Assassin's Creed Odyssey's Exploration mode kills quest markers, and it's about damn time

The problem with a lot of open world games is that they feature increasingly enormous, beautiful settings ripe for exploration, then stick a big blinking icon on your map telling you exactly where to go next. You can ignore these, of course, but you won't. You'll wander blindly from quest marker to quest marker, obediently doing what the developer tells you, because that's how these games are designed. They don't want you to get lost. They probably fear it.

Assassin's Creed Odyssey, on the other hand, actively encourages getting lost in this vast, beautiful rendition of ancient Greece. When you start a new game you're presented with a selection of two modes: Guided and Exploration. The former is the standard open world system of picking up a quest and then being told exactly where it is on the map. The latter, however, is much more interesting—and the game even makes a point of saying that it's the best way to experience it. When you talk to someone and they give you a quest, they'll give you directions. They'll tell you the thing they're looking for is south of this island, or north of this landmark, and you'll have to actually go and find it.

A reminder of whatever geographical clue you've just been given sits on the HUD, so you don't have to listen that closely to the person giving you directions. But when it's time to start the quest, you actually have to think about where you are, where you're heading, and the route you'll take to get there. Finding these places is never that difficult, but this little flicker of interaction, of having to think for yourself, goes a long way. To the point where I hope it becomes the new standard in open world games. Seriously, developers: steal this idea.

When you eventually reach the area you've been searching for, the game will remind you to call upon your faithful bird companion, Ikaros. From the air you can then find the exact spot, or person, or camp, or whatever it is you're looking for, and then the quest will kick in proper. By forcing me to actively engage with the map like this, I get a better sense of the geography of the world—and it’s a much more immersive, intimate experience as a result. It makes exploration feel satisfyingly organic in a way that eludes most open world games, and gives Odyssey a persistent sense of discovery and adventure.

Plenty of games let you disable or soften guides such as quest markers, compasses, or minimaps, but this is the only example I can think of that is actually designed around active exploration. Breath of the Wild on Switch features a similar system, and survival game Miasmata does some interesting stuff with manual navigation. But in a big budget open world game like this it feels completely new, and is a real breath of fresh air. It’s not even that complicated. Someone tells you an assassination target is in a house south of wherever, and you look at the map and go there. But it's incredible how transforming it is just figuring that out for yourself.

They could take it further, though. I'd love the option not to have the directions appear on the HUD at all, so I really have to pay attention to what people are saying to me. Half the time when I'm talking to quest-giving NPCs I find myself tuning out, because it's always the same old sob story about a missing brother or a bandit camp or whatever. But if there was no other way to find out where to go, I'd have to really engage with the dialogue. And it's a little too easy to pinpoint the location of the quest using Ikaros. I'd like to have to work a little harder after I've found the right location, but maybe that would just get frustrating over time in a game as impossibly large as this.

I honestly wasn't expecting much from Odyssey, thinking it would just be Origins in a new setting. But I've been surprised to discover a gorgeous, vibrant, sweeping RPG that recalls the best of The Witcher 3, with a little Mass Effect thrown in for good measure. I think it might even be the best Assassin’s Creed, but I'm saving wild statements like that until I'm more than 15 hours in. The quests are great, the world is stunning, and the freedom of the naval exploration is exhilarating. But it's Exploration mode that's really made me fall in love with this thing—and reignited my passion for open world games in general. Because it's reminded me of how joyful exploration can be when you aren't switching your brain off and following yet another flashing quest marker.