If you’re sailing around the northern areas of the world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you might stumble upon a small Easter egg. You might not even realize it’s an anachronistic reference tucked into the game’s ancient Greek world because of how innocuous it is. The Easter egg is a small circle of stones, with a tiny handmade doll at the center. Nearby is an abandoned campfire.
Yesterday, Ubisoft confirmed to Kotaku that the small tableau is a reference to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that uprooted the industry with its approach to open-world games (games with sprawling maps and a “go anywhere, do anything” mentality — think Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim). Breath of the Wild not only reinvented the Zelda franchise yet again; it felt like a watershed moment. The game made aimlessly exploring and wandering, stumbling upon something new, into the main attraction — not just something you did in between missions and quests. By taking away many of the crutches of open-world games, forcing players to carefully scale mountains and brave sweltering deserts, often with only a general sense of what direction they needed to go in, Breath of the Wild made trekking through an open world feel new again.
That Zelda Easter egg in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is proof that its designers were aware of Breath of the Wild at some point in its development cycle. But what they made in response is the first example from a large video-game publisher of what happens when you try to stretch another game’s concepts over an aging franchise. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is sprawling, ambitious, and clumsy. It can’t decide whether to guide the player or provide them with a Zelda-like sense of freedom. The result is a set of gameplay systems that all too often push against each other instead of meshing together.
There are a lot more choices in Assassin’s Creed this time around. Your first choice is whether to play as the female Kassandra or the male Alexios, both are mercenaries. Then you also choose how to style your character, what armor to give them, what skills they should learn, and what weapons they use. For the first time ever in the series, the dialogue scenes are interactive, though choices mostly range from “violence is good” to “I’m not wild about violence.” The main story arc, set during the Peloponnesian War around 400 B.C. is … fine. Even with the dialogue choices, the protagonist’s role remains the same as it’s been throughout the series. Go to a historical locale, meet a historical figure, accept their task. Your avatar once again smirks casually through interactions with people that you, the player, know to be world-changing.
In previous games, you would climb to a high vantage point, and points of interest would automatically be added to your map. A marker on the game’s HUD always kept you pointed in the right direction. The biggest change to the Assassin’s Creed structure this time around is something the game calls “Exploration Mode,” its most Zelda-like addition. Exploration Mode does away with the surveilling and the HUD marker. Instead, you receive clues about where to go; stuff like “your target is in the south of Athens by a quarry.”
This works to a point, but the game cannot resist holding the player’s hand. As soon as I would get close to my destination, the game would put up a huge message in the middle of the screen letting me know. I’d then take control of my eagle companion, who serves as a sort of feathered surveillance drone, and find my target from the sky — just as I would in the previous games. I eventually turned Exploration Mode off, finding it tedious.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey wants to offer freedom, but it isn’t capable of letting the player go completely off the rails. Breath of the Wild excelled at letting players explore without guidance and find clues in their environment by having a carefully constructed geography. Every inch of that map felt bespoke. Odyssey’s locales, by comparison, are bland combinations of prefabricated structures. This is a result of Ubisoft’s development process, which utilizes multiple studios and reuses assets over multiple titles in order to expedite development. The camps, pavilions, forts, huts, and temples in Odyssey are nearly identical the ones seen throughout last year’s Egypt-set Assassin’s Creed Origins. At a distance, in aggregate, the game looks fantastic, but no one part of it looks particularly distinct.
The other hindrance to freedom in the game is a mistaken focus on combat and RPG-like leveling. Your success in combat is closely associated with your level — anyone above you is a real challenge. But the game scales weaker enemies up so that you can never be overpowered, which means you cannot ever quickly dispatch enemies. Compounding this is the bounty system, which traps players in mundane combat over and over again. Causing trouble throughout Greece will send superstrong bounty hunters after the player, and they have a frustrating habit of showing up right as you’re about to finish a mission. You wipe out a group of enemies, and then a mercenary a couple of levels stronger than you shows up to cut you down. The game reminds you over and over that playing stealthily, the series’s central gimmick, is almost useless, and that trying to fight anyone with a higher level will only result in pain.
There are three main quest lines introduced early in the game, all of which cannot be resolved until you get within range of the level cap, which is 50. They fill your quest log and remain there, useless, for dozens of hours. What is the point of making a quest available when the game also makes it obvious that the player cannot win? Two of these quest lines, concerning a devious cult and retrieving mythical artifacts, are essentially closed off until the player grinds through dozens of hours of leveling up. It’s the illusion of player choice — like going to a luxury store knowing full well that you could never afford anything in it.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes an intriguing idea — adding more player choice to a traditionally linear series — and botches the execution by not knowing how to dole out the rewards. When should a player get to see a new narrative beat? When should the player gain a window to attack a powerful enemy? When should the player gain access to an exciting new locale? Odyssey’s structure is to tease its most interesting aspects endlessly, but provides no way of accessing them other than grinding. The game’s most intriguing stories, tools, and environments are so back-loaded that I doubt most players will even catch a glimpse of them.