Why I Like Being Hunted by Mercenaries in the Latest Assassin's Creed
Dealing with mercenaries is the way 'Odyssey' constantly reminds the player that they are a part of a big world, and that not all desires in this world are theirs.
All images courtesy Ubisoft
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a big, messy game. I’ve played maybe twenty hours over the past week, and my initial impression is that there are a lot of things that are fighting for my attention across a sprawling world. I don’t have enough hours in the game to tell if that’s to the game’s benefit or not, but I’ve been fascinated with a part of the game that I initially had no interest in: the mercenary system.
Like Black Flag before it, Odyssey puts you in the shoes of an amoral mercenary who is out to make a quick buck and a name for themselves. As Kassandra, I have traveled the world as a misthios, a mercenary, collecting contracts to put hits out on people or solving local problems. Unlike in Black Flag, where you fit into the big network of mercenaries in the world is made very clear to you through a menu that demonstrates exactly which mercenaries out in the world are more powerful than you and which of them are weaker. It tells you who your competition is and who is going to come after you if you start making trouble. It is a map of your peers.
You mostly experience the mercenary content of Odyssey through your wanted level. Like a Grand Theft Auto title, you have a level of notoriety that goes up based on people you’ve angered. Piss enough people off, and they will put out contracts on your head, at which point mercenaries will begin swarming you at every possible opportunity.
On its face, this just seems like a shallower version of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System that merely adds complications to the player’s experience of the game. As Rob Zacny pointed out earlier this week, a mercenary showing up while you are fighting your way through an enemy outpost or trying to sneak your way through a fortress mostly makes for a massive brawl that seemingly adds little to the game. Ultimately, the appearance of a mercenary that has nothing to do with the area you are in is annoying, gets in your way, and produces some clunky encounters. When mercenaries appear, I’m often silently cursing under my breath.
But this is also why they are amazing. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins tried some new things in the franchise to create more dynamic worlds, and I see Odyssey’s mercenary system as clearly building on this. Because, as annoying as they are, the mercenaries that mess up your plans are doing to you what you are constantly doing to the game world.
Remember, Kassandra is a mercenary herself. As the mercenary menu shows, she is in a big hierarchy of other mercenaries. No matter what weird hijinks she gets into when it comes to ancient artifacts or political machinations, her profession means that she is constantly accepting contracts and jobs that have her fouling up the plans of other people in the world. She’s showing up unannounced to fortresses to hunt single beings. She is stalking through houses to slay the owners. She is gathering data to show up during meetings and ruin the lives and livelihoods of people simply for some coin and experience points.
In the same way that I appreciate the universal equivalence of how things work in Spelunky, I appreciate that the mercenaries of Odyssey don’t break from their job when it comes to the player character. Mercenaries can accept contracts on Kassandra the same way that Kassandra can accept contracts on anyone else. If the world is governed by how much you will pay to have someone killed, then the player is not special in this case.
Odyssey’s mercenary system is like Shadow of War’s Nemesis System without any nemeses. I don’t get the sense that any of this is personal to any of these antagonistic characters. No one is hunting Kassandra down because it is fun or personally fulfilling to them in the same way that I, as Kassandra, am not doing the required-yet-boring hit contracts for fun. It is a job. My role in the game is to do enough jobs to progress to the next part of the game’s story. It is rote, it is sometimes unfulfilling, and yet I do it because that’s the role of the misthios.
What is so striking about this, for me, is that you can always see where your character is in the global network of mercenaries. There is a never a moment where I am confused about my power level in relationship to other mercenaries. Despite being a system that is (as far as I can tell) ungoverned by any organization, there is nevertheless a hierarchy, an explicit set of tiers and levels of who is more or less important than Kassandra in this Grecian system of freelance labor.
Despite being a protagonist with a chosen bloodline who is destined for great things, Kassandra is also just someone doing a job, and other people who do that job are just going about their daily business when they hunt her down. Despite however much it complicates the gameplay and perhaps interacts weirdly with other parts of the game, I nevertheless find it good.
I like that a big game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey can design gameplay around different levels of context. Kassandra is that chosen and important person, but she is also a worker who does a job, and being the protagonist doesn’t give her exceptions from those big systems.
I like that the game chooses to repeatedly remind the player of Kassandra’s job, because it is that job which defines her. She is able to travel the world and interact with many different kinds of people because she has a particular skill set, but the cost of that mobility and access is that she is responsible to that job. The good comes with the bad, and in the context of her labor, Kassandra is not special. Like you or I, her job governs a huge part of her life, and her unspecialness when it comes to the risk that her job exposes her to humanizes her. Like Origins’s Bayek of Siwa or the original series protagonist Altaïr, Kassandra’s execution of her job reveals her personality and takes her down to earth.
Like Kassandra, we all have our things that make us special and make our life stories unique. Most of us don’t have ancient, important blood or artifacts, but we are the protagonists of our life stories, and the vast majority of us are constantly troubled by the big, broad systems of life that we interact with every day. Having to deal with other mercenaries is Kassandra’s version of paying the power bill or making a choice between holding onto a can to recycle it the next time you find a bin or simply throwing it away in the trash can in front of you. Dealing with mercenaries is Odyssey’s way of constantly reminding the player that they are a part of a big world, and that not all desires in this world are their desires.
The mercenaries are annoying. They show up at the worst times. Sometimes they’re so powerful that all you can do is run from them. But they’re also a constant reminder that Kassandra is grounded in her world, that she is someone who is not above all of this, and that humbling banality is something that I find so refreshing.