If Assassin’s Creed Unity feels like a star ballplayer calling his shot to the bleachers, popping it up for an easy catch and losing the game, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is the result of that same ballplayer keeping the ball on the ground and hitting a nice solid double. It’s thoroughly unambitious, but what it does, it does well, and with a practiced ease. It’s a solid refinement of old principles, and it comes off as a much more appreciable success as a result.
The game takes place 20 years after the events of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and its own events directly influence the state of the Assassin/Templar war as we saw it in Assassin’s Creed III. The current Assassin Brotherhood is gearing up to turn the tides in the wake of the French and Indian War, and is seeking to steal the Templars’ thunder, quite literally, by finding artifacts from the still-laughably implemented alien “Precursor” race. The package Adewale was trying to keep out of Templar hands in the Freedom Cry DLC turns out to be a map of sorts, showing where the artifacts are kept, and fresh-faced, smart-mouthed Irish Assassin Shay Patrick Cormac is dispatched to retrieve it from Portugal. The retrieval goes wrong, however, resulting in one of the most harrowing sequences in an Assassin’s Creed game to date: a playable escape from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, a very real event that completely decimated the city. Tortured by the thought of having inadvertently killed thousands of people, and the Assassins potentially causing more if they disrupt any of the other artifacts, Shay makes a failed attempt to destroy the map. He’s summarily branded a traitor, leading him into the surprisingly welcoming and sympathetic arms of the Templar Order.
Rogue is meant to not just close the book on what UbiSoft has dubbed “The American Saga,” which includes Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Black Flag, and Freedom Cry, but it’s meant to close it on Assassin’s Creed as a last-gen property. The wave goodbye is a fond, enthusiastic one, where the game seems hellbound to tie every major loose end from the colonial era of the Brotherhood, and implement every good idea from every game so far that brought the series to this point. There’s a return to the first game’s mission structure, where stalking and intelligence-gathering before you face your Assassin target is encouraged, though not as linearly laid out as it was there. The renovation, property, and fortress system from the Ezio trilogy—Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations—returns here, with a few nail-biting twists, where success doesn’t just mean finding a gang leader and killing him. Destroying a faction’s explosives, raiding their stores for treasure and goods, and cutting down their flag may be necessary before you even see their leader. Even then, getting a clean kill is no easy feat, thanks to Rogue’s best innovation: an ambush system that turns on about a third of the way into the game, where enemies are as good at silent stalking from around corners and striking from above as you are.
Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag’s major contributions come in with the aesthetic. The vast majority of Rogue is spent in what is now the Hudson River Valley, spanning as far north as Albany, and as far south as downtown Manhattan. The same attention to colonial detail that made Assassin’s Creed III so pretty to look at is evident here, without colonial Boston’s boring, uninspired flatness. When not in a city, you’re on the water, and the sailing and naval combat is copy-pasted straight from Black Flag, with a few new sea shanties tossed in for good measure. The kicker here is that with the Northern exposure comes the Northern weather: The water in the northern areas is freezing cold, and does damage after a time, meaning swimming your way out of problems as in games past is a no-go. An attachment has to be mounted to your ship so you can break through completely frozen areas of the water. Icebergs, blizzards, and complete white-outs are a common sight, and one of the game’s climactic battles is all the more awe-inspiring due to having to take down a man-o-war with zero visibility, and a labyrinth of icebergs blocking every shot. The aesthetic suffers due to Rogue’s relegation to the last-gen systems, but it’s still milked for all its worth.
The glue holding it all together as more than just a stale repurpose of the previous games is the story. Shay isn’t as lively a traveling companion as Black Flag’s Edward Kenway, but the story supports the constant air of regret and tentative trust once he wakes up in New York an Assassin no more. The other side’s viewpoint is rarely considered in any series, let alone this one, and the game’s willingness to tilt our POV of the entire series thus far, to see the Templars as an army of fundamentally good men forced into extreme tactics as opposed to the mustache-twirling megalomaniacs of games past has to be commended. Neither side comes of this game fresh as a daisy, and in a righteous world, this is the slant UbiSoft will be taking going forward, one toward nuance when it comes to how and why the killing must be done.
The usual series problems holds here, in that many of the sidequests are disposable half-thoughts, and the ending stumbles on its words a bit, with a final mission that’s essentially a playable teaser for Unity. Shay’s journey and its purpose as a Templar soft-sell, showing the fallibility of the Assassin order, is a compelling one that may not break new ground, but the game doesn’t sell any of its well-trod concepts short. Again, refinement, not innovation. Rogue bids a fond farewell to the last gen, making promises that, unfortunately, Unity wasn’t able to keep, but hopefully a future Assassin’s Creed might.