I played a long preview of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and it gave me a good feel for what the massive new installment in the Assassin’s Creed series will bring.
The game debuts on the consoles and PC on October 5, but ahead of Gamescom, the big game event in Germany this week, Ubisoft is showing off a lot of the gameplay in hands-on sessions. We know of course that you can explore the open world of ancient Greece in this game, but in the latest demo I also found how you can participate in an extended story in Odyssey.
In the demo, Ubisoft stripped out all of the side missions and let me play a full episode, dubbed Writhing Dread. It tells a story of two lesbian lovers who are separated by a creature. Playing as the Greek hero Kassandra, my job was to rescue Ligeia and return her to her lover, Bryce. At first, you don’t know much about the monster that has stolen Ligeia, but then you find stone soldiers with expressions of fear or agony on their faces.
At that point, you can figure out that the mysterious creature is Medusa, the mythical creature who could turn those who looked upon her into stone with a glance. In the multi-part mission, you have to rescue Bryce from a mob, travel to an island to find an artifact, battle a warrior who claims to have defeated the creature, and then face Medusa herself. That tells you a lot about the way Ubisoft’s developers are weaving together exploration, mythology, and human combat into a grand adventure.
I played a couple of hours of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey at a Ubisoft event in San Francisco, and then I interviewed Jonathan Dumont, creative director for the game, afterward.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I almost got that creature at the end there. Almost. I ran out of time. What was the name you gave it?
Jonathan Dumont: The Medusa? We call it the Writhing Dread.
GamesBeat: I wondered if you were trying to depart from mythology with that a bit.
Dumont: No, we just wanted to hide it a little longer. We didn’t want to give away exactly what it is early on.
GamesBeat: So you do try to embrace all these things from familiar Greek mythology. You’re not creating something brand new.
Dumont: No, no.
GamesBeat: Was that a creative decision in itself, that you felt like you had enough in the Greek myths to play with?
Dumont: Yeah, especially since the franchise has always had an attachment to the Roman gods. The Greek gods and myths seemed like a logical extension. We’re going back into a past where a lot of the secrets about the artifacts aren’t resolved. We don’t know everything about it. It allows us to play with what that could be like.
With your character being a product of that environment as well, they believe in the myths. They believe in the gods. We wanted to create a bit of that bridge. Trying to do ancient Greece without touching on any of that would be a missed opportunity. It fits into your exploration of the first civilization and the artifacts and what they could do. You’re seeing a simulation through that character, and you’ll learn through the game about what you’re actually seeing. It’s interesting to explore. There are so many things to pick from, so we made some choices there.
GamesBeat: In the combat with the Medusa there, it seems like she’d be too powerful. You’d be hard pressed to hold up a mirror.
Dumont: You could, though. It’s still a combat-oriented game. We captured the essence of it – when she looks at you, you start turning into stone – but with game mechanics involved. You don’t just turn into stone in one shot.
GamesBeat: That’s where there’s some departure, if you want to make it a fun game.
Dumont: We do freestyle a little bit off the myths, yeah.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard this is a much bigger world. Why does that make sense?
Dumont: Half of it is exploration on the sea, so we needed a larger map to do that. The land masses, if you compare that to Origins, we’re pretty close. We’re not keeping track, but we’re pretty close to the size of that world. Maybe it’s slightly bigger, but we have the ocean, so we need a map that has good traveling time, a fun traveling time on the water. It’s not too short and not too long. We made it so you can still believe you’re in the Aegean Sea, while making a smaller version for you to explore.
We do have a lot more RPG levers in the game, a lot of things you’ll be pursuing as awards, and a lot of systems to interact with in the world. Although it’s pretty big, the size is enough to fit what we’re doing.
GamesBeat: The combat itself seemed a little more accessible in some ways. If I hit the ground and knock out three guys around me, that helps a lot. Was that intentional?
Dumont: When you’re playing the demo, you have to keep in mind that you’re playing a max level character. Some of these abilities get progressively better as you upgrade them, and as you upgrade the artifact as well. When you unlock the first versions of those, they’re quite a bit less powerful. They feel a lot more realistic. As the power of your artifact grows, it allows you to expand that. You’ll be fighting more and more characters at the same time, but we didn’t want it to feel like you become overpowering as you grow through the game?
Is it more accessible? It takes a bit to get used to the controls, where you need to hold a button to be able to tap into the abilities. But once you get that down, yes, they can bail you out a bit more. It’s not so much to make it more accessible, though, as to make it more personal. You can map the abilities that you like and play your own sort of character class that you create.
GamesBeat: The particular story you’re highlighting, what made that interesting to you?
Dumont: One of the things that’s missing from the demo – because the content for a region like that is five to seven hours – is we stripped out the side quests. But some of the choices you make in the side quests can change the story. But we felt that this sort of lost love story, maybe a bit of a more nebulous story, fit well to fighting the Medusa in this case.
Each island, each story, we try to do something new with it and try different things. Some of them are more about the Greek world and historical characters. In this case it’s a bit more fictional and mythical. We try to hype up the myth of Medusa.
GamesBeat: And with the two women as lovers there–
Dumont: Well, it is the island of Lesbos. It’s not like you can deny that homosexuality existed in those times. We embrace the fact that it existed. But that’s not necessarily a focus of the game. We try to keep it open. We try to surprise the players a little with stories that are different. Not shocking, necessarily, but it feels different from what you might have played before. But we’re still trying to capture the essence of ancient Greece, which is a time period where these things are documented. It felt like this was the right way to tell our story.
GamesBeat: When you take out all the side-stories it becomes a much easier narrative to pursue and complete. How easy would it be if you put all that back in?
Dumont: We definitely want you to spend time on it. We want you to not always know where the next adventure is going to take you. Is it a big story, a short story? We have some short stories that might last 15 or 30 minutes, and then we have longer stories that build up around different characters and different options. We try to keep you guessing. We try to change up the recipe as we go. Some are very focused on choices. You make a choice and it branches off onto another island. But others, we want you to get to a certain point, with a few role-playing variations.
In this case we definitely wanted you to discover the lair, and especially for the demo, we wanted to make it more accessible to people who were having their first contact with the game and don’t know all the mechanics. We were focused on the fight and the mythical creature in this demo.
GamesBeat: Are you going to wind up with very different content if you choose the man or the woman, or is it similar?
Dumont: The actors are different, obviously. It’s pretty much the same story. But the role-playing choices that you can make will give you your own character with their own adventure. You follow the adventures of Alexios or Kassandra. It’s a deep story. There’s a lot of tragedy, and a lot of fun stuff as well. But the choices that you make can make it your own. It’s a true odyssey.
For example, I like to play a compassionate character. I can play Alexios as very compassionate, or in another game I could play Kassandra and play her as much more money-driven, greedy. You get a different vibe from the game that way, and some of the choices you make along the way will change your story. It’s up to you to invest who you are into the character, if you want to, and we’ll give you different results.
GamesBeat: Something like the big fight on the beach in the E3 demo, how difficult is that for you guys to pull off? It’s not the kind of scene we’re used to from an Assassin’s Creed game.
Dumont: Once you have 150 versus 150, we have a system, a war system—this can happen in a pre-determined area based on certain conditions in the world. We have some in stories that are already placed in the world. But most of the time it’s based on our world logic. When a state becomes weaker it gets invaded by another one and that produces a big battle. You can participate on one side or another. It’s technology we’ve invested a lot of time into, to give you these spikes of challenge and get those big epic fights that the Peloponnesian war was known for.
GamesBeat: They can pop up throughout the game, then?
Dumont: They do, yes. You can pursue and trigger them by lowering the resources or killing the leader of a state, and then it will trigger the invasion. There are bonuses and rewards attached to winning one of these battles. If that’s your favorite thing in the game, you can do an unlimited amount of those. At least until you die.