Review: Assassin's Creed: Rogue

Assassin's Creed: Rogue suffers from a few of the classic Creed bugbears, but beyond those it's a very solid offering that recovers quite well from the failure that was Unity.  A fairly iterative title, Rogue seems to take a selection of the mechanics from previous games that worked, discards those that didn't, and tightens things into a cohesive whole that was engaging and pretty fun.  If there's anything weak to Rogue it's the actual land combat, as melee combat in AC  has always been a weaker point, but the ship combat is great, the optional collectables are kept a part of main game flow, and there was nothing that really felt too extraneous in the design, which had become a fair problem in recent AC games.  If you're a fan of the series, I'd say this is assuredly worth a look.
Review: Assassin's Creed: Rogue
Date published: Jul 7, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Assassin's Creed: Rogue is an action adventure sandbox game in the popular and long-running Assassin's Creed series developed and published by Ubisoft.  It comes on the heels of the series' largest misstep in the form of Unity, so a lot of people were not very hopeful for Rogue, especially given it was designed to be the previous-generation console game in the series.  What we got out of the deal however, was Unity clamouring to suckle from the teat of next-generation graphics so badly that it has very large problems in graphics to say the very least, as well as crashing and other stability issues, while Rogue is a kind of workaday and solid entry to the series that successfully iterates on the formula: taking what works, discarding what doesn't and putting it all in one solid game flow where not much seems all that extraneous.  It's a very solid offering in the series, not perfect, but it does what it does very well, and the graphics honestly don't seem to have suffered for that "past generation" console focus.  It does have a few issues, but most of them are endemic to the series.  Given the train-wreck that was Unity's severe technical issues, I'd held off on this latest instalment, personally, but I'm glad I did eventually pick it up - it's quickly become my favourite of the new instalments in the series.

The story of Cormac is fairly well-presented and 
decently paced, if somewhat stereotypical and predictable

The actual assassinations in Rogue are the one weak spot in the story - While the fact that the Templars he is sent to kill is a source of discontent for Shay, it doesn’t really get any more challenging when he flips sides, and there is nothing like the way you would find and tail targets as we had in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games, which was disappointing to me.  A missed opprotunity.

Rogue puts us in the boots of Irish assassin Shay Patrick Cormac, a young assassin recruit whom is is tasked with preventing Templar order agents from finding yet another Piece of Eden, the traditional Assassin's Creed plot-convenient mcGuffin.  He quickly becomes dissatisfied with the fact that many of the Templars he is ordered to assassinate are not really all that able to defend themselves, being mostly of the decrepit ailing man variety.  Without spoiling it over-much, these concerns come to head when disaster strikes a city basically because of the Assassin orders' actions there and Cormac becomes angry, for he sees the purpose of the Assassin order as being to protect and preserve the innocents, and this action obviously did not serve these ends.  Shay essentially defects then, or tries to, gets run off a cliff, and for all intents and purposes, is thought by the order to have died.  Of course, he didn't and he ends up saved by a British agent, and essentially working against the Assassin order.

It's a somewhat stereotypical and traditional betrayal plot, though the inversion of the standard Assassin's Creed formula by essentially making the Assassins the bad guys is a somewhat interesting plot point, one made more so by the fact that it's somewhat a study in the Assassins being so focussed on "fighting the enemy" rather than their original remit - fight ye not monsters and all that.  For the most part the Assassins are also depicted in such a way that they provide an interesting line-up of sympathetic idealists, not-so-sympathetic thugs, and genuine psychotics.

The story takes you through the defection of Shay in such a way that works quite well as a framing device for introducing the game mechanics, which it does at a good clip without getting too bogged down in tutorialising, with just enough done to explain them without leaving people behind, or slowing down the plot unnecessarily.  While the sandboxing can sometimes muss up the story pacing as a byproduct of the sandbox nature, the story itself does a good job of pacing outside of that and it avoids the long asides that some of the early games got distracted with.  Most importantly there weren't many story elements that felt extraneous, excepting of course, the big one - the future storyline.

Ah, that future storyline.  It made sense somewhat with the original and second Assassin's Creed when it was being used as a framing device for the story and also as a way to communicate certain facts and commentary about segments that just happened, but in Rogue it feels entirely vestigial: just another mini sandbox to find collectables in, and none of the characters presented in the future storyline are endearing or interesting - in fact, the one lady whose your primary contact calling you "Numbskull" through the whole thing is the example of upstanding and believable character writing that makes me wonder if the future section was written by an intern - well, she is, as you might imagine, the exact opposite of endearing.  Nonetheless, other than those really unneeded future segues, the story is pretty tight.

Rogue's gameplay is a solid refinement of the core formula

Most of the core gameplay elements familiar to long-time fans of the Assassin's Creed series are present in Rogue, albeit refined: the classical parkour and fighting are here, the sailing from a couple of previous entries in the series has been expanded into a proper element all of it's own with a few mechanics branching off the central sailing, and there's a few new things as well.  The parkour and combat remain largely the same, however the combat is spruced up by having a few separate factions with their own interactions (Assassins, the French, and the British), whom are as eager to fight each other as they are you sometimes, and indeed assassin interceptions, participating in naval clashes, and minor army skirmishes are all part of the additions that Rogue has to offer.  For the most part, its all refinement and iteration, but its all in a fairly unified and positive direction.  Most everything feels like it belongs together and it all forms together into a cohesive whole that has a pretty good game flow, as opposed to some previous instalments, especially the earlier ones, where things felt more segmented and separate from one another.  You never really feel like you have to go out of your way to participate in things or do something you need to.

The one new gameplay mechanic on offer here is playing off the Rogue aspect, as since Cormac becomes a Templar you can intercept and eliminate assassins sent after a target (and I spoil that defection with absolutely no shame at all since both the title and the gameplay trailer gave it away).  This actually is a fairly neat mechanic, requiring you to seek out and find multiple targets to assassinate yourself before they can eliminate the quarry you are defending.  It's an interesting inversion of the usual assassinations of Assassin's Creed that have become their bread and butter, and as such it somewhat enlivens that mechanic and it's otherwise quite familiar elements.  To begin the missions, you first find and then capture one of the assassins' messenger pigeons, and one quick QTE later you find your charge, and then have five targets and a minute or two to try to find his or her potential assassins before they move in on your target.  All is not lost if you don't find them before then though, since you're still afforded the opportunity to defend the target after that.  Essentially you're given a head start, presumably by intercepting the pigeon.  I quite enjoyed this mode, though it grew somewhat repetitive still since the game doesn't do much to mix them up across the several instances of the activity.  That said, since they don't really overstay their welcome in any big fashion, my only design issue is more often than not, you're left fighting the British guards whom will inevitably respond to your wanton acts of murder with violence.  While this presents a fair vector of difficulty to the game that's natural and not forced, it does feel like they get in the way a bit over-much, and given that the assassins can outright be seen to attack a civillian in some cases and the guards still attack you for killing them does seem a bit batty.  It seems like a bit of an oversight, at the least, but it doesn't really diminish the activity since it rewards you for being careful to skilfully and silently take down enemies.

The tavern sections are probably the most vestigial: while I can see their purpose in the overarching game theory for the most part (though the checkers and chess mini-games are just filler through and through), they don't end up adding anything.  To explain: many villages, towns, and of course the central large city New York have one or, in NY's case, several taverns where you have to do a fistfight with a handful of enemy Assassin goons to unlock the ability to recruit additional crew, receive intelligence from the bartender for a fee, and play the aforementioned mini-games.  In theory this would be your primary recruitment hub and a way to get the low-down on the big targets out on the high seas for you to target, such as convoys and the legendary ships.  In practice, however, you'll come across enough of those high-value targets just wandering the ocean, and enough crew from capturing ships, that they're only of infrequent value, and I mostly avoided them beyond the initial liberating them for completion in the townes.  If you're really hurting for crew they end up being a fall-back however, but beyond that, yeah, it's definitely the most needless addition to the game since, in classic sandbox tradition, the developers are a bit overly paranoid about you getting bored and therefore stuff the overworld with plenty of procedurally-generated ships and events.  I'm sure there's an achievement for doing the round-up of the mini-games but given they otherwise have no appreciable game affect, I found myself not really caring to be bothered.  There certainly weren't any significant game item unlocks held hostage by them at least, though, so they're inoffensive: there if you fancy bothering with them and there's money to be made with the bets you can place on them, but otherwise they don't bother you.  The game doesn't bother you about them, and indeed unless you go into one of them it doesn't even explain that they're there.  The developers seem to have paid them as little mind as I did, in that respect.

Sailing and ship combat is expanded quite well from AC4,
as are many of the mechanics introduced in AC4 in general

The fort assault missions are great fun as well,
and quite challenging in their harder versions - While not exactly new, there is a much greater variety of fort capture assaults to be had in Rogue that make things more interesting.  The battles that ensure are challenging and fun, and it turned the territory control aspect first seen in AC2 into something that’s much more fun and ergo compelling to complete.

It was fairly obvious to me from the outset that Rogue is built on the base of AC4: Black Flag, and there's nothing too wrong with that, given AC4 did a good job of rekindling the fire of the Assassin's Creed series.  The sailing component has really gotten fleshed out in a full way, and it feels now like you really have a full game's worth in just the sailing and ship combat now.  AC4 was definitely brushing past that but felt repetitive and shallow, and while I still feel there's more variation that you could use to flesh out the sailing in Rogue, it feels much more complete, and that's to the games credit: it's built on an already-fun base to make it all the more so, and added a few fun bits to boot.

One of the bigger dynamics at play here is the various factions: while Black Flag had that it felt like they may as well be the same faction, since there wasn't really much interaction.  In Rogue, however, that's the locus of several mechanics.  You can roam the two ocean maps and come across random fights between Assassins and the British, or Assassins and the French, or any other combination thereof, culminating into naval clash overworld events, wherein you come to the aid of friendly large ships (frigates or man'o'wars) as they fight opposing ones, with the attached smaller schooners and gunboats, and they make for some pretty epic confrontations as well as a chance to capture the bigger ships without a huge risk to yourself - taking on a man'o'war is a risk even when you're all decked out, and I appreciate that since previous AC titles had a bad habit of becoming way too easy when you were fully upgraded.

Boarding ships is only somewhat expanded, given a few different enemy types now, some variety in the ships, and a couple new objectives as you capture them, but this is offset by being able to do more with a ship when you capture it: you can sell it to salvage for money, you can use it to repair your own ship, or you can send it to a fleet that Cormac manages.  The fleet is essentially the training mechanic from Brotherhood/Revelations re-purposed: you manage a fleet of ships, sending them on different missions for real and appreciable rewards as you go through a progression arc.  Most notable here is that the weapons you get via this and other unlocks aren't neccesarialy straight upgrades - they do different things: some are faster, some are better to chain combos with, and others are simply more damaging.

Fleet management is a re-purposed mechanic, and a new coat of paint over an old boat, but it's an effective one.  Contrasting to Dragon Age: Inquisition's approach to this with the War Table, which required a huge time commitment, the fleet aspect is fire and forget, and such a length that it usually comes time to manage it again in between sections of the game or between activities naturally, rather than the many, many hours of DA:I's.  Moreover, they offer real and appreciable rewards at decent intervals as well, whereas DA:I had a bad habit of just being necessary grind to the next mission on the table.

The appeal to me of that fleet management however, wasn't even in that little mini-game, it was in the fact that those ships aren't just little 1s and 0s with a picture attached, they play into the actual game too - specifically, in the Legendary Battles with classic warships, where they accompany you against all number of legendary ships, such as classic pirate boats in better.  I loved the epic scale of these battles, some of which involved more than 30 ships, and they were real compelling.  That kind of huge clash of a battle seems like the secret spice or je ne sais quoi that was missing in AC4, which had some hint of that but nothing quite as epic, and it certainly was aided by AI that quit well forms formation and fights intelligently as well, save perhaps for the tendency to suicide ram enemies if the ship has a ram.  The only real way I could see this being improved is if you had boarding actions the other ships engaged on one another.  Its really the only absence.

Crafting makes a familiar return as well

I can't really call this a "ported from AC4" mechanic, since this one is coming to u by way of the Far Cry series, and it's implemented in exactly the same way: you hunt animals on land or harpoon fish at sea, such as whales or the like.  Since most of these animals are worked into the game in such a way that they will essentially spawn in places you're going through anyways through the story, they don't really bog down things.  Otherwise the actual hunting is mostly unchanged from AC4: hunt animals, occasionally have a QTE if they attack you, and then the harpooning mini-game, which is again unchanged.  Ship upgrades are likewise unchanged, though there's much more of a visual difference to shorthand what upgrades you - and your enemies - have.

The big change here is the curves for crafting upgrades, both for the ship and for the Assassin tools, which is fairly fine-tuned now and doesn't leave you terribly overpowered compared to your opposition.  I've mentioned that a few times, I suppose, so I won't bang on too much, but the game balance really has seen a moderate face-lift in the works of Rogue, and it is to a tremendous benefit of the game.

Other changes in the crafting are two-fold: firstly, you can now buy from general stores creatures you cannot be bothered to hunt (or if you can't find them), and secondly the harpooning game has a little more variety to it.  The shop aspect basically trades time for money, and makes the actual hunting a pretty much optional thing.  Some people would say it's extraneous in that sense, but it is just that, a trade-off: you can spend time to get something for free, or you can spend the money you gained doing other things to buy the pelts.  It also allows yo to somewhat trade one pelt you have for another you need, since you can sell unneeded crafting items.  As to the harpooning mini-game, there's a few more tics to it now, and its got a bit more variety in that sense, but to be honest, it isn't too much of an iteration there, nor do I feel it really needed too much added complexity: it's a simple mini-game that's over fairly quickly.

Parkour controls and combat remain a bugbear to Rogue

Large melee combat in Assassin’s Creed is still a bit of a pain to control - A recurring complaint of mine in regards to Assassin’s Creed controls is they feel clumsy, and one of the best examples of that outside of parkour is the combat, where in large group fights it becomes very difficult to keep the target on one individual to effectively finish them, instead getting bogged in additional attackers.

Now we get to the two mechanics that have been a series-long bugbear that could have assuredly used some tweaking and didn't receive them: the parkour and the melee combat.  Let's face it: neither of these have been the series' strong point in implementation, as much as the idea of free-flowing combat and movement has been a constant draw for the series.  The parkour in practice tends to be very clumsy, and the melee combat is a little too easy.

The parkour tends to be something of a continual annoyance more than something that downright breaks the game, mind you, but given the assassin interdictions usually end up involving chasing at least one or two assassins you didn't get in time, and the story including a chase scene of it's own, the fact that you are expected not only to wrestle with controls that only do what you want maybe 4 out of every 5 times, but to do it with a time crunch and that immediacy, makes the frustration from that mechanic much larger than it really needs to be, which to be fair is why the original and 2 tended to focus instead on a careful, more stealthy tailing of your target before a sudden and quick strike - something the game has lost in favour of the fast-paced action all the kids these days apparently need to keep their attention.  That change has been to the series' detriment I think, as both parkour and combat favour a more slow and methodical approach than the frenentic pace that such segments demand of them.

Combat on the other hand works decently well, but there's little challenge to it, and what challenge there is, is fairly artifical.  The counter key is pretty much all you need to know, excepting when facing enemies which are not defeated by it, where you just "break block" and they die just as easily.  I had plenty of times when I took down entire units of French or British soldiers with ease, and while you might say that hey, Cormac is a trained assassin, a game mechanic without challenge isn't really adding much, and Rogue hasn't changed this problem at all really, other than by virtue of the fact that the different factions will fight each other.  And having your enemies killing each other really isn't doing much to address a game combat system that's too easy now, is it?

Unlike Unity, the engine is competently-implemented,
and more importantly - it looks good

The engine, ah, the engine.  In the rush to suckle at the teat of next-generation graphics and animation capabilities, Unity was so eager that it mis-stepped and face-planted right into a cow pat.  Rogue is much more conservative, basically a refinement of AC4 as it has been in many regards, but well past the "expansion pack" territory many have bandied.  Graphics options are fleshed out, the HUD is even more customisable, and the art direction is much more colourful and lively than the shades of grey-brown in AC4 - one of my bigger issues with it's predecessor to be honest.  The frames are solid, there's none of those shenanigans with poor animations or people without faces, though there is still some obvious decoupling in places (usually with secondary actions like picking up bodies) and a little bit of clipping issues in the more complex costumes.

The accomplishment I really noticed here was how consistently the framerate stuck to 60 or higher, even on my mid-range graphics card.  Even in the big fleet actions with 30+ ships on screen and the options turned up to maximum, the most the game dipped to was 55 frames per second, which is entirely acceptable given that I was running on max settings and the game was rendering a metric ton of action (and polygons!)

More important of a consideration, of course, is that fact that the game looks quite good, even on that "last generation" engine.  It benefits quite a bit from a very vibrant creative direction that both gives historical accuracy of a fair degree while at the same time keeping the flamboyance of both the Assassin and Templar outfits emblazoned and decked out with their iconography.  Even the fidelity is good though: other than some jaggies from the only anti-aliasing available being FXAA (which I went without as I'm not fond of the job FXAA does), the game looks gorgeous.  In fact I'd go so far as to say I didn't see much of a visual difference between Unity and Rogue, aside from the anti-aliasing and the fact that Unity leaned a little on the bloom button.  Well, aside from the fact that Rogue actually works and you don't have people with missing faces and other buggy nonsense.

Assassin's Creed: Rogue suffers from a few of the classic Creed bugbears, but beyond those it's a very solid offering that recovers quite well from the failure that was Unity.  A fairly iterative title, Rogue seems to take a selection of the mechanics from previous games that worked, discards those that didn't, and tightens things into a cohesive whole that was engaging and pretty fun.  If there's anything weak to Rogue it's the actual land combat, as melee combat in AC  has always been a weaker point, but the ship combat is great, the optional collectables are kept a part of main game flow, and there was nothing that really felt too extraneous in the design, which had become a fair problem in recent AC games.  If you're a fan of the series, I'd say this is assuredly worth a look.