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Assassin's Creed Odyssey hands-on: a late game mission showcases significant combat improvements

A bit of tooling around in a late-game Assassin's Creed Odyssey mission is the perfect way to sell a skeptic on the series' newest chapter.

Putting together a good demo of a sprawling game can be hard - and over the years in this job, I've played a lot of stinking demos for otherwise good games. For the most recent demo of Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft nailed it in one simple way: by showing some content from far later in the game. The forty-minute side quest I got to play had a little bit of everything: some battling guards, some conversation, sailing to a new location, night stealth action and finally exploration of a small dungeon before tackling a raid-like boss. It really was a perfect little slice of most things Odyssey has to offer.

The good news is that it's great. I really enjoyed that hands-on, though when you take a step back it's hard to believe this is where Assassin's Creed has ended up. It all feels natural because it's happened gradually, but this game now resembles The Witcher 3 more closely than it does the earliest titles in the series - and that's fine. The times have changed, and so has Assassin's Creed.

Much of what's on offer in Assassin's Creed Odyssey is similar to that from Origins - and I'm absolutely fine with that, given that I thought it was the best entry in years. There are crucial differences, however. Combat has been re-imagined, there's a new 'mercenary' system for tracking your bounty/wanted level for crimes committed, while features from other games in the series such as sailing and a choice of protagonists have also been drafted in for this entry.

This demo offers a glimpse of each of these features, giving you a choice between the male and female protagonists before throwing you into a late-game side quest where you're tasked with helping a woman to track down her missing lover. At first you have to battle off guards to even get the chance to properly speak to her, and this in turn will attract the attention of mercenaries in line with the new system. Mercs are absolutely no joke in this game, by the way: they're high level, high-end enemies with unblockable attacks and decently strong lackeys, and in my session that you can watch above I eventually had to flee and hide in grass in order to recover a little before springing out to engage the hunting mercenary in battle once more.

As the mission progresses I head across the sea in a boat to find an enemy encampment, meditate until night time so their guard patrol patterns lessen, then sneak into camp while shanking a few people along the way. All of this feels great here - sailing has the same satisfying feel though surely is going to be less frequent and involved than in Black Flag, but the stealth continues to impress: even though Assassin's Creed is now more of a combat-based RPG, the stealth-driven roots of the series can still be found in your ability to reliably take down enemies in a silent and rewarding manner.

When you do find yourself in full combat the series now feels much more prepared to handle it, keeping counters but pulling back the reliance on them even further, encouraging players to make liberal use of a range of abilities to control the space and enemies around them. It feels good.

This isn't too much of a surprise since even at its worst Assassin's Creed has always nailed this aspect, but there's a tremendous sense of place in Odyssey's depiction of Ancient Greece. There's not perhaps the progressive feeling of an era seldom depicted as in Origins, but it's also clear a great deal of care and attention has gone into every aspect of this setting - from the encampments filled with soldiers dressed in recognizably iconic armor to the exhausted farmers slaving away in rows of crops as you dash past them on horseback. It doesn't quite feel lived in, but it feels like a perfectly crafted historical playground once again.

The back end of the demo is where things properly take a twist towards the late-game in terms of the mission content, surfacing the more outlandish aspects of Assassin's Creed lore. The Greek setting is taken to its natural conclusion: the woman you're looking for has actually been turned into a Medusa. Of course!

This boss fight is a solid way of Odyssey flexing its RPG muscles - rather than a straight-up action game slugfest, this boss has the methodical patterns that you expect from RPG villains. There are AOE attacks, summoned grunts and a devastating beam attack that, on impact, begins to turn you to stone. Too long out of cover while that attack is ongoing and you'll be frozen, so you have to be very careful indeed, dodging and weaving between stone pillars for cover while taking out the lackeys before rushing to land a close-range beat down on Medusa.

The boss is an enjoyable challenge, and it essentially just underscored my general feelings about Odyssey: there's nothing earth-shattering to write home about, but what's there is just bloody good fun. I'm looking forward to playing more on the final release on October 5.

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