LOS ANGELES—Ubisoft didn’t do a great job hiding ahead of this year’s E3, thanks to a leaked promotional keychain of all things. But the game’s developers at Ubisoft Quebec redeemed the company by hiding the bigger news: that this annual Assassin’s Creed update actually feels ambitious.
Monday’s Ubisoft press conference saw the company telling players to “live Odyssey” starting October 5 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.
Before that announcement, Ubisoft was gracious enough to give us nearly an hour of hands-on time with a pre-release build. That much time wasn’t enough to confirm of the developer’s lofty claims, but it was enough to see serious -like aspirations for the series’ first true “open world RPG.”
Son (or daughter) of Nikolas
The year is 431 BCE in Greece, and players take control of either Alexios or Kassandra, a child born into the era of the Peloponnesian War—and into a tragic prophecy as foretold by the Oracle of Delphi. Players will be cast out of their Spartan family as a child—revealed in the trailer by way of father Nikolas knocking a child off a cliff. Players eventually return to Greece as an adult… and a mercenary.
Ubisoft emphasizes two things with its opening menu: that players must immediately make a decision about their player-character (man or woman), and that such a decision has zero impact on the gameplay that follows. Other than dialogue tweaks for the names and different voice actors for your own character, the game is designed to play out in a mechanically identical fashion. (Based on my time with both characters, there’s no question: Kassandra’s voice actor is far, far less excruciating to listen to than the shout-crazy man who voices Alexios.)
Our hour-long demo took place on the Delos, a pair of densely populated Greek islands that players can expect to reach roughly 15-20 hours into the campaign. These appeared to make up a tiny percentage of the full map that Ubisoft Quebec showed attending press, though it was unclear how much of that map includes accessible water and terrain.
Those islands were chosen for a particular reason: brings naval travel and combat back to Assassin’s Creed, and our quick spin revealed a simple, elegant, and ultimately familiar system of easily piloting giant ships and aiming basic attacks on the port and starboard sides. Players will be expected to recruit NPC allies throughout the campaign’s course for the sake of improved seafaring, though we didn’t get to convince anybody (either through diplomacy or force) to join our ragtag crew.
Stab shields, make choices, fight bears
The demo was packed full of dialogue, and players will now get to pick dialogue options that Ubisoft insists will be impactful to the plot. We didn’t see too much evidence of game-changing dialogue while island-hopping. Meaning, in some conversations, we’d get to pick different harmless responses to basic questions, which couldn’t be taken back. Other times, we saw questions that were marked in white text—meaning, these were solely meant to offer more back story as opposed to changing how an NPC might react to your hero.
The islands include roughly five hours of main and side quests, Ubisoft says, and one staffer alluded to a party at the campaign’s end whose characters and dialogue vary based on who you meet and how you talk to them around Delos. Additionally, this staffer hinted to a conversation about depression that forces the player to make a choice on a potentially very sensitive issue. We hope Ubisoft is sensitive with this kind of delicate topic.
The demo didn’t let us truly play with the other major addition: an evolved take on the skill trees found in . We did get to dig through this new skill-tree menu system, at least, and the above gallery reveals a few of the otherworldly powers that your hero will get access to in the game. My favorite was easily the shield-stab, a power that recharges every 10 seconds or so and lets you impale a foe’s shield with a spear, then toss the shield to the side to more easily finish that soldier off.
But a short demo is a hard sell for major RPG-like aspirations. Player choice and skill-tree decisions can sometimes send a rippling, butterfly effect through a grand RPG, or they can be cosmetic window dressing for a largely linear experience. We didn’t see enough during the demo to make a call either way. Instead, we found that thus far, these elements neatly fit into other familiar Assassin’s Creed elements cobbled from the series’ past few years, like horse-riding, wall-scaling, large-group combat, and seafaring.
If you like following zillions of quest icons, for both main and side quests, while feeling like a mix between a sword-wielding Spartan and a wall-scaling Spider-man, already has that template laid out. A new 150 vs. 150 battle mode (dubbed Conquest Battle, which is offline against NPCs) emphasizes how has finally gotten the hang of letting players aim strikes and stabs in a larger crowd. A single quest we took on with a lengthy dialogue-tree conversation with Socrates emphasized player choice while deciding how to rescue a strange prisoner in a guarded compound. (We took the back route and swam through a back channel.) And an epic fight in a bear’s den reminded us that, you know, bears are deadly.
All in all, should the game’s scope and RPG aspirations land anywhere near its lofty aims, Ubisoft might have a perfectly serviceable sequel here by default, if not a genre-changing stunner. It’s a good sign for a series that has suffered from an “ugh, another annual sequel” reputation over the past few years, and we’ll keep a keen eye on odyssey until its October launch.