I’ll admit, having watched the gameplay demonstrations of AC: Rogue, I was all set to work the words ‘Black Flag: Winter Edition’ into this introduction. However, having now played it, I feel comfortable in stating that it is not just a snow-shoed version of that excellent Caribbean adventure… it cribs extensively from Assassin’s Creed III as well.
I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. I loved Black Flag and didn’t hate AC3 as much as some, so spending 40 hours canoodling with their incestuous love child wasn’t as disgusting a proposition as that unfortunately phrased metaphor would suggest.
Following the adventures of Shay Patrick Cormac (a man with an accent so forced I kept picturing the voice actor with a gun to his head, and a Ubisoft executive shouting ‘do it again, but this time more Irish’ after every take), it certainly has some potential for originality. Shay begins the game as an Assassin, but then (spoiler) happens, an event for which he mystifyingly blames the Assassin order. After surviving a heroic attempted suicide, he is reborn as a Templar, and immediately starts hunting down his old friends.
This transformation isn’t as jarring as you might think. While Shay isn’t as likeable as Ezio or Edward, he’s never unbelievable, and the regret he expresses after killing each of his former allies makes him more sympathetic than I was expecting. For a man who betrays everything he believes in, he’s remarkably difficult to hate. I don’t say this lightly (not being the most social person on the planet) but if I saw him on the street, I wouldn’t cross the road to meet him, but I might wave disinterestedly if he happened to glance my way.
The present day aspect of the story is considerably less engaging, as we are back in the shoes of Abstergo software engineer number 603 (whose awkward silence has now reached new levels of awkwardness), and experiencing the exact same rooms, corridors and hacking mini-games of AC4. While this innovative framing device might have added a metaphysical spark to the brilliant Black Flag, to do it all again so quickly after last year’s release becomes tedious, and smacks of the lack of originality that is my biggest problem with the game.
Spread out over three locations – two of which have never been seen before in the series – and following a hero who is the antithesis of what previous protagonists represent, the game has plenty of chances to innovate, but remains stubbornly derivative – giving us more of the same (admittedly good) gameplay while establishing no identity for itself. I understand that Ubisoft may have spread itself too thinly this year, what with two Creed games seeing a release at the same time, but the mechanics of this game are so eerily similar to the aforementioned previous titles that I swear there were times it felt like a matter of copy and paste.
But none of this is a deal breaker. For all of its failure in innovation, Rogue is still a lot of fun.
With your ship, The Morrigan, you explore two fresh regions – the North Atlantic near Nova Scotia and the River Valley on the northeast coast of the US – freeing settlements from Assassin and French influence, hunting a huge array of animals and collecting an even more impressive collection of collectibles so you can out-collect your friends. Like Black Flag and AC3 before it, it’s in these free-running paradises that the true fun of the game can be found, as you discover a beautifully created world, craft some handy upgrades and jump in to lend a hand in the randomly generated French-English conflicts that pop up from time to time. Despite playing through the game relatively quickly, I still got drawn into the myriad of side activities, and while few are original, they are still a lot of fun.
As a Templar, Shay is tasked to prevent assassinations rather than carry them out – a process that in reality doesn’t turn out much differently, as you must identify and then take down targets within a time limit. Regions can be unlocked by attacking forts (as in Black Flag) or taking down gang headquarters (not unlike the enemy fortresses in AC3), where you must crucially take down the Gang Leader, who has had some Assassin training. This new type of enemy knows some of your tricks – using smoke bombs and fleeing into hiding spots when you lose sight of them. Also new in this game are Stalkers – assassins that lie in wait – hidden on benches, rooftops, and even in haystacks. When one is nearby you’ll hear a whispering noise, and in Eagle Vision a sensor circle appears (not unlike the one used in previous AC’s multiplayer), allowing you to get the drop on them. You can also get boarded if an enemy ship rams you, meaning that you must take out the invading crew and their Assassin-trained captain to survive (the Black Flag irritation of interfering allies still exists, but was less noticeable as I spent much less time adrift).
Weapons are also different, although again they lack the originality of previous games. Instead of a blowpipe, Shay has an air rifle, which can shoot sleep, berserk and firecracker darts – useful for drawing out Stalkers or exploding powder kegs without giving away your position. The rifle can also fire grenades of different types – a feature which fills up the weapon select menu to the point of fiddliness, but never reaches Revelations levels of redundancy.
Technically, few of the problems that have plagued the series have been fixed, with occasional parkour glitches present, as well as the odd AI stuff up. It might just be my ancient Xbox, but the game also froze up on me twice, forcing me to reboot the system (though after the technical issues Unity is reportedly experiencing, this feels like a petty complaint).
All in all, Rogue’s not bad. It’s good, and if I hadn’t already played its predecessors, it might actually have rated a great. But perspective is everything, and my perspective is that of an Assassin’s Creed fan waiting for a game to truly expand the series, not just give us the same experience with a different accent. It’s a trick Ubisoft has pulled off twice before (once with AC2 and then again with BF), but it seems we must wait another year to see if the magic can return, or if the series is destined to meander its way to Final Fantasy oblivion.