There's no overstating things: the odds were stacked against Assassin's Creed Rogue practically out of the starting blocks. Destined to be overshadowed by its next-gen counterpart, Unity, the latter game's shift to the identical launch date only presented a grander challenge for the team at Ubisoft Sofia. Events since then have given Rogue an opportunity to become master of its own fate - if the experience itself is up to the task.
Acting as a clear successor to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and shifting players into the boots of a Templar, Rogue is likely to find its place in the series alongside Revelations; there's no need to reinvent the wheel when a prescribed formula is working. Though it takes some strides to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the previous console generation, Rogue proves that in the arena of modern adventure games, sometimes the sizzle really is more important than the steak.
In a somewhat surprising turn, Ubisoft cast off almost all mystery surrounding Rogue when it was first announced. The game would be following the trials of Assassin Shay Patrick Cormac, trained as a member of the Brotherhood before a betrayal led him to the Templar Order, and onto a path of vengeance against the men and women he once called friends. A compelling premise given the series' protagonists thus far, and one bolstered by the opportunity to use Black Flag's seafaring engine and mechanics once more.
Unfortunately, the ambition of the premise and its impact on gameplay are executed in a fashion that will surprise some, and outright disappoint the most hopeful. The series has shown that good and bad souls lie on both sides of the Assassin/Templar conflict, so the notion of a man losing his faith in the cause is believable. But the circumstances that actually lead Shay to assume - and we mean assume - a role as a Templar may have players scratching their heads, when they should likely be enraged, and ready to mete our righteous fury upon the white-hooded soldiers players have previously occupied.
With a narrative structure falling closer to Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation than Black Flag, the work put into characterizing Shay as an honest, just, but deeply troubled man is undercut by the lack of a real narrative soul. At the time, Edward Kenway's nature as a free-wheeling, rarely loyal opportunist fit the bulk of gameplay perfectly (stopping an assassination is all well and good, but there's whaling to be done!).
Shay's mission is much clearer, if less interesting - the Assassins being hunted are given so little time before Shay's 'betrayal' that many players may remember only their names - and the game's world is built to match. It's an impressive size, spanning from the frozen waters of the North Atlantic to the confined waterways of the River Valley, but exists to contain collectibles and side quests, not mirror the story in any meaningful way.
It's difficult to describe Rogue without dividing criticism and praise between its story and gameplay, since the promising aims but flawed execution of Shay's story can't manage to damage the solid foundations of Black Flag. The developers have found some inspired ways to modify the combat on both land and sea, adding new weapons and strategies to Shay's personal arsenal and his vessel, The Morrigan.
The additions themselves are well-designed, and work as intended more often than not. A Firecracker Dart is a welcome change of pace, allowing Shay to draw enemies away - or together - before striking. The Grenade Launcher (launching either Shrapnel or Sleep-inducing gases) is just as effective, allowing the gameplay missions to pick up some of the narrative slack.
Stalking the streets or camps scattered throughout the game's world means being permanently on edge, listening for the hushed whispers that signal a concealed enemy nearby; waiting around the next corner, on a nearby roof, or hidden in plain sight. Act first, by drawing them out with one of Shay's distraction methods, or blow them to bits with his grenade launcher, or wait to counter their attack up close and personal.
With so much common DNA between the two games, it's nearly impossible to note where Rogue stumbles in comparison to Black Flag. Edward Kenway's journey began just as slowly, but the open world gameplay meshed with narrative progression so well for much of the story, even skeptics had to concede Ubisoft Montreal had outdone itself. But if Black Flag had players getting their fill of naval combat and exploration by its final act, then Rogue will present issues immediately.
The bulky and at-times cumbersome mechanics may have turned off some early Black Flag players, but for others, it was a simulation of what being a pirate would have actually been like; a 'pirate simulator' in the same way Red Dead Redemption recreated the life of a brooding cowboy. With ships that handle more nimbly, a new attack allowing Shay's ship to essentially 'boost' into an enemy, and a lack of any real urge to upgrade its armor and weapons, those features have been reduced significantly.
In hindsight, the visual style and artistic flourishes put into Black Flag's setting were every bit as responsible for the sense of immersion as the mechanics themselves. There was no chance that the forested regions of North America could match those of the Caribbean (the stunning Northern Lights aside), but the truth remains: Rogue's early chapters may help Black Flag players realize that they've had their fill already.
The gameplay or story aren't guilty of missteps or shortcuts, with beats in both the historic and modern sides of the campaign sure to please the most devoted fans of Assassin's Creed lore. But whether it's a case of Black Flag's novelty wearing off, or simply a less ambitious goal from the outset, Rogue feels like an attempt to offer more, not a standalone experience. But given how well-received Black Flag was, in the end, that may be enough for many players.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue is available for PS3 and Xbox 360. Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version.
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