There are a handful of videogames that release a new installment every year, and it really doesn’t make sense that Assassin’s Creed is basically one of them. There have been 11 main Assassin’s Creed games since 2007, which puts it only one off the pace of such annual series as Call of Duty or most major sports games. It’s weird to think Assassin’s Creed is in this same category simply because Assassin’s Creed itself is a weird game. Football, baseball and playing army man all have an intrinsic, easily understood appeal that predates and transcends the idea of videogames. Assassin’s Creed’s history-spanning sci-fi saga about rival secret societies feuding over artifacts from a race of otherworldly beings that existed on Earth before humanity is just a little more esoteric a draw than throwing a ball through a hoop.
That convoluted storyline can be broken down into two different eras. For the first five years of the series, Assassin’s Creed was focused on one specific modern day assassin, Desmond Miles, as he used a device called the Animus to relive his ancestors’ memories. The best thing Assassin’s Creed did was kill that guy off. Since 2014’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, there’s been less focus on the modern day framing device, with the series spending more time in its recreations of the past while also taking a broader view of the eternal Assassin / Templar war. That maximizes the concept’s strengths—letting us sneak and climb through detailed versions of real life cities from the past while stealthily assassinating targets, and engaging in rhythmic, period-appropriate combat when our cover’s blown. Assassin’s Creed is a postcard game founded on classic conspiracy theories with an incredibly generous serving of murder on the side, and the appeal of that fundamental formula has never gotten old.
Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins brought some significant changes to that formula that freshened up the action. It also took place much further in the past than any other game so far, hunkering down in Egypt near the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, over 1200 years before the original game in the series. Instead of the tight cluster of buildings found in the comparatively advanced cities in other Assassin’s Creed games, Origins was more spaced out, which heavily cut into that parkour-influenced style of motion synonymous with the series. With a revamped combat system that required a different kind of precision, and a greater reliance on RPG systems like skill trees and weapon and armor upgrades, Origins also deepened both the action and RPG elements of these games at the same time.
The brand new Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set even earlier in history, going all the way back to the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece in the 400s BC. It picks up where Origins left off from a mechanical sense, expanding on that game’s changes while also reintroducing some of what Origins had pared back. It smartly builds on the successes of Origins while feeling more in line with the Assassin’s Creed brand, and is a better game than its predecessor.
Odyssey preserves the open world RPG atmosphere of Origins, with a large number of skills, weapons and armor pieces to collect and upgrade. The fighting is practically the same, with the shoulder buttons used for both attacks and defense, and a more active and responsive hand required in combat compared to the paired animation-driven style of the older games. The ancient landscape still sprawls out with large expanses of open land, and the towns you do enter are rarely as large or developed as the post-Dark Ages cities the series used to explore. Without buildings or crowded streets to get lost in, that once again means you’ll spend more time stalking your enemies, both hiding in grass for stealth assassinations and using your trusty eagle to stake out enemy bases in advance.
The naval battles of Black Flag return in full, with much of the game’s action taking place on the water. Lieutenants can be recruited to work on your ship, improving such stats as your boat’s defense or the strength of your archers. Your character also harks back to earlier assassins. You pick one of two Spartans, Kassandra or Alexios, at the start of the game; they’re both super competent mercenaries with a touch of Ezio Auditore’s roguish charm. Like that hero of Asssassin’s Creed II, their devil-may-care attitude leads to an active love life; one of the ways the game expands on its RPG leanings is with multiple dialogue choices, which sometimes result in casual sex with non-playable characters.
Odyssey doesn’t just rehash familiar elements, though. Throughout the game your character will be hunted by various mercenaries in a way that recalls the Nemesis System from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. These villains will have names and bios and specific strengths that all help develop them into more than just a random enemy. You’ll see their icon moving about the map, and as they’re often at a much higher level than you at first, they introduce some legitimate tension into the game. That red icon injects a touch of dread, just like when Sinistar would appear or Evil Otto would come bouncing into a room in Berzerk. (Uh, think the ghost in Spelunky, if you aren’t, like, 40 years old.) It’s always a minor but deeply satisfying triumph whenever you level up enough to take down the mercenary that’s been stalking you.
Odyssey is also more interested in the ancient astronauts meta story than Origins was. Origins barely touched on the Isu, who are also called the First Civilization, and whose relics drive the endless beef between the Assassins and the Templars. Odyssey doesn’t quite bring them back to the foreground, but the First Civilization plays a bigger role in some optional later quests than they ever did in Origins. That makes Odyssey feel more like a Creed game than Origins, which should please longtime fans of the series.
Assassin’s Creed isn’t the only Ubisoft series you’ll think of when you play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Between the less developed environments and the copious amount of icons and side-missions on the map, the similarities to Far Cry are once again impossible to ignore. Side quests and needy NPCs are plentiful, and you’ll have to hunt animals to gather materials for crafting. Crawling through bushes outside an enemy compound and using your eagle like a pair of binoculars to scope out the enemy’s position feels just like Far Cry. There are some large, undeniable differences—Odyssey is a third-person game build around hand-to-hand combat, whereas the Far Crys are first-person shooters—but the jokes about Ubisoft games all blurring into one single open world monstrosity won’t be silenced by Odyssey.
That Ubisoft open world structure influences the worst thing about Odyssey. As I wrote earlier this week, there aren’t just too many games being made today, but too much game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the new poster child for unnecessary bloat in big budget videogames. It will take you dozens of hours to complete, even if you ignore every side-quest and exclusively focus on the storyline. You won’t even see the title screen until about five hours in. It’s absurdly, unjustifiably long, and it’s hard to play it for hour upon hour without thinking about the amount of labor that had to go into making this thing. How many 80 hour weeks did Ubisoft employees have to suffer through during crunch time to make sure a game that would’ve been perfectly enjoyable at 15 hours instead went on for 50? It’s those kinds of questions that make it hard to support an industry that doesn’t respect its employees personal lives and that views endless crunch not as a last-ditch effort but a standard part of the game design process. Odysseus’s odyssey took 10 years and he lost all of his men along the way; somehow this game feels more like 20, and it’s depressing to just think about how much its developers had to sacrifice to get it into stores.
There is too much of a good thing. Odyssey proves that. As a game it has a strong core of enjoyable action built upon a reliable and slightly upgraded foundation. As a story it’s an intriguing personal journey with good ideas but lackluster storytelling set against the backdrop of war between Sparta and Athens, with a strong, charismatic pair of leads making up for a lot of dull dialogue and meandering conversations. As an Assassin’s Creed it turns Origins from an outlier into the start of the new status quo, sacrificing a bit of its identity in order to bring it more in line with Ubisoft’s other open world games. It still captures much of what makes these games special, though, from the historical setting, to the dynamic action, to one of the few stealth combat systems that isn’t too slow or frustrating to enjoy. Embark on this journey with confidence, but be prepared to lose a lot of your free time along the way.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was developed by Ubisoft Quebec and published by Ubisoft. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One, PC, and (in Japan only) the Switch.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.