Then I might follow up on some of the side quests undertaken for friends and family. Occasionally, I would side-quest simply to level up enough to tackle the next part of the main story. But everything I did counted toward the main story. Read that again. None of my actions were time wasted.

I stumbled across cultists that needed killing, and lines of conquest that needed moving. Random people needed saving—and would turn up later in the game to reward Kassandra for taking time out to help them. Sometimes I messed up.

SPOILER I showed mercy to a family of plague characters who spread the disease over an entire island. I killed a person who might have influenced the outcome of some other event. END SPOILER

None of these mistakes killed the game, though. There are always multiple ways to achieve a goal.

20191110184123
Kassandra and Nicolaus

The interweaving of the protagonist’s story and the main quest is superbly done with the rediscovery of each family member opening a new chapter, thereby widening the breadth of the main quest. There was a point, about halfway through, where I wondered if I’d ever finish the game. I had so much left to do—keys to Atlantis to find, cultists to hunt, the war to navigate, and myriad smaller quest chains that folded back into the main one.

And yet the main quest never loses its potency or urgency. At pivotal points in the game, the story of the world would advance, opening new quest chains and sometimes closing a couple I was working on, meaning I lost out on an opportunity here and there. Such is life, and what you will experience while playing this game is a significant portion of many characters’ lives.

Odyssey has deeper companion arcs than previous instances of the game. While we still don’t adventure with a group, the crew of your ship remains consistent and will include important people you collect along the way. The crew will also have quests for you that will fold back into the main story, sometimes only peripherally, but always in a way that makes you feel as if you are not wasting time. I loved these deeper connections and pursuing them paid off at the end of the game with a series of epilogue quests involving the player character musing over the journey they and the companion have taken together. I had to reach for the tissues more than once.

Until Odyssey, my favourite weapons in the Assassin’s Creed franchise was the berserk dart. I don’t think I ever used it in Odyssey, because I had Leonidas’s spear and OMG, this is the most amazing weapon EVER. There needs to be an equivalent in every Assassin’s Creed game from here on out, or I’m going to get very pouty. So, this spear. I picked up a skill where Kassandra could throw it at an unsuspecting target, not only dealing bonus damage (magic weaon+stealth), but the throw would transport Kassandra to that spot. Hello, teleport device! Want to kill that archer in the tower without climbing the side? Use the spear, then look down upon the world from on high to pick out your next target.

Dude in a group that needs thinning, or probably eradicating completely? Upgrade this skill and you’ll get up to FOUR additional attacks, meaning you can throw, teleporting yourself into the thick of it, recover the spear to throw at the next target, recover and throw again, recover and throw again, and oh, the first guy isn’t quite dead. Recover and throw again. Or that extra guard poking her head around the corner? Take her out too. Or use a rush assassination to get there quickly and stab her with the spear because it’s fully loaded and ready to go.

I also loved the shield break skill. Upgraded, activating this skill not only breaks the shield on that huge warrior with the heaviest shield on the field but flattens him and knocks back surrounding targets, dealing damage to all involved. Kick him while he’s down, use a power attack, and the guy is dead. Meanwhile, your armor is HEALING YOU.

Then there’s the Spartan Kick.

I didn’t keep a tally of how many enemies I ended by simply kicking them off something high, but it was a lot. Also, one of my favourite pastimes became kicking important NPCs off the sides of ships and listening to them hurl insults from the water while I looted their goodies. Fun times.

Some of the skills I’m describing aren’t attainable until you’ve spent 30 or 40 levels worth of points (probably fewer if you actually have a character build goal in mind). What this meant for me, though, was that the boss fights were easier and end game foes weren’t quite as daunting as they’ve been in the past. This was a good thing. End game, I don’t want to reload thirty times, or have to replay from a save I made two months ago to better equip my hero (looking at you, Horizon Zero Dawn). I want to be better, stronger, more powerful. To feel, if not equal to the final foe, then at least capable.

I also really loved that the world leveled with me. You can’t go back to the starting area to farm leather from wandering goats twenty levels below you. I mean, you can, but the goats will be your level. So will the bandits.

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The Bad

Which, in this instance, is more like the not so good, because there was very little to complain about…

I spent a lot of time mid-game upgrading legendary armor and weapons when I really didn’t have to. I did it to keep set bonuses active because I enjoyed buffs like regaining adrenaline or health. I needed that edge for some of the more difficult fights. I probably could have shaved twenty hours off my playtime by ignoring legendary set bonuses, practicing my dodge (I was three quarters through the game before I finally figured out how to roll properly and NOT DIE when on fire), and enchanting—er, I mean engraving—epic armor. It would have been cheaper.

Also, because I tend to wander all over the map discovering things for myself and completing a ton of side quests before putting most of my effort into the main quest, I was a little overpowered by the time I got toward the end of the main story. I didn’t mind this so much. The fights, while not super difficult, were still long enough to present a challenge. As mentioned above, I enjoyed not having to reload thirty times.

The number of legendary armor sets available endgame is a bit ridiculous and you don’t really need any of them. The legendary weapons are too numerous as well. But it’s still fun being spoiled for choice.

Last minor quibble—discovered ship docks should have been fast travel points. Having to fast travel to a synchronization point, then walk to a dock to summon the ship was stupid.

Let’s move on to some real complaints… and actual SPOILERS.

While I did alt-tab to google a way to save her, Phoibe’s death was more of a surprise than an emotional low point. It felt… cheap? It’s tragic and most people I’ve spoken to were more affected by it than I was. But I found Phoibe a little annoying from the start. Cute, but was she really necessary? Also, what’s with the AC developers and killing kids? Ugh.

Honestly, though, the reason her death didn’t affect me all that strongly was that the relationship wasn’t deep enough for me to truly miss her. I wasn’t her parent or even sibling. She wasn’t even in Athens at my request and I wouldn’t have sent her on the kinds of errands the game puts up for her if I hadn’t had to.

The big one for me, though, was that I needed no further incentive to hunt and kill cultists. None. I’m a gamer. Hunting and killing to a list is what I do. Also, they kidnapped my brother!!!! Kassandra’s brother. Whatever. They were going down.

Brasidas’s death gutted me, however. I grieved inside the game and outside. I’ve come to terms with it, sort of. Being a figure from actual history, Brasidas’s story couldn’t be changed. Not really. And it’s so well woven into the game. But, goddamn. I wanted to marry Brasidas and have his kids. I mean Kassandra did. Whatever. He was an amazing character and his death brought to the forefront the only real weakness in this otherwise superlative game. The crew quests are engaging. The notables you quest for on land (Alkibiades, Socrates, etc.) begin to feel like a second family. You can sleep with almost anyone. But there is no real romance.

END SPOILERS

I’ve never wished for a romance in an Assassin’s Creed game before. The love story included in Ezio’s trilogy is one I lived for and I enjoyed Unity all the more because of the star crossed lovers theme, but I’ve never hankered for a deeper and developing relationship with one of the protagonist’s main companions… until now. The story of Odyssey with themes of family, found, rediscovered, forged and reformed, almost begs for it. The player lives out years of Kassandra or Alexios’ lives. I couldn’t help feeling that romance should have been a part of it.

Finally, while I’ve been delighted by the return to a modern protagonist with an actual face (Layla Hassan), her narrative doesn’t really do much. The final scene for her and Kassandra is pretty cool, but Layla still doesn’t really have a story of her own. Not like Desmond did. One of the aspects of the earlier games (especially ACII) I really enjoyed was the three concurrent stories—the past through the Animus, the present with Desmond, and the past/future/whatever of the Precursors. In later games, we’ve been getting a lot of regurgitation of the same history and facts from the Precursor scenes. I want something new. I’ve often fantasized about a game where we actually make a difference in the precursor story. Maybe they’re saving that for the final edition and I’ll be dead by the time they release it.

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The Ugly

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The world isn’t ugly, it just takes a long time to load.

It’s a big, beautiful world and it takes FOREVER to load. I’ve experienced worse load times (The Sims 3), but not by much. What irked more than the load times for fast travel, though, was the loading in the middle of end quest cut scenes, or while Kassandra was on horseback. The game would just pause and load and pause and load.

You could argue that perhaps my PC needs an upgrade (I switched to the PC version with ACIII and play with an Xbox controller), but I’ve played newer games (Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order) with nary a hitch. I would rather have experienced a smaller load between game zones than the sometimes interminable load between fast travel nodes.

That’s it. The only ugly.

Otherwise, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is epic. It’s the best game in the franchise so far. Topping this one will be a tall order. But I’m already excited about the next game, which, rumor has it, will be set in the Viking world. This will mean more ship combat, which now feels such an integral part of the game that I’d miss it if it weren’t there. This will also mean some new lore—expanding on the European feel, and the more recent tour through the ancient world.

My hopes for Assassin’s Creed 2020 are few. I’d like the combat to not change substantially. Those sorts of changes plagued the early games, making it difficult for me to advance. I’d also like the opportunity to play a female character again. I’d really, really like deeper relationships with the protagonist’s companions, with the possibility of actual romance—or more than sex. I absolutely must have something equivalent to Leonidas’s spear!

I’m looking forward to seeing what Ubisoft will deliver.

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