Assassin’s Creed Rogue
360, PC, PS3
Everything is permitted, or so goes the credo of the Assassins. Some way into Rogue, protagonist Shay Patrick Cormac will become convinced that having that much freedom isn’t necessarily a good thing. And clearly Ubisoft agrees: upon beating up a group of thugs in a pub, we were invited to pay £200 for intelligence from the barkeeper. Except we couldn’t. Instead, an onscreen message demanded that we, “Progress further until the barkeeper can give you intelligence.”
‘Progress further’ is an all-too-common barrier here, though as with most of Assassin’s Creed’s contrivances, it can be explained – if not excused – by the Animus’s idiosyncrasies. Once again, Ubisoft uses the virtualreality device to frame the historical drama, this time casting you as an employee of Abstergo exploring the glitched memories of the aforesaid Irishman, an Assassin turned Templar. Cormac should be one of the more intriguing playable characters to date, and his arc has real potential, though his voice actor delivers a curiously flat performance, with an accent that only occasionally lands in the vicinity of the Emerald Isle.
Before he switches sides, Cormac seems happy in his role as an amalgam of Connor and Edward Kenway, but while you’ll revisit some of the settings of the third numbered AC game, Rogue has much more in common with Black Flag. Except that rather than sailing around the Caribbean, you’re steering your ship through the Appalachian Valley and North Atlantic, slicing through ice and harpooning narwhals as you go.
The Morrigan might have a shallower draft than The Jackdaw, but they handle pretty much identically. In other words, your ship’s far more manoeuvrable than a vessel of her size should be, yet the sailing still carries a pleasing weight. Again, your adventures out at sea compare favourably to your exploits on land. You can set alight a trail of oil to deter pursuers, though you’ll rarely need to flee, not least because you can create damaging waves by ramming or shooting icebergs, while a puckle gun allows you to target weakpoints with deadly efficacy. You can use these tools to thin out enemy numbers before boarding a stricken ship, whereupon you can add another craft to your growing fleet, repair the Morrigan, or simply pocket the loot.
It’s variations on a theme, then, with only contextual differences to distinguish Rogue from its predecessor. That’s no surprise: it’s clear that Unity was Ubisoft’s focus this year, even if its technical woes would suggest otherwise, and that the publisher’s Sofia studio was working to a stringent budget here. Beyond the obvious reuse of assets, there are some noticeably rough edges to the presentation, and it’s a little too frequently apparent that the framerate has been left uncapped.
Still, the developer’s prudence has to be admired at times. It’s surely the shortest AC campaign to date, but as a result it cuts to the chase: your training is
It would be wrong to dismiss the pleasure of the open seas, but even here you’re beholden to your activities on dry land
completed within 15 minutes, when ACIII waited until the 17th mission. Quests are briskly paced, and thus more replayable, and when Cormac eventually becomes a Templar, the previous games’ multiplayer component is skilfully repurposed. Use Eagle Vision and you’ll see the familiar circular radar highlighting Assassins in pursuit, their whispers getting louder as they approach. It’s a pity the corner cutting extends to the story. At one stage, Cormac is so badly injured he can barely make it downstairs. Immediately afterwards, he brawls with two men, then chases another across the rooftops. And his shift in allegiances isn’t as organic as it might have been. The seeds of doubt are never sown. Instead, the pivotal moment is a single, breathless set-piece, which introduces a brand-new location only to immediately tear it apart.
It’s also a moment that highlights the inherent weaknesses of the series’ foundations. Despite its strong visual impact, this sequence is a glorified QTE: throughout, you’re doing nothing more than holding the right trigger and pushing up on the analogue stick, occasionally veering left and right to avoid hazards, while text prompts urge you to keep moving forward, as if your objective was in any doubt. Rogue casts you as an explorer, yet its asides are little more than a series of checkboxes to tick off. This time your shopping list includes war letters, totems, Animus fragments, cave paintings, Viking sword fragments and more.
In theory, Templar artefacts require more effort than walking to a waypoint. Each map is a hand-drawn image of a location with an X marking the spot, though it also tells you the precise coordinates, meaning there’s no challenge in digging up your reward. Or rather, part of it: there’s a weary sense of inevitability to the reminder that you’ll need to collect all 24 to claim your prize.
It’s symptomatic of a series so concerned that its players might not be enjoying themselves that the idea of affording them the freedom to discover things is no longer a consideration. It would be wrong to dismiss the pleasure of the open seas, but even here you’re beholden to your activities on dry land, requiring the money from your growing property empire to fund improvements to The Morrigan, and the hares and foxes needed for crafting protective gear and weapon pouches.
Assuming you’re simply content with content, Ubisoft busies you with donkey work. And so once more you synchronise, seeking out that same tree on every island with the broken trunk you can sprint up, just so you can lengthen your to-do list. Even as the ocean stretches out in front of you, you can feel the insistent pull of the publisher’s hand. The idea that nothing is off limits is a promise this game has absolutely no interest in keeping; in Assassin’s Creed Rogue, everything is restricted.