Aside from providing the backdrop of each installment, history has played in importance in Assassin’s Creed. In the course of the last five years, the Ubisoft series has taken players from Renaissance Era Italy, to Colonial America, out into the Pirate Seas, and most recently into the throws of the French Revolution in Assassin’s Creed Unity. While history has been the narrative backdrop and scene-establishment for every entry in the series so far, Assassin’s Creed Rogue presents a diversion from previous Assassin’s Creed games of old — instead, its focus shifts from history of the world as we know it, to the history of Assassin’s Creed itself.
Rogue is very much the Assassin’s Creed we have come to know and love, however, it also represents one of the most introspective entries of the series that, much like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag before it, takes time in focusing on how the series has progressed since its debut. But, in the same sense it also represents how little the series has changed, with gameplay that retains much of the fun, and the frustration, that the series hasn’t been able to shake in its much-maligned annual installments.
Taking players back into the sea-faring realms of Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed Rogue puts players into the hooded coat and concealed blade of Shay Patrick Cormac, another in the long line of assassin’s that have killed, sacrificed, and sworn to the Assassin Order. However, Rogue‘s biggest departure flips things around, pitting players as the arguable antagonist in the long-running Assassin vs. Templar conflict by spinning things around to the Templars.
Over the course of Rogue‘s 15-20 hours, Shay starts a vengeful journey from starting as an Assassin and gradually turning things toward the Templar way, leading to one of the most engaging stories to come out of the series since the start of Ezio’s journey in Assassin’s Creed II. While Shay’s adventure marks a slightly more villainous turn than in Assassins of the past, the game admirably succeeds in never turning him a full blown villain.
Though Shay’s intentions are marked by revenge, his story never veers into a predictable mess of blood and death — though the trailers present him as a killer, Shay is far more ambiguous and his allegiances unclear, leading to a story that always takes some unexpected twists and turns and fuels Shay’s vengeance with equal amounts of sympathy for his injustices.
As a direct link to last year’s Black Flag, Rogue‘s gameplay borrows liberally from the many elements that made the former a refreshing change from the typical formula, with the usual parkour and stealth added alongside sea-faring and exploration. While the emphasis on hitting the open sea made Black Flag stand out from previous installments, Rogue does much of the same: for better or for worse.
Retaining the sailing mechanics on a large open world, this title continues the tradition of players exploring various historical locations with various missions, side-quests, and objectives to explore and conquer. Placing things into the tundras and ice of the North Atlantic, the location provides a new backdrop for familiar gameplay, and though not much has changed for the series’ mainstay mechanics, the beautiful lights and illuminating ice here do present some of the most striking visuals of the series yet.
Rogue is an Assassin’s Creed entry that places a fresh coat of paint on a weary ship — its unique narrative presentation make for an appealing package, though underneath the sheen of its coat reveals some patches of wear and tear. Assassin’s Creed Rogue looks and plays as well as previous entries, though the game’s emphasis on looking back on the series also shows its unwillingness to move forward, with static gameplay and objectives that add little meaning to accomplishments or goals.
The world map is filled with tasks to keep any player busy for hours beyond the game’s main campaign — animals can be hunted, ship upgrades can be purchased, forts can be climbed upon — but few of these tasks feel substantial or rewarding beyond the main set of missions. Though icons filled the world map waiting to be discovered, the payoff to the time needed for them rarely feels worth the effort: hunting has few tangible benefits, and Shay’s ship and equipment barely needs upgrades to complete the main quest. Although this game presents a world filled with objectives to complete, it actually offers merely a decent-length campaign with a variety of distractions.
Likewise, Rogue often feels conflicted about the intentions and characterization of Shay versus his in-game capabilities and powers. Though Shay’s story leads to players seeing things in a different light, flipping the switch to reflect the conflict from the side of the Templars, Shay is hardly distinguishable from the protagonists of past Assassin’s Creed titles, ability-wise. Rogue provides an intricate and always-engaging story, though the remainder of the title is unaffected by Shay’s status as a Templar — he can wall-run and parkour his way through the environment like any Assassin, and the result comes away feeling like the title is a wasted opportunity for new, fresh ideas that the series so badly needs at this point, especially at some of the controversy surrounding the game’s sister release,Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Since the original installment in 2007, Assassin’s Creed has moved so fast and furiously between hundreds, even thousands, of years in history that the series has rarely had a chance to step back and look at itself, both for good and bad. Over numerous yearly installments, the franchise has moved between historic events and tracked its story from conflict to conflict.
This time around, Assassin’s Creed Rogue takes a turn by slowing things and focusing on the series itself, leading to an installment that takes a wonderfully daring step forward with two equally frustrating steps back. For all the invention and turns that Shay’s story takes over the hours of Rogue‘s campaign, and in looking at how the series has evolved over the last several years, shows little growth for the narrative’s big aspirations.
As the Assassin and Templar conflict has often taken a backseat to the action and adventure of previous Assassin’s Creed titles, this entry in the series places it front and center in one of the most memorable stories that the series has spun in quite some time, already an accomplishment in its own right with impressive visuals and areas to explore aside.
However, while it sets its sails to head into uncharted waters for the series narratively, the game’s journey back into the established trail more often makes the title feel like a familiar journey than an exciting new venture. By flipping things around into the eyes of the enemy, Rogue presents us with a new perspective on a centuries-long conflict — the problem is that everything else we’ve seen before.