I'm enjoying Assassin's Creed Odyssey so far, but I've been struggling to find a difficulty setting that I like. More specifically, I'm struggling to find a setting that I like equally for every activity.
My boss Stephen Totilo is about as far into the game as I am, so I figured I'd check in to see how it's going for him.
Kirk Hamilton: Stephen! I've been playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey for a couple nights at this point, and I find myself unsure where to put the game's difficulty. A lot of the time I prefer it on hard, but other times I'm finding I have to bump it down to normal. I thought I'd talk with you about how you've been finding it, given that I believe you're also playing on hard.
Stephen Totilo: Yeah, I'm playing it on hard, too. What'd you do on Origins?
Kirk: Origins was a little weird for me. I played that game twice, if you recall. I played the first time, for review, on normal. Then I played it again, focusing more on sidequests and taking my time and played on hard.
Stephen: I was asking about Origins because how I played that one has had a big impact on how I set Odyssey, but the experience so far has been different.
I initially was playing Origins on normal, but found that it was easy to get way over-leveled. At least it was for me, because I played through the first several regions of that game exhaustively. I was doing every sidequest, opening every treasure chest, and looking at as many stars in the sky as I could (I miss that stargazing...). So I eventually bumped it to hard.
Around the same time, they introduced level-scaling for enemies. That came out in a patch. I turned that on. And the game wound up being very satisfying in terms of difficulty. Never super-tough. Not like Nioh or anything. But I had to pay attention to what I was doing.
Because of all that, yeah, I set Odyssey to hard. Now I'm wondering if I've doomed myself. I'm having all sorts of internal crises about pride and ego. My own internal Greek tragedy, basically.
Kirk: I'm finding something similar — hard is definitely HARD in this game, and while that's generally fine, sometimes it's overwhelming. I also went with hard because that's what I'd chosen to do in Origins. And as long as I'm doing the same things in Odyssey that I'd do in Origins — infiltrating bases, having the occasional skirmish, taking on the occasional higher-tier sub boss — I like it a lot.
I have to play smart, I can't fight a bunch of people at once, and I use more of my bag of tricks.
But I'm hitting a wall when I take on the activities Odyssey has that Origins didn't: ship combat and conquest battles. (I always turned down the difficulty for the ship battles in Origins, but those were discrete things that weren't part of the fabric of the game.) Those have been much more difficult, usually because they involve so much more outright combat.
Stephen: Right. Naval is what's crushing me now, Conquest battles to a lesser extent.
When I'm just running around on land, I feel sufficiently equipped to deal with problems. No, I didn't load up on warrior skills, but I've got a slew of strong assassination moves. As long as I maintain stealth discipline, I fare just fine. If I blow my own cover then I deserve how hard it gets for me, given my lack of warrior-oriented gear and moves.
When I'm on the sea, though, I have no idea how my level 16 ship is supposed to engage with any of the many, many ships that are sailing around during the first long approach to Athens. Many of those boats are the same level as I am and have two other buddy boats nearby that are also at the same level.
I thought that the strategy would be to engage with one, wreck it enough to board it, and then use the health regen that you get from a successful boarding to engage the other boats. But you don't regain that much health, and my hull is just getting shredded. Maybe naval is too hard? Or I just upgraded my ship poorly? Or I shouldn't be picking on other ships yet? I don't know!
Kirk: It's definitely nice that you can change difficulty without starting a new game, because I've been asking those same questions and I don't yet have an answer. I have a feeling that once my ship is mega-upgraded, I'll feel more sure about whether naval difficulty is just a little too hard on hard, or whether my ship is underpowered.
One of the issues I'm running into with Conquest Battles is that I'm making a stealth assassin build, but those battles force you into open combat. (For people who haven't been following this game closely, Conquest Battles are huge-arse open warfare battles you take part in at various points.) My Warrior damage is way lower than my Assassin damage, and I've barely unlocked any warrior abilities. So, I'm already at a disadvantage even on normal difficulty.
It's sort of the same issue with the naval stuff: when it's time to fight, you have to just get in a straight-up fight, so enemy health and damage output matters in a more direct way. You don't have access to a bag of tricks that lets you get around or outsmart tough enemies the same way you do when doing sneaky-stabby stuff.
I've seen people posting on various forums that they're surviving the game on the even harder Nightmare difficulty, so I know it's possible to make this work, but man, those naval fights just feel like a brick wall to me.
Stephen: Clearly they should have attached a large hidden blade to your ship and just let you sail up alongside other ships and shiv them. One-hit kill for assassin-oriented ships.
Kirk: You joke, but I seriously would have loved that. Actually, thinking back to how they did ship stealth in AC IV and Rogue, maybe I wouldn't have loved that...
Stephen: You shame me, because I love those games and don't remember the ship stealth. I do know that that upcoming Ubisoft pirate game, Skull & Bones, lets you switch to enemy sails and fool other ships into thinking you're a friendly.
I don't want to knock the difficulty down for naval, because I want to trust that the designers are just signalling me that I am not supposed to be this nautically pugnacious yet. I'm just worried that I'm already under-levelled and won't be able to catch up. We'll see.
I had been struggling with a Conquest battles, by which I mean I kept dying before the battle would even end. (Conquest battles aren't supposed to end until one side's meter is depleted, meaning all the soldiers on that side are dead). But then I played more, added some warrior skills, noticed that I had perks on some weapons that'd make them do more damage against the Spartans I was fighting in that Conquest battle and I... still lost the Conquest battle but just by a hair.
I therefore feel myself improving and am thinking the designers just didn't mean for me to take on the Conquest battle yet. Notably, I've also been playing the hard version of the Conquest battle that's available near Delphi. There's an easier one on the map, too, but I opted for hard because it pays out more epic loot. Joke's on me, because my constant deaths are paying out zilch.
Kirk: I'm with you on wanting to trust that the game knows what it's doing. I do get the sense that this stuff has been carefully arranged, even if naval combat does seem more chaotic and less cleanly designed than on-foot combat. There just isn't that much you can do on the open seas to exploit your environment for an advantage. The menus do warn you that playing on hard will force you to use all of the available systems, and I haven't yet checked out some of the deeper stuff like engravings, which I would imagine could make things more doable.
I could see saving a set of warrior armour just for conquest battles, and have already realised that I should've just invested in a few Warrior skills despite wanting to play mostly as an Assassin. The moment I unlocked the "Second Wind" healing ability, the whole game got way easier. (Readers: get this skill asap!) I imagine I'll keep ping-ponging back and forth between hard and normal for a while longer as I get into the actual groove of the game, which I clearly haven't done yet despite being about 10 hours in.
This actually reminds me of my first hours playing The Witcher 3 on its harder difficulty; it was much more challenging during those early hours than it was by the end or even the middle, simply because I hadn't unlocked basic gear and abilities that would make things easier. I think I may have been spoiled by Shadow of the Tomb Raider's unusual trio of difficulty options: I wish there were an option to lower the naval combat difficulty and leave everything else the same!
Stephen: What do you make of the theory that I saw over at Polygon that Ubisoft made things tougher or slower in order to push people towards wanting to buy a booster that earns you more XP?
Kirk: I haven't really gotten the sense that my progress is being throttled in an unusual way, at least not so far. These first few hours have felt more or less the same as Origins, and I don't find the game particularly challenging on Normal. The sticking points for me have been when playing the new stuff — the naval and conquest battles — on hard. My sense is that Origins-style difficulty balancing doesn't scale as well to those sorts of bigger, more chaotic and action-heavy activities.
I'm sure it would all go a lot faster if I used an XP booster, but I've been levelling up pretty quickly just by exploring everywhere and doing every sidequest I can find. The sidequests in this game are great, so it feels like it's been designed to encourage me to go do them as I progress the story. I've been happy with how fast I'm unlocking new abilities, too. But I'm also pretty early, and I haven't tried playing with a booster. You?
Stephen: Call me naive, but I assume the XP booster is there for people who won't be doing sidequests and would find themselves under-levelled because of that. It could be intentionally tuned to squeeze more money out of players, sure. I mean, I've been playing too much of the mobile game Merge Dragons during my commutes lately, and it's a reminder about how brazenly mobile game makers will instil frustration and impatience in their players to try to cajole them into paying for boosters.
With Odyssey, though, I'm not sure an XP boost would even help me in naval. If ships are like land enemies, they may level up with me. If that's not the case, there's still the difference between land combat in which your XP gains let you unlock new skills and naval combat where you upgrade your ship's capabilities primarily by spending wood, ore and other materials on hull, crew and weapon improvements. Then again, they also sell materials packs, so maybe that's the squeeze they're putting on naval players.
Kirk: It's difficult to know for sure, which is a problem in and of itself. I've actually written about that, about how the existence of microtransactions poisons the video-game well because it causes you to question every decision the developers made. Even just the fact that we have to bring up microtransactions when discussing Odyssey's difficulty is an example of that.
Did they balance the game to be fair but tough... or are they trying to manipulate us into paying more? If there weren't an option to buy better gear, materials, and XP for money, no one would ask that. Like I said, I haven't gotten the sense the game's difficulty has been tuned to encourage me to buy extra stuff, but it'll always be a niggling doubt.
Stephen: I think that there's still a fair chance that I'm just not supposed to be this combative with other ships or that at hard difficulty (I could always knock it down to normal), I'm expected to have honed my skills on more isolated boats before taking on little fleets.
Part of what I'm struggling with is just not understanding well enough why I'm losing my ship battles. It's hard for me to parse whether I need to have invested more in arrows or speed, more in weapon strength or in the number of shots I can fire rapidly, or if speed and hull strength are what I should have upgraded first.
Kirk: Flaming arrows seem good? But yeah. I'm sceptical that you're not supposed to be taking on multiple ships from the outset, because getting into a fight anywhere in the first open-sea area tends to involve tons of ships stacking up on one another.
Heck, before you dock in the second town, you have to clear out a three-ship blockade. If they wanted to ease me into naval combat, they'd have put fewer ships around in the opening area where I cut my teeth. I think naval difficulty might just be a little out of whack with everything else.
Stephen: Maybe my first mate Barnabas could stop talking about the scenery and give me some advice?
Kirk: If anyone would have tips for us, it'd be him.