A note on these reviews: I am not a gamer. I enjoy playing video games, but I have very little time available to play them, and when I do play them, I’m really bad at them. I have never finished a game in my life, not even Super Mario on the Gameboy, which I grew up playing. However, I really want to play through the Assassin’s Creed games. I want to explore the detailed historical re-creations in the games and play through their stories. Trouble is, even on the ‘Easy’ setting, this is something I find really quite difficult and it takes me a very long time. So, these reviews are following my very slow progress as a non-gamer, painstakingly working my way through these games. If you’re looking for a proper video game review, this isn’t what you’re after – but if you’re looking for a perspective on these games from a non-gamer who understands the history but is completely clueless about the game, read on!
So, after getting fed up of hunting for deer in Assassin's Creed: Origins, I decided to re-start Assassin's Creed: Odyssey instead, and use that to get better at the game before going back to Origins. Having played a little of it before, I seem to remember the training stages being more interesting.
Before choosing your character (another reason I prefer Odyssey - yay for having a female option!) and getting to the game proper, though, you play through a short opening sequence set at the Battle of Thermopylae. Most of the game is set during the Peloponnesian Wars in the late fifth century BCE (431 - 404), but this sequence is set decades earlier, during the Persian Wars in the early fifth century (490 and 480-479). This seems to have something to do with the overall story arc of the Assassin's Creed games, which, given I've only played tiny bits of two games and seen the movie, I don't know all that much about. Herodotus is correctly referred to as the first Western historian, and he did write a history of the Persian Wars including the Battle of Thermopylae, though not the Peloponnesian Wars, so I'm not super clear on his connection to the main story. But I figure this, and the references to some special spear of Leonidas, have more to do with the sci-fi aspects of Assassin's Creed, so I'm ignoring it for now!
The depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae itself is interesting. On one level, it's far more accurate than the best known version of this story, Zack Snyder's 300, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel. The Spartans are wearing clothes, for starters. The traitor Ephialtes isn't deformed, and the Persians appear to be normal humans as far as I could tell, all improvement on the movie!
However, it still falls prey to some common inaccuracies, primarily in the fighting style (which is ironic, since fighting is kind of the whole point of these games). Greek warfare at this point in history was hoplite warfare. Soldiers had a big shield which covered half of them and half of the person next to them. They lined up, linking shields, and essentially created a wall of men. Both sides would then push against each other while using long spears to attack. The idea was that you would poke the opposition with the long spear while remaining behind the shield wall. They also had a short sword for close combat if needed.
This is why it was so important not to desert, as if one person broke away, the line would be broken and the enemy could breach it. It's also how the Spartans and their allies held the pass at Thermopylae against bigger Persian numbers for three days, as by positioning themselves in a narrow pass, they reduced the advantage bigger numbers would otherwise give the Spartans.
Like just about every pop culture treatment of this battle ever, Assassin's Creed: Odyssey ignores this. You're dropped straight into battle, and the line has already been broken even though the betrayal that led to the Greek defeat in real life, showing the Persians how to get around the back of the Greek line, doesn't seem to have happened yet. What's far more annoying than that, though, is that you fight as Leonidas using his long spear.
The long spear is for fighting in hoplite formation. It's long so that you can stay behind the shield wall and still reach over the top of your shield to attack the enemy. If the line had broken and you were fighting hand to hand, you wouldn't be trying to fight at close quarters with a long spear, as you do here, you'd be using the short sword hoplite soldiers carried for exactly that purpose. The whole thing looks ridiculous, Leonidas jumping about and poking people with this huge spear instead of using a sword like a normal person!
On the plus side, this is so early in the game that I was able to get through it OK. I tried to pay attention to the instructions about two different types of attack, but mostly I used the fighting technique I learned playing Street Fighter on my cousin's Super Nintendo as a child, which was basically mash all the buttons as fast as possible and hope for the best. So far it's working, but I'm going to have to pay more attention to actual fighting techniques if I want to get much further, even on the 'Easy' setting!
If you're interested in the Battle of Thermopylae, this video is from the class I taught on the battle this year, which thanks to a certain worldwide pandemic, was recorded on Panopto rather than delivered in person.
This video is from a university class and is intended primarily for educational use and not for personal profit. It includes a short clip from the movie 300 (dir. Zack Snyder, 2006) and maps from the US Military Academy Department of History. It also includes images from Wikimedia Commons; details, attributions, etc. here: