Assassin’s Creed is an enormous franchise, both in terms of its commercial successes and the vast mass of content with its name on the box – all the more massive once merchandising, novels and extra gubbins are taken into account. Still, even for a series of such immense stature, it was always going to prove a puzzling prospect when Ubisoft decided to launch not one, but two full-price entries with nary a calendar page between their release dates.
Rogue and Unity, for last-gen and current-gen respectively, represent a bold gambit by Ubisoft to tie up loose ends whilst also capitalising on a gaming audience that is still in transition between consoles. For fans of the series and its formula, this is twice the material and twice the smiles (to hell with the cost!) but to those with even a smattering of suspicion to their natures, this could represent an incredibly cynical move by a pub/dev that is looking all the more mechanical and formulaic with each successive release. And so it is, with furrowed brow and deep-set doubts, I take to the seas to see what kind of voyage Ubisoft have served up this time, those salty old sea dogs.
Rogue is almost, almost Assassin’s Creed-by numbers. It takes the strengths of the series’ last incarnation, Black Flag, and reiterates them wholesale, not stopping at all to display even a vague hint of shame.
Seafaring, this time, atop the waves of the North Atlantic, we’re introduced to new protagonist, rookie Assassin Shay Cormac. A good chunk of the game unfolds as expected, with Shay traipsing from viewpoint to viewpoint, collecting treasure, weapons and varying bric-a-brac whilst hopping from colony to colony aboard his ship, the Morrigan. Up to a point it’s all very much Black Flag minus the rum and calypso, but wait! There’s a twist!
As hinted at by the title and given away entirely by the box art, this particular Animus adventure will have you turning your hidden blade against the brotherhood that gave you it. After he is involved in a catastrophic loss of life tied up in the Brotherhood’s machinations for control of the Pieces of Eden, a disgruntled Shay turns his back on the Creed and turns, eventually, to the series’ go to source for bargain bucket antagonists, the Templars.
More than just a jolt of electricity to reanimate a series that has long been stagnating in the sprawling mire of its own ambitions, this narrative shift is reflected in Rogue’s inverted gameplay. Very much a case of the hunter becoming the hunted, Shay must be wary of snakes in the grass at every turn, with AI opponents employing the same Assassin tricks that we as players have grappled with aplenty throughout the series thus far.
The interface and systems involved with the Assassin hunting are retooled second-hand multiplayer assets from earlier titles in the series. A refreshing second wind in part, but the changes are only superficially effective in shaking up the experience and Rogue retains the flavour of experience characteristic of the series. Any claims suggesting that the movement of perspective from Assassin to Templar has any profound effect on the game experience are hyperbole in the extreme.
It’s not necessarily all bad that the game takes its cues from Black Flag, itself a fantastic entry in the series, though the tight similarity certainly raises questions about how the series can further evolve, with changes in each iteration feeling more and more flimsy and cosmetic.
Looking upon Rogue with a kinder eye, there is room to see it in an entirely different light. Groundbreaking it is not, no matter which plot twist has been stretched over the ageing AC framework, but Rogue excels in summarising what players have enjoyed across the series over the years. It distils and repackages the very best of the Assassin’s Creed experience into a manageable volume; also managing to unpick and refocus the sprawling narrative timeline that has become one of the messiest and least accessible in video game lore today.
In terms of the plot clarity it brings to the table, Rogue links Black Flag with Assassin’s Creed III and does a lot to recap past characters, whilst elucidating their importance not only in the individual chapters of the series but in the grand arc of the series as a whole, and all whilst dazzling with the best graphics the series has seen on last-gen hardware.
Smugly self-referential, Rogue is a title that celebrates, nay, revels in the wealth of content that has been created over the years, the vast narrative lit reverently by Rogue’s spotlight as the more nuanced plot features of past titles are placed firmly into context. It’s not quite a revelation, but expect some minor sense of dawning realisation as shape begins to emerge from the confused, tangled mess that the Assassin’s Creed saga had been becoming. Rogue is undeniably one for the fans, though far less forgiving to those fresh to the series.
Swollen with content, there’s an abundance of side action to engage with. All of it is given purpose in virtue of coin being a little tougher to come by than players might be used to, making the wonderfully executed naval battle system a necessity to bolster your fleet when delving into the Naval Campaign metagame, which proves a vital source of income. You didn’t think those flintlock pistols were going to buy themselves did you?
Income can also be generated through the periodic receipt of revenue, which scales accordingly with how much capital you’ve spent renovating the gang-plagued New York, the key urban environment in Rogue. However, as we’ve seen so often before in the franchise, there comes a point where there is nowhere for the amassed wealth to go; once all the upgrades have been collected, all boxes ticked, the money you’ve fought tooth and nail to acquire loses all significance.
However well it may succeed in crafting a story that enthrals in its own right as well as filling in the blanks in an often-murky plot arc stretching across the series, Rogue ultimately suffers from the malady which has clipped the wings of the Assassin’s Creed of recent years. Its environments, rich and varied, are simply far too open; for the true magic of the Creed comes in how it permits anyone at all to go monkey on the densely urban settlements of yesteryear. The Italian cities of Assassin’s Creed II were particularly memorable; almost the hallmark of the franchise’s golden years, but the joy accompanying that sense of being at one with the rooftops was lost when the series went across the pond and hasn’t quite returned, no matter how much of a riot it is landing a hit with a broadside battery in the naval battles. Whether a swansong to a passing generation of the Creed or a clarion call to its future, I couldn’t possibly say.