Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.
Coming just a year after Origins' lengthy, but largely exhilarating campaign, Assassin's Creed Odyssey takes that game's open world RPG formula and stretches it to the point of nearly breaking. Its rendering of ancient Greece is enormous and overwhelming, a dauntingly spread-out landscape of cities, islands, and oceans densely packed with more objectives than anybody without a hundred hours of free time in front of them could ever hope to accomplish.
Look, having a lot of game is not a bad thing on its own. How many years have we futilely spent trying to break down some mythological equation that determines the exact right amount of content for a $60 game? If sheer volume of game is all you're looking for, Odyssey is a terrific value. But what good is all that content if only maybe half of it is compelling? At its best moments, the scale of Odyssey helps feed into the feeling of grand adventure the developers are clearly striving for. But too many of those great moments are stuffed between a seemingly endless parade of samey open-world job lists and copy-pasted side quests that, while to a degree ignorable, still have to be engaged with often enough to make Odyssey's pace feel bloated and awkward.
Set in ancient Greece a few hundred years before the events of Origins, you play as either Alexios or Kassandra, Spartan siblings whose fates are intertwined throughout the story. I can really only speak to Kassandra, as that's who I spent 80 hours with, but she makes for a compelling protagonist, charismatically voiced by Melissanthi Mahut. While Origins' Bayek was a mostly chaste and good-natured dad who just liked helping people along the way of his primary murder plot, Odyssey presents Kassandra as a kind of swashbuckling, bisexual mercenary--somewhere between Yara Greyjoy and Xena: Warrior Princess--and there's room within that base portrayal to make her as bloodthirsty or charitable as you like.
That layer of player choice in shaping Odyssey's main character is just one of a host of things added to the Origins formula. In addition to all the fortresses, bandit camps, animal dens and story-focused side quests of Origins, dialogue choices add an extra layer of RPG-ness to a series that was already pretty far down that path. Additionally: the naval combat of Black Flag and Rogue is back in a big way, with a dusting of Metal Gear Solid V's crew recruitment added to the mix. Additionally: there's a Nemesis-lite system clearly inspired by Monolith's Mordor games that replaces the Philakates of Origins with a tiered roster of mercenaries that will hunt you any time your wanted level gets too high. Additionally: there is a web of 30+ cultist targets--sort of a proto-Templar group--that are spread throughout the world, which must be uncovered by murdering your way through the ranks and uncovering clues to their identities. Additionally: you can engage in giant battles between the Athenian and Spartan armies in a big, bloody brawl that recalls Syndicate's gang battles on a larger scale. ADDITIONALLY: there are mythical monsters to fight as part of a subplot involving more of the Layla/first civilization storyline that kicked back up in Origins, and continues here with some of the most patently absurd plot moments anywhere in this series. A D D I T I O N A L L Y: You can fuck a wide variety of the game's NPCs.
If any aspect of Odyssey can be considered a triumph, it's the fact that the devs manage to make all these disparate seeming systems more or less feel like they belong together. Yet, there's still too much of all these things; too many cult targets to shank because you have to hunt through every corner of the world to find them, too many mercenaries that don't have enough personality to care about beyond wanting to avoid them whenever possible, too many side quests that just feel like the same handful of rote tasks asked of you in slightly different ways. The improved enemy AI and streamlining of some of the game's loot and progression systems make engaging with this stuff a little more fun than it generally was in Origins, but the feeling of repetitiveness still creeps in long before you get anywhere near an ending. Were it just that you could dabble in these things here and there whenever you felt like, the game would still feel long, but more manageable. But in order to level yourself high enough to take on the game's toughest challenges, you pretty much have to partake of a large swath of this optional content--or you could buy an XP boost at the start with real money, but also maybe don't ever do that.
Even in just the main story thread, that bloated, out-of-sorts feeling permeates a lot of what you're doing. There were no less than four times I felt like the story was definitely winding down, only to have a new array of objectives thrown at me. And the most ludicrous thing is that, 80 damn hours later, I still think there's another ending I haven't seen yet. Despite working my way through Kassandra's main family plot (which, oddly enough, feels like it rushes its conclusion despite taking ages to get there) and handling the full array of side missions pertaining to Layla and first civilization artifacts, I still have like a dozen cult targets to kill, and I just don't want to do it. I know in my bones there's yet another ending buried in there, and I just don't care anymore.
The greatest shame of Assassin's Creed Odyssey is that there's still a fair amount to like about it. It is an often beautiful looking game with some spectacular moments dotted throughout its longwinded story. Its failure to sustain and emphasize those moments feels like a failure of editing. Someone needed to take a hard look at this game and say "We don't need all of this." I know that's not how game developers, especially open world game developers, are generally trained to think. We expect the size and scope of these games to forever expand in ways that ensure we'll stay glued to our controllers for every available hour we can muster. Odyssey is an example of why that mentality needs to adjust as these games continue to engorge themselves with every popular design idea they can find a way to integrate. Origins wasn't without its unnecessary pieces as well, but as a whole, it still felt fresh and unusual, at least for this franchise. If all you want is another huge, slightly lukewarm portion of a meal it feels like we just finished, then Odyssey certainly delivers that. Personally, I feel like I'm going to explode.