Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PS4) review – This is Sparta

At a glance, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks nothing like the series early days. It leans heavily into role-playing game systems, more so even than last year’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, to the point that many liken it to The Witcher and BioWare’s games. Stealth still plays a big role, but depending on your choices of skills and equipment, you can be just as effective with a brute force approach. Indeed, the “Assassin’s Creed” name seems a misnomer, with the game taking place many hundreds of years before the Assassins were formed.

But for all its new developments, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is still, fundamentally, an Assassin’s Creed game—and a damn good one, at that. Assassin’s Creed games have never been just about sneaking around and stabbing people. They’re historical playgrounds, ones that admittedly take liberties with historical accuracy but commit everything to authenticity. They’re ways of transporting yourself to settings that you never would be able to in real life; the sneaking and stabbing are just some of the tools the games use to pull you into their world.

Related reading: Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins offers up another wonderful slice of history: ancient Egypt. Read our review.

In Odyssey‘s case, that historical playground is Greece, 431 BCE, in the early days of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. This won’t come as a surprise, but it makes for an absolutely stunning setting: it’s a gorgeous part of the world, re-created with the level of detail and polish that only a game of Assassin’s Creed‘s budget can achieve. The combination of historical and mythological sites give texture to that world and cement its place in history.

It still takes my breath away every time I crest a mountain and see the sprawling hills on the other side, valleys all snaking towards a sprawling town by the sea. Walking into Athens for the first time is something I won’t soon forget—not just for the majesty of it, but also for the sense of life in the crowded streets.

It’s almost a shame that Odyssey falls into the same icon-itis trap as every other Ubisoft game, where the map is always cluttered with little icons representing points of interest and things to do. That said, many of said icons are far more interesting than your usual open-world checklist simulator and actually encourage you to use the world around you—thereby taking notice of it and appreciating it—in order to do what you have to do.

This comes back to what I was saying about stealth being one of Assassin’s Creed‘s tools for immersing you in its world. A lot of the optional objectives revolve around sneaking into enemy bases to kill military leaders and the like. Doing this successfully means making use of your environment, whether it’s setting up an elaborate cat and mouse game or simply hiding in a bush waiting for the right moment to strike. Naturally, making use of the environment also means paying attention to it, and letting it wash over you.

Even if you opt for a more brute force approach—which is perfectly viable in Odyssey, thanks to the RPG systems—you’re still going to want to use the environment around you to give you the upper hand. When you’re one against many, gaining the high ground makes it easier to keep track of all the enemies you’re up against, which in turn means soaking in the view, whether you want to or not.

To its credit, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey also offers an extensive range of options for turning off those little things constantly vying for your attention so that you can just exist in the world and discover it at your own pace.

At the start of the game, you’re given a choice between “guided mode” and “exploration mode”, the latter suggesting a more hands-off approach that lets you do your own discovery and the former for people who just want to get on with the story. In practice, the difference between the two is negligible: in exploration mode, you’re given the general area of your next objective and then need to isolate it by speaking to people and getting more information, while guided mode just tells you where to go.

But when you dig deeper into the options menu, there are toggles for just about every piece of UI. Don’t want that compass full of nearby points of interest? Turn it off. Don’t want the quest log and information about which faction controls the current region? Turn them off. Don’t want to see your health bar, or get warnings about incoming attacks? Turn them off. Whatever level of guidance or freeform exploration you want, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has your back.

Beyond simply giving you a rich, detailed world to explore, Odyssey also has a story to tell—and in keeping with the theme of ancient Greece, it’s one of family tragedy and epic discovery.

You play as a descendant of the Spartan hero Leonidas, who survived being thrown to your doom as a young child and ended up growing into a mercenary life. One fateful job sets you on a path in search of your long-lost parents and sibling, building up into a suitably epic quest involving mythological figures, a shady cult, and plenty of betrayals and double crosses. It borders on cheesy at times, but looked at as a sort of modern spin on ancient Greek theatre, it works.

More than previous games in the series, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gives you some degree of influence over how events play out—primarily through dialogue choices, but also through the likes of who you choose to support in the various battles between Spartan and Athenian forces. There are a few key choices that affect major plot points, like who lives and dies, but for the most part, they allow you to role-play your character to a much greater extent. Both Kassandra and Alexios—the two options for your main character—have their personalities pre-determined to some extent, but you can make your mark on them with what you say and do.

With that role-playing system also comes romances. This is where Odyssey drew a lot of comparisons to BioWare prior to release, but that’s not really apt; where romance in BioWare games is characterised by a usually lengthy process of courting and building up relationships, Odyssey is all about quick flings. It’s immediately apparent if a character might be a romance option from the heart-marked dialogue options, and you’ll typically go from first meeting to sex in the span of one short chain of sidequests.

In some ways, it fits; this sort of unfettered sexuality seems appropriate for a game set in ancient Greece. On the other hand, it lacks the depth personal connection of BioWare romances. It’s not quite sex cards, but Odyssey‘s romances are very much built around some brief, cute flirting that quickly leads to an off-screen sex scene, and then it’s on to the next one.

Even so, those erotic escapades are all part of what makes Assassin’s Creed Odyssey tick: it’s about dropping yourself into a historical playground and exploring it to the fullest. It’s not perfectly accurate, it’s not always “realistic”, but it’s lifelike and, most important, it’s authentic. To play Odyssey is to lose yourself in a slice of history, and that’s always what the Assassin’s Creed games have done best.

(It really is time to ditch the present day stuff, though.)

Score: 4 stars
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Genre: Action Adventure / Open World
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 5 October 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.