It’s 2016 now, and I find myself suffering from the same bout of madness I did almost exactly three years ago: a delusional desire to play through all extant Assassin’s Creed titles in one fell swoop. I’ll stagger the reviews out over a few months so this blog doesn’t turn into all AC all the time.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is a bit of an odd game. On the surface it looks like a shameless cash-in on the excellent Black Flag: it was released just one year after Black Flag and uses a reskinned version of the same engine and most of the same gimmicks (i.e. boats). It was also available for last-generation consoles only, which heightened my impression that it wasn’t really anything more than an attempt to squeeze one last bit of cash out of the 360 and PS3 install base before everyone’s attention moved on to the now current-gen Xbox One and PS4. I picked it up mostly because it was cheap, because it let me play as series bad guys the Templars, and because even if it was just a blatant reskin of Black Flag it wouldn’t be too bad because Black Flag was really, really good. I wasn’t expecting great things from Rogue at all.
Which is why I find myself somewhat surprised to be writing the following sentence: if Black Flag didn’t exist, Rogue would be the best game in the series yet.
I actually think Rogue is better than Black Flag in several ways. Unfortunately the reskin impression I got wasn’t a million miles off the mark, and so everything Rogue does has to be considered in light of its parent game; Black Flag already did most of the heavy lifting where the basic game mechanics are concerned, meaning it’d be a little unfair to give Rogue too much credit when a fair chunk of its goodness has been lifted wholesale from its progenitor. The sailing and naval combat system has made it through almost entirely unchanged (which I view as a good thing since it was by far the best part of Black Flag) and Rogue hasn’t seen fit to mess with other core elements of the franchise such as the sneaking and fighting. It’s taken an iterative approach where those things are concerned, changing a couple of minor aspects and bolting a few things on, but otherwise leaving them unmolested. And that’s fine. That’s a large part of why Rogue works so well; it’s built on the bones of what was already a very strong game. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t make a significant effort to fix some of the weaker aspects of Black Flag - i.e. most things where you weren’t on a boat.
Rogue has you playing as Shay Cormac, a trainee Assassin voiced by a Canadian actor who is doing what I assume is supposed to be an Irish accent that ended up wandering around various parts of England throughout the game. Shay isn’t as likeable as Black Flag protagonist Edward Kenway and is in fact a little bit of a blank sheet of paper (“Irish” is his defining character trait), but he at least isn’t as bad as actual plank of wood Connor from AC 3. Shay starts the game doing various odd jobs for the Colonial Assassin brotherhood, which provides a nice bit of continuity by including returning characters such as an older version of Black Flag’s Adewale and a younger version of AC 3’s mentor assassin Achilles, but which also turns out to be a little too single-minded in their pursuit of the magical Precursor macguffins that have been the driving force behind every Assassin’s Creed game to date. After one of his errands inadvertently causes the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and kills a hundred thousand people, Shay understandably starts to question the wisdom of retrieving these artifacts and defects to the Templars to foil the Assassins’ plans and prevent the same catastrophe from happening again, all against the backdrop of the North American portion of the Seven Years’ War between the British and the French.
This is… not quite as effective a setup as I’d hoped it would be. The Templars are the bad guys. Playing as the bad guys is supposed to be fun, or at least interesting. That’s why the prologue of AC 3 where you played as Haytham Kenway was so great; he seemed like a decent chap on the surface but was willing to go to whatever lengths were necessary in order to achieve his goals, which put him in a moral grey area that I thought Rogue would spend a little more time exploring. Instead all Ubisoft have really done is the script for a standard Assassin’s Creed game with a find/replace command on the terms “Assassin” and “Templar”; in Rogue it’s the Templars who are the good guys and the Assassins who are doing heinous stuff like running criminal gangs in New York and manufacturing poison gas to destroy their enemies. There’s no real moral struggle for Shay as he comes to terms with his new position. He chews through the Assassin lineup just as he would if they were Templars, and the game’s attempts to justify this and paint Shay as a good guy by making the Assassins the bad guys make this far less interesting than it should be. I’m fine with the Assassins and Templars being as bad as each other at different points in their history, but Rogue doesn’t make great use of this concept at all.
Ah well. Shay at least gets much more baller outfits in the Templar order than he does in the Assassin brotherhood, complete with fancy red and black colour scheme, and his ship also gets a set of cool crimson sails. (But it’s okay, he’s definitely not a bad guy.) It’s actually pretty impressive how quickly Rogue cuts through the bullshit to hand you the ship; the AC series is notorious for its overlong tutorial segments, which is why I was very surprised to see Rogue rushing through the running/jumping/fighting/sneaking tutorial in less than ten minutes and then moving straight on to ship combat. The whole dedicated tutorial segment took less than a quarter of an hour, and while Rogue does continue to introduce new concepts to you throughout the game they’re handled in an unusually brief fashion. If the plot is intent on not letting me have any fun as the bad guy, I can at least applaud the fact that the game itself put as few barriers as possible between me starting the game and plying the North Atlantic in my own upgradable ship.
This is the other big difference between Rogue and Black Flag: the change in venue from the sunny Caribbean to the cold, bleak waters of the North Atlantic. Rogue is split out into several maps: you’ve got the North Atlantic,which is your classical ocean zone full of icebergs, squalls and shipping to plunder; an inland area of narrow channels and lakes punctuated by many islands called River Valley; and finally New York, which is the stereotypical Assassin’s Creed city. By doing this Rogue actually manages to serve up all the best bits of the series so far combined into a single game, which is a large part of why it endeared itself to me so much; it plays kind of like a Greatest Hits version of Assassin’s Creed. The North Atlantic provides the meat of the Black Flag sailing gameplay, River Valley has some wilderness areas that are far better judged than the ones in AC 3 and which are just plain fun to explore, and New York repeats the towers controlling economic districts of Brotherhood. New York itself comes across as a successful attempt to compensate for one of the legitimate complaints about Black Flag – that while the sailing was great, the various settlements dotted around the map were really boring to explore. New York and River Valley change that, but for me the North Atlantic was the standout area; the palette swap to a freezing ice-strewn ocean might be mostly superficial, but I like it a lot more than the Caribbean setting. It’s also got some neat explorable areas of its own, including shipwrecks and ice floes.
The other changes Rogue makes are tweaks to the Black Flag formula more than anything else; during the first few hours they came across as pretty similar games, but sitting down to write this review I realise there are enough good ones to give Rogue its own character. Take sailing, for example: bounty hunters can now ram into you and board your ship, making them a bit more threatening; your own ram is now much more effective thanks to a boost ability specifically for ramming; and the small cannons on your ship’s rail have been replaced with puckle guns, which Rogue makes into a sort of 18th century autocannon. They fulfil the previous role of shooting weak points on enemy ships for massive damage, but they’re also now incredibly useful when boarding enemy ships as you can use them to snipe enemy sailors off the deck as you reel them in. As the criteria for winning most minor boarding actions is “Kill X sailors” this means you can often win without ever having to actually board the other ship, which is an absolute godsend when you don’t want to faff around with capturing your fiftieth brig. Larger ships have additional objectives so while the puckle guns make boarding them easier they don’t trivialise them completely, and the nicest touch of all is that if you’re boarding a man ‘o war – the toughest ship class in the game – the decks on the opposing ship are so high up you can’t hit anyone on them with the guns. You have to do it straight up. Now that’s a well thought-out game mechanic.
The additions Rogue makes to the fighting and sneaking are far less pronounced; there’s a grenade launcher that you can load with various types of gas, and because you’re now fighting against Assassins there’s a new enemy type that hides in bushes/haystacks/whatever and waits to hit you with an ambush attack that’ll take off half your health bar. There are new side missions and collectibles that reflect the new tenor of the game, but I didn’t engage with them all that much; I learned a long time ago that Ubisoft put far too much in these damn games to make collecting them for their own sake worthwhile (especially since they crank out one game per year, which means you just find yourself doing the whole slog all over again soon enough), so I just did enough to get me some nice sea shanties and ship upgrades. What I will say is that they seem more intelligently laid out than in the past, with many of the wilderness areas in River Valley constructed around the collectibles like a good platformer. If I had taken leave of my senses and decided to try and 100% an Assassin’s Creed game, it’d probably be Rogue; it seems like it’d be more fun to do it here than in any of the others.
To a certain degree, Rogue is Black Flag all over again. It does a fair bit to establish its own identity but at the end of the day the shameless reuse of assets (models, animations, colouring in all the soldiers white instead of red and calling them French) from Black Flag means it couldn’t escape that comparison even if it wanted to. If it is Black Flag, though, it is at least Black Flag with most of the rough edges sanded off. The plot isn’t as incomprehensible as Black Flag’s, the Abstergo Entertainment sequences make an unfortunate return but are thankfully minimised, and the core mechanics are just a tad more satisfying thanks to the new additions and improvements. Does this justify Rogue’s existence alongside Black Flag? I think it does, but then I enjoy the period and the sailing gameplay enough to stomach a whole new game of it. If you’ve already played Black Flag, then that makes the choice fairly easy, at least: do you want to play more Black Flag? Buy Rogue. Don’t want to play more Black Flag? Don’t buy Rogue. However, possibly the biggest compliment I can pay Rogue is this: if you haven’t played Black Flag then I’d probably recommend Rogue over it since it’s a better all-around package – that is, unless you really like pirates.