One of the most extraordinary things about the games in the new Assassin’s Creed Rebel Collection is their diverse subject matter: a game about being a pirate-assassin in the Caribbean in the late 18th century, a game about disrupting the slave trade in the same region, a game about being an assassin turned assassin-hunter during the Seven Years’ War.
Another extraordinary detail: These three sprawling games, each of them offering vast stretches of water for exploration and naval combat, each of them offering countless missions, collectibles, and adventures, were all released in the 14-month period from October 2013 through November 2014.
All are also now on Nintendo Switch thanks to Friday’s release of Assassin’s Creed: The Rebel Collection. Grouping them together like this presents a different way of looking at this slice of Assassin’s Creed history, framing it as a saga of unexpected connections and shifting allegiances.
This actually isn’t the first time that Black Flag has been thematically grouped up with another game in the series. Ubisoft bundled it with the previous year’s game, Assassin’s Creed III, into something called the Americas Collection. There was a sound logic to this, as they combine into a story about one family. The protagonist of Assassin’s Creed IV is Edward Kenway, a pirate who merely poses as an assassin at the start of that game before finding an affinity with the assassins’ order. His British son, Haytham Kenway, is the initial playable protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III, which is focused on the American Revolution that was released prior to those in the Rebel Collection. Haytham’s son, Connor, is III’s actual lead character. The drama of that game winds up being about Connor’s struggles, as a descendant of a British man and a native American woman, with the impact of white people on the American mainland.
Taken together, Creeds IV and III (in that order) tell the story of three generations of Kenway men and the twists and tensions of their loyalties to their nations and family line, to say nothing of their allegiances to the Assassin or Templar sides of the franchise’s overarching conflict.
Assassin’s Creed III was remastered for every imaginable platform, including Switch, earlier this year, which helps explain why it’s not part of this new Rebel Collection.
The Rebel Collection’s games connect in their own excellent way. Pirate-assassin Edward Kenway stars in IV. His friend and first mate Adewale becomes the protagonist of Freedom Cry, in a game largely focused on the liberation of enslaved people in and around Haiti. By Assassin’s Creed Rogue, we play as Shay Cormac, an assassin who becomes disillusioned with the order and joins the Templars, which leads to ample screen time for a new ally of his: Edward’s son Haytham, all grown up. Shay’s adventures lead to an intersection with an important figure from Freedom Cry—though that’s a spoiler not worth spoiling, and neither is Rogue’s connection to another AC game not in this collection.
While Haytham and his son Connor’s story in III is the arguable culmination of this generation of Assassin’s Creed games, the Rebel Collection games work just fine without it. They tell the stories of three seafaring men—Edward, Adewale, and Shay—each wrestling with their place in the world and the efficacy of the factions for which they fight.
Playing these games anew on Switch—where they run marvelously, especially in handheld mode—strongly suggests how Ubisoft was able to make so many of these games in so short a time. As different as their lead characters, the stories, and the themes of the games are, the basic mechanics of fighting, climbing, and sailing are little changed across the three releases. They’re variations of a formula not everyone wants to imbibe so frequently and so fully.
Each is engrossing on its own, and each crosses over with the other in exciting ways. They’re also the franchises’ collective send-off to the PS3 and Xbox 360 era, the one that launched the series in 2007. Rogue is a fun twist on that, as Shay’s change of allegiance triggers a mid-game inversion of the series’ formula: Suddenly, you’re the one watching out for assassins jumping out of haystacks to kill you. With that comes new gameplay systems for hunting hidden foes.
When Rogue came out, it was overshadowed by the same-day release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, the first game in the series made exclusively for PS4 and Xbox One. That game, set in the French Revolution, was beautiful but far less fun to play than the ones right before it, a design and technological mess that led to a corporate apology, a paid expansion turned into a free expansion, and the down-cycling of the series to more infrequent releases.
The Rebel Collection games, considered expansive in their day, seem quaint by today’s Assassin’s Creed standards. Recent series history is dominated by a duo of games set in more ancient times 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, set in Ptolemaic Egypt, and 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, set prior to that during the Peloponnesian War. Those games presented Ubisoft’s capacity for franchise sprawl differently, ditching a formula that had created 20- or 30-hour Assassin’s Creed games for one that made epics that exceeded 100 hours. By virtue of their scale and the remoteness of their historical eras, they made their settings bigger stars than their heroes.
It is refreshing to go back to a Black Flag, a Freedom Cry, a Rogue. To go back to Assassin’s Creed games that felt more like the journey of a person through a moment in history than a simulacrum of an entire ancient nation. It’s exciting to experience snippets of history in the boots of some very different people.
It’s also a delight to be able to do so on Switch, where all of that is now portable.
And because Ubisoft can’t do anything Assassin’s Creed-related less than 150 per cent, completionists take note that the Rebel Collection also includes a short spin-off to Black Flag that stars Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation heroine Aveline de Grandpré. Ubisoft is also offering, as a free 1 GB downloadable extra, access to a Black Flag manga and about 50 pages of a canonical journal kept by the pirate Blackbeard—just in case anyone playing might be really, really into all this stuff, which, why not? It was all good, even if it was a lot.