LOS ANGELES – Since BioWare isn't making BioWare-style games at the moment, Assassin's Creed is here to take up the mantle. Assassin's Creed Odyssey takes place in ancient Greece and features very similar gameplay to last year's Egyptian adventure, Assassin's Creed Origins. The big difference, though, is that Odyssey will give players a chance to shape the storyline through character selection, dialogue choices and narrative decisions.
Your actions will shape the world around you – and if you're so inclined, your honeyed words can also woo some Mediterranean NPCs.
I went hands-on with Assassin's Creed Odyssey, which is coming out October 8 for PC, PS4 and Xbox. In the interest of full disclosure, I am admittedly an easy sell when it comes to Assassin's Creed games, but I was still glued to my seat for the entire hour of the demo. I took control of Kassandra and Alexios: two Spartan warriors who hope to shift the balance of power during the Peloponnesian War, circa 400 B.C.
This is the second time that a woman has (potentially) taken the lead role in an Assassin's Creed game, although once you choose your lead character, you'll be in control of him or her for the entire game. (The demo let me switch between the two, just to get a feel for both characters. Save for the names and pronouns that other characters use, they are identical in terms of both story choices and gameplay options.)
If you've played Assassin's Creed Origins, you'll know what to expect. I took control of Kassandra and guided her around the island of Mykonos, taking quests from townsfolk as I went. Her immediate task was to unseat a local warlord, which would help tilt the war in Sparta's favor. To do this, she had to aid a local band of warriors. As in Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Kassandra couldn't take down the warlord immediately; she had to take over the neighborhood piecemeal, decreasing Athenian influence until it was time to force a final confrontation.
I had two main tasks: sink ships from the Athenian navy, and eliminate prominent Athenian military captains. First, I took to the wine-dark seas around Mykonos, and engaged in some good old-fashioned naval warfare. Like Assassin's Creed IV and Assassin's Creed Origins, naval combat plays an important role in Odyssey. (However, a Ubisoft representative informed me that it won't take center stage in most missions; it's more a function of Greece having so many historic islands.)
To sink the Athenian ships, I had to pull up alongside them, then command my archers and spear-throwers to unleash volleys. After landing a few solid hits, I had the opportunity to launch fire arrows; I could also board weakened ships in order to loot valuable treasures before sending it into the Aegean Sea. The combat felt satisfying, albeit not too difficult.
Raiding military camps was a more traditional Assassin's Creed experience. I sneaked through bushes and picked off enemy soldiers one by one until I reached the captain. Like Assassin's Creed Origins, however, particularly powerful enemies can withstand a sneak attack, so my attempt at stealth devolved into open combat. As before, combat is a chaotic affair, with light and heavy attacks, dodges and enemies that have a surprising amount of hit points.
What's different from before, though, is that Kassandra has access to special skills that she can activate with the left bumper. After she built up some momentum through regular sword strikes, she could heal herself, yank away enemy shields or even give them a King Leonidas-style Spartan kick. (I used this feature more than I strictly needed to; I never got tired of seeing Kassandra kick an enemy off the side of a boat, or a cliff.)
I also got a chance to try out a large-scale battle as Alexios. In these massive affairs, you lead a group of Spartans against an equally matched group of Athenians, killing enemy captains and heroes as you go. Both sides of the conflict have a health bar, and while killing ordinary soldiers will lower it a bit, focusing in on the leaders will lower it a lot. The mode is a fast-paced, fun and novel variation on some late-game Origins content, although I foresee that it could get tiresome if overused.
Finally, I took on a quest from Socrates himself and learned a thing or two about the dialogue options in the process. Kassandra can choose how to respond to quest prompts, and characters will remember her attitude. When Socrates asked me to see justice done, I turned his words back on him and asked him to define what he meant by "justice." (This, kids, is what we call the "Socratic method.") Other characters even have romantic options in their dialogue – although, sadly, you can't make doe eyes at Socrates. (At least not in the demo I played.)
I spoke briefly with Melissa MacCoubrey, the game's narrative director, to ask her how the game's story would fit with the rest of the series. After all, a lot of what we know about Assassins and Templars was established in Origins, and Odyssey takes place almost 400 years before that game. She told me that the game's story will focus on the mysterious First Civilization, which has spurred a lot of the meta-story in the overall series. We may finally learn about their origins and their goals.