Ubisoft should be crafting smaller, more personal stories in Assassin's Creed.
Since the start, each mainline Assassin's Creed game has typically grown in size and superseded that of the previous title, with the three games in the prequel trilogy--Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla--dwarfing all the others (with the exception of Black Flag, which continues to have one of the largest maps in the franchise to date). And though I've enjoyed my long journeys across the deserts of Ptolemaic Egypt, war-torn island communities of ancient Greece, and fields of Anglo-Saxon England, I think it's time that Ubisoft created a smaller setting for Assassin's Creed. A smaller setting could condense the overall experience of Assassin's Creed, which would ensure certain storylines can be better realized and that players can more easily experience the best that the game has to offer.
To Better Serve The Story
Now it's worth pointing out that I don't think a big map is inherently a bad thing. Though I still have my qualms with the pacing of Odyssey's story (especially Chapter 5, which can seriously drag), there's such a sense of joy in riding your horse to the top of a hill, looking out at the glistening ocean, noticing a tiny speck of another island in the far distance, and knowing that you can set sail for it and reach it without encountering a single loading screen. Odyssey wants you to explore because your character, Kassandra, wants to explore after being cooped up on the same island for most of her life.
Of the three games in the prequel trilogy, Odyssey has managed to take advantage of its staggeringly large map size the best, utilizing a fully realized Greece to deliver on the promise of sending the player on an odyssey to reunite their biological family, only to discover that family is what you make of it--blood does not have to define it.
That's the map acting in service to its story; Kassandra's tale is an adventure, with some awesome side stories scattered around the vast map. There are encounters such as meeting Daphnae at the very start of the game and learning about the Daughters of Artemis, an all-women community that involves you in a a side-quest that continues until you nearly reach the endgame level cap, as well as running into and falling in love with Kyra over the course of the phenomenal nine-part Silver Islands questline. It all helps sell why Kassandra would regularly deviate from her path--which, in theory, should have been rather linear--and stretch her journey over the course of years. It's a lifelong odyssey to discover the meaning of family, which is reflected in the giant setting that is filled to the brim with many families to meet; some are dysfunctional, others are loving, but they all shape Kassandra through the decisions you make for her, ultimately resulting in one of several possible families she can bring together by the end of the campaign.
You can't really say the same for Origins and Valhalla, both of which possess stories that suffer a bit from the large settings they take place in. Origins is the story of a cop and his wife and how their quest for revenge twisted their actions so that they protected those in power and didn't serve the people. The map is large and filled with many side quests and activities but rarely do they have much to do with the fact that you're aiding Cleopatra in seizing control away from others to benefit her. Most quests actually see you aid the people, which goes against the overall story that Origins is trying to tell--only a few storylines support how Bayek and Aya are in the wrong for most of the game. But they're drowned out; the setting is so big that it has to be filled with things to do in order to avoid having a large, empty map.
Valhalla isn't much better. England is huge and thus filled with dozens of side activities, collectibles, and storylines that drown out the handful of quests that are tied to its overall narrative: The story of an invader trying to escape her cursed fate, only to learn that living for the here and now is a far more satisfying life than striving for a glorious afterlife. It's difficult to invest in Eivor's struggle to avoid her fate when she spends so much of her time across the course of Valhalla doing things that don't relate back to that, or at the very least don't seem to.
To Better Serve The Gameplay
And beyond just serving the story, there's another problem that you can run into when you have a huge setting: You fill it with too many things to do. I've spent over 41 hours in Origins, over 142 hours in Odyssey, and just under 100 hours in Valhalla--and I'm still nowhere near close to completing all the side activities, finding all the collectibles, and meeting all the characters in each one. There's just so much to do because a big map needs a lot to fill it up in order to not feel empty.
This problem is especially egregious in Valhalla, which actually tries to do something fundamentally different for an Assassin's Creed game: It doesn't tie all of its storylines and quests to symbols on a map. It's a wonderful change that has led to some effective storytelling and sense of discovery in the game, but so much of it feels wasted in the avalanche of stuff to do.
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And to be clear, I'm not even talking about the quests like finding Excalibur or lifting Mjolnir, which require you to find a lot of items hidden behind some seemingly unrelated quests. You can luck into doing that just by reading Valhalla's Achievement/Trophy list. No, I'm talking about the really obscure things, the stuff that you will not find unless you carefully read every document and explore every inch of England.
Like, take the "quest" to discover the fate of Victus, a long-dead magister for the Hidden Ones. There's no reason to even think the quest exists. To "start" it, you'll need to find five Hidden One bureaus scattered across England, notice notes in each one written by some guy named Victus, discover pieces of Victus' armor that cryptically reveal his fate is still not known, and then just think to yourself, "Ya know, I bet I can figure this out," without any prompting from the game.
That search will ultimately require you to carefully observe seemingly unimportant details carved into random towers, do a little triangulation to find the location of a hidden well that's not marked on your map, discover the right book of knowledge in order to unlock the necessary ability to open a secret crypt, crack the cypher on an encrypted note, and then translate some Latin.
There's no concrete reward for doing any of this, no Achievement or weapon or anything, beyond the joy of just figuring out another piece of the overall lore of Assassin's Creed. And there are dozens of other unmarked "quests" like this across Valhalla that you can only find and complete through careful observation and sound reasoning--some do give you concrete rewards like a powerful bow or spear, but they're all primarily serving the purpose of fleshing out the world and telling stories. The community of players still playing Valhalla are finding new ones all the time, working together to slowly piece together more story and lore, much like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild community banded together to discover the game's undisclosed mechanics and secrets following its release.
And I would think all of that is incredibly cool if it wasn't for the fact that all of these storylines are so easy to miss because Valhalla's map is massive and the main campaign is 60 to 80 hours long. That's a staggeringly long commitment for a single-player game, especially one like Valhalla that has more maps on top of England (such as Norway, where the game begins) and will get more through DLC (like Ireland in Wrath of the Druids). So it's not one giant map--it's one giant map and several other not-as-big-but-still-pretty-big maps. When you hide cool questlines, lore-changing Easter eggs (like connections to every single mainline game in the series), or secret rewards (like the best piece of musical composition for an Assassin's Creed game since Ezio's Family) behind a towering wall of other so-so stuff to do, it's unlikely that most of the playerbase is actually going to see them.
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All that Valhalla (and to an extent, Origins) does would be better served in a smaller setting where the player can take the time to stop and really look at the world around them. So I'd love to see Ubisoft do just that, embracing less expansive locations as the settings for its Assassin's Creed games. Plus, with the power of the new generation of consoles, Assassin's Creed could create a small town or city setting the likes of which we've never seen. Instead of a massive map that captures a whole country, Ubisoft could make a super detailed location where all that Xbox Series X|S and PS5 power is devoted to creating some incredible in-game systems, like more reactive AI, a more in-depth social-stealth system, and a wider array of enemy types. And then you can also drop the cluttered assortment of points-of-interest; if an area is small enough, you can rely on environmental context clues to inform what the player should do next instead of handing them a checklist. The best quests in Valhalla could just be a staple part of the franchise in a smaller setting with less distractions.
The smaller details are what makes Origins and Valhalla such special games, Ubisoft just gave them too much room to breathe and then overshadowed them with too much other stuff to do--usually stuff that does nothing to support the underlying narrative of the main campaign. Bigger can mean better, and Odyssey is proof of that. But not every Assassin's Creed game needs to one-up its predecessor by being the biggest game the franchise has ever seen. There's room for smaller settings that allow Ubisoft to better support its efforts to be a bit more experimentative with the types of stories it wants to tell and gameplay it wants to offer.