Assassin's Creed: Odyssey's Exploration Mode isn't afraid of letting players get lost

“This is the way Odyssey is intended to be played”

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Odysseus would be heartbroken to see his home now. The once resplendent palace on the island of Ithaca is now a crumbling ruin, not much more than scattered piles of stone and a couple of faltering walls. It’s also host to a company of bandits, patrolling the ancient grounds like the suitors who once tried to steal poor Penelope away.

But not for long. Assassin that I am, I kill first one and then the other bandit leaders. Odysseus may be 800 years dead, but I can at least pay my respects.

Not all who wander are lost

At E3 I played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey ($60 preorder on Humble) for an hour. This time I played for five, starting from the beginning of the game, and my feelings on it have stayed pretty much the same. Odyssey is the freshest Assassin’s Creed in years.

Now let’s talk about getting lost for a couple hundred words.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Exploration Mode! This is what I want to talk about, as it’s easily the most exciting feature I saw during my hands-on time. At the beginning of the game you’re given a choice between two styles of play: A traditional Assassin’s Creed experience, or a more realistic and challenging (some might say “immersive”) experience termed Exploration Mode. “This is the way Odyssey is intended to be played,” the flavor text informs you.

So what is it?

I imagine you’ve got an idea from the name, but in short: Exploration Mode strips quest markers and other artifice from Assassin’s Creed (or minimizes their usage, at least).

It’s bold, I’ll tell you that. Last year’s Origins was already a departure for Assassin’s Creed, depicting points of interest as question marks on the map. The player had no way of knowing what was in store until they drew near, be it an enemy outpost or a hyena den or an ancient tomb. And a funny thing happened: It made those random side areas feel important. Work went into discovering them, after all.

Odyssey’s Exploration Mode applies the same ideas to missions. Instead of an omniscient god directing you to the nearby bandit den or whatever, you’re now given directions. Or clues, really. They might say something like “On the southern tip of Ithaca” and “Near the waterfront” or “East of the river” or whatever.

Then it’s up to you to take this info, decipher it, and mark on your map where you think you’re supposed to go. Let me stress: Most of these clues aren’t especially difficult. This isn’t a riddle game or anything. Usually the three clues are enough to triangulate a rough position.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Even so, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the usual Assassin’s Creed loop where you get a mission and immediately start running off to the distant quest marker. At least once I got lost, mistaking one island for another and stumbling into a whole different high-level mission by accident.

I’m fascinated by the whole endeavor regardless. It’s tempting to say Exploration Mode feels new, but really it feels very old, hearkening back to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and its written quest instructions. Not to say Odyssey is on the same level as Morrowind, which literally had characters give you “Go up past this tree and then turn right”-style directions, but it’s a lot closer to that end of the spectrum than it is to traditional Assassin’s Creed and the established orthodoxy of modern game development.

It’s a very fitting pivot for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to make, given the title. Odyssey is a game about exploration, a hero’s journey through lands unknown. It’s only logical the game make it possible to get lost.

War to end all wars

There’s more to love about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, though I feel like I covered most of the high points during E3. I’m once again in love with the way Odyssey’s blending myth and realism, as in the story of Odysseus’s home above. To think, that Odysseus was as far removed from the setting of this Assassin’s Creed as the original Assassin’s Creed’s Third Crusade is from our present-day. No wonder his home is in ruins.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Some elements of Greek mythos are very much alive though. We’ve seen a minotaur and a gorgon in Odyssey’s marketing, although neither appeared in my demo. I did however stumble into a collapsed temple with a strange crumbling wall I couldn’t get through—but one that nevertheless reminded me of Bayek’s journeys into the afterlife in Curse of the Pharaohs. Very interested to see what that’s about.

The rest of my impressions are mostly minutiae. I boosted Kassandra up to Level 8 and thus earned a few perks. As suspected, special moves like the “This is Sparta!” kick are unlocked by skill points, and many are accessible very early in the game.

Fun fact: The Sparta kick works on wolves.

You have both Ranged and Melee skills, all of which are remappable to the A/B/X/Y buttons on a controller. (They wouldn’t let me play mouse and keyboard unfortunately). Odyssey’s playing fast and loose with these powers too. An early favorite literally lets you teleport to an unsuspecting enemy for a quick long-range stealth kill. It makes zero sense in the realistic historical context of Assassin’s Creed and yet it’s so satisfying I can hardly complain.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Ship battles are back, and play basically the same as they did in Black Flag (and in the handful of boat missions in Origins). Ramming speed is a major tactic though, and it’s often better to get in close than to sit back and snipe. Also, when you’ve boarded a ship you can Sparta-kick enemy sailors into the water. Seriously, the Sparta kick is really addictive.

An even smaller change, but a welcome one: You no longer need to upgrade your gear by collecting a bunch of random raw materials—or at least, I didn’t see any of that on the new equipment screen during my demo.

And towards the end of my hands-on time I made it to the province of Megaris where Sparta and Athens mustered troops for an upcoming battle. Here I was introduced to a whole meta-layer in Odyssey, wherein you can side with either Sparta or Athens to seize control of provinces across Greece. In Megaris you’re forced to side with Sparta for story reasons, but I was assured that in later areas you’d have the choice. I’m interested to see how that plays out, and how consequential it feels to the story.

Bottom line

Getting lost, though. That’s the main selling point for me here. For a series that used to be derided for its map full of meaningless icons, Assassin’s Creed is now one of the most forward-thinking games of 2018—at least when it comes to mission structures. I’m surprised and delighted, and I hope Odyssey has even more in store.

Look for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey ($60 preorder on Humble) on October 5, and check out our E3 coverage for more details including in-game footage and a discussion of Odyssey’s dialogue trees. Yes, dialogue trees in an Assassin’s Creed game. I know.

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