“Assassin’s Creed” games can be overwhelming. They’ve transformed from manageable 40-hour offerings to behemoth experiences that become a second job. Playing an entry sometimes feels like trying to suck a melon through a straw.
That could change with a shift in perspective and a new Exploration Mode in “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.” The option is a new way to play the game and I used it at a preview event in San Francisco. Although seemingly small, the decision made a big difference in how I approached the huge campaign.
Usually, “Assassin’s Creed” games are flooded with markers. Players go to the icon, get the quest and head over to the objective to finish it. They ping-pong themselves across the map, finishing every quest and cleaning up the map. For the obsessive-completist, the sidequests meant to add value to the campaign become a laborious distraction.
Exploration Mode removes these icons and forces players to locate the mission goals by using clues given by characters. Thankfully, the hints are displayed on screen, and by looking at the map and visualizing the area, players can figure out where the objective is.
The move does two things for “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.” The first is that it removes the stress of clearing the map. Players feel free to explore the world naturally. They can wander around and find side quests. For instance, I ran into a man who has doubts about whether his sacrificial offerings are being heard by the gods. He asked me to investigate.
Without the icon hanging over me, I didn’t feel as though I needed to do the quest immediately. I leisurely wandered around and come back to it later. Somehow the gameplay felt more organic and fun and less like a demanding job.
Essentially, the Exploration Mode proves the idea that ignorance is bliss when it comes to “Assassin’s Creed” games. If players don’t know a quest is around the corner, they can focus on the task at hand. Players are no longer paralyzed by the number of choices they have on screen.
It made my experience from the opening act, which was the Battle of Thermopylae made famous by the film “300,” to my first mission beyond Kephallonia Island go smoothly.
The introductory missions on the locale follow Alexios or Kassandra. The gender of the hero is the first choice players have in the game, but with the same lines and narrative opportunities, the two experiences mirror each other. So why make them two different heroes? The developer, Ubisoft Quebec, reveals the answer to that decision in flashbacks involving Alexio and Kassandra’s past.
With the option to choose how the protagonists reacts, players have a bigger role in the way they shape the world of “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.” Some of those decisions can be difficult. I found this out early on in the Blood Fever quest. An outbreak happens at the village and Kephallonia authorities have killed everyone and burned the village.
The last survivors are a family who claim they’re not sick or if they were they may get better. Should players have mercy and let them live or should they think of the potential for infection and let them die? The decision has a lasting consequence on the island of Kephallonia. Other decisions are more personal as players have the opportunity to strike up conversations and enter a romantic relationship with secondary characters.
As I wrote before, “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” refines the combat introduced in “Assassin’s Creed Origins” with the inclusion of special abilities tied to the adrenaline meter. These powers especially Second Wind, which is obtainable at level 5, are crucial for survival. They heal the hero when the character is low on health or muster a powerful attack when they need that extra bit of damage against foe. They’re vital in defeating mercenaries, who are powerful enemies comparable to Phylakes in “Origins.” Mercenaries appear more and more as the protagonist stirs the pot in ancient Greece and creates more enemies. Thankfully, these warriors are easy to kill thanks to the abilities.
The key to survival though is to rely on bow-and-arrow shots to keep adrenaline up so players can use these moves. Victory often means keeping some distance away from mercenaries to build meter for more powerful attacks.
Aside from the refined combat, another element that makes a return is full-fledged naval battles. This should make fans of “Assassin’s Creed Black Flag” happy. After the introduction, the protagonist becomes a mercenary leader and her ship, the Adrestia, is the home base that ferries her around ancient Greece.
Players will run across Athenian vessels and they can attack them using arrows and javelins. They also have the option to ram a weakened ship or board it just like pirates.The Adrestia almost becomes like another character in “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.” Players have a chance to power it up by adding lieutenants to it.
The hero adds these minions to her mercenary company by knocking out enemies in the world and recruiting them. Each adversary has different characteristics and boosts ship stats such as archery attack. That means having a boat full of powerful lieutenants can mean the difference between life and death in the Aegean Sea.
Having played the game twice now, “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” is shaping up to be an improvement over “Origins.” It takes the concepts of the previous title and refines them. It acknowledges the weaknesses of the design and fixes them in a subtle but much-needed way. Players can begin exploring ancient Greece on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on Oct. 5.
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