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Assassin's Creed Odyssey review - a vast and generous voyage

Long and winding Rhodes. - Recommended badge
Colossal in size, lavish in scope, Odyssey feels like a series landmark and Ubisoft's biggest ever game.

Locations have been the secret star of every Assassin's Creed game, so the difference between a memorable backdrop and a mundane one can be critical. Odyssey's Ancient Greece didn't feel an obvious choice at first. It's a time period before the Assassins existed, a country known more for its myths than its history, and a spread of islands which, its capital aside, are relatively unknown. Mykonos is lovely this time of year, by the way, but you're more likely to have heard of Rome, London, Paris, New York. Even with Assassin's Creed Origins, a game similar to Odyssey in style and scope, you had the lure of the pyramids, the Sphinx and icons of history such as Caesar and Cleopatra. What can Ancient Greece offer?

Thankfully Odyssey is a game that entertains despite these things and because of them. As the Assassin's Creed series continues its metamorphosis from an open-world map-cleaner into a deep action role-playing game, the franchise's focus has shifted effortlessly into a place where godlike powers and mythical artefacts are now a major part of its everyday parlance. Who needs the Eiffel Tower when you have spooky forests and Medusa? What began last year with Origins' god bosses and its beautiful afterlife-set Curse of the Pharaohs expansion is expanded on here with a storyline centred on a bloodline descended from the series' First Civilisation and a weapon - your weapon - which quickly makes the regular Hidden Blade look like a cosplay knock-off. If one item sums up the change evident in Odyssey, it's this.

The blade symbolises the shift away from Ubisoft's habitual Assassin's Creed gameplay to one that feels freer, more fantastical and more fun. Why wait to dual assassinate a pair of enemies who've finally rotated around their guard patterns to stand next to one another when you can blink around a map chaining assassinations over great distances, should you have invested in the skills and built-up the stamina to do so. Another combat move, where you rip the shield away from a powerful enemy and donk them on the head with it after, reminds me of the joy felt in Zelda when, after hours whittling away the health of armoured enemies, you finally get a hookshot and are able to de-shell them instantly. Fire arrows? Sure, but how about ghostly arrows which zip through walls, through enemies into other enemies, who you can then also set on fire? Level up far enough and you'll get these too.

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The moment Odyssey's combat went from solid to brilliant for me was when - 15 hours in - I unlocked the game's second set of skill slots to use in combat. Suddenly I was juggling my usual loadout of health restoration, Spartan boot stomps, blink assassinations and a crowd-clearing AOE attack named Ring of Chaos with another four skills on top of those. It refreshed the game for me, but also left me wondering why I had been made to wait that long. Odyssey by name, Odyssey by nature. Much has been written about how vast this game is when compared to others in the series - any series - and yet I was still surprised by how enormous it was, how lengthy the main path stretches, how much there is to do on top of that. This is easily an experience of The Witcher 3 proportions, and while I can sympathise with someone who wants to see Odyssey's main family storyline wrapped up in 20 hours, this is simply not that kind of game. To put it in perspective, you'll be two-thirds of the way through the main storyline before you open up the beginning of Odyssey's third big narrative focus. This was for me (with a minimal amount of side-questing) around 40 hours in.

Odyssey has three main tales to tell, centring on the story of your hero's family. As Kassandra (or, if you really want, Alexios), the game opens with you living out your life as a washed up mercenary in a forgotten corner of the Aegean, dreaming of your long-lost Spartan childhood before your family was scattered to the wind. Kassandra is a brilliant character, immediately one of the greats of the series, expertly written (there's no change in script between her and Alexios) and performed. She's believable - not a blank slate but rather someone with a past and views and burdens of her own who you can then shape further by your choices.

My Kassandra was firm when she needed to be but otherwise liked playing up to the belief she was actually a god-sent saviour - until people really started believing me, at which point my Kassandra took on more of an atheistic viewpoint. Surprises and huge reveals are dotted throughout the main story arc, not to mention a few genuinely tragic moments. I still love Ezio's charm, Bayek's grief, but Kassandra has some of the best voice-acting and character animation in the series, bar none. And the benefit of having all those hours to tell Odyssey's story means some characters will become dear to the player - and some, inevitably, won't make it to the end.

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More often than not, the game's narrative choices are about role-playing your own version of Kassandra rather than affecting lasting change on the game's multiple-ending finale. Results of your actions can be fairly understated - the game likes you to feel the route you have taken has been crafted by your actions, even if the end point remains similar - though every story chapter will have some differences depending on who you choose to save or kill, or whether you sided with one character over another, and this can then unlock yet more quests afterwards based on how things play out. Perhaps the best, non-spoilery example of this would be the questline set across Mykonos and Delos I took a good look at a few months back, a mini-saga unrelated to the game's main family plot - as many of the Aegean's various stories are. Its open-ended nature means things can culminate in true Greek tragedy fashion with absolutely everyone you've spent the last few hours of your life with dying around you. Or not - but it was a real shame when that happened to me.

As usual, you can expect to meet up with a rogue's gallery of historical contemporaries - this time something of a GCSE textbook B-team of Herodotus, Hippocrates, Socrates and Pericles - as Kassandra's search for answers kicks in and you explore the entirety of the Greek world and beyond to find out more about what happened in your childhood. And it's from here, dozens of hours in, you'll unlock the game's other two story arcs. The first sees you off hunting down the mysterious Cult of Kosmos, a Templar-like group pulling the strings behind power across the region. Where Origins had a few dozen targets to chase down, most of whom tied to main quests, Odyssey has 40-odd, their identities hidden behind clues found in missions strewn across the game's world. The second arc concerns the series' First Civilisation, through which Odyssey has supplemented its recognisable cast of historical figures with well-known mythological ones (as well as some other surprises), explained away as corruptions or creations of long-lost First Civ artefacts as a kind of defense mechanism. It's a smart move, one that fits with the ambitions of the Cult and the bloodline of the hero, and it cements the game in the era's mythology, while providing plenty of things to do even after the main storyline wraps up.

Away from Odyssey's main path and sidequests, yet more missions linger. The simplest of these are timed tasks, almost like Destiny's bounties, which you will often complete without realising just by exploring the game's world. If you really want more things to do, or more XP to grind, you can stock up on a pile of these and complete them within a certain time-frame for extra XP and loot rewards. They're randomly generated, available from jobs boards but also visible via NPCs on the main map, and come with stock conversations when you pick them up and hand them in. ("So you want me to kill all the bandits? I took care of them, every last one!") Curiouser, there are handmade hybrids of these missions which purport to hinge on actions you've made within the main questline. Some of these are mildly important - they can reveal the ultimate fate of a character from a main mission who may have escaped thanks to your help, or the wider result of an action you chose - but still require you complete one of the same thin selection of jobsworth tasks. In short, venture off the main questline into this area of the game and you'll be clearing a lot of bandit camps and hunting down a lot of goats.

Odyssey does not require you to grind to climb levels in order to have proper missions to complete, but it does occasionally require you keep levelling up by completing side-quests not attached to the main story. Opening up that third story arc - the First Civ one - comes at a particular break in the family questline where swathes of the Greek world have opened for you to explore - and you'll need to explore them in order to unlock the next chapter of your family's story. It's an annoyance - especially so many hours into the game - to realise you'll have to venture off into the unknown simply to get ready for the finale, and I wish that main storyline could have wrapped up just a little sooner, or be tied into the sidequest islands a little more, to make the break a little less abrupt.

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Bugs? I've seen a couple, but after countless hours there's only one worthy of mentioning. A recurrent thing I found playing on vanilla Xbox One was a lengthy wait or outright refusal to load in the best quality version of a particular texture, something that can also happen to the world map, which you'll look at a lot. One time it happened with Kassandra herself, giving her amazingly large eyebrows. Otherwise, the game runs well - it is the Origins engine, which itself ran fine, and with the same level of visual fidelity. I've now played Odyssey on Xbox One X, PlayStation 4 Pro and vanilla Xbox One and while there's a step down on the standard Xbox One, the game can still look beautiful, particularly around sunrise and sunset. Draw distance could sometimes look a little disappointing in Origins on vanilla Xbox, and it's the same here, with the game's replacement of far-off 2D trees with 3D models a little more noticeable than I'd like.

But these are relatively small things - especially small when compared to Odyssey's huge scope, and I'm aware I still haven't mentioned whole systems the game has to offer. There's the enjoyable nation system where you can weaken provinces and choose to flip their allegiance from Athens to Sparta or vice-versa, or the excellent mercenary system which ensures you never feel totally safe however godlike your skills have become. Nothing will take you down a peg like spending 20 minutes clearing a fort to find Dickface the Knob has turned up because you've forgotten to keep your bounty gauge down. There's your ship, of course, because naval battles are back from Black Flag and perfectly suited to the Greek island setting. If you played Black Flag or Rogue you'll know exactly what to expect here, sea shanties included. There are romances, where you can woo various people with the hope of bedding them in true BioWare fashion via a fade-to-black cutscene. I feel like Odyssey is a tentative first step in this direction, and the eventual outcome to your romancing - them being unlocked as a lieutenant on your ship where they can wordlessly hang out on deck - could still be improved. And there's also the game's modern day section - particularly sparse at first but more substantial later on - which sees the return of Origins' modern day protagonist in a set of playable vignettes.

Throughout all of this, and because of all this, I was wary Odyssey would begin to feel bloated, but despite its length that's not a word I'd use. It's vast, there's no getting around that, but optional goat-hunting bounties aside the majority of your time with Odyssey is well respected. You're always a few hundred XP off a new level and new skill, or a mission away from completing an island's questline, or one Cultist kill behind upgrading your spear. Tonight I may finally track down a First Civilisation monster, or unlock another map region just to see what lies over the horizon. Odyssey is an enormous game - certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest game Ubisoft has ever made. It's an astonishing creation, extraordinarily generous and solidly crafted, and like its namesake is something that will live long in the telling.

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