Switching sides

If you told me back in August, when Assassin’s Creed Rogue was first announced, that it would be the superior Assassin’s Creed game coming out this year—even though it’s a last-gen exclusive—I’d have said you went and lost your mind. But, here we are, several months later, and after having played both games to completion, I can attest that this is indeed the case, with Rogue serving as a perfect conclusion to the series’ time spent exploring Europe’s North American colonies in the 18th century.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue takes place between Assassin’s Creed III and IV, set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War here in the U.S.) during the 1750s and tells the story of Shay Cormac, a bright trainee of the Assassin Order whose first solo mission ends in horrific disaster. Furious at the Assassin Mentor, Achilles (yes, the same one who, in his later years, would train Connor Kenway in Assassin’s Creed III), Shay tries to undermine the Order’s future plans. Gunned down by his former associates when he’s caught in the act of stealing key precursor-race documents, Shay is left for dead in a snow bank just off Achilles’ Homestead in Massachusetts, where he’s found by a group of Templars and nursed back to health. Thus his conversion begins: From great Assassin prospect to one of the most effective Templars who ever lived.

I was originally afraid that Rogue would feel boring and would be nothing more than a complete copy-and-paste job with elements from the two games with which it links narratively. Instead, Rogue feels like coming back to an old friend. Familiar but changed in the time since last I saw it, full of new tales, but keeping the same mannerisms that makes it uniquely Assassin’s Creed.

For example, the game’s one proper city, New York, is completely different from what we remember in Assassin’s Creed III, since Rogue is set before the Great Fire of 1776. Buildings that were smoldering husks during Connor’s adventure are now mansions and monuments perfect for climbing. You can also undertake plenty of new side missions here, as well as in the outposts scattered about the brand-new Hudson River Valley region.

One instance of these side missions comes in the form of gangs led by Assassins that plague different areas. By removing the threat of these ruffians, you can increase the wealth of the area they formerly inhabited. Shay then gets a cut of that new wealth via the game’s economy, similar to the system seen in Assassin’s Creed II and Unity. As he helps the colonists prosper, he prospers as well, getting a steady flow of income to his bank account. He can also increase an area’s wealth by using materials collected during ship battles to rebuild important buildings that have seen better days.

Rogue also features Assassination Interceptions. Before, you’d go to a pigeon coop and get a side assassination mission. Now, you’re trying to catch pigeons to prevent assassinations, throwing a wrench into the Assassins’ plans. These defense missions provide a fresh twist on an old formula, since you have a time limit to hunt down would-be killers in a crowd and take them out before the target falls to a hidden blade or a pistol shot.

Also, the waterways that you sail on are new here. While the aforementioned Hudson River Valley and North Atlantic regions provide a topography that looks similar to what you saw in Black Flag, it brings its own set of challenges, such as clearing out French colonies in order to claim them for the glory of the British Empire or discovering a variety of collectibles like war journals and Native American totems.

Besides new outposts and colonies to explore, just the act of sailing itself is fraught with new dangers. Due to the freezing waters, icebergs are a constant threat—but they’re also a lot of fun to destroy as your crew gives a rousing “Huzzah!” with each one that breaks apart. You’ll also often find and recover building materials that were frozen inside the ice, giving you some additional economic motivation in bringing about their destruction. What’s more, sinking icebergs can cause huge waves in the surrounding waters, and by timing your shots right, you can sink nearby enemy gunboats and toss about other small ships to turn the tide of a battle more in your favor by adding that extra element of chaos.

Naval battles also see an upgrade. Not only does Shay have different weapons than Black Flag’s Edward had at his disposal (like flaming oil barrels that do massive damage if you can get an enemy ship to sail into them), but enemy ships are also more willing to go on the offensive now. Several times, it looked like I was going to have my enemy ready for boarding—but they rammed my ship and tried to board me instead. The results were the same, though, with me killing a dozen or so of their crew and stealing their cargo, and privateering as Shay felt a lot more invigorating than pirating with Edward.

Combat hasn’t just changed at sea, though. Shay has some special new weapons that come as a result of crossing paths with some of history’s most influential figures, like Ben Franklin, who bestows upon you a grenade launcher. I know—it sounds ridiculous that a grenade launcher would exist in the 1750s, but documents prove that Franklin had been working on a grenade back then. If you should happen to pilfer the prototype, and combine it with another new weapon in your Air Rifle, then history would be none the wiser. Admittedly, the grenade launcher is a bit overpowered and quickly able to whittle down crowds of enemy forces with just a few well-placed shots, but it’s also a lot of fun—I ended up using it more as an ace in the hole than something I’d frequently carry into battle.

Beyond the pleasant gameplay tweaks, Shay’s story is easily one of the most enjoyable we’ve seen from the series. With the large gap in history between Assassin’s Creed III and IV, Rogue avoids being backed into the corner that most interquels have to deal with, where the game has to start and end—no matter what—at a certain point in order to keep continuity in place. It also neatly ties up a few loose ends, especially in regards to a huge chunk of Haytham Kenway’s story.

Shay also proves himself as one of the strongest characters in Assassin’s Creed lore, and he almost instantly became a personal favorite for me. His constant struggles with his conscience—he’s often racked with guilt for leaving his former friends—shows a doubtful, remorseful side we rarely see from any series protagonist. The strong supporting cast of both Assassins and Templars only makes Shay a more well-rounded character, since he interacts with each in different ways—whether it’s the Templar George Munro, to whom Shay feels he owes his life (and he kind of does) or the contempt he shows the stuck-up French-Canadian Assassin Louis-Joseph Gaultier. In fact, I enjoyed Shay’s tale so much, and it offered such an intriguing glimpse into the other side of the Assassin-Templar war, that I was more than happy to pledge allegiance to the Templars when all was said and done.

It wasn’t just Shay’s point of view that told the Templar side of the story, however. The real-world sequences return in Rogue, once again having you play the role of an Abstergo Entertainment employee in Montreal. When you first access Shay’s story, it unleashes a virus that slams the building into lockdown. Only by bringing the computers back online, little by little, can you access more of Shay’s tale, and as you hack your way through a brand-new series of inventive and fun puzzles, you’ll learn more about the history of the Templars and what they think of the Assassins.

Even with these gameplay tweaks and the enjoyability of Shay’s story, it needs to be said that Rogue is a far from a perfect experience. In terms of narrative, Shay’s story is the shortest adventure in Assassin’s Creed, lasting only six Sequences. This puts a huge crimp on pacing—by the end of the game, Shay’s just chasing down all his former associates, one mission right after another, with little to no buildup. His dialogue’s also hit-or-miss: At some points, he’ll provide memorable, poignant lines, but in other spots, he’ll deliver cheesy catchphrases over and over again like a 1980s B-movie action star (I swear, if he said, “I make my own luck” one more time…).

Also, some glitches forced me to restart several main story and side missions. Often, assassination targets would spawn in (or behind) a wall, so I couldn’t reach them. I’d have to kill myself to desynchronize and then pick the mission back up from a checkpoint. Doing this once or twice always did the trick, but it was just the idea that I had to start entire sections of a mission over because the game became unplayable at points. Long load times and the occasional bit of lag also had me in constant fear that the game would crash at any moment. Unlike Unity, which did crash half a dozen times while I played it and also required several mission restarts, Rogue never completely locked up, at least.

Rogue also lacks a lot of the replayability we’ve seen in more recent Assassin’s Creed titles. There’s no multiplayer to speak of, competitive or cooperative, so once you collect all the items and complete all the side missions, there’s really not much else to do. As unpopular as it proved to be (I personally liked it, but I admit to being in a minority), at least the competitive multiplayer of previous last-gen entries offered something to bring you back for more.

Despite the rushed nature of the narrative and the semi-frequent technical glitches, I still found Rogue to be a far more pleasurable experience than I anticipated. It does just enough to put its own stamp on the franchise while also giving us critical story details in order to tie up loose ends between Assassin’s Creed III and IV. It acts as the perfect swan song for the franchise on the last generation of consoles, putting a neat-and-tidy bow on the Colonial Era Trilogy.

Developer: Ubisoft Sofia • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.11.14
8.5
The perfect Assassin’s Creed swan song on last-gen, Rogue offers perhaps the best protagonist the series has ever seen—even if the gameplay will be too familiar for the liking of some.
The Good Shay’s adventure is a perfect conclusion to Assassin’s Creed’s time in Colonial America.
The Bad Crams a lot of story into a short time, which hurts narrative pacing terribly.
The Ugly The shaggy, porno-esque goatee Shay sports before turning Templar.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue is available on Xbox 360 and PS3 and is coming to PC in 2015. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. A retail copy was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.
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