Special playthrough – Assassin’s Creed
Rogue was touted as the first Templar game in Assassin’s Creed. But we’re not only a Templar, we’re an Assassin Hunter. Oh I’m looking forward to this.
Part six; Rogue
ACIII, Black Flag and Rogue make up the ‘Kenway Saga’ apparently. Mass Effect is a saga, The Witcher is a saga; a saga means an interconnected narrative, but those have only Haytham Kenway in common and we’re not him. We’re Shay Cormac. Who?
Set during the Seven Years War, before Connor’s American Revolution, Shay is an assassin training under ACIII’s Achilles. A cocksure Irish scally more interested in “busty women of Havana with their butt-ocks on display” than the Creed, you get the sense his ma sent him to the Assassins just to keep him out of trouble. He doesn’t take anything seriously and spends his time fighting with his peers and generally being a bit of a dick.
After a few Assassinations, the acts weigh on his conscience and Shay begins openly questioning the Assassins’ purpose – and has that question answered for him when he investigates an Isu object in Portugal, and triggers the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
A distraught Shay tries to destroy a manuscript that translates the map to further earth-binding objects, but Achilles brands him a traitor; assumed dead after leaping from a cliff, Shay is rescued by a kindly Templar and agrees to help stop the Assassins before they find the next object, putting him on a collision course with his old friends.
To reach Shay turning traitor took 20% of the game, and in total barely 50% of it is actual main story. Nearly half was the build-up and the rest is a let-down. Shay throwing in with the Templars and hunting the Assassins is a stretch and the more the game stretches the premise, the thinner it all gets – the Assassins’ behaviour is convoluted, the Templars are unbelievable, the plot shies away from it’s obvious opportunities and Shay constantly regrets killing; hardly the lethal Assassin-Hunter we were promised. Shay’s not that, he’s not anything. But the game is something – it’s a reskin.
Rogue is literally Black Flag with ACIII’s assets; they barely altered the menus. This was insulting for a full-price game; it’s a DLC in story, scope, look and feel - Freedom Cry was more of a departure than this. I loved Black Flag, and to a degree I’m quietly loving this, because it lets me play more Black Flag – it’s all here but I’m not a conflicted ne'er-do-well like Edward – I’m not even Roguish.
Shay bursts into tears every time he kills a friend, screaming “I HAD TO!” Well, you didn’t have to, did you. While Shay’s motivations are clear, his reasoning is ridiculous. You had plenty of chances to set this right but the game ignores them; you keep thinking ‘you could have just …’ In the end Achilles pauses at the Isu object and goes “hang on, Shay was right” – we know! We just spent 30% of this game waiting for you to catch up.
What’s going on with the Assassins? One of the Creed’s tenants is ‘Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent’ yet Achilles sinks a boatload of NPCs to keep his journey a secret and one Assassin ex-friend is now a mafia Don, running a trans-Atlantic criminal gang. Where did all this come from? Why was it okay before, and now must be stamped out? Must be the Templars, manipulating Shay to destroy his own. No, the Templars are literally the nicest people I’ve ever gamed with.
Keeping Shay sympathetic, the Assassins misguided and the Templars charitable not controlling means we have no villains. It’s frustrating because there’s so much that could be done with this scenario. What should be a dark entry into the series just comes across as meek. Sod this, I’m off to see what the other 50% is all about.
Basically a mash-up, we have a ship, the Morrigan, which can sail inland rivers within ACIII’s Frontier, and the Atlantic, an ice-encrusted Black Flag. It looks great but almost everything in Rogue is a reworked event from Black Flag so you never shake the feeling you’ve played this before, and the world is diminished because of it – whale hunting, looting ships, take down ‘prisoner ships’ (renamed slave ships from Freedom Cry), solving reworked Mayan puzzles (which we unlock after saving natives from an attack just like in Black Flag; it’s even nicking missions now), and we have the exact same Tavern fights - even Edward's swagger and wink at the barmaid is reskinned.
We’re saving citizens held hostage (why do they join the crew?), managing an armada of ships in a mini game, chasing Sea Shanties ... why is Shay doing all this; don’t you have friends to murder?
The period-setting doesn’t help; it barely features but when it does, it feels like B-sides from ACIII. We re-enact Colonel Munro’s departure from Fort Henry, help Benjamin Franklin and kill Washington Snr., chase the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow again (he popped up in ACIII), employ explorer Christopher Gist as our drunken swot of a first mate and pal around with Capt. Cook, but it’s all filler; I’m not wishing for an ACIII level of meddling in historic events, it’s good to have a focused Assassin v Templar story; just not this one.
Still … the Frontier is beautiful and fun to navigate, both on ship and on foot where you can walk across the map to the next inlet and along the way find Trapper hunts, forts like Black Flag’s warehouses or stumble onto French-English fights to settle; the icy Atlantic is harsher with forts, icebergs and frozen wastelands to shiver through. There are some improvements to be fair, it’s not all shameless. There’s penguins, that’s new?
During sea battles other ships can board the Morrigan, which creates a disorientating fight on the deck - although it’s often easier than disabling ships; just fire a single cannon to get their attention then deal with the invaders. The Morrigan gains a Puckle gun which once fully upgraded is like Blaine’s gun from Predator, and can even target those bloody lookouts on the top of masts.
On land, local Assassins will leap out to stab you – they’re reskinned Templars from Ezio’s period, but an annoying/fun return; although they’re ruined by a loud whispering they do for some reason. Assassin gang headquarters are a call-back to those Templar Towers in ACII, and we can also rebuild homesteads, improving the area and gaining funds. In place of the Assassination contracts is a great flip-side quest where we stop the Assassinations before they take place. There’s a few new weapons too - we now have air rifle which weirdly becomes a grenade launcher.
There’s a lot to do in Rogue, and it feels as sprawling as Black Flag, but there’s just not the drive to do it; Black Flag encouraged you to plunder and loot but we’re not a Pirate and Shay has bigger things to cry about; wandering the seas and rebuilding orphanages reduces the intensity of what he's tasked with. This should be a land-based, tense, brutal anti-Assassins game. They deserve being taken down a peg or two, and it would be an interesting perspective.
Navigation, free-run and fighting is pretty much a smooth affair now - Shay will still get stuck, change his mind or leap onto a box and refuse to get off, but that’s just par for the course by now; let Shay do his “I HAD TO! *SOB*” and carry on being an assassin basically.
This narrative is so frustrating and convenient. The Assassins can’t actually do anything until they recover the manuscript and they don’t know Shay has it – so Shay keeps waving it around until they nick it then we have to go get it back again; just destroy it! Rogue also avoids questions from ACIII, like Achilles’ family. We never see them and dialogue randomly explains they’re dead now. Oh. How is that not part of the plotting? Why is this even part of the ‘Kenway saga’?
Haytham is back and badder than ever, but he’s just an NPC mission-giver and we don’t get to understand him or his reasoning further. We’re pals with a Grand Master and don’t ask him for perspective, have Shay commit to the Templars for real reasons other than he had to? His mission is fairly personal, yet his throwing in the Templars is barely scrutinised. Haytham also tangles with Adewale, and off-handily dismisses Ade's taunts about how disappointed his father would be. We all are. And we're disappointed the game doesn't give Hayhem more depth.
It’s unforgivable Adewale is one of Shay’s targets. I almost rage quit. Not because he’s a target as such, although he could have kicked Shay’s ass, but because it has no resonance within the story. Are we supposed to realise how far Shay has fallen? What's the point of this moment? Ade calls him a monster and Shay agrees - but he’s not a monster, “I HAD TO!” remember? Shay is upset about killing Ade but they never even met! But we've met him, and so it’s just cheap trick to add some emotional heft. Stupid game.
The trailer promised we’d become a feared Assassin Hunter, someone legendary, feared by both sides. But Shay never really hunts his old friends, their paths just keep intersecting. He’s not an assassin-hunter, more an assassin-bumping-into. To have Shay actively hunt the Assassins could have been exciting, as would truly exploring the Templar point of view – by the time it’s resolved and Shay commits the rest of his life to the cause, we just think it’s a wasted life - and a wasted opportunity.
Oh, and there's the modern era. This time we’re working with easily the most annoying NPC in existence, Violet da Costa. She refers to us as ‘numskull’ even though we’re killing it as Shay. She’s infuriating, meta-ironic and just awful. Turns out the modern Templars wanted Shay’s betrayal captured to post it on the Assassin’s Facebook page to demoralise them. That was what this was all about?! There's at least two games where Assassins have defected or betrayed the Order, and we've won every encounter so far, including this one technically. We can suck up one whinging git turning traitor. The whole thing is a waste, a quick reskin to punt an AC game out.
If we’re going to do a Kenway saga, why in the hell didn’t we explore Haytham?! His backstory is already understood but seeing it unfold would have tied BF and ACIII together, given his actions in ACIII some weight; he’s as conflicted as Connor or Edward. His last words in ACIII were a darkly ironic admission that he actually cared for his son, but not as much as the Templars – that’s a proper saga. Why didn’t we play what led him to that?
Black Flag ended with a close up of young Haytham’s face, that ominous moment made it seem inevitable we’d be him in Rogue. Even the title suggested it. We killed him in ACIII, and there he is as a little boy. Why don’t we play the in-between? Haytham is the Kenway Saga. Rogue’s only contribution to the Kenway story is explaining Achilles’ limp.
AC is starting to get a bit familiar, and Rogue's reskinning didn't help - it's true that AC allows you to comfortably dip into whatever historical event you want to witness, and that's unique, but Rogue had the opportunity to refresh AC with a different viewpoint; those Assassins should have been corrupt and heartless for once - if the Templars can corrupt their original ‘peace through control’ ideals, then playing against immoral Assassins should have been possible and might have given the series a jolt. If they weren't going to truly explore the Kenway saga, they should have let Rogue live up to its title and gone off-script.
Up next is the infamous Unity. Infamous for all the wrong reasons …