Big game season means more Call of Duty, more FIFA and more Assassin’s Creed, as the franchise continues to trot around the globe like one of those travel programmes with Michael Palin, except in this analogy the cheeky ex-Python kills everyone during the ad breaks. The action has now moved from Egypt to Greece… well, as much as the action can move in Assassin’s Creed. Because the action here, lest we forget, is not real. It’s a simulation of history based off some Weird Science logic using DNA and a VR contraption called the Animus, which always makes the entire thing seem fairly pointless and predetermined, like prequel films or trying to get a refund out of House of Fraser.
It’s easy to forget the role of the Animus in Assassin’s Creed, because it doesn’t really come up that often, particularly in Odyssey, in which you take two trips outside of the contraption in the space of the first twenty hours, and even then you don’t really do anything besides uncover some Easter eggs from Splinter Cell and Kingdom Battle. It’s referred to so little in both the game and the marketing around the game, it feels like a matter of time before it’s sacked off entirely. What’s more, the ‘real life’ character (whose name I can’t even remember, she’s on screen so infrequently) you play as outside of the Animus is much less likeable than the main playable characters, partly through her personality but more so because you’re not given enough time to grow to like her before you’re back in fake ancient Greece.
You can choose to explore the open world inside the Animus with either Alexios or Cassandra, being the first time an AC game has offered you this choice and something much trumpeted by its makers. Both characters’ dialogue and voice-acting is excellent, and in the spirit of RPG-ing things up, there’s dialogue options for both, which can impinge on the outcome and events in the world but mostly seem to exist for you to chat-up everyone you come into contact with. The story that propels you through the world packs plenty of intrigue, with family connections providing more twists and turns than Medusa’s mad snakey hair, and I felt connected with and interested in both mercenaries, despite their interchangeable stories.
As we were reminded by September’s Spider-Man release, the key to a great open world game is how you get around it. The web-swinging and wall-crawling mechanics from Peter Parker’s shiny PS4 outing filled most of the review space. Assassin’s Creed has always understood this, and its easy parkour system, enabling you to scramble up cliffs, hurdle rocks and swan-dive from vantage points, has always put traversal a cut above competitors from the off.
And what a world it is to navigate. A major plus of the Assassin’s franchise is it’s embrace of beautiful, panoramic environments, and they don’t get more blissfully beautiful than this; all shimmering ocean, pervasive greenery and fancily dressed, tanned NPCs swanning about in togas and probably having far too much sex when they’re not asking you to fetch ingredients for makeshift Viagra for them (a real side-quest, should you wish to do so). Wildlife and wild flowers stretch across the landscape, and the small towns and areas for the most part all feel unique.
Even more so than looking inviting, the world of Odyssey feels alive. For all the cliché jokes and eye-rolling about Ubisoft churning out open-world games, the upshot of making so many of these sprawling epics is that they’ve gotten quite good at it. While it’s a little disappointing that Assassin’s Creed seems to have settled back into the annual release rhythm of every other big franchise going, it doesn’t lessen the quality of the product on offer. It doesn’t matter how often you release something if the thing is this well made, right? Yes, there’s the usual slew of icons across the map (although you can curtail this with the Exploration mode) and yes, there’s high spots to climb to for getting a better view of the surrounding area on your map, but there’s also pirates, hunting and mercenaries. The latter is an especially fun way to add danger and emergent gameplay to the environment; as you find yourself with a bounty on your head, roving NPCs can jump you at any point to try to claim it, even mid-quest. The naval combat, now becoming a staple of the AC series, is present and as great as it ever was. The feeling of crunching through another vessel, boarding the remains and booting the crew overboard is the best bit of pirate action available on any console, and it’s basically a side-quest.
The environment also presents plenty of opportunity for cunning and thinking outside of the box. One of the most obvious ways is using the world to your advantage in battles. I found myself unable to kill one particular boss character after a few attempts with the usual sword on sword combat. Instead, I lured him up to the top of a guard tower and just… Spartan-kicked him off it, letting the fall take care of the killing. I had a similar moment while taking on a particularly well-staffed guard camp, until I figured out I could lure a pack of nearby hungry wolves to them and watch the carnage safely from a distance.
All this openness and beauty comes at a cost, however; playing this on a regular, run of the mill, bog-standard, peasant-issue PS4 is far from being as smooth as a Greek yoghurt. Rather than acknowledging loading times as you move between areas, the game tends to pretend they aren’t there but will instead happily freeze for seconds at a time. The horse riding is particularly clippy too, with poor Phobos flicking about regularly when traversing difficult terrain. Other websites may advise you play this on a PS4 Pro or XBoxOneX, but… the game is available for the base systems. It’s supposed to run properly on them. Also of note is some questionable AI; I once entered a town only for an elderly man, with no one else around, to leap in the air and take a back bump like a WWE trainee. The camera is often messy too, getting stuck behind all the lovely architecture at key points in fights on a regular basis.
Combat is a little different, feeling something like Dark Souls as, minus shield or anything to block, you’re reliant on dodging and parries to create space between you and enemies to get swipes in. Indeed, there’s even a symbolic moment in the initial tutorial section when your shield is discarded very pointedly. It’s a method that feels quick and lively, forcing you to stay on your toes and keep engaged in your enemy’s movements rather than hiding behind a shield. Attack buttons are set to the shoulder buttons rather than the face buttons of the controller, a choice which feels bizarre at first but eventually falls under the fingers well. When taking on some enemies that can feel like sword-sponges (the Kalydonian boar springs to mind), repetition begins to set in, but otherwise there’s a lot of variety, thanks to the usual skill-tree set up and acquisition of new moves, as well as your hunting bow, to keep it fun.
Making a more RPG-like game is all very well and good, but the further you progress into this the more you become aware of the ‘helping-hands’ on offer from Ubisoft. The frequency with which you’re presented with a story mission that’s above your current level increases gradually, and you’ve got two choices, my misthios friend…
Firstly, you can grind like Tony Hawk, hitting side missions until you’re ready and at the appropriate power. There’s certainly no shortage of side quests and mechanics to get to grips with to level up, but these verge on the uninspired side. One particularly memorable such task involved doing a favour for a woman whose husband had gone to war, by taking her heroic spouse a lock of her hair. Sounds dull enough on its own until you notice the waypoint reveals the husband and wife are all of 100 yards apart. Not really the best use of one of the biggest open worlds going, lads.
There’s also plenty of assaults on forts, leader’s houses, battles and even the odd assassination, but across the significant span of the game these become like déjà vu, especially when you’re just trying to get up a few levels to continue with the story. So instead of grinding, you can head to the store front, where you can find XP boosters amongst the usual weapons and skins to climb the level ladder quicker. What’s even worse, these are literally labelled ‘Time Savers’, a decision that begs the question why Ubisoft made the game so long in the first place…. Wait, no it doesn’t, it’s so you can pay to skip bits, having already bought a £50 videogame. Look, if Ubisoft can afford to hire Michael Fassbender for a movie no one saw, they can afford to take the hit and pull mirotransactions out of their games. Everyone knows the ‘bender ain’t cheap.