Depending on the number of spin-off titles and mobile distractions you include in the count, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is somewhere between the seventh and twenty-fifth Assassin’s Creed game. Those are numbers which keep the champagne glasses clinking in the boardroom, but they reflect a series struggling to re-invent itself, and one which is finding it difficult to handle an increasingly fragmented plot.
2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag breathed enough additional life into a deflating set of mechanics to sustain them through another title, and navigated the narrative minefield with a protagonist who didn’t much care about Assassins vs Templars for large parts of the game. Ubisoft has taken other baby-steps towards new ideas in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but that game’s horrendous technical flaws did a lot to mask continuing stagnation.
Despite being one of the more mechanically decent games in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue feels weighed down, at times near-immobilised, by the lineage to Assassin’s Creeds of the past.
It’s basically Black Flag 1.5. Which is just about the best thing an Assassin’s Creed game can be at this point in time, but comes with the dual-layered problem of being over-familiar; both as an Assassin’s Creed title, and as a boat sailing, open world piss-about.
You may never have played an Assassin’s Creed game before, mind you. Ubisoft is hyper-aware of this and, as always, drip-feeds features and accompanying tutorials through the opening portion of the game. This speaks further to the series’ problems with reconciling its own lengthy history with a mix of newer and older players. Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (rightly) recognises that some people really might need a tutorial about how to jump out of a tree and stab someone, but offers them absolutely no help whatsoever with a narrative world of precursor artifacts, Subject 17s and meta-referencing Abstergo Entertainment missions.
Meanwhile, those of us who’ve played a fair proportion of these games are left wondering how many hours of tutorial-story will go by this time before we’re allowed to just get on with it (about two hours, as it happens.)
Like Black Flag before it, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue tries to tell a story with too many characters and ends up selling all of them short on screen time. Even more so here, because the story portion is around half the length.
Our main character, Shay Cormac (complete with mesmerising Canadian-Irish accent,) starts off with a Brotherhood of five or six Assassin buddies and later winds up with a similar number of Templars. Jack Weeks is a potentially interesting fellow with plenty of relevant ancestry, but he barely has a handful of lines and accompanies Shay on just one mission. Explorer James Cook (whom Assassin’s Creed: Rogue decides to turn vaguely Scottish for some reason – he was actually from Yorkshire) gets similarly short shrift.
The gregarious Christopher Gist (another explorer, prone to outbursts of “splendid!” and dressing like a cowboy) probably winds up with most one-to-one time with Shay, serving as a reminder that Ubisoft side characters can be fun when given time to grow. Gist isn’t deep, but proves to be an enjoyable, and absurdly over the top, travelling companion.
Shay himself is a well-meaning (if rather naive) fellow who wants to do the right thing, or at least convince himself of that delusion. His motivations for leaving the assassins are sound, but he rather slides into being a Templar and then just rolls with it. He’s neither a great protagonist, nor a particularly annoying one. He’s just … there. Providing an outlet for player-guided stabbing sprees, and occasionally trying to turn “I make my own luck” into a catchphrase with the air of a slightly desperate TV sketch comedy.
Life as a Templar is fairly easy to accept, because Assassin’s Creed: Rogue turns the local branch of assassins into a set of simpletons who just can’t help touching a magical device that causes massive, city-destroying earthquakes. They also plot to use poisonous gas against civilians and put out contracts on people for incredibly petty reasons. Now, it’s true that the assassins have often been jerks in previous games, but it would’ve been nice to humanise the Templars with a little more nuance. Or any nuance, really. Instead, they’re just the ‘better’ side by default.
Adéwalé, a dependable first-mate in Black Flag and rather excellent protagonist in the Freedom Cry DLC, gets reduced by this process to the role of bumbling AI goon. Just another ship sailing in slow circles for you to mortar-bomb to pieces, and non-entity to chase across some rooftops. A sad waste of his character.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue doesn’t do much with ‘real life’ out-of-animus bits of the game either. In Black Flag, these were a sometimes slightly worrying meta-commentary on the business of making videogames, complete with fairly blatant cries for help about terrible working hours, lack of vacation time and idiotic corporate culture. At one point you’re literally locked in the building and forced to keep working. It felt funny and awful at the same time.
There’s no verbally abusive IT guy in your earpiece this time around, and nobody really steps up to take his place. You spend most of your time with a line manager who delights in calling you “numbskull” and directing you to repair computers containing hidden messages from her speculating about your imminent death. She’s accompanied by the guy who played Pritchard in Deus Ex: Human Revolution doing a gruff version of his Pritchard voice. I think he’s supposed to be from Finland. Ubisoft pretty much just winged it with the accents in this game.
The Abstergo sections have two minor saving graces: the hacking/repair mini-game is slightly less annoying than Black Flag, and there’s a (very) short side-story about the adventures of a swashbuckling pair of gay assassins who are an ex-wrestler and mixed martial artist respectively. If we can’t have the (vaguely) hinted at Assassin’s Creed: Vikings or Assassin’s Creed: British Colonial India, then maybe we can play that game instead.
Those were a lot of words about plot and characters and writing, but the Assassin’s Creed games do rather bombard you with the stuff; and you really can’t ignore it in this game like you (sort of) could in Black Flag.
Mechanically speaking, things are a lot healthier. Assuming you’re not tired of the Black Flag formula – good news! Assassin’s Creed: Rogue brings back all your favourite parts of that and refines a few others. Boarding ships for materials in order to fund upgrades and fancy outfits, raiding plantati … sorry, supply warehouses, attacking and capturing forts. All the sea-faring stuff is there. Shay’s ship the Morrigan is a nimbler vessel, able to navigate the narrower riverways of the River Valley portion of the game (where you’ll spend a good chunk of your time,) but also kitted out with a massive ram to cut through the ice sheets of the more open North Atlantic.
It’s now possible to dump sheets of flame behind your boat to ward off attackers, and the mounted ‘Puckle Gun’ spits out ammo at a much greater speed than the Jackdaw’s hand cannons ever managed.
Enemy ships are now able to attempt boarding actions against you when the Morrigan’s hull strength is low enough, which presents a minor but neat change to the usual order of things. And this is not the only case of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue pulling a reversal of fortune on players.
In an actual stroke of innovation, the game pulls some bits from Brotherhood’s tremendous multiplayer mode into single player. Once Shay is a Templar, he’ll sometimes come across assassins lurking in bushes or haystacks (denoted by the same sinister whispering from the multiplayer) and has to use Eagle Vision to pick them out.
During actual missions these guys can be an annoyance, but the occasional maniac yelling at you as they dive from a roof with blades drawn can be a neat diversion in the free-form open world bits. It’s an amusing nod to how it must feel to be a regular guard in these games. I wish there were a few more dynamic ‘roof stalking’ AI types and fewer who just sit in bushes, though.
This assassin/stalker AI type also crops up in the new ‘Assassin Interception’ side-missions, where you have to run around identifying (and offing) potential killers within a time limit. Fail to do so and you can still protect the target, but they’ll have all the remaining assassins coming at them at once.
While it doesn’t happen in this game, there’s definitely some light groundwork being laid here for a kind of Watch_Dogs/Dark Souls “invade someone’s game” approach to future Assassin’s Creed multiplayer.
Here’s the absolute best thing about Assassin’s Creed: Rogue’s main missions: there’s no eavesdropping whatsoever, and about two (early, and easy) “tail this chump” objectives. Congratulations to everybody who’s been consistently using the in-game rating system to give those missions one star out of five. We did it.
They’re not replaced by anything amazing, but the majority of the time Shay is just directed towards an open-ish area and given a set of instructions to carry out at his leisure. Kill a French captain, take out some lookouts, blow up a powder keg. That sort of thing. At worst you might have to protect somebody from harm for a bit.
It plays to the current strengths of the series and the Black Flag-style stealth system of darting between bushes and hiding places, only to leap out and skewer another pair of gormless soldiers to your pointy implements. Assassin’s Creed: Rogue even adds tools to your already ludicrously over-powered arsenal in the form of the sleep/berserk/shrapnel grenade launcher. This is about as broken as it sounds and, when combined with AI-attracting firecracker darts from your new air rifle, very amusing.
This being an Assassin’s Creed game, there are about twenty billion different items of varying value to collect. Once again, the shanties (and, to a lesser extent, coin-boosting ‘prosperity gems’) are still the only ones worth getting. Shanties work because they provide an immediate, tangible reward and feel worth the player’s time to collect them. Chasing after a song sheet that I can hear within the next five or ten minutes seems worthwhile. But I’m not hunting around the wilderness of America for 500 different pieces of sword, even if my prize is to dress up as a Viking for the final seconds of the game. Sorry Ubisoft.
Sadly, about half of the shanties are just recycled from Black Flag. The twenty or so new ones are all up to scratch, but the re-use of older songs doesn’t exactly help to stave off the feelings of over-familiarity.
Asset reuse is pretty rampant in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, as you’d perhaps expect of a project which had a lower budget. But though 1750s New York (which gets its own map in this game) is reminiscent of the version in Assassin’s Creed 3, it’s much more expansive with a greater variety of parkour options. A shame then, that it’s actually quite under-used as a location in the story. Not that this stops you from clambering around it afterwards.
Strangely, the icy North Atlantic area feels slightly under-used as well (honestly, it feels like the majority of the story takes place in parts of River Valley.) I’m partial to snow-bound zones in games, and some of the more remote tundra areas here do a decent job making you feel quite isolated. Somewhat ironically, despite the addition of blizzards, there don’t seem to be any rogue waves in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.
For a more in-depth piece about how the PC version fares on our platform, have a read of this dedicated article I wrote earlier in the week. The short version is that it’s a slight visual downgrade from Black Flag (draw distances in particular seem to suffer,) but benefits from much improved overall optimisation. With a pretty old i3-2100/8GB/2GB 7870 box, I could push close to the highest settings and retain 50-60fps in the vast majority of areas.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is a confounding game to slap one of those awkward, all-encompassing scores on. It’s mechanically about as sound as an Assassin’s Creed game can get in the older Anvil engine, runs well on PC and generally has superior main missions to Black Flag (or fewer outright terrible ones, at least.) But the writing, characters and ties to the series’ overarching plot are all worse. In places dramatically so. It’s also treading very, very familiar feature territory.
Rogue is impossible to recommend as a starting point for the series, because it’s so hopelessly enmeshed in the drain-circling Assassin’s Creed plot; something which was less of a concern in Black Flag. Those who haven’t yet tired of the sailing-and-collecting dance will find much to fall for once again, but Assassin’s Creed is a series showing significant signs of having run its course in current form. Rogue, despite some interesting minor innovations, is not the title to pull it out of this major formulaic rut.