Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
The developers of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey have been moving the game’s finish line farther out since October of last year, but I think I’m finally about to catch it. This sums up my gaming experience these days, perpetually racing toward a moving goal.
At launch Odyssey was already a marathon, a game with not one but three main quests as well as dozens of sidequests. I’d heard that it was already a 100-hour game. I wouldn’t know, because before I could finish even one of the game’s main quests, its developers were already adding more adventures.
Then came the flow of free “Lost Tales Of Greece” updates, each of which added a new questline consisting of five or so new missions. There have been 10 so far. I’ve played through one that involved two brothers who were both mourning their dad and also both trying to sleep with my character. I’ve got one going now in which I’m trying to track down the missing wife of my top adviser. Each Lost Tales questline I’ve played has taken me an hour or two, and I think I have seven to go.
In between those Lost Tales, Ubisoft has released the game’s paid episodic expansions, three chapters apiece for two big story arcs. I’ve played all of those, with each chapter taking me about 10 hours to play through. I’ve liked the middle episodes for both arcs the most, for what that’s worth.
All of this had made Odyssey a year-long proposition, a game I’ve played in bursts at night after my kids go to bed and between other games I’m playing for fun or review. I’ve liked most of what I’ve played, but I’ve also felt some weariness of never being able to put the game behind me. I know it’s the reason I’ve not been able to make time to finish the purportedly massive Red Dead Redemption 2 (I’m about 20 hours into that), nor have I found the time to get back into Destiny 2 for the same reason. It’s not just about the time commitment. I could really use the 117.3 GB that Odyssey occupies on my PS4 back. I could probably also just use some distance from the game.
I like it, but it’s made me nostalgic for older Assassin’s Creed games, including ACIII, which was released as part of the Odyssey’s season pass. I’ve had no time to dig back into it, though. Just one AC game at a time, right?
Odyssey has so far refused to end. It keeps getting longer and keeps surprising me. Just the other day I decided to finish a quest in the game’s Lakonia region that involved tracking down someone’s lost sons. Once I managed that, their mother then told me about four women in the region who also need help. That’s four more quests for me to now do!
Despite all this, I’ve never seriously considered just dropping the game. I like it too much, though I did become tired of its combat for a spell. Then its paid expansions started adding new combat moves to make fighting fun again. I have at least decided that I don’t need to clear every enemy base in the game. Not this time.
For years, I’ve written reflectively about Assassin’s Creed games once I’ve finished them. The length of my time with each now seems almost cute. In 2012, I reviewed Assassin’s Creed III after finishing its story in just under 21 hours, then wrote several months later about spending “nine more surprising hours” checking out the game’s nooks and crannies months after release. In 2013, I finished Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in about 28 hours, then went back and played it for 23 more. In 2015, I returned to the prior year’s Assassin’s Creed Rogueto finish that play clock at a total of 35 hours. Last year, after I finished its downloadable expansions, raided every one of its enemy bases and opened every one of its treasure chests, I tallied my Assassin’s Creed Origins play time at what I thought was an incredible 100 hours.
My play clock for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is at 149 hours, 9 minutes, and 45 seconds. My quest log shows I have 28 active, unfinished quests. My map shows there are 10 more I haven’t even started, many of which may well trigger new quests to pop up on the map. Plus there are still one or two more Lost Tales Of Greece coming.
I will reach the end. I’ve had a fun journey. But when I do reach that ending, I’ll be ready for a break. With a double-length Assassin’s Creed nearly done, I’m fine with 2019 being a new Assassin’s Creed skip year. And when the series comes back, presumably in 2020, if they want to make the next game a tad shorter, I won’t complain.
When I sat down with the makers of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey last week, I had to ask them about Alexios, Kassandra, and the state of the franchise’s playable modern-day sequences. I also had to ask them about the option to ride a flaming horse.
The flaming horse is a very small part of the huge Ubisoft game, but it’s a prime example of the tension under the discussion around Odyssey since its 2018 launch. This is a game loved by many critics and fans, but the extent to which it has bent so many of the Creed saga’s rules has riled some of the franchise’s most fervent followers.
“You still want to keep the core of the franchise there, but the franchise progresses and we try to make everybody happy,” Odyssey creative director Jonathan Dumont would tell me. “But it’s hard to make everybody happy.”
As my conversation with Dumont and producer Marc-Alexis Côté progressed, they confirmed that the game’s flow of free and paid downloadable expansions is winding down over the next few months. Our conversation amounted to a post-mortem.
Odyssey has been a marvel. It’s a massive, beautiful game that was well-reviewed and warmly received. It’s sold millions of copies despite going nearly head=tohead with Red Dead Redemption 2.
Côté explained that Odyssey’s player engagement is “higher than many of our multiplayer games,” noting that Ubisoft likes the fact that multiplayer games tend to keep players playing and wanting more (read: keep players willing to spend more money on the game at some point).
But there’s always a but, and with months of post-release content has also come some post-release discontent.
There are the fans miffed about the warping of the game’s lore. See, for example, the apparently changing explanations of where the assassin’s signature Leap Of Faith dive came from—if it was started by people in ancient Egypt as depicted in 2017’s Assassin’s CreedOrigins, then why were Greek and Persian proto-assassins doing it in the Odyssey game set hundreds of years before that?
There was a concern among hardcore fans, spurred by an interview with game’s lead writer, that there might not be a series bible or that the creators might be depending on fan knowledge to keep the game going. That concern was based on a misunderstanding, Dumont and Côté told me. “We work very closely with [Azaïzia] Aymar, who’s been the guardian of the lore. We talk regularly with Aymar to make sure everything we do works with the comic books, works with whatever within the lore,” Côté said. “There’s a brand bible,” he added. “There’s a 10 commandments.”
“And sometimes we bend some of it,” Dumont said.
I really should have asked them about those Leaps of Faith, but I confess I was drawn to talking about the flaming horse. They’re related, because they both involve Odyssey’s propensity to take the series’ restrictions and, perhaps as a nod to the to the titular Assassin’s Creed—”nothing is true, everything is permitted”—exceed them.
Assassin’s Creed was born in 2007 as a franchise fascinatingly constrained by rules. The historical characters that players would control were ancestors of a modern-day protagonist who experienced their memories via a DNA-reading device called the Animus. What players played was what happened. When they deviated by, say, killing civilians or failing a mission goal, they were making the modern-day character fail to re-experience the memory carefully and were not so much dying as “desynchronizing” from the historical memory. Magic was initially prohibited, but the games trafficked in wild science, a fantastical non-distinction to some but the guardrails of an internal logic to others. Eventually the magic rule was discarded, as was the rule that the character in the Animus had to be related to the one whose life was being played.
Odyssey bent the rules further. It introduced the idea that players could choose a character and the dialogue that character spoke, justifying it in-game with something or other about the vagueness in what the Animus could detect. As an aside, Côté said that about two thirds of players have chosen to play as Alexios, though he and Dumont had expected a 50/50 split or, if anything, a skew the other way. “I’m surprised by the numbers,” Côté said, “because most of the people I talk to play Kassandra.”
The game also pushed things by letting players battle creatures of Greek myth. The story pseudo-scientifically justified it by saying these creatures were created by the series’ well-established high-tech ancient civilization, the Isu. “If you don’t see a Minotaur when you play a game in ancient Greece, you feel like a letdown,” Dumont said, explaining the thought process for getting them into the game. “Somehow we need to connect these things. We decided it was good to put it on First Civilization stuff in there.”
If you can keep up with all the rule-bending, you might love it all, since it makes for a very good role-playing game. You might, however, find your own breaking point or at least something that bugs you enough that you can’t let it slide. That brings me back to that flaming horse.
I took most of Odyssey’s liberties comfortably and enjoyed the game. But I found one thing strange and—dare I call the Assassin’s Creed cops—in violation of the rules as I understood them. I discovered that my reward for killing enough in-game mercenaries and achieving Tier 1 Mercenary status was the ability to turn my in-game horse into an in-game flaming horse. What historical memory of an ancient Greek mercenary could this possibly replicate? What manifestation of Isu tech could have caused Phobos, the steed of the great Kassandra of Kephallonia, to suddenly bear a coat of flame just because his rider had killed some really bad dudes? I am enough of a devoted player of Assassin’s Creed games that Dumont or Côté or their game could have just said, “Oh, that was Erudito’s doing,” and I’d be placated faster than it’d take you to Google Erudito. (I also am fully aware, thank you very much, that you could change in-game horses to unicorns all the way back in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood via a cheat if you played several of the game’s missions perfectly.)
Instead, Dumont and Côté told me that it’s all about choice. It’s about choice when it comes to extravagant horse skins or fantastical, unrealistic armor. “It is optional to wear that stuff,” Dumont said. He said he wears one of the game’s more basic outfits but is happy it offers some wilder ones. “There’s a demand for it, people do want that stuff in the game,” he said. “As long as we’re not forcing you to have a flaming horse or a flaming suit or a bow that shoots through walls, then I think it’s OK.” I’m either in the bargaining or acceptance phase about this.
“We try to give more options and make the game more open,” Côté said, “Within this openness you can still play the game the way you want to. But sometimes people are insulted by things that they don’t even do because they are offered to the player, which I find sad because to me, it makes the game more inclusive and it opens it up to more playstyles.”
Dumont mentioned that his daughter uses a unicorn variation for her in-game horse. “Why not?” he said.
They added that they felt the series needs to continue to evolve and that some old restrictions are worth getting past. “How fun is it nowadays if you’re in a quest and you do something that’s unallowed by the quest and—boom—you’ve desynchronized?” Côté said. “We want to make games that are more open, more tolerant. You can finish quests before you even start them in Odyssey. That’s a huge engineering effort, a huge design effort but it goes against the commandments in a way.”
“Choice” is certainly the buzz concept for Odyssey, and it’s the crux of many discussions about the game. It drove the frustration players expressed when Odyssey left them free to choose gay or straight romantic couplings throughout the main game but then forced a heterosexual sexual relationship on players in an expansion (something the developers apologized for).
Choice, coupled with economics, also drove the discussion about the game’s overall design, its vast scale, and a $10 microtransaction offered at launch that would make leveling up faster. This was the game’s first post-release controversy. Some players felt that their character was leveling up too slowly for the game to be enjoyable and that Ubisoft was thus driving them toward the microtransaction. Others, like me, took enough of a wandering path through the game’s comical number of sidequests that leveling up was never an issue. The presence of that booster, though, raised the question of what was really going on, and the frustration about leveling has lingered long enough that players of the game’s recently added Story Creator mode have made quests that just rapidly level you up.
“I felt when we made the game we made the game to be 200 hours if you wanted,” Dumont said, noting that he played through the game nine times before it shipped without ever activating the booster. “I never thought about using it.”
So how did the booster even get into the game? “It’s a discussion between the production team and our business teams,” Côté said. “It’s like: This is a trend in the industry. We know we want this game to be profitable. Some people are willing to pay for this. Me as a developer, as someone who takes our players’ interest at heart, it’s important for me that the game is not balanced this way. Some players want to go faster, so the option is there.”
Here’s another choice that the designers of Odyssey and other recent Assassin’s Creed games wrestled with: whether to include playable sequences in modern day. While the bulk of every Assassin’s Creed game has occurred in a historical setting, all have included sequences set in modern day. From the start, they were divisive. Modern-era gameplay tended to involve walking, talking, and maybe climbing around in a few rooms. None of it was nearly as exciting, dynamic or, presumably, as marketable as the parts of the games set in the Crusades, the Renaissance, or the American revolution. Some people (hello!) dug it. Others wanted it gone.
By 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity and 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the modern-day material had been reduced to several minutes of cutscenes, with nothing playable. Dumont and Côté’s hoped the approach they took with Syndicate would work: “ Quite honestly and transparently, we were like, ‘OK, people don’t seem to like the gameplay, but they like the lore, so we tried to just give them lore,’” Côté said. It wasn’t very satisfying. “I think the fans wanted to kill me on Twitter and Reddit,” he recalled. Côté credits the resurgence of modern-day sequences in the series to fans’ requests.
In 2017, Assassin’s Creed Origins brought modern-day gameplay back with a new playable character named Layla Hassan. Her role was expanded in Odyssey, though mostly in the game’s second episodic expansion, which still has one chapter to go. “Layla’s story is going to progress quite a bit [through the final chapter],” Dumont said. He noted that they’d primarily explored her story, the Isu, and other extended parts of the Assassin’s Creed lore and universe in the game’s expansions, which have a more hardcore audience. “Some people like it, and some people don’t want it in the main game,” he said. “It’s tough to balance that act, but I think with the DLC we’re addressing more core fans.”
Dumont and Côté’s work on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is all but done. The game’s second episodic expansion only has one chapter to go, likely releasing in July. The surprisingly elaborate Tales From Greece quests, which have been added for free each month since launch, should wind down soon, too. The game’s educational Discovery Tour mode will come out in the fall, possibly in September.
“We have told the story we want to tell,” Côté said, confirming there is no more DLC planned beyond the game’s first year of announced content. “There is not a year-two plan,” he said, before referencing the game’s recently added Story Creator mode: “The year two plan is: ‘Here’s the story, create your own stories.’”
As for sections of the game they think players might still not have found or at least should prioritize checking out, Dumont recommends the visiting Pephka, where people are obsessed with the Minotaur, as well as quests involving the sculptor Phidias. He also suggests trying to find one of the game’s first characters, Marcos, again. He said the team hid him on the most remote island possible. Mostly, he just recommends players keep exploring: “I think it’s a game where, if you slow down and look at it, there’s marvelous things that come out. I don’t know all of them.”
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey released a story creator this week, allowing players to cobble together their own questlines and share them with others. The website for constructing handmade stories is easy to use and fun to tinker with, even in the final results of that tinkering can be a little awkward.
To create your own stories, log into a new website, where you’re able to choose a cast of characters, string together dialog and objectives, and even create larger quest chains, which you can then share and play on any platform. I was able to create a rudimentary quest in about 30-40 minutes. The Story Creator is easy to understand, but it didn’t feel quite as robust as I’d like.
The Story Creator tool works somewhat like Twine, which I’ve used to make narrative games before. It’s extremely basic so long as you have a decent understanding of “If, then…” statements. You pick a node, say, a box for dialog. The dialog appears as text; there’s no voice acting, as you can imagine how expensive that would be. You fill the box with what your characters say and what their body language is based upon moods like “curious, awestruck, or bored.” Then, you can connect those to decision points or objective triggers. These boil down to basic interactions: kill this target, talk to this person, go to this location, rescue this prisoner. In the case of dialog choices, you can list choices and set up triggers that create various outcomes. Kill this person, have the quester giver say X thing. Turn down the job, have the objective marker lead to an alternate path. The most basic quests such as mine are only a handful of nodes, but multiple quests can be chained together into a larger narrative.
Setting up the story nodes and a few flags didn’t take very long. I snuck all of this in before this morning’s Nintendo Direct, assembling the most basic quest structure. I called my quest “Eagle Bearer of the Curse,” and it involves a dangerous witch who brands the player character with a life-sucking curse. She demands they go kill a bandit king whose souls has eluded her. Meanwhile, the bandit claims killing the witch is actually how to break the spell. It’s stupid stuff, mostly an excuse to have a simple branch between two objective. Believe the bandit? Go and kill the witch. Think he’s lying? Kill him. Either option ends the quest.
Testing my story took more time than constructing it, but Assassin’s Creed Odyssey makes it easy to jump to the start of your quest and begin playing through. It’s here that the cracks begin to show, although some of that is undoubtedly due to my hasty assembly. On my first time around, I found that placing the bandit king in a camp of actual bandits was a bad idea: wandering close to the camp, he somehow was slain and the quest ended immediately. The Story Creator doesn’t make it easy to toggle invulnerability for essential NPCs on the fly, so I had to risk making them vulnerable from the start. This meant a stray wolf or overeager soldier could kill my characters. Moving the bandit king to a remote location was as easy as selecting a new location on the map, but because he was a member of the bandit faction, he attacked the player on sight. Not great for someone you’re supposed to listen to. These are the sorts of little things that the Story Creator doesn’t make completely clear, and I spent time playing my simple quest over and over to iron out wrinkles.
There’s also a few other issues that I haven’t figured out. For now, there appears to be a only a handful of character templates to choose from. That means taking characters from the main game and recasting them in made up roles. Making NPCs that you can talk to and, in the case of my quest, who are then supposed to engage you in combat is tricky. From what I can tell I don’t have control over variables like how much health they have or what weapons they might use. Maybe that’s buried in menus that I’ve not yet explored, but there’s definitely a sense that this is a limited tool better suited to narrative quests than combat challenges. I’m sure other players will crack the code and make intricate stories as time goes on.
Over time, the Story Creator could lead to some really magical quest lines, but players should manage their expectations when using it. This is a chance to expand the world of Assassin’s Creed, but there’s no way to match the main game’s expansive stories. Spare some imagination and you might have some neat stories, even if there are some awkward puppet people and glitches along the way.
I’ll publish my quest later today after a bit more testing. Be on the lookout for a witch in the Argolis area if you want to enjoy a very basic example of what the Story Creator can offer.
E3 2019It’s time for the biggest gaming show of the year. We’ve got articles, videos, podcasts and maybe even a GIF or two.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Story Creator Mode is live today, which allows players to create their own quests. This fall, Odyssey is getting a Discovery Tour, which will also arrive in a standalone version.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s first story DLC, “Fate of Atlantis,” started with a fantastical, pulp-schlock bang. It was a tale of scheming gods and magical powers, as good as anything from the main game. The second episode “Torment of Hades,” released today, ditches the sunlit fields of Elysium for the gloomy soot of Hell itself. It’s not as standout an episode as the previous one, but it’s damn good Assassin’s Creed.
At the end of “Atlantis,” the player character was betrayed by the scheming goddess Persephone and tossed deep into the bowls of Hades. Okay, hold up. If that sounds wild and way wackier than the main game’s historically-grounded campaign, that’s because “Fate of Atlantis” gleefully leaned into sci-fi serial excess. Kassandra spent an entire episode in Elysium, a gorgeous domain that may or may not have been some type of holographic prison-world created by alien gods. Now, she’s fallen down to Hades. “Torment of Hades” abandons some of the previous episode’s dialogue-heavy soap opera writing and instead focuses on a story that feels much more like an old-school epic poem.
To make it clear that this is something a little different, “Hades” immediately starts with a battle against Cerberus, the three-headed dog guardian of the underworld. Kassandra or Alexios, being the tough video-game protagonist they are, slays the beast. Hades demands repayment for killing his pet, and tasks your chosen hero with finding four guardians to watch over the entrance to his realm, lest spirits teem in and cause untold chaos. It’s a very video-gamey set up: Find the four heroes, slay the great beast!
To reach the four heroes, who include Herakles and Agamemnon, the player also needs to find a set of magic armor so they can safely enter the lower realms where they are hiding. That sounds contrived, but it really does capture the feeling of an ancient hero’s poem. It’s easy to imagine Homer contriving a story of a great hero diving into Hades to collect magic armor and fight heroes of old. “Torment of Hades” lets players live out that fantasy. There’s less politics and roleplay than in the first episode, and much more exploration and combat.
Hunting down each of the four heroes and gathering the armor necessary to reach them means dealing with the Fallen. This is how “Torment of Hades” integrates the main game’s mercenary and cultist system into the story. The Fallen that populate the underworld are members of the Cult of Kosmos that Kassandra killed during the main story. You can either work your way up the chain, killing one to find another, or you can simply stumble on them in your exploration.
For instance, I accepted a side mission from the godly ferryman Charon to help ease a lot soul by challenging them to one final fight. One my journey to find their weapon so we could duel, I stumbled upon one of the Fallen, a poison-making cultist I killed in the main story. But on my way to kill them, I ran into an entirely different cultist holding one of the ancient armor pieces I needed, whose body had a clue leading me to where Agamemnon was imprisoned. It felt organic, and while the DLC’s small map meant I quickly gathered all the armor I needed and started beating up legendary heroes, the free-wheeling exploration was a lot of fun.
I’m not all the way through “Hades” just get. So far, it hasn’t placed its titular god in the spotlight for too long. Instead, it’s focused on bringing back characters killed off in the main story, with mixed results. This is the main narrative thread that holds together all the relic-hunting and hero-battling. Old foes return, and it’s up to the player to decide if their change from scheming murderers to penitent allies is genuine.
Reuniting with one fallen friend brings the story’s focus back to the characters from Kephallonia, the game’s starting island. These stories never feel completely integrated into the action, and it sometimes felt like the underworld was only populated by people Kassandra knew while they were topside. But there’s some heart here that was missing from the first episode.
It’s not perfect. The reduced focus on role-playing means that there’s less chance to really define your character’s responses to anything. The small map and ashy atmosphere pales in comparison to the vast Elysium fields from the last episode. There’s also less direct connection, for now, to the game’s real-world plot, where the Assassin Layla Hassan contends with the evil Templar Order. I’ve yet to finish it, but “Torment of Hades” has provided enough tricky combat and character drama that I want to hop back in as soon as possible. It’s not as expansive or flashy as what came before, but Odyssey’s continued push into the underworld continues to delight.
Ubisoft has a new “VR escape room” set in the world of Assassin’s Creed that you can play at over 100 different locations around the world. It’s fun, but despite its stated ties to “escape rooms,” Beyond Medusa’s Gate is more of an hourlong VR action game than a cooperative brain teaser.
The first of Ubisoft’s VR escape games was called Escape The Lost Pyramid, which tied in with Assassin’s Creed Origins; this one, set in a cave on the shores of ancient Greece, ties in with Odyssey. Either two or four players are locked together in the cave, and have to team up to face a variety of challenges to get out.
The equipment in the room seems like a fairly off-the-shelf setup; the venue we visited in the San Jose, California area had a small room with a desktop PC mounted on a wall shelf and an HTC Vive with motion controllers attached to it, via wires that were suspended from the ceiling to (mostly) stay out of your way. This is probably why they can roll it out to 100 different places around the world so quickly, but it’s also less exciting than what you’d find at, say, the Shinjuku VR Zone, where you can play custom VR-powered installations with special controllers and other elements that you wouldn’t be able to get at home.
You begin by going through a basic tutorial. You can walk around in the area bounded by the walls of the IRL room you’re in, and teleport around the virtual world to make bigger movements. You can manipulate objects with your hands, which you learn about by customizing your character’s avatar in a dressing room with a mirror. The other players are milling about in there, too, and you can dress yourself up while goofing around with them.
Once everybody’s ready, you jump into the old reliable Animus and get a brief rundown of your mission, which is to find an ancient ship and get it out of the cave. You then proceed through a series of very basic puzzles: You first have to get out of a small room, which you can do very quickly by manipulating a few objects inside it, like a fiery brazier and some switches on the walls. Then you’ve got to figure out how to open up another door by manipulating three switches and a picture made up of rotating discs (a nice callback to Assassin’s Creed II’s puzzles).
It’s a simple puzzle, and they don’t get any more difficult—it’s all just simple object-manipulation stuff with a clear goal and very little chance that you’ll do the wrong thing. In fact, much of it was action-based, like shooting arrows at targets or climbing across a series of handholds on a surface that another player was manipulating remotely.
There’s a big focus on teamwork; almost all of the tasks require at least two people to accomplish them. But the way these work tends to be asymmetrical, with one player doing the “fun” thing while the other one does the “boring” thing. Just by coincidence and where I happened to be walking when we were messing with the challenges, I always ended up having to do the “boring” thing. My partner was always the one using handholds to dangle over 100-foot drops while I stayed on the ground to make sure those handholds were still active. (I’m being circumspect with these descriptions so as to not spoil the experience for would-be players.) I might have felt better about the experience had the design let both players experience both halves of each puzzle.
As a piece of VR spectacle, Medusa’s Gate is pretty cool; as you get deeper and deeper into the cave, you discover lots of larger-than-life secrets that can be pretty impressive to experience with a friend. Once it’s all over and you get out, the game takes some virtual “photos” of you, and I’m pleased to report that we had the presence of mind to do this:
Medusa’s Gate didn’t really leave me feeling like I had just played an “escape room;” the puzzles were too un-puzzle-y, more like the sort of basic round-peg-in-the-round-hole types of things you’d find in… well, a triple-A action-adventure video game series in which a player getting “stuck” is considered to be an unforgivable design sin. If you don’t have a room-scale VR setup at home and just want to pay around fifty bucks for an hour of finding out what that’s like, you may want to try this; otherwise you should just stick to the real-life sorts of escape rooms.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
There may have been a time, a week or two ago, when I was excited to score my first Precursor Reflex Bow in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Thirty-seven Precursor Reflex Bows later? Not so much.
While playing Odyssey’s Fate of Atlantis expansion, which takes the ancient Greek setting of this action-role-playing-game into an otherworldly realm crafted by the super-old sci-fi Isu people, I’ve earned a lot of Precursor Reflex Bows. I’ve earned them for defeating enemies. I’ve earned them from plundering enemy weapon racks.
I’ve earned them for opening treasure chests and for solving a block-pushing puzzle in a cave.
I once rapidly killed two of the expansion’s new Kolossi sentry enemies and received a Precursor Reflex Bow from each one.
I am now awash in Precursor Reflex Bows. I’ve got blue “rare” ones and purple “epic” ones. I’ve got ones that do +18% hunter damage, ones that do +18% assassin damage and ones that do +14% hunter damage and +17% assassin damage combined in one bow.
Once, the Fate of Atlantis expansion caught me by surprise when it rewarded me for completing a sidequest with something called a Rebellion bow. I went into my inventory to check it out. Guess which bow it looks like.
None of this matters. Of course, the abundance of certain type of bow in a video game is low on the list of society’s challenges, but I also mean that it doesn’t matter because blue and purple loot in most loot games ultimately doesn’t matter.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, like Assassin’s Creed Origins before it, has reformulated the Assassin’s Creed games as 100-hour loot-filled adventures in which every killed enemy or opened treasure chest exhales a new piece of gear or in-game coins or resources. Assassin’s is a loot series now, the better to drive player towards cool, character-customizing rewards or, more cynically, to the in-game store where most of the coolest-looking gear can be most easily obtained. Blue- and purple-graded gear is just a means to the end of earning (or buying) some gold-class gear. In “Fate of Atlantis,” the dozens of Precursor Reflex Bows players can obtain improve in statistical quality as the player levels up and finds new ones, but they’re all clearly meant to be as relevant to use long-term as my toddlers’ socks. “Fate Of Atlantis” has a gold-grade bow called the Swift-Winged Bow, and that’s the real arrow-shooting prize of the expansion.
The hardest of hardcore Odyssey fans may dispute this. Purple gear in the game has proven unexpectedly relevant, as it can wind up being as powerful as gold gear, but ultimately the game is clearly driving players towards gold-grade legendary gear and doling out gear-set bonuses at least for the armor, if not the bows, that you collect.
I’m fine with there being so many Precursor Reflex Bows in the expansion and just this one impressive legendary. It’s all for the better. Video game bows and arrows take people to make them, and with ever greater awareness of how prone to overwork video game developers are, I would not argue that “Fate Of Atlantis” should include more blue and purple bows in the march towards obtaining the gold one.
Loot-driven video games are designed to cultivate endless appetites in their players. They instill an incessant expectation for greater rewards. Players risk succumbing to a psychological trap of expecting and eventually demanding more and more rewards. Anything that defies that, that deadens that hunger, that implicitly posits that the true reward for an action or a quest in a video game should be the pleasure of doing it rather than the loot that pops up as a result, is probably for the better.
At least, it is for me. I may be tired of getting that Precursor Reflex Bow. It may make me less interested in playing the game to obtain loot. I consider that a positive thing.
Mortal Kombat 11 is a brutal game. That’s what you come for—sensational, over-the-top violence that’s inventive and gratuitous on a level that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It can be shocking in its detail and funny in its execution, but it’s always arresting. It’s also short. Fatalities, gory, physically improbable finishers that usually involve cartoonish dismemberment, only comprise a few moments in matches that only last a few minutes.
The people who make Mortal Kombat live with the series’ over-the-top violence for much longer than players do. Game development is slow and tedious, and a few frames depicting a man’s face being removed in photorealistic detail can be the result of days and weeks of careful work and research. That work might take a toll, one that’s worth examining as the stories of what it’s like to make the biggest, most popular games continue to come to light.
Here’s one such story, about a developer who worked with the cinematics team for Mortal Kombat 11 and requested anonymity in order to protect their employment prospects. They told Kotaku that they had worked on the game throughout 2018, and spent their days reviewing violent animation work, discussing it with leads, sharing feedback with animators, and generally being surrounded by the kind of bloody real-life research material that creators reference in order to animate video game gore. Within a month, they started feeling the effects.
“I’d have these extremely graphic dreams, very violent,” they told Kotaku in a call. “I kind of just stopped wanting to go to sleep, so I’d just keep myself awake for days at a time, to avoid sleeping.”
Eventually, the developer says they saw a therapist, who diagnosed them with PTSD. They attribute this to their work on MK11—not just the content of the game and having to process and discuss its violent cinematics frame by frame, but also being surrounded by the reference materials artists used for research.
“You’d walk around the office and one guy would be watching hangings on YouTube, another guy would be looking at pictures of murder victims, someone else would be watching a video of a cow being slaughtered,” they said. “The scary part was always the point at which new people on the project got used to it. And I definitely hit that point.”
While Mortal Kombat 11 publisher Warner Bros. Games and developer NetherRealm declined to respond to a request for comment for this story, back in January, art director Steve Beran spoke to Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson about the work that goes into crafting the game’s fatalities, and the effect it might have on developers. On the one hand, it’s disconcertingly nonchalant. “We do a lot of testing of, like, how liquid will land on carpet, how it’ll react on dirt,” he said. “And we do tests and talk about them like ‘Does that look how you’d think it would look?’… If I get blood on my shirt, it’s gonna get dark, so it needs to react appropriately. Our tech artists dig into that and make it look very real.”
On the other, there’s a level of remove: “I hate to keep saying this, but I think it’s more just the beats to me,” he said. “It’s not so much what’s happening. It’s more just the animations.”
That dissociation is the tradeoff when it comes to violence in the age of photorealistic games and unparalleled processing power, causing onlookers to wring their hands about video game content as developers now find themselves with the tools to craft anatomically correct dismemberments.
“As a mechanic, it’s basically perfect,” said Alex Hutchinson when asked about violence in video games. Hutchinson is a game director whose work spans the entire spectrum of video game violence, from the potentially pacifistic Spore to the far bloodier Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4. “You have a clear goal. It’s exciting because there’s a risk/reward—you win, they die. You lose, you die. So you’re afraid, and you can lose things. It’s usually spectacular because you’re shooting a gun or swinging swords, you get great feedback. You can even see this in pseudo-gun combat mechanics, like camera mechanics. Because that has everything that guns have—that’s why Pokémon Snap is so satisfying.”
Hutchinson said he spends a lot of time thinking about how those who don’t game might perceive violence, arguing that the sensory feedback you get from interacting with the game—the thrill of winning, and fear of losing—does a lot of work to make graphic violence abstract in nature. Observers can’t quite understand that in the same way, and might therefore be more repelled by the bloody images they’re seeing on screen, Hutchinson said. But he’s not insensitive to the occupational hazards of having to depict violence.
“I think as realism improves, it’s more of a danger,” Hutchinson said. “The fidelity of the assets you deal with, and the world you’re building—it’s more likely. We had some friends out here working on Outlast. I don’t think he was upset, but the character artist was joking that he’d spent a lot of time modeling dead babies, and it wasn’t his favorite moment, you know?”
“Mortal Kombat is….it’s Mortal Kombat,” the anonymous cinematics developer who had graphic dreams told me. “You start to feel like an idiot for thinking about what the impact of working on that game has been on yourself. Other people I’ve talked to have been like, ‘I know what I’m working on, I know what I’ve gotten myself into here.’ And you start to blame yourself for being shitty or weak or spineless.”
The developer felt that management’s top-level perspective made it seem like they were less immersed in the details of the violent content than the animators that reported to them. Bosses would joke about and compliment well-done scenes of violence, the developer said—a desirable outcome in most environments, but when working on violence is starting to affect you, the dynamic gets complicated. Meetings with this developer’s boss involved discussing “how this spine extraction scene is going, and making sure you can feel the pop when the spine is ripped out from the rest of the body,” they said.
There was also no formal process, standard procedure, or guidance available from the start for anyone who might need to step back from the violent content, or felt that their work was starting to negatively affect them, according to this developer. All the developer remembers getting was a verbal heads-up during the hiring process, when the interviewer noted that since they were working on a Mortal Kombat game, the work could be “a little violent.”
Eventually, the developer found out about coworkers who had similar problems with the content as they did who also left. One coworker, for example, told them that the toll of working on Mortal Kombat 11 was eliciting horrible images in real life. “When he looks at his dog, he just sees the guts inside of it, and he couldn’t look at his dog without imagining all of the viscera.”
“We’ve talked a lot about how the end product isn’t so damaging as people make it out to be, and I tend to agree with that,” they said, referring to the industry’s acceptance of violent video games. “But I think the process of making these things can be harmful for people. It can cause them to burn out, or lose a sense of self, sometimes. I would hope that something, at least, that developers can do with their coworkers is just start talking to each other about these things. If we’re not solving things, at least having supportive people around, I think, is really crucial.“
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s newest downloadable content, “The Fate of Atlantis,” focuses on the strange and magical. From ancient gods to hidden paradise worlds that may or may not be holographic prisons, “Fate of Atlantis” embraces the more far-out science fiction elements of the franchise. The first episode is a web of scheming alien gods and improv roleplaying that’s finally taking the weirdness of older Assassin’s Creed games and cranking it up to a level it should have reached ages ago.
“The Fate of Atlantis” is split into two stories. In the first, your Eagle Bearer—either Kassandra or Alexios—is pulled into a struggle between warring gods. After receiving a magical staff in the main game, Kassandra (my chosen character) enters into Elysium, a hidden realm in the underwater city of Atlantis, ruled by Persephone. It’s a perfect paradise, perhaps the true afterlife or some type of holographic construct, but a growing rebellion and a contingent of scheming gods, fellow Isu precursors who rules the world before humans, threaten to turn paradise into a warzone. The player needs to decide who to trust in a lengthy campaign that took me around nine hours to complete. It’s robust and far removed from the historical aspects of the series, but that’s a good thing. Assassin’s Creed’s best moments have always been the most experimental.
As Kassandra deals with problems in Elysium, there’s trouble in modern times. Layla Hassan, the protagonist first introduced in Assassin’s Creed Origins, has found what remains of Atlantis. Gifted Kassandra’s magic staff, she is meant to fulfill a prophecy that will seal the fate of Atlantis. All the while, dastardly Templars—forever at war with Layla and her Assassin companions, close in. It’s a return to the real-world setting that many players shirked but which has always been important for the series’ storytelling. Kassandra’s journey into prophecy and intrigue is a counterpart to Layla’s misadventures with the Assassins and Templars.
“Fate of Atlantis” cuts between the two protagonists and uses its science fiction conceit to round out Layla as a character more than ever. It’s the Assassin’s Creed I wanted and got a taste of in the main game. Ubisoft is finally reconstructing the series’ arching plot into something experimental and interesting. For anyone who felt that Odyssey was generic and too removed from the series’ other plots, “Fate of Atlantis” is just what the doctor ordered.
There’s an entirely new area to explore in Fate of Atlantis, far larger than I expected. Elysium has multiple regions to traverse and quester givers to please. There’s not as much side content, but the campaigns length means players will explore the map in great detail. And what a map it is! Odyssey made great use of bright colors and lush scenery to create a beautiful, if embattled, ancient Greece. Elysium dials that up to eleven.
The story in “Fate of Atlantis” stumbles to deliver compelling politicking on par with its world. While the individual motives of characters like Hermes, Persephone, and Hekate create a soap-opera-like story of backstabbing and unrequited love, the broader faction politics stumble. There’s a rebel faction of humans in Elysium who want to overthrow Persephone and escape, but they also have vague grievances against their queen that aren’t well-explained. Fate of Atlantis wants to give players the chance to infiltrate factions, undermine war efforts, and affect the political landscape. The story builds toward revolution but never gives players quite enough roleplaying depth when it comes to faction decisions. Explained succinctly: This could have been mythological New Vegas, but it sure isn’t.
Instead, there’s tons of effort to make your individual actions in story missions matter, more so than the main game. In one case, I was told to avoid killing a soldier and to instead use my magic staff to remove their mind control. I spotted a captain in the enemy base I was infiltrating. To traverse a large gap, I used an ability that allows me to teleport to an enemy and immediately assassinate them. It was only then that I realize I’d killed the wrong person. Later on, I met their paramour who was unaware I killed her love. I then brought her a vial of magic water that could wipe her memories and get rid of her lovesickness. When I gave her the water, another character was frustrated because she’d been a useful ally. But then they realized that I’d also killed the person they loved and commented that it might have been for the best.
There are numerous situations like this throughout the story: moments where the actions you take in missions ripple out and have noticeable effects. Choosing the wrong prompts while infiltrating a cult can lead to conflict; disobeying a god can lead to them holding back promised rewards. Sneaking through a mission undetected and avoiding bloodshed builds goodwill with the rebel faction. “Fate of Atlantis”’ lengthy story stumbles sometimes, but I always felt like my decisions were acknowledged. It gave me extra cause to complete optional objectives and take each mission seriously even if I was a bit exhausted by the end. That was probably because my job meant playing it in one sitting, so try not to do that and take some break when you can, friends.
To round out the experience, “Fate of Atlantis” steps up the combat difficulty. The first time I set foot in Elysium and fought Persephone’s troops, I got my ass kicked. These magically enhanced warriors hit hard and have tons of skills that can stop you from using special abilities. Magical explosions, fields that drain stamina, and literal laser beams are common. The toughest enemies are Colossi, statues that come to life and teleport around. This is a far cry from previous games. It’s full-blown fantasy combat, and the result are fights that keep players on their toes.
It’s possible to explore the world and unlock new augments for your abilities if you find shrines dedicated to Hermes. Each shrine gives access to magical powers ranging from a literal energy spear that cuts through enemies with ease to a spectral rain of arrows. Odyssey’s main game captured the feeling of being a tough warrior like Xenia, but “Fate of Atlantis” leaps into full-blown demi-god territory. These new powers can sometimes make encounters too easy, particularly the few boss battles dotted throughout the story, but they’re spectacular fun to use
I’ll admit that I entered into “Fate of Atlantis” with apprehension. The last downloadable content, “Legacy of the First Blade,” started strong and explored the circumstances that would give rise to the Assassin order. But the second episode stumbled by forcing players into a baby-ever-after situation with boring romance options. The final episode had personal stakes but ended with what felt, to me, like a contrived connection to Assassin’s Creed Origins. In a lot of ways, “Legacy of the First Blade” burned me out on Odyssey. The game I loved felt like it suddenly wasn’t for me. “Fate of Atlantis”’ extreme science fiction and connections to the modern-day plot had renewed my excitement
I don’t know where “Fate of Atlantis” will lead in future episodes. I could end up in the underworld faces to face with Hades. I’m almost certainly going to battle Cerberus. The godly intrigue will hopefully give way to a modern-day plot full of twists and turns, one that brings the Assassins and Templars to the forefront again. Whatever the case, “Fate of Atlantis”’ first episode is big, flashy, and completely my brand of bullshit.
A new in-game ad for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s second big expansion wouldn’t be so annoying if it didn’t appear repeatedly every time I paused checked my map or tried to access my inventory. While we’ve found a fix, the whole thing feels like marketing run amok.
I first encountered this ad while doing the free prologue quest leading up to the start of the new downloadable expansion. The advertisement told me to “Play the Fate of Atlantis Episode 1 now!” I thought little of it until it started to show up any time I entered the menu. Want to check my quest log to see where to go next? Advertisement. Need to mark a location on my map? Boom, there it was. Changing gear? “Play the Fate of Atlantis Episode 1 now!”
The advertisement has two options to select. Both of them are marked “close,” so you’d think they would do the same thing. Wrong. If I pressed the circle button on my Playstation 4 I could close it. If I pressed the X button, I was taken to the PSN store to purchase the new downloadable content. The catch was that I had the new episode installed and the advertisement showed up even while I explored the new zone.
Glitched or not, the ad is intrusive and feels manipulative. It’s the sort of thing I might see in a sketchy browser game online or a microtransaction-driven mobile game.
Kotaku has contacted Ubisoft to ask about the advertisement and whether or not it is a glitch. My boss Stephen Totilo and I tested various scenarios to see when the ad would show. It showed both when I had Fate of Atlantis downloaded and while it was not installed on our office Playstation 4. We did not get to test this on Xbox or PC.
The good news is that there seems to be a simple fix to getting rid of this: you simply need to close you application and start it up again. The advertisement should stop showing up every time you pause. We can’t say for sure if this works if you don’t own the DLC but will update if we get clarification on that.
Annoying ad aside, I’m enjoying Fate of Atlantis. It offers a whole new area to explore, is packed with tough enemies, and has major connections to Assassins’ Creed’s trippy lore. This advertisement is not the end of the world, but it’s frustrating and the confusing close/close options feel a bit underhanded. If it shows up for you, try restarting your game. If it keeps showing, let us know in the comments. Fate of Atlantis seems promising so far, but has left a sour taste in my mouth.