Sunday, May 31, 2015

Assassin's Creed: Rogue Review

Last night, I beat Assassin's Creed: Rogue. As an entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise, it's above-average (literally -- I'd slot it into my overall rankings at #4, ahead of Revelations but behind Black Flag. Obviously, it's the best entry in the franchise from this past year (ugh, Unity). It's far less glitchy, the controls are smoother, it didn't eliminate the "whistle" functionality (wtf, Unity?). But what really impressed me most was that, even though Rogue was in some ways an afterthought on a last-gen console (it's for the XBox 360 and PS3, not their successors), it in many ways tried to do a bunch of genuinely new things for the series that I think were all successes.

Rogue is set in between Assassin's Creed 3 and 4, right in the middle of the French and Indian War. Most reviews I've read have focused on the game "bridging" those two stories, which honestly I did not think it did a fantastic job of. More interesting was that this is the first game to really unabashedly put you through it from the perspective of the Templars. And the game hit exactly the right pitch here. In true Tie Fighter fashion, the Templars don't see themselves as the bad guys. From their vantage, the Templars are a force for order and peace against the violent chaos of the assassins. The main protagonist moves from the Assassins to the Templars for morally understandable reasons, but the game quite properly never leaves the gray area by presenting the Assassins as irredeemably corrupt monsters. By game's end, I wasn't convinced the Templars were the good guys of the series -- but I didn't view them as cartoon villains either.

Gameplay-wise, Rogue is mostly like Black Flag with its sailing around and piracy (excuse me, "privateering"). That's still fun, though maybe a little less so than it used to be. The main innovations Rogue offers are mostly on the land, and both make sense given the Templar-side focus of the game. The first is the "stalking" mechanism, borrowed from the multiplayer of previous games. Basically, scattered throughout the world are assassin's lurking in their usual spots (hay bales, vegetation, ledges) looking to ambush you. As you get closer to them, whispers start to pick up and you have to start searching to see if you can spot them before they spot you. It's a great way to make you feel hunted without making running through the world a chore (again, looking at you Unity). And there's no greater sense of accomplishment than spotting an assassin ready to pounce, quietly sneaking up the scaffolding behind her, and slitting her throat before she knows you're there.

The second interception is a clever play on the standard-issue assassination missions from games past. Of course, you're not an assassin now, so what's your new job? Intercepting assassinations. You get a target to protect and have to hunt down several assassins (usually about a half-dozen or so) before they take out your man. Again, it lends itself to a great, secret-service style energy as you frantically scan the crowd looking for that guy whose leaning against the wall just a bit too casually -- get him before he gets your man.

All that said, the game certainly isn't perfect. Most of it's drawbacks can be boiled down to its relatively small length. That means that the inevitable "turn on your friends" narrative doesn't pack the emotional punch it should, because you barely had a chance to interact with those guys in the first place. It also means that you never have to visit most of the relatively expansive world (comprised of three regions: New York, the North Atlantic, and the Hudson River Valley). I'm a natural explorer in these games, so I tended to travel around on my own initiative to gather collectibles. But it's true that the game will never take you to most of its places on its own -- even on side quests (of which there are relatively few).

The biggest disappointment, really, is that Rogue didn't get the time and attention it deserved. Rogue had the potential for true greatness, but was stuck in Unity's shadow and so didn't get to spread its wings as wide as it should have. Given the disaster that was Unity, this is a major disappointment. It makes you wonder what could have been.

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