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Excellent Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Reflects Long History of Swords and Sandals Epics

Here at RogerEbert.com, we have begun to look at video games and how they intersect with cinematic culture, highlighting franchises that either have intrinsic ties through adaptation (“Resident Evil,” “Tomb Raider”) or just games with a deep debt to movie history (“Uncharted”). The “Assassin’s Creed” games did, technically, have a movie starring Michael Fassbender, but it was such a stunning dud that it really had no influence on the future trajectory of the games (unlike something like “RE” and “TR” in which the success and style of the films influenced future games). Why did “AC” fall so flat as a film? The latest title in the series, the phenomenal “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey,” does something that film cannot, and something that was really a part of Roger’s argument as to whether or not video games can be art—it allows you to write the story as much as any open world game in a long time. And, as if that user authorship didn’t distinguish it from other forms of art enough, it also succeeds mostly through world-building, giving gamers a massive, epic landscape to explore on their own time, finding its secrets. Having said that, there are echoes of film history throughout “Odyssey,” a game that ties Greek mythology and legend into a package that nods to classic Hollywood epics and more recent ventures into the genre of swords and sandals, as well as hit modern RPGs like "The Witcher 3".

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First, a little history. Arguably the most dominant, non-sports modern franchise not named “Call of Duty,” “Assassin’s Creed” has been a nearly-annual phenomenon. It’s only been a little over a decade since the first game was released and yet “Odyssey” is the eleventh major installment in the series and twentieth overall (there have been a series of what you could call spin-offs). For a while, they were releasing one a year, and it felt like the franchise was sagging due to over-saturation. It’s hard to keep up with epic, massive games released every year, especially when a few in a row are creatively flat, which is what happened here. There have been undeniable peaks, and those of us who have kept with the series (I’ve played them all) feel a strange loyalty to it, even though there was legitimate concern that there wouldn’t be another great “AC” game, at least not until maybe a true reboot.

So, let’s get this out of the way: “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey” is a great game. It’s my favorite in the series since 2013’s “Black Flag,” which really expanded the franchise in terms of gameplay and narrative ambition. This game is as addictive as anything I’ve played in 2018, only sagging a bit because of just how much it gives you. It can be overwhelming in its size and scope, the kind of game that you can literally get lost in for hours, exploring its landscape and developing its story. Like any epic RPG, it also gets a bit repetitive in terms of gameplay and demands some grinding to level-up, but those issues don’t hamper the experience as much because it’s such a consistently beautiful and entertaining world to visit. The creators of “Odyssey” enhanced the RPG elements—it feels like the most customizable game in “AC” history in terms of inventory and abilities—and, most of all, designed one of the most impressive worlds in video game history.

“Odyssey” is set in 431 BCE in Greece. You play a mercenary caught in the middle of the war between Athens and Sparta—either Alexios or Kassandra, depending on your gender choice at the game’s opening. Multiple narratives unfold as “Odyssey” develops, including the greater war and the personal story as you try to get to the bottom of your family’s history. The gameplay is rich and sometimes overwhelming in terms of choice. You can progress through the story missions in a relatively straightforward manner—although you’ll have to do some side missions to level up enough to do so—or you can really venture out on your own, investigating cultists trying to take over Greece and killing mercenaries who have been paid for your head. Most of all, it’s a gorgeous, beautifully-rendered landscape, with what feels like hundreds of miles of ground and water to cover. Like “Black Flag,” you’ll spend time on the seas again in naval combat, and it's one of the rare games in which it feels like you can truly lost.

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As for film influences, there are, of course, echoes of the classic epics from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but the film that feels like it most inspired “Odyssey” is Zack Snyder’s “300,” all the way down to how one of your moves is to do the bad-ass drop kick that Gerard Butler made so popular. It also has an extreme action sensibility that’s more inspired by things like the modern riff on “Clash of the Titans” and Wolfgang Petersen’s underrated “Troy” than the classics. It can be a marvelously strange game—try using the aforementioned kick move to drop a charging lion off a cliff and you’ll know what I mean, or wait to get attacked by a chicken—and it’s that sense of surprise that keeps the grinding and repetition from getting boring. There are encounters that are undeniably similar, but few of them play out quite the same way. And it’s a wonderful game in terms of its power tree, balancing how your character grows in strength as the fights and missions get more difficult, which inherently keeps it fresh.

Ultimately, “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey” is a game that can offer the player both a dialogue tree to make choices in a conversation with Sokrates and turn him into a killing machine capable of decimating an entire fort of enemies before they even know he’s there. It’s the variety of gameplay in a world that’s so open to our exploration that really makes “Odyssey” so special. Yes, it arguably could have been tighter and shorter—and the actual story sags at times—but the world of “Odyssey” is one of the best of the current generation. Roger would probably argue here that exploration is not art. Doesn’t art need an artist? The hand of a creator? It’s a conversation I wish I could still have with him, and am happy we’re still exploring it reference to some of the best games on the market, but it’s also just a word. Whether or not you consider “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” art or not, it’s something special.  

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