If there's one thing Ubisoft is known for, it's getting the most out of an investment. While other AAA publishers struggle or outright fail, their all-business approach to established franchises has been a boon; and after Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag righted the franchise's ship, all fans looked forward to the next-gen arrival of Assassin's Creed Unity.
Fortunately, those still playing on their Xbox 360 and PS3 received word that they wouldn't be left behind. Assassin's Creed Rogue returns to the shores (and waters) of North America, and after playing the game for ourselves, a chance to fight on the other side of the Assassin/Templar conflict won't be the only reason to pay attention come release.
Fans didn't know quite what to expect from the previous-gen release, but the developers made the basic premise quite clear with its cinematic announcement trailer: players step into the role of Shay Patrick Cormac, a former Assassin turned Assassin Hunter in the North Atlantic. The team is still keeping the specifics of the story under wraps, but did offer some more details during our preview.
For starters, Shay stands apart from many of the most recent Assassins in the series, as he is already an accomplished member of the Assassin Order when the game begins. Like other series leads, Shay exercises some skepticism, questioning certain beliefs and practices of the Order, but keeping to the code. That is, until a mission "goes horribly wrong," leading him to outright oppose his superiors.
After his brothers turn on him, he is healed back to health by the Templars. Shay returns in full health, and with a new mission: hunt down his former colleagues using the skills and tactics he learned from them himself.
The game being set during the Seven Years War (1754-1763) is no coincidence, and the multitude of battles between the British and French is just one explanation. Shay Cormac's quest to overthrow the Assassin Brotherhood in North America looks to fill in much of the story established in previous games, with the developers describing the game as a certified "cornerstone" between Assassin's Creed 3 and Assassin's Creed 4.
Besides evidence that Haytham Kenway will play a significant role in the story, the team promises that Shay's mission will partially explain the lack of Assassins by the time of the American Revolution. With Rogue clearly building off the work done for Black Flag, the open world and waterways of the game range from the frozen waters of the North Atlantic, to the wilderness of the American Interior.
But for all its similarities, it doesn't take long to see that the shift from Assassin to Templars isn't purely for story purposes, but a chance for the developers at Ubisoft Sofia to add some new tools to the player's arsenal. Beginning with Shay Cormac's very own ship, The Morrigan.
The ship combat functions in essentially the same manner as that of Black Flag, but the wealth of Templar resources at his disposal make Shay a more dangerous opponent both on sea and land. For The Morrigan, the addition of Carronades allows players to not only damage enemy ships, but stun them; opening the door for a more devastating attack, or a head-on attack with the ship's strengthened ram.
The deck guns of the ship have also been upgraded from the limited fire of Edward Kenway's, replaced with Puckle Guns, an 18th century version of a machinegun. Players can fire multiple rounds along an enemy ship's hull in quick succession, and since the guns can be used both in and out of combat, a surprise attack on smaller ships can make large engagements much easier to handle.
Once a fight goes awry, burning oil can be dispensed from the rear, slowing and damaging any pursuers. The overall goal, according to the game's director Martin Capel, is to make players feel as powerful and established as possible now that they're fighting for the larger, more well-funded side of the Assassin/Templar war. And when Shay goes to shore, he takes those advantages with him.
The first images and trailer footage of Shay featured his Air Rifle quite prominently, and from the gameplay demo shown, it will remain a centerpiece of his arsenal. Capable of ranged kills and equipped with a grenade launcher for area-of-effect attacks, the developers claim that sticking to the weapon alone is a legitimate option for those who desire a new approach to combat.
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In the section of gameplay we were shown - requiring Shay to liberate a port in the game's River Valley from the Assassin-allied 'Gangs' who held it - the team's effort to more easily allow traversal, and acquiring high ground on enemies was evident. With explosive and poison barrels scattered throughout the base, Shay was also able to approach combat scenarios with more tact.
In this case, using his Firecracker Darts to not only lure enemies toward hazards, but set off explosives. Exactly how players can tackle challenges is also affected by the Templars' admittedly looser morals. Players won't be warned that "their ancestors never killed civilians," which means firing a Berserk Dart into a bystander - or animal - is fair game.
Once the regular enemies are taken care of - along with the new Stalkers, stealth attackers similar to those seen in Black Flag - players will have to take on an Assassin. The brief encounter showed that players will still have the upper hand, since being assassinated from a rooftop doesn't seem enjoyable, realistic as it may be. But it does mean enemies that are looking to be more than a simple walking pincushion.
Once the port had been captured, we got the chance to take over the controls. Dropped into the snowy, iceberg-filled waters of the North Atlantic, the resulting gameplay and combat encounter offered a familiar return to the mechanics of Black Flag, with a refreshing change of scenery. It was hard to get a sense of how sprawling the environment would be, but Capel claims that the River Valley location (water and land) rivals Black Flag's Caribbean Sea alone:
"The North Atlantic is a huge world... The River Valley itself, in land size, is actually comparable to Assassin's Creed 4 [Black Flag]. It's full of opportunity and activity. Every time you turn a corner there's something to see, something to do. You can get off your ship, you can explore, you can fight in battles, there's thing to collect. And all of it is seamless."
Flying under a Templar/British flag, we then sailed to a frozen island dotted with the cracked hulls of wrecked ships. Thanks to the dangerously cold temperatures, slipping into the water while traversing the broken beams and hulls caused actual damage, meaning exploring the Northern regions of the map could prove deadly.
All things considered, the majority of gameplay will feel familiar to anyone who played through either AC3 or Black Flag. That being said, this entry in the series is clearly looking to please players with its story and setting, not groundbreaking or innovative changes to the formula. And whether it was the sudden waves caused by cannonballs shattering into icebergs, or the added thrill of repelling enemy boarders from your ship's deck, the brief gameplay session left us wanting more.
The naval gameplay of Black Flag ended up stealing the spotlight from the characters and story for many players, so the proposition of simply more of it will be enough to make the experience worthwhile. If Rogue also plans to fill in the gaps in the Kenway Family's saga, then it will be a must-play for fans.
We'll keep you updated as more information and assets become available, but if you have any questions about the gameplay we tried, list them in the comments and we'll do our best to answer them.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue will be released for PS3 and Xbox 360 on November 11, 2014.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.