Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey debuts on October 5 on the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. I had a chance to play the first four hours or so of it — the first full chapter in a very long game — at a Ubisoft event last week in San Francisco. During that time, I only made it to three relatively minor islands in the Greek Isles. That gave me a taste of how massive the world of Odyssey will be.
The prelude for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the latest title in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series coming on October 5, begins at the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas tried to hold off an invading army of Persians. The battle, made famous in the film 300, takes place 49 years before the events of Odyssey.
It’s a good beginning that shows off the large melees that will take place across the landscape of Odyssey, which covers Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens and Sparta squared off in a ferocious civil war on both land and sea. And it’s a nice treat for 300 fans, putting you in the middle of a famous battle from 2,500 years ago.
But when the game picks up 49 years later, it will feel like you’re in a brand new world and an original story. Odyssey begins in 431 BC, on the island of Kephallonia (also spelled Cephalonia), just across a narrow strait from Odysseus’ home island of Ithaka. (If you’re confused by the title, this story takes place long after the time of the Trojan War and Homer’s The Odyssey). The name Odyssey refers to the island-hopping journey that you’ll go on during the game as a different Greek hero, a fictional person that you’ll make into a new legend, said Scott Phillips, game director at Ubisoft, in an interview with GamesBeat.
“Early on, we decided choice was going to be essential to the game,” Phillips said. “Choice within an role-playing game setting. Greece became a great setting. Then we thought about the great iconic battles and moments in Greece, and the battle of the 300 and Thermopylae. It’s a persistent thing in movies and stories. That’s something we wanted to hit on early on, to start with a bang. We wanted a story that was very personal. It’s also a small scale story about reuniting your family. But that small scale blows up and amplifies into these world-changing events. At its core, your goal is to reunite with the family you’ve been torn apart from.”
In the short prelude to the game, you’ll bear witness to King Leonidas’ heroic last stand against the onslaught of the Persian army in the narrow pass at Thermopylae. He cuts an impressive figure, and he bravely or foolishly says, “Let us go meet our fate, shall we?” The cutscene shows the 300 setting up to defend against the charge of the Persians, and then the gameplay picks up with you as Leonidas, wielding a mighty spear.
You fight the Persians in man-to-man combat, taking them down one or two at a time. The combat feels good. You can dodge and then quickly go on the attack, dislodge a shield, or fire ranged weapons. You just have to watch out for Persians coming at you from all directions during the melee. The first day’s battle ends in victory, and Leonidas boasts that the Persians will never forget that day, and the world will never forget what the Spartans will do on the next day. But, as legend tells it, the Spartans are betrayed by a local citizen, who shows the Persians a route around the pass, so that the Spartans will be surrounded. The final scene in the prelude focuses on Leonidas’ spear, and then it fades to black and shows us a modern-day scene.
Layla Hassan and Victoria Bibeau hold Leonidas’ spear, and discuss its authenticity. Hassan says, “If this book is right, this spear, this story … will change everything.” The spear has DNA on it, and you have to choose which strain you want. I chose Kassandra, the female warrior. The story unfolds the same way, regardless of whether you choose the female or male.
After that, Hassan gets into the Animus (a machine that lets you re-live the memories of an ancestor connected to your DNA) and goes back in time to Greece. She hopes to recover an artifact that could help the Assassins, who favor peace and free will, against the Knights Templars, who control the company Abstergo (maker of the Animus) and believe peace comes through control of humanity.
The living island of Kephallonia
The scene opens with an eagle’s view of the island. It flies through the beautiful land, which is rich with wildlife, trees, grass, and wolves. The eagle flies past Kassandra, sitting on the roof and holding a spearhead in her hands. It is from the spear of Leonidas, in the hands of an ordinary mercenary. But it connects her bloodline back to the Spartan king. It’s also an artifact of the First Civilization from Assassin’s lore, and it is the link to the modern-day descendant, Layla Hassan.
Kassandra knows none of this. She is stuck on an island of lost hope. She is alerted to danger by the eagle, Ikaros. Two thugs have come to collect money from her provider, Markos. Someone named the Cyclops wants to collect a debt, and Kassandra stands in the way. She makes short work of the thugs, and the scene serves as a tutorial for fighting. You can parry, dodge, or launch your own attacks in quick succession. You have to disarm a soldier with a shield first, which is a little tricky. Then you press your advantage and go in for the kill. It’s a simple combat system, but early on you should make sure you’ve got the commands down.
Phoebe, a young kid who looks up to Kassandra. comes to talk with her. Then you go off to Markos, a fast-talking businessman who has close ties to Kassandra because he rescued her when she was a child. Now, as an adult, Kassandra is his protector and enforcer. She takes various jobs to earn some money. The early missions have a lot to do with protecting Markos from the debt collectors of Cyclops and pursuing one of Markos’ get-rich plans. In most of the early dialogue, you have the choice of being cruel or nice. Later on, you’ll face choices such as killing harmless people or letting them go.
I even got to choose which horse would bear me. On the missions, I worked my way up, killing a bunch of bandits who were hijacking wood supplies, retrieving a treasure from an underwater cave, rescuing Phoebe from the Cyclops’ soldiers, and stealing a heavily guarded artifact. The early missions weren’t hard, and they served as good practice. I used stealth as much as I could, but Kassandra was so strong as a fighter that I was usually able to survive if multiple soldiers discovered me and descended on me.
Perhaps the toughest task was staying healthy as I crossed the countryside and came across multiple wolves. It’s like Kephallonia is a living place. If you behave badly toward the population, you can get a price on your head. And if you come in range of other mercenaries, they may pursue you to get the reward. If the reward on your head becomes huge, they’ll hunt you down, adding complexity to the ordinary task of fulfilling missions.
During the game, Kassandra has flashbacks to her early life, where you meet hear family and learn how she became separated from them. It gives you insight into the character of a woman who has become a fierce warrior and a loyal friend. I liked these flashbacks, and I felt the impending doom that was coming to rip the family apart.
As you return to Kassandra as an adult, the missions bring you face to face with the Cyclops, who isn’t actually a legendary beast. Rather, he’s a beefy guy with one eye. You further antagonize him by stealing his obsidian eye, and then get ready for the showdown. I started that battle in stealth, took down a few guards, but then it went hot. The Cyclops’ men pursued me, and I ran up to a tower. At the top of the tower, I was safe. I could use my special ability, a Spartan kick, against anyone who came up the ladder. This worked for the most part, and I stabbed anyone who didn’t fall off. It even worked on the Cyclops himself, who turned out to be easy to beat this way.
It wasn’t particularly heroic to stay at the top of the tower, but it worked. I used this trick again, on the island of Itaka across the strait, where I was sent by a foreigner named Elpenon on a mission to recover the Shroud of Penelope, which belonged to the wife of Odysseus.
On that mission, I helped a woman, who was descended from Odysseus, to find her way to the resting place of Odysseus. It was guarded by some thugs, so we took them on. They were numerous, so we had to retreat to high ground, where we were able to push the enemies off of ledges and stay alive.
The journey to Megaris
Once I fulfilled the mission to recover the shroud of Penelope, I returned to Elpenon to collect my reward. He then hired me (I am, after all, a mercenary) to go to a distant island, Megaris, and assassinate a Spartan general. I agreed, without knowing who it was. The target was identified only as the Wolf of Sparta. The name meant nothing to Kassandra. Her job was to commandeer a ship and make her way across the Aegean Sea to the island, where the Athenians are battling the Spartans.
I had to run a few missions to liberate a ship captain and then regain a ship for him. The captain nonchalantly spoke the name of the Wolf, and Kassandra recognized the name. After that, she wanted to do the mission even more. Then we took off. The captain persuaded me to recapture a small land mass occupied by pirates. And in doing so, I recruited a new archer to be part of my permanent crew for the ship. The skilled archer will pay off over time as we take on other ships.
Then we sailed to the target island. Three Athenian ships were blockading the harbor, so I decided to attack them. I initiated the attack by getting up to ramming speed and then blasting right into the side of one ship. Then I used my archers to fire at the ship and sink it. I pursued the other two ships one at a time, and brought them down as well, after desynchronizing (dying) once. Upon landing at the port, I wanted to make my way to the Wolf of Sparta. But one of his lieutenants denied me that privilege, and instead said I had to earn the right to meet the leader, only after taking out a bunch of Athenian soldiers.
Only by turning the tide of the war on the island in Sparta’s favor could I earn the right to see the Wolf. This doesn’t mean I’ll fight only on the side of the Spartans. After all, Kassandra is a mercenary.
I began that journey, but I saw it would take many hours and my time ran out.
Ubisoft has unquestionably provided a big world in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. It’s full of exciting environments, big land and sea battles, compelling missions, great moments from both history and the myths, and beautiful graphics. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. But the developers have to walk a fine line. They have to provide a hundred hours of content for the die-hard fans who want to explore every bit of the world.
But I want to follow the main story, the real Odyssey of the game, which relates to Kassandra’s past and is very compelling. It’s an emotional journey, and one that is so compelling that you’ll want to speed through the narrative as fast as you can.
But Phillips acknowledges that you’ll be strung along. You want to meet the Wolf of Sparta, but you first have to help the Spartans beat the Athenians. And to do that, you have to take one mission after another to weaken the Athenian army, take out its leaders, and then eventually get back to the main mission.
It’s going to take a long time and a lot of patience to follow the narrative through the open world. I hope it will be worth it.