"Odyssey" couldn't be a more appropriate name for the first "Assassin's Creed" set in Ancient Greece.
That's not just because of the Homeric tale of the same name. It's also because "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" is exactly that, a sweeping and segmented journey that takes a small chunk of your life to complete. So, like Homer's, this "Odyssey" tempts you to cut down on that time. You can skip side quests and epilogues the same way your ninth-grade English teacher assigned only selections of the epic poem to read. Developer Ubisoft even sells its own CliffsNotes: A $9.99 permanent XP boost allows you to keep pace with the levels of the main quest, sparing you anything optional altogether.
But "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" can be addictively fun to play — for awhile. It polishes the weightier combat introduced in last year's "Origins" and sharpens the series' stealth with elegant movement and perfectly alert AI, making every encounter a fresh thrill. And the Ancient Greece where those encounters take place is somehow even more massive and mythic than the Egypt of "Origins." From hunting the Minotaur on the craggy hills of Crete to pontificating with Socrates in the shadow of the Parthenon, it's sculpted to seize the imagination of anyone who paid attention in middle school.
So the game, like its literary namesake, tests that old adage: "It's about the journey, not the destination." Because when the journey is this long, savoring it can be a struggle no matter how much fun you're sometimes having. I clocked 65 hours with "Assassin's Creed Odyssey," seeing the end and both epilogues, setting foot on every Aegean Island, slaying every creature of myth. And I still sped through the game like Hermes. I sped from objective to objective, past Greek citizens who needed my character's help, barely processing the breathtaking scenery along the way. Yes, the encounters were thrilling, but they were also the only part of the game that demanded any patience. They were bookended by conversations where I skipped most of the optional questions and the context they provide, and horseback rides so reckless that my steed, Phobos, probably hates my guts. Repeatedly steering him off a 100-foot cliff because it was the straightest route would do that.
I could have spent even longer playing "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" if I selected its exploration mode. It removes waypoints, requiring you to navigate by asking for directions and reading the map. It's the opposite of Ubisoft's permanent XP boost, adding untold hours of play time. And if I had literally nothing else to do for the next month, let alone a review deadline, I would have loved to experience the game that way. I would have loved to absorb its gorgeous Ancient Greece that fully, to engage with its citizens that closely. I would have loved to explore, to wander, to journey.
To play "Assassin's Creed Odyssey," then, is to endure a tension: Wanting to do more, wanting to continue the journey, and not having the damn time to do it. Does that mean the game is too big? Perhaps. Does that mean there's something wrong with me and other players who can't give a game that size the time it invites? Maybe. I just know that very tension is what defined my odyssey.
Last year, I wrote that "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" was the best game in Ubisoft's stealth action series.
You play as Alexios or Kassandra, siblings whose fate is entwined with Greece's own as Sparta and Athens fight the Peloponnesian War. I chose Kassandra. And despite her glaring resemblance to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman — from the Mediterranean accent and cheery attitude to the supermodel looks and Amazon armor — she's a far better choice. Her voice actress, Melissanti Mahmut, realizes the character with warmth, resolve and humor, while Alexios just sounds like a raging buffoon. "Origins" leads Bayek and Aya remain the series' best, but Kassandra belongs in the conversation.
One thing that sets Kassandra apart from her assassin predecessors is the ability to select your character's dialogue for the first time in the series. Straight from the school of Bioware and Bethesda, the only meaningful distinction between her responses is that one is aggressive, the other compassionate. But along with plenty of romance options — which are also new to the series — and the usual patchwork of skill trees and gear, the dialogue options allow you to make your assassin your own to a greater degree than ever. The identity of the game itself takes form in similar fashion. It conservatively improves upon 10 "Assassin's Creeds'" worth of ideas or, in the case of the dialogue options, introduces ones so universal as to be undetectable. And yet, somehow, as those ideas lock into place in the game's transportive Greek world, "Odyssey" performs a kind of alchemy. Even as every one of its systems evokes a dozen games you've played, it feels wholly new.
What may be more original than the systems is Ubisoft's simplistic approach to them. In "Odyssey," the developer prioritizes breadth over depth across the board. The only status effects in combat are fire and poison. There's no crafting outside of arrows, and no consumables because healing is a cooldown skill you can map to a button command. Vendors have little of value to offer aside from upgrading your gear or engraving it with singular perks. And the skills and gear couldn't be more straightforward about the abilities they unlock and the stats they buff.
With so much to do in the game, I appreciated Ubisoft giving me so little to manage in its menus. No, the menus are more useful at tracking the massive list of tasks Kassandra can pursue across the peninsula. One of the best of those tasks is a new mercenary network. Theft and murder raise a bounty that draws these mercenaries to you unless you kill the person who put it on you, or pay them off. But killing the mercenaries vaults Kassandra above them on a hierarchy. And keeping the mercenaries on the prowl for you makes the game's encounters significantly more exciting.
I've played about 20 hours of "Assassin's Creed Odyssey." And it's a good game. At times, it's great. But it's the worst kind of game to review.
The mercenaries of "Odyssey" are similar to the orc nemeses of Monolith's "Middle-earth" games: procedurally generated foes who follow you all over the map. They can also be really damn tough. So when they roll up on a fort you're trying to clear of soldiers, they can turn a rote encounter into an epic war story. Many of mine involved fleeing up the parapets, scrambling for a hill that'd break my pursuers' line of sight and hiding in foliage until I could get the jump on some of them. I'd repeat that courageous strategy until victorious, and every second of it felt exhilarating.
In a change from "Origins," "Odyssey" scales the level of enemies who'd otherwise be so much lower than you that you could kill them in a single hit. Meanwhile, enemies more than two levels higher than you can do the same to Kassandra. That's how the game forces you to complete optional activities before continuing the main quest, where the next mission can be as many as five levels higher.
So, even when you're adequately leveled, every fight is a challenge. Your most powerful defense is parrying, which has such a generous window that you can press the appropriate buttons seconds before the sword reaches you and still render its wielder vulnerable. The other side's equalizer is numbers. Parties of spear-wielding Spartans or, on the Aegean, small fleets of ships can make both land and naval combat a splitting headache. And with so many islands and so much distance between them, "Odyssey" spends as much time at sea as any "Assassin's Creed" game since "Black Flag."
Like the mercenaries, another menu in the game tracks another one of its best tasks: the Cult of Kosmos. After Kassandra meets the masked conspirators early in the game, a web of 44 of them joins your journal. Some appear naturally in the course of her story, and some remain hidden unless you chase clues about their location or other conditions that can lure them into your sights. Some clues are so cryptic that they take considerable time. But chasing them is the closest "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" comes to making you feel like an actual assassin. So the time, and the journey, is worth taking.