Toppling leaders and climbing big naked Zeus in Assassin's Creed Odyssey

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I realised that Odyssey had a sly sense of humour when I found myself clambering over Zeus’ wang to synchronise with my Greek island home. A vast statue of the god overlooks Kephallonia, poised to hurl a huge stone lightning bolt down into the small towns below. As I synchronised the view spun majestically around the butt-naked god and the vibrant islands that form his kingdom. What a magnificent view.

Big naked Zeus served as a fast-travel point from that point onwards as I followed the main quest onto a boat (high seas sailing is back!) and over to the mainland. I spent eight hours exploring two districts of this absolutely huge world map, which stretches from Kephallonia to Lesbos. In most ways Odyssey is a repeat of Origins. Zones are level-gated, and the game is structured like an RPG with experience rewards and lots of very admirable loot.

Story-wise Odyssey gets going a lot faster than Origins did, though if you found the level gating requirements restrictive in Origins, Odyssey has the same issues. For the last hour or so of the demo I was struggling to extract enough XP to level up and take on a climactic fight at the end of the demo’s story arc. However, the side activities are more varied thanks to the inclusion of bounty hunters, who pursue you across the map if you do lots of crimes, and more dynamic regional power systems that let you steal and murder to undermine local leaders.

The addition of dialogue choices kept my head in the scenes more effectively than passive cutscenes would, and your avatar—whether you choose Alexios or Kassandra—is a lot of fun. I can’t think of many RPG heroes that would stuff an important quest item up a passing goat’s arse just to spite someone, for example. In many situations you have the choice to behave like a reckless and bloodthirsty warrior or take a more measured approach. At one point Kassandra lost patience with a quest-giver’s attitude and yelled “I’ll kill the bandits and get your fucking wood!”, and the NPC recoiled in fear.

I can’t think of many RPG heroes that would stuff an important quest item up a passing goat’s arse just to spite someone

The trouble is you still have to go and get the fucking wood. Side missions at least give you the chance to define your hero a little more. During one quest I found a group of huddled civilians hiding from the local Spartan vs. Athenian conflict. I had the choice to spare them, or kill them for stealing from Spartan food reserves. 

Ubisoft says your attitude and decisions will alter the course of your avatar’s personality in hidden ways. The conversation options seemed to measure your attitudes to violence, and your relationships to the gods. In one early mission you can choose to hide in a crack behind a statue and pretend to be the voice of that god to trick a worshipper. Having regular little moments of choice like this brightens up the sidequests a lot. You don’t have a Bioware-level suite of conversation options, but Odyssey is on a par with The Witcher 3 for dialogue choice, and towards the end of the demo Odyssey created crunch points worthy of a Telltale game. I can’t talk about many story specifics but it’s a strong opening that throws you headfirst into the war between Sparta and Athens, and Alexios/Kassandra’s ambition and thirst for adventure are infectious. 

The world is relentlessly beautiful, even on battlefields. You have a magic eagle again, and it does everything it could do in Origins—spot goons, find objectives, and give you a peaceful flyover. Instead of Origins’ landmass Odyssey is broken up into islands, and you can sail between them in a big boat full of warriors. The format is similar to Black Flag, except to fit the period you’re firing javelins and arrow volleys rather than cannons. The vessels are smaller but the battles are still intense, and you can ram enemy ships in half and watch as the drifting enemy soldiers are consumed by sharks. Also, bizarrely, you can knock out seemingly any soldier in the world and recruit them to your crew.

Between ship recruitment, bounty hunters, and regional leaders, you have more choice as to how you spend time. Bounty hunters have strength and weakness traits, like Orcs in Shadow of Mordor, and killing them gets you experience and quality weapons. It’s better to flee from higher level bounty hunters—enemies even one level above you can cause serious problems—but as soon as you grow strong enough you can pinpoint their location on the world map and hunt them down. If you want a break from fetch quests and story missions you can commit crimes, grow the bounty on your head, and see which mercenaries come after you.

The regional leader played a key part of the story in the opening hours, and it looks like the system applies to every sector on the world the map. Each region’s leader is holed up in a heavily guarded fortress. Breaking into forts, burning supplies, stealing their war chest, and assassinating lieutenants reduces their power. As their power drops, their bodyguard starts to vanish and they become more exposed.

Of course if they’re higher level than you you still can’t simply assassinate them as you might in pre-Origins Assassin’s Creed. Combat is quite fun, though. You can’t block, but you can parry and dodge attacks. Basic dodges and slashes still feel clunky, but the unlockable special moves are excellent. I came to rely on a superb shield disarm that wrenches the shield from the enemy’s grasp and then smacks them with it so hard the shield flies 20 feet into the air and spins off into the distance. It also makes a brilliant spang sound. 

All in all Odyssey is a slight evolution on Origins. I still dislike the severe level gating but I'm willing to put up with that to explore this stunning vision of ancient Greece and watch Kassandra intimidate intimidate peasants. You too can scale the mighty abs of Zeus when Assassin's Creed: Odyssey comes out on October 5.