Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Over a decade since the first entry, Assassin’s Creed has ballooned into a mixed-media franchise that includes at least seven spinoffs, nine novels, 11 comics, a Michael Fassbender film, an in-development TV show and enough Pop! toys to fill a jam band. The brand is so ubiquitous, so familiar, that its core ideas — religion is a misreading of coded messages from an ancient, advanced race of technologists; a shadow war between the champions of freedom and control has been fought over centuries by Earth’s greatest historical leaders and thinkers — have mutated from quirky and compelling to obtuse and intimidating to predictable and bland.
Last year, Assassin’s Creed Origins served as something of a reboot, mercifully carving off much of the backstory that had calcified into a complex meta-narrative spanning the history of humankind. Great! A fresh start is what the series needs. This year, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey expands upon Origins with an even bigger world and a number of welcome gameplay additions.
Odyssey’s release is a good opportunity to reflect on the series’ zigs and zags. Because for all of its overwrought melodrama and impenetrable conspiracies, Assassin’s Creed has spawned, consistently, some of the strangest, most self-effacing and ambitious AAA games. A single series that spans swashbuckling pirates, Victorian-era organized crime, the plurality of famous Renaissance artists, a golden apple with the power to obliterate human life and, yes, of course, a boss battle that culminates with the graphic pummeling of Pope Alexander VI for no other reason than “the truth is out there.”
ASSASSIN’S CREED: REVELATIONS
Despite (or perhaps because of) the constant threat of succumbing to franchise bloat and committing an expensive creative misfire, Assassin’s Creed’s designers have largely built their games around the shared and proven skeleton of third-person stealth combat. With each entry, a hero pairs a knack for parkour with a love of concealed blades to slaughter an entire political regime using crowds, haystacks and extreme heights to stay just out of sight. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is, in some capacity, the exception.
This game takes a series known for graceful stealth combat and adds, of all things, bombs — yes, “bombs” is plural; there’s a variety of explosives to craft and combust.
Even at the bottom of this list, I can’t bring myself to bully Revelations. In their quest for a raison d’être, the designers grasped for something, anything that would distinguish this game from its predecessors. The bombs are a bust, but some ideas hinted at greatness. A messy fort defense system is only now, six years later, being refined by Middle-earth: Shadow of War. And I’ll go so far as to say that Revelationsincludes the best character work for Desmond, the unlikable protagonist who, for years, had dominated the franchise’s modern-day timeline.
In an extended collection of first-person, 3D puzzles (yes, you can wear 3D glasses; Revelations was published in 2011, after all), the player navigates abstract spaces (think a clumsier Portal) to uncover Desmond’s deep existential truths. Paired with these vignettes is a collection of monologues recapping Desmond’s former life as a puckish runaway who gets caught up in the hubbub of 20-something life in New York City. If you’ve ever wondered what Assassin’s Creed would sound like if written by John Updike on a bender, then have I got the game for you.
ASSASSIN’S CREED 3
Assassin’s Creed 3 is a multicar pileup: the franchise’s rapid commercial expectations colliding into the publisher’s exponential desire to include more and more things to do, further demolished by the complexity of developing a game on a quick turnaround with a team of hundreds spread across the world. When the lights went off in Canada, they came on in Shanghai, and for years a moment didn’t pass without someone, somewhere feeding their ideas into this machine.
Since then, Ubisoft has built itself around this global production model, but Assassin’s Creed 3 feels, more than any other entry, like the product of growing pains. The team had many years to make the game, but with the final product being a mixed bag, one wonders how much of that production time went into formalizing a process for creating games at this humongous scale.
It doesn’t help that the game, like Revelations, misunderstands the appeal of previous entries. Where early Assassin’s Creeds send the player skittering across the rooftops of cramped villas and cities, Assassin’s Creed 3 drops the player in the wide-avenue towns and dense forests of Colonial America. The setting makes for some playful story turns, but never quite supports the playstyle at its heart.
In “The Judgement of Atlantis”, the Misthios enters Atlantis with Poseidon, who is far more forthcoming about his willingness to help the Misthios unlock the full potential of the Staff. Poseidon explains that he is worried about the tense relationship between the Isu and the humans in Atlantis, and appoints the Misthios “Dikastes”, his second-in-command, in the hopes that appointing a human-Isu hybrid to this position will help quell these tensions. As Dikastes of Atlantis, the Misthios is responsible for enforcing Poseidon’s laws and keeping order in the city, while also passing judgement on Atlantis as a whole. Poseidon also encourages the Misthios to uncover more knowledge about the Staff of Hermes Trismegistus along the way. As the Misthios explores Atlantis, it gradually becomes clear that the Isu regularly disobey Poseidon’s laws and commit terrible crimes against humanity, the most egregious of which being “Project Olympos”—a genetic engineering program led by the Isu Juno and her husband Aita—which has been experimenting on abducted human subjects, combining them with Isu artifacts to create terrifying hybrid beasts including the Cyclopes, the Minotaur, the Sphinx, Medusa, and most recently, the Hekatonchires. After discovering the Project Olympos headquarters, the Misthios returns to Poseidon to pass judgement on Atlantis, but their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Juno and Aita, who reveal that their final creation, the Hekatonchires, is complete. The Misthios goes to confront the beast, and once it is defeated returns to Poseidon’s palace and declares Atlantis beyond saving. Using the Atlantis artifacts the Misthios recovered from Ros and the Hekatonchires, along with the fully activated Staff of Hermes Trismegistus, Poseidon and the Misthios destroy Atlantis. The Misthios then wakes up back in the real world and is told by Aletheia that the memories experienced were simulations but no less real, as they were Aletheia’s memories during her time as Dikastes, and of how miserably the Isu had failed to alter their fate.
In the modern day, Layla experiences all these trials as the Misthios by order of the Isu Aletheia, so she could become the Staff’s Keeper. After the rebellion in Elysium, she was pulled out forcefully by her physician Victoria, who fears what this is doing to her. As the two argue, an Abstergo strike team arrives, and Layla kills all but one, telling him to tell their boss Otso Berg that he lost. After helping Hades, Layla is once again forced out by Victoria, who is taking the staff away to keep Layla from killing herself. Layla takes the staff back and accidentally kills Victoria, angering Aletheia, who fears she chose poorly. Layla is able to convince her to give her another chance. After Atlantis’ destruction, Layla is warned of an approaching Interloper, who is Otso Berg himself. He wants the staff for the Templar Order to ensure they survive the coming End, but Layla refuses to give it up. They fight and she wins, crippling Otso Berg after telling him the Templars have lost the fight. Eventually, Layla restores communication with the Altair II and informs Alannah about the recent events.