The biggest plot twist in Assassin's Creed history is this: Assassin's Creed Rogue, the least-hyped console game in the series, the one we had good reason to think would be bad, is...a very, very good game. It's a must-play for any AC fan.
What in the world?
Did you even know there was a game called Assassin's Creed Rogue? Released on November 11, 2014?
If you didn't, that might be because the game's publisher, Ubisoft, has spent much of the last five months hyping Assassin's Creed Unity, which also came out on November 11, 2014. That's the one you see in TV commercials.
As for Rogue, that's the game that Ubisoft didn't even send to reviewers until the day before the game came out (or, in my case, I got it the day of release after I bought my own copy). Often, that's a sign that the publisher knows that the game sucks.
And why shouldn't Assassin's Creed Rogue have sucked?
Were we really supposed to believe that a large corporate publisher like Ubisoft was going to release a $US60 Assassin's Creed for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 up against their own XboxOne/PS4/PC Unity, barely talk about it, and then expect us to think that it's an important, full-size release, let alone a good one?
Were we to believe that a game company actually planned to release two entirely original, first-run games in one franchise on the same day? Is that not madness? Well, to be accurate, they weren't supposed to come out at the same time. Unity was slated to ship in October before it was delayed. And Rogue isn't all-brand-new. It borrows a wee bit of content (menus, animations, sound effects, sea shanties) from AC IV.
For over a week, as I've played Assassin's Creed Rogue, I've been damn near hyperventilating to my colleagues that Rogue isn't just a more fun and more interesting Assassin's Creed than the much-more-hyped and much-more-graphically-impressive Assassin's Creed Unity. I've been telling them that it's actually a really good game. Now I'm telling you, too.
Assassin's Creed: Rogue is very much in the style of last year's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and its Freedom Cryexpansion. It's a sailing-centric adventure with lots of naval combat mixed in with the series' more typical city-based building-climbing and combat.
You do some of this:
And you do some of this:
And you go to New York City before half of it was burned down in time for Assassin's Creed III:
Rogue is also a flip of the entire series.
In this Assassin's Creed, you play the other side or, more accurately, you play the factional transition of an Irishman named Shay Patrick Cormac. He starts the game as an Assassin in 18th century colonial New York and the frigid North Atlantic and eventually switches to the rival side of the series' centuries-long conflict. He goes Templar.
If you are currently not caring at all about this, it's possibly because you don't care about Assassin's Creed lore. I forgive you, though it's possible that Assassin's Creed Rogue is not for you. I mean, it helps if you know who this guy is:
It helps if the outfit that the guy on the right is wearing looks familiar:
It helps if you look at the following screenshot and don't think, "Wow, those old character models don't look so hot" before first thinking "Whoa! We get to go back to Abstergo?"
OK. Maybe none of that means anything to you. Or maybe it does but you're still not sure what would be so special about Assassin's Creed Rogue.
Part of the appeal of the game is in fact that it's a deep, deep dive back into the complicated multi-game storyline of Assassin's Creed. It's not the nearly-clean break from the franchise's lore that Unity is. That game ditched the series' modern-era gameplay and barely referenced the previous games. Rogue, however, weaves players in and out of 18th century gun-and-sword adventures and 21st-century hacking-and-uh-corporate-memo-reading. It's a game that is all about the AC concept of reliving a past life through a devie called the Animus possibly at the behest of an evil Templar-run video game company (don't laugh; it's cool!). It's also densely woven into the other games. Rogue is a sequel to IV, has a major guest character from Freedom Cry, is a prequel to III and makes interesting connections to Unity. If connecting the dots won't entertain you, you'll miss out on half of Rogue's pleasures.
All won't be lost, however, if you don't care about the lore. Another part of the appeal of Rogue is that it is a well-designed game that inverts some classic Assassin's Creed gameplay, largely by drawing in concepts from the series' abandoned competitive multiplayer mode.
See, in previous Assassin's Creed games, you played as an assassin. You didn't just climb towers and survey cities. You learned to sneak through crowds, creep up on a target and stab them. Maybe you'd drop smoke if your attack went awry so that you could get away. In Assassin's Creed Rogue, once you become a Templar, you will regularly be hunted by assassins. What you did to Templars in the previous games, they now do to you.
Let me show you how that works. The video below shows me playing the mission in the game's campaign that teaches players how to deal with "stalkers" (read: assassins).
If, for some reason, you didn't have time to watch the above video, let me boil it down for you — let me boil the entirety of Rogue down for you — into a single GIF:
In the previous games, you were the assassin in that hay cart. Not this time.
The inversion of Assassin's Creed gameplay is Rogue's best success. As you walk through the game's version of New York City, you'll regularly hear whispers — an aural clue that an assassin is nearby. You'll want to track them before they track you. You're able to play a series of side missions in which you're trying to protect a target from an entire brotherhood of assassins. You'll be frantically climbing roofs or peering through crowds, trying to find these folks, trying to kill them before they kill the person you're trying to protect. You hunt assassins.
Rogue's creators designed their game around the idea of flipping expectations. Are you sailing around, trying to attack and board enemy ships? Be careful, because there are enemies out there who will attack and try to board your ship. Are you really into killing any of the red-dot troops on the mini-map? This time, the red-dot troops are your friends.
In recent Assassin's Creed games, you could raid forts and capture bases. You can in Rogue, too, but those bases are run by Assassins now. You'll spot the bases from afar based on their telltale black smoke.
And this is what you'll do if you're near one:
For all the things that might seem fresh and different about Assassin's Creed Rogue, you might have already gotten the sense that the game looks awfully similar to Black Flag. You may have even seen that some people refer to Rogue as a glorified mode of 2013's huge AC game.
If you noticed that it, like ACIII, uses New York City as one of its main areas, you might even think it's, at best, a Frankenstein of III + IV. To an extent, you'd be correct. Rogue recycles so many animations, camera angles, sound effects, menus and game design elements from IV that it will probably win an award on the next Earth Day.
Check this out:
Yes, that's how they were able to make a big, new "original" Assassin's Creed for PS3 and 360 this year. But let's not go overboard here. Rogue is much more than a mod of IV or a re-do of III. It's a rightful, iterative successor to them. From a technological and graphic design standpoint, for example, here's III's New York:
Here's Shay standing in the same spot, more or less, in Rogue:
Here's III's NYC map:
Here's Rogue's version:
Let's zoom that out:
Let's look at IV again. There's no doubt that a lot of copy-and-pasting of this:
... got us this:
Believe me, I know IV well. I played a lot of it.
I've explored its massive map:
One of the things I've found stunning about Rogue, though, is that as much as it is borrowing from IV (and III), it's largely doing it in service of a whole-new adventure that is mostly in a new place — a massive new place.
The map below shows one of the medium-sized island zones in Rogue that is part of the game's largely-unadvertised River Valley zone. That region is essentially a forest-and-river version of IV's Caribbean (replace Havana with Albany, basically).
I'm going to zoom out:
And then I'll zoom back in to a portion of the game's other massive sailing area, the one with the icebergs:
The volume of content is by no means the virtue here. The virtue is what Rogue's designers did with all that space. They have filled it with towns full of missions, forests full of animals and rivers and seas full of ships to fight. They have taken some of IV's better ideas — like the ability to use your ship to attack a fort and then to storm the fort on foot — and transported them into Rogue. But they have also applied some small, smart twists.
Here's a twist that might be hard to see, but basically what's happening is that I am shooting an iceberg to create a rippling wave that destroys the boat I'm fighting:
And here's the Rogue team's twist on harpooning, the whale-hunting mini-game from IV which is now complicated by the presence of ice that might destroy your boat:
IV had a simple naval strategy mini-game. So does Rogue, but Rogue's is designed to help tell the story of the Seven Years' War:
When you're sailing in Rogue's North Atlantic, as much as the game is borrowing from IV, it still feels like you're going somewhere new. You're literally — well, virtually — breaking new ice:
For those of us who enjoy Assassin's Creed games as virtual historical tourism — and nature tourism — what Rogue is giving us is pretty good. Let's explore an icy shipwreck, shall we?
Rogue's designers carefully dole out new stuff. There are cave paintings to find, letters to read, a bunch of things I won't spoil for you and pillars to crack:
More importantly, the core of Rogue's gameplay is fun.
I complained in my review of Unity that the game was dull, that the mission design didn't grab me. I heard from gamers who wanted to know what I meant. It's hard to articulate, but when missions are designed well, you feel it. Tastes vary, so some players may enjoy a more open-ended approach to level design, but I'm partial to levels and missions that balance the guiding hand of the developer and outright freedom. You feel that guiding hand in Rogue's superb, if short, six-chapter campaign (it's probably half to two-thirds as long as its sister games' campaigns, but mission-for-mission it's one of the best Ubisoft has made).
Here's a sequence that I think illustrates the Rogue developer's good guiding hand, as the free-running path that the developers would like you to take reveals itself with each lunge you take forward:
But the game's campaign missions aren't all guided. Often, they will open up and give you the liberty to solve them however you'd like:
As I played Rogue's campaign I was regularly surprised by and impressed with what the game was asking me to do. As I explored Rogue's vast maps, I enjoyed the freedom to wander. And as I docked at a random island or climbed through another shipwreck I found one wonderful little hand-crafted playground after another.
I marveled at how confident the whole game felt and how pleasing it was to play. I was impressed with how rich the whole game was, how its modern sequences packed in jokes and references to other games, how they expanded things by seeming to start new story threads about modern assassins.
Then it all clicked.
Of course Rogue feels the way it does. It's a late-gen game, and this is the kind of game you get when talented people don't have to worry about technology and can instead spend their time being creative.
Not that they shouldn't, you know, have tried to squash a few more bugs from IV's notoriously buggy game engine. My first mate can hover!
For some people, Assassin's Creed Rogue will be one more meal from a menu they're tired of. I get that. You won't like Rogue if you didn't like the last couple of Assassin's Creeds and you may not like it if those games gave you your fill. For me, however, the game was a wonderful surprise.
Shay Cormac turns out to be one of the most interesting protagonists in the series. His character arc, from Assassin to Templar is satisfyingly told. Better still, it's told through playable missions. You'll do the things that made Shay a great Assassin. You'll do the things that made him doubt his mission. You'll do the things that teach him how to be a Templar.
His world is interesting, too. I plan to continue to explore Rogue's North Atlantic, hunting its assassins, animals and legendary ships, for many hours more.
The game's main campaign ends with a tease of what Shay could be doing next. It hints at the outline for a sequel. For once with the Assassin's Creed series, however, a sequel is in doubt. There will certainly be many more Assassin's Creed games, but I'm unsure if Ubisoft would bother producing a follow-up to a game they have barely promoted. If they don't, it will be a shame.
Despite all that Assassin's Creed Rogue borrows from previous Assassin's Creed adventures, it also demonstrates a great new direction in which these games could go. A Templar's Creed series — a succession of anti-stealth games that involve smoking out the characters that are creeping up on you — could be a wonderful thing. Whether Ubisoft decides to build on that or not, at least we got a hint of it with Rogue. The game is arguably the strangest release in Assassin's Creed history and, surprisingly, one of the series' finest achievements.