Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) hands-on: My big fat Greek beheading
Ubisoft's gorgeous representation of ancient Greece in Assassin's Creed Odyssey will hook you in all over again.
Make your own Odyssey. That's what the Ubisoft handlers specifically told me to do in my pre-demo pep talk. Right before they sat me in a chair in front of a 4K TV bigger than Texas, hooked to a PS4 Pro running Assassin's Creed Odyssey, the Ancient Greece-inspired sequel to 2017's AC: Origins.
Before their chat, my to-do list for this preview was pretty spartan – all I wanted was to kick people in the chest while yelling like Gerard Butler about our current location. After Ubisoft's spiel and their pointed challenge to go off the grid, I decided to formulate a (literal) game plan as I was walking to my designated console.
I decided my epic journey would be to effectively ditch the main campaign as soon as I could get clear of the starter island and set about using the remaining hours to sail, painfully walk and/or swim my way from one end of the game world to the absolute other. I would become a modern-day Odysseus. But while his decade-long travails were beset by Cyclopes, cannibals and sea-monsters, I would have to overcome eye strain, tired thumbs and the need to pause and go pee after drinking too many complimentary Red Bulls. We all have our crosses to bear, I guess.
When the time came, I opened my map, dragged my map cursor from the starter island of Kephallonia in the west (which is a stone's throw from Ithaca, Odysseus's old digs) to whatever was in the extreme northeast. As luck would have it, this was the Island of Lesbos. That'll work.
When you're finally allowed to escape the island of your birth, either as Alexios or Kassandra, you'll be handed access to a warship. Honestly, it's just a pleasure to be back in some bona-fide naval warfare again – something I thoroughly enjoyed as a fully realised experience in Assassin's Creed titles like Black Flag, Freedom Cry and Rogue.
Last year's Origins only gave us a taste of the ocean in very controlled side-mission content. It was a design decision made by somebody who Alexios would probably call a “malake”. (Dude's obsessed with that word.)
In this game, ships are once more amazing. The magical experience of thundering across impossibly clear, blue waves is punctuated by visits by schools of dolphins, breaching whales and the lusty sea shanties of your crew. There's plenty of trouble to get into thanks to a surprisingly busy environment of rival warships and civvy fishermen just begging to be run over and sunk.
I engaged in a few battles with similar-sized vessels and the experience was great if a little un-evolved. Basically, Kenway and co.'s cannons get swapped out for fire arrows and close range muskets are now handled by javelins. Here's hoping it gets more complex as the game rolls on.
Still, the only regret I had with the sailing experience was that it had to end. I soon found myself landlocked with a whopping 3500 metres left to go on my 4-kilometre journey to the promised land beyond. Worse, Ubisoft takes this as an opportunity to hem you in. Yes, you can park your ride on the Ionian seaside but once you've hoofed through the ravaged village of Megaris and over the mountains to the Mediterranean Sea proper, you lack the means to call your warship to you (unlike the magic horse you have on Dpad down – his name is Phobos and he still works fine).
It's a good thing, too, as without my trusty steed I'd have become bandit food in no time. Boeotia is the next region to slog through and it's not exactly a tourist destination – in fact, the game calls it “the land of perpetual war”. Key features include rocky hills, burnt-out forests and forts teeming with angry Spartans (plus loot and synchronisation points). I also discovered a site that looked like an ancient precursor to a Colosseum fighting pit. I look forward to busting heads in that come launch day.
From here, my journey becomes a bunch of island hopping adventures. When on land, I drink in the local sights of beautiful temples and impossibly tall statues with fully rendered phalluses (as I climb up them to reach a sync point, Alexios gets hilariously uncomfortable). I also dabble in combat, which removes shields from our hero, forcing him (or her) to rely on dodges, rolls, parrying on (L1+R1) and good old-fashioned timing.
You can also leverage one of eight pre-configured skills that are toggled via your shoulder buttons. A personal favourite is the uber-satisfying Spartan Kick that sends people ragdolling backwards. I also loved the returning ability to self-guide your arrows directly into people's eye sockets, plus a slow-down time function that lets you get in about seven sword hits on an enemy before they've drawn their arm back for one. There's a huge pool of unlockable skills to mix and match, plus the good news is you can re-stat yourself at any time.
The combat hasn't changed massively and offered few surprises, but what did catch me off guard was the presence of bears and lions on the island of Lemnos. On Nightmare difficulty, they one shotted me and my steed with one paw swipe. I liked it better when they were extinct.
Right as my allotted demo time comes to an end, I find my 20-minute-long dog paddle to Lesbos in its final phase. It's been a brutally long journey. And unlike the many previous island hops, there's no oar boat to use here. It's a whopping 160-metre swim. Three times during my swim I have to strafe around sharks with my heart in my throat and the imagined Jaws theme in my ears.
Against all odds, I make it, and I wish I could tell you more about what I saw beyond the New Region title card of “Petrified Island – Land of Sapphic Love”. Sadly I cannot because about three seconds after I did a synchronisation at a nearby peak, I ran out of time – a disappointing result. But like they say: sometimes it's about the journey, not the destination. You'll have to discover it all yourself come launch day.
For hours I got to live and breathe Ubisoft's gorgeous representation of Ancient Greece and it got me hooked all over again – mostly because the setting of an AC title is half the appeal for me. With Egypt ticked off, Ancient Greece or Feudal Japan were at the top of my virtual holiday bucket list.
Marry this backdrop with swappable protagonists, plus a narrative shaped by multiple choice morality moments, and Assassin's Creed Odyssey is looking like an entry in the franchise that absolute "greeks" of quality already.