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Black Flag II – Assassin’s Creed Rogue review

Assassin’s Creed Rogue at once shows the series at its most derivative, as well as its most inventive.

Rogue is an incredibly last-gen game, featuring recycled environments from Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag along with outdated visuals that feel like they’re breaking at the seams on the Xbox 360. It’s practically begging to be on next-gen consoles. But Rogue not only melds its previously multiplayer-only cat-and-mouse gameplay into its single-player campaign, but it also shows a sympathetic side to a faction who was previously only ever shown as the eternal villain.

It follows the story of Shay Cormac, who starts out as an eager Assassin, but after he unwittingly causes untold destruction on a major city, he quickly realizes that the Assassin’s may not hold all the answers. In order to stop their nefarious schemes, he joins the Templar Order, whittling them down one by one.

It’s equal parts prequel to Assassin’s Creed III as well as a bridge to the next-gen game Unity, and Rogue’s greatest strengths as a story lie in whenever it deals with some bit of fanservice or reference to a prior game. You’ll get to spend more time with Haytham Kenway, Achilles, and many other characters from the New World, and you’ll get to learn the ultimate fates of many of them. If you played Assassin’s Creed III, you know how the titular Assassin’s are doing in the colonies, and getting to see how they got to that lowest of low points is a highlight of the narrative–even if you end up revisiting quite a few places you’ve already been to in prior games.

It’s also the story of you, a young tester for Abstergo Entertainment (lovingly referred to as “numbskull” by your superiors), and the modern-day storyline takes place almost exactly after the events of Black Flag. You’ll do a lot of the same stuff, too–wandering the game studio’s offices in first person, hacking into mainframes, and finding messages left behind by other employees. Again, a lot of it is fanservice, filling in more details touched on by either Assassin’s Creed III or Black Flag, but for fans of the overarching meta-narrative, you’ll find loads more in the first 15 minutes of Rogue than you’ll find in the entirety of Unity.

LOL, the game does not look this good at all

LOL, the game does not look this good at all

Gameplay-wise, Rogue is almost exactly the same as Black Flag in many ways. You’ll spend most of your time wandering the ocean, attacking other ships, plundering their materials, upgrading your ship, and other piratey stuff. This time, Shay’s ship is much smaller and faster, but it’s also far more fragile, so you’ll need to rely on your speed to avoid death. Enemy ships will also board you now, so you’ll also need to avoid getting rammed. Ship combat feels very iterative, but I really enjoyed the faster, brisker pace.

You now have two different areas to sail around in, in addition to the huge city of New York to explore. Navigating the River Valley is more akin to Black Flag, though it’s filled with many large land masses to explore. Heading to the frigid shores of the North Atlantic will change how you approach sailing, though not too terribly. You’ll need to avoid icebergs, and swimming in the water for too long will start whittling away at your health, but you get a special ram to clear out frozen bits of ice pretty early on in the game, so it doesn’t feel too different.

Running around on land functions almost exactly as it did in Black Flag (with all the awkward controls that the series is known for), but there’s a nice blend between wilderness areas like forests or ice-capped mountains and larger, more urban cities. Rogue avoids many of the pitfalls of prior Assassin’s Creed by keeping tailing and eavesdropping missions to a minimum, and instead  relys on far more interesting missions involving hidden stalkers. Because you’re a Templar, Assassins will be hiding everywhere–in bales of hay, inside hiding areas, or in crowds. By using eagle vision, you get a little radar that will point you in the general area where your foes are hiding in wait. Sometimes you’ll get the jump on them, but sometimes they’ll pop out of nowhere and stab you from behind. These sections are appropriately tense, though getting caught isn’t instant death, and you can usually brute force your way through these sections thanks to Rogue’s ludicrously easy combat. Still, they add a wonderful new element to the core gameplay, and it’s something I hope will get explored in future installments.

The frozen north provides a refreshing change of pace, even if it doesn't play that differently

The frozen north provides a refreshing change of pace, even if it doesn’t play that differently

For an Xbox 360 game, Rogue looks pretty decent–a bit better and smoother than III, but not by too much. Perhaps its greatest fault is that, because of Unity, Rogue has been relegated to older, far less-powerful hardware. Its wide open oceans and massive glaciers are begging to be given the next-gen level of polish like Black Flag got. I can only hope that Rogue will eventually make the journey forward, because it’s really hard to go back.

The Assassin’s Creed series has been incredibly iterative since Ubisoft decided to go the yearly sequel route, and Rogue is no exception. But it’s iterative in the best way, taking the fantastic gameplay of Black Flag, and adding a heck of a lot more. And while it may as well have been called Black Flag II, I’m pretty OK with that.

Assassin's Creed Rogue doesn't do anything particularly innovative or different, but it builds on the fantastic ideas Black Flag brought to the table and adds a bit of its own flair. It's a shame it's been relegated to last-gen hardware though--here's hoping it'll get a chance to stretch out its legs.

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