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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey - Alexios kicking a soldier

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the series’ latest step in a different direction, for the better

More importantly, I’m booking a trip to Greece

Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is juggling a lot. It flirts with comedy and tragedy, serves up the stealth that the series is known for, and overhauls and improves straightforward melee combat. Odyssey also doubles down on RPG elements in both combat and dialogue choice — in a year when everyone is wheezing about the death of single-player games.

Odyssey is also in uncharted territory. It takes places some 300-plus years before Assassin’s Creed Origins — the game in which the Brotherhood of Assassins is born, which raises the question, “Where are we now?”

Last week I muscled my way through the first six to seven hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at a demo session. I can’t tell you how it complicates or explains its connection to Assassin lore, First Civilizations or even the modern-day timeline.

On other hand, it was plenty of time to wrap my brain around the updated combat and soak in some big story beats. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does its damndest to stay familiar, while recognizing that something’s gotta change.

Combat is as important as stealth

I cherish the stealth elements in Assassin’s Creed games, because I’m freaking good at them (for once!). I metaphorically rub my hands together in glee each time I’m confronted with a sprawling complex staffed by dumb-as-rocks baddies, and a few stronger, more important baddies who are nevertheless dumb as rocks.

But it’s not unreasonable to say that over 11 years of almost nonstop Assassin’s Creed, this format has gotten stale, having changed approximately zero percent. And so, like Assassin’s Creed Origins before it, Odyssey makes melee combat equally as important as stealth. But it goes a step further toward deepening that combat for different playstyles.

Your skill tree in the game has three big branches: Hunter, Warrior, and Assassin. Unlike in Origins, there’s little cross-over between the branches. In my demo I focused on leveling up my Warrior (read: melee) abilities, with a sprinkling of Assassin skills. Many of these abilities weren’t passive; I mapped them however I wanted on the controller’s face buttons, and used them strategically during battle. (The developers kindly helped me spec my character for a playstyle called “I’m under-leveled but I need to finish this story content today.”)

It could also be called “Bull Rush,” the name of a useful ability that lets you charge forward and through opponents, essentially making mincemeat of them. I also nabbed a healing ability, and the beloved Spartan kick. The kick was super useful if you’re fighting on high ground like a cliff or a wall. You can absolutely punt your enemies to their deaths.

Abilities in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Ubisoft Quebec/Polygon

When the consequences of my underleveling became dire and I was facing down bosses up to two levels higher than me, the developers recommended an ability that lets you tear away your opponent’s shield and smack them over the head with it. The result is a pleasantly strategic blend of parrying, light and heavy melee attacks, and special combat abilities. It’s far beyond the mindless as the slash-and-parry combat of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and even grittier than Origins.

It’s still an Assassin’s Creed game, y’all

One of the most common critiques I’ve seen of Odyssey comes from people who crave those classic Assassin elements: the stealth kills, the hoods, the hidden blades. There are no hidden blades here, for obvious reasons, but the core stealth gameplay is still there (for that matter, so are the hoods). It’s just not strictly a series about being sneaky throughout history anymore.

Assassin’s Creed is changing. Like all large ships, the course correction has been slow.

What’s fascinating is that its changing in a way that’s antithetical to the Popular State of Gaming in 2018. Alongside its exploding success in selling games-as-a-service, Ubisoft is doubling down on its commitment to single-player experiences. Creative director Jonathan Dumont told me that Ubisoft will certainly support Odyssey after its launch, but also that the deepening of the role-playing experience through abilities and dialogue is what’s necessary for the series.

”Regardless of what’s out there or what other people are doing, I thought that for Assassin’s Creed to explore history in a different way — explore it in the sense that I’m not just seeing it, I can actually participate in it — I think that’s what the promise of the franchise is,” he said. “I think that’s where Assassin’s Creed needed to go.”

This is, of course, the first Assassin’s Creed game to go full RPG and include dialogue choices.

Kassandra admiring a knife in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Ubisoft Quebec/Polygon

”Ultimately I think [that] makes a better gaming experience,” Dumont said. Odyssey is billed as a game of twists and turns. Dumont wants those twists to be earned with player participation — for us to be responsible for our stories. Some choices will have immediate results, while others are slow to burn.

At the end of our interview, Dumont gleefully turned the tables on me and asked about the choices I’d made — did I hug one character? Did I let another character die?

“You did some stuff that you’ll know [the outcome of] right after the portions you completed,” Dumont said. “You did some stuff that you’ll know after 30 hours. Some of the actions that you did on the first island can be pretty dramatic.”

What this means, of course, is having played the game for roughly seven hours, I can’t tell you if these long-term choices had a dramatic payoff or not — though Dumont’s enthusiasm has me antsy to play more.

The broad strokes of history — who wins the war, for example — don’t change. Instead, the narrative choices focus on the main character, with the Peloponnesian War as a backdrop.

It’s a good decision to tell a personal story in a chaotic time. I’m skating around the details to leave the game as unspoiled as possible, but flow of the main narrative in these first six hours was good. There were big story hooks embedded throughout that drove me forward, and the challenges that stood between me and the next juicy reveal didn’t feel arbitrary.

Kassandra making a choice Ubisoft Quebec/Polygon

There were scenes that had me cursing and gasping, and one particularly affecting cutscene combined with a well-timed use of the Assassin’s Creed theme music made me tear up.

So the big story beats are really working here, but I can’t say the same for the dialogue with minor NPCs, which can feel stilted at times. Ubisoft wants everything to be interactive, for the player to always be doing something. But in practice, the bulk of dialogue choice is still about asking questions to get information, or choosing to act like a nice person or a jerk.

For Dumont, it’s just about consequences: the player feeling like they’re responsible for things going sideways, rather than mysterious Plot Diktats from on high.

“The more that we were playing with it, the more it gave us depth,” he said. “I think that’s where Assassin’s Creed needed to go to really enjoy that setting and enjoy history a little bit more.”

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey comes out on Oct. 5 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.

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