Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Assassin's Creed Rogue

Post-Launch Review
Assassin's Creed: Rogue (PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Sofia
Released: November 2014 (X360/PS3) / March 2015 (PC)
Played: 100% sync in 34h


Shay Patrick Cormac is a young Assassin rising in the ranks in the North Atlantic around the St Lawrence River when he's sent on a mission that leaves him horrified with the direction and outlook of the Assassins. Left for dead and seething over his feelings of betrayal and abandonment, Shay is taken in by people he used to believe were enemies and sets out to stop his former friends from fulfilling their plans... at any cost.

At Launch

Rogue earned mixed to good reviews, with a score averaging 73%. Reviewers loved the characters and fresh perspective on the established Assassin/Templar feud, as well as new weapons, mission types, and improvements to mechanics from previous games. Many critics complained of frequent bugs, short missions and story, and similarity to AC: Black Flag. Opinion was divided on the story - some felt it was a breath of fresh air and others felt that it was uneven and predictable.

Post Launch

A few patches and DLC packs were released. Most of the DLC are "time saver" packs which unlock game content early, while one - the Templar Legacy pack - adds a new mission, a big treasure hunt, and a bunch of appearance options for Shay and the Morrigan.

I was playing Black Flag when a friend gifted me a copy of Rogue, telling me that if I liked ACIII and IV I'd love this one. I enjoyed III and IV enough to achieve 100% sync, so if Rogue was even better, I was willing to take the risk AC/Ubisoft burnout. 

I made the right decision. Rogue might just be my new favourite Assassin's Creed game.

Mechanically, Rogue takes all of my favourite gameplay elements from across the series and combines them into one amazing package, and then adds some fantastic new elements on top. Territory capture and renovations return from the Ezio series, combining on-foot enemy base capture with naval fort assaults. Naval combat and exploration are further expanded with enemies that can board your ship, restricted zones that generate when you attack other ships, icebergs that work as cover or offense, and ice sheets that slow movement - and the naval combat is slightly deemphasized compared to Black Flag, which helps if you got boat fatigue. Treasure maps, hunting, warehouse infiltrations, and prisoner ship rescues are back. The new weapons - the air rifle and gas grenades - add fun new options for clever stealth play.

By far the best mechanical feature, however, is battling the Assassins. Enemy Assassins have access to all the moves we've gotten used to over years of AC games: hiding in haystacks, crowds, benches, and brush, air assassinations from rooftops, smoke grenades, and a few other tricks like poison immunity for leaders. Having to watch for sudden ambushes from rooftops and bushes is an excitement and tension I've never felt in an AC game before: giving the AI enemies access to tactics I've been using for years is genius and really makes it feel like I'm hunted by - and hunting - the Assassins I've come to know.

The open world is smaller than in the last couple of games, but it's fairly well hidden - areas in the river valley are connected by ferry so you can frequently travel to other settlements and areas without getting into your ship, making the world feel larger and more seamless than when you have to hop onto the boat every time you want to go somewhere. The environmental variety is also excellent, with much more verticality and topography than usual, green forest in the south of the maps slowly transitioning to frigid winter in the north. I'm a huge fan of the setting since it's very close to home, but it's great for variety either way. The smaller world is most noticeable when you realize that there's only one major city compared to the multiples in the last pair of games.

The story bridges ACIII and IV, tying up loose ends from IV and setting up III - the in-game timeline goes IV -> Rogue -> III. It was great to see a new perspective on the Assassin/Templar conflict, but I think I'm ending up more on the critical side than the fanboy side. It turned out to be a fairly predictable "good guys are actually bad and bad guys are actually good" story with fewer shades of grey than I expected. It was great to see Shay struggling with his feelings about fighting his former friends, but it would have been nice to see some actual struggle instead of "well this sucks but it's gotta be done because I'm right and they're wrong". I was hoping for more debate over the merits of each organization's ideals, freedom vs order, and less "oops the Assassins are evil now", especially given that none of the Assassins question why they're repeatedly engaging in mass murder  with absolutely no benefit or the ending where the Assassin boss realizes he was wrong and Shay was right and everything would have been fine had he only listened to Shay. (highlight for spoilers)

As for the minor complaints... The story ended up pretty short, both in terms of overall length and individual mission length. Normally I wouldn't mind, but it didn't feel like enough time to fully explore the conflict here, and it was so easy to accrue money and resources that I achieved 100% world completion barely more than halfway through the story. I was a little disappointed with the graphical quality after Black Flag, but that's what you get when you play a game designed specifically to launch on previous-gen consoles.

Overall, Rogue is easily the best Assassin's Creed game so far in terms of mechanics (caveat being that I'm playing the series in order and haven't played Unity or further as of this writing). The blend of returning, improved, and new elements creates a game with a lot of variety and the best versions of each of the series' elements so far, combined with one of the most interesting and varied worlds of the series. The story and characters are not as deep as I had hoped, but they provide a fresh take on a series some have called stagnant, and fighting Assassins is one of the biggest thrills I've had in the series.

Recommendation: play it.

Epilogue - a brief comment on sailing and naval combat. I loved this element of the series, seeing it introduced in III, greatly expanded in IV, and perfected in Rogue. Sailing added a lot of variety, a fun and engaging upgrade path, and created worlds that wouldn't have been possible without it. But at this point I have a hard time imagining what more could be done with the mechanic as it's been presented, and I've played enough with it that I'm okay with saying goodbye to my ships. Thanks boats, it's been fun.

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