50 Shades of Shay

With so little information out there right now about Assassin’s Creed Rogue, I admit I was very worried about what I’d see when I finally got to play it. I was convinced that last-gen games couldn’t offer up as enjoyable an experience as their new-gen counterparts. But if Rogue proves to be the swan song for Assassin’s Creed on Xbox 360 and PS3, there seems to be no better title to possibly do it with.

Over the course of about four hours, I was able to play Sequences 3 and 5 in Rogue, where we first get to see Shay Cormac fall in with the Templars, who would tempt him away from the Assassin Brotherhood. They show him a different way of doing things—a possibly better way of doing things—and then we see his meteoric rise up through their ranks.

During these two sequences, what I found most interesting was watching how Shay reacted to how the Templars went about fighting the war, how he questioned his own motivations, and even second-guessed orders from Haytham Kenway, the Templar Grandmaster of North America at the time. This small cross-section of gameplay made me realize this was much more than a simple revenge story.

Shay has the potential to be one of the deepest, most complex protagonists we’ve seen from the series, because he’s constantly fighting a war within himself—as well as in, and around, colonial New York City. The underlying themes of “How far would you be willing to go to feel safe?” and “How much does freedom cost?” were also constantly on display each time Shay had one of those integral moments of doubt, making him highly relatable given the current temperature of world affairs.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the gameplay. When I first heard that the game was set in New York City again, there was definitely some trepidation that we’d see a lot of copied and pasted elements from Assassin’s Creed III. And, yes, the layout of the city’s roads seem to be similar to what we saw then, but because this game takes place 20 years before the bulk of Connor’s story, it’s a very different New York—one that’s not been touched yet by the Great Fire of 1776. This means new buildings to climb and new things to see, even if some will definitely serve as callbacks to previous games.

Speaking of the time period, though, I think the thing that excites me the most about Rogue is that, although you’re not playing as a Kenway, the game really seems to serve as the bridge for Assassin’s Creed III and IV, filling in key gaps in the story and tying up loose ends. Since it comes after those two games, though, it’s taking the best elements of both of them and mashing them together.

The sailing is just as good as ever, and the idea that you can now be boarded while traversing the high seas adds a brand-new dynamic to the North Atlantic and Hudson River Valley that Edward Kenway’s Caribbean in Black Flag didn’t have. Shay’s Fleet is also very different from Edward’s because while Shay is fighting the Assassin-Templar War, the Seven Years’ War is going on around him, and he can send his ships into the naval conflict of the war and actually have a more direct say in a huge historical event instead of just sailing for more coin.

Some old ideas also return in new ways in Rogue. A new economy system has been instituted so that as Shay liberates more districts from enemy control, he’ll see more money flow into his bank account. He can also spend money to fix up key buildings in and around New York to promote further development of his own wealth, all in the hopes of not only making his own life better, but hopefully better for the people he hopes to protect in the Colonies.

Rogue also brings new weapons. Besides iconic stuff like dual hidden blades and an assortment of swords from the time period, Shay will meet up with his old friend Ben Franklin, who’s working on a grenade prototype that Shay can attach and launch from his rifle. This is, surprisingly, historically accurate—Franklin did make a grenade prototype that never saw mass production. And maybe that’s because Shay was running around, using it for Templar plots instead!

We also see the return of the Stalker enemy type; they were prevalent in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and would dress in civilian garb and try to sneak up on and attack Ezio. Similarly here, Shay’s stalkers won’t just hide in plain sight but also in outhouses and bushes to try to get the drop on him when he least expects it.

Despite my early fears about Assassin’s Creed Rogue, this short preview demo allayed much of my worries. As soon as I picked up the controller and started running around New York and then sailed out on the high seas while listening to some classic sea shanties sung by my crew, it felt like I was coming home to an old friend. But while there’s more than enough here to make Assassin’s Creed Rogue feel extremely familiar, there’s also just enough new stuff to keep you on your toes. Couple that with Shay’s compelling story, and Rogue does more than enough to remind us that last-gen isn’t quite dead yet.