Assassin's Creed: Rogue has many flaws, but they pretty much all boil down to one thing. The game simply doesn't come close to the quality of its predecessor, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Not in one single area. On paper, Rogue is a sequel to the brilliant pirate adventure from last year, but it consistently falls short of the target set by Black Flag.
To use a football metaphor, Rogue misses the goal by various margins. In some areas, such as the many land missions, it's only a yard or so off target. In other areas, such as the story (one of the more important elements of Assassin's Creed titles to most players), the ball ends up in row z. And nothing really hits the net.
Assassin's Creed: Rogue is a disappointment that only serves to remind us again and again how wonderful Black Flag was.
The big twist here is naturally that you play as a former Assassin, who has turned his back on the brotherhood and joined the Templars. His name is Shay Patrick Cormac. It's not difficult to see where he's coming from - in his view the brotherhood has committed atrocities, while the Templars saved his life. We'll come further into the details of that later on (and it might slightly spoil the first part of the game so if you're allergic to spoilers, be aware). Much like in Black Flag, Shay has his own ship that you sail on the Northern Atlantic navigating snow-covered islands and icebergs, as well as the Appalachian river valley. Our adventures also take us to New York, that serves as the primary town in the game.
Much like in Black Flag your ship starts out in terrible shape, barely sea worthy, and you need to plunder (mainly French) ships in order to procure material to upgrade your hull, cannons, mortars and so on. In between the plundering you come to shore to assassinate various people.
The problem is that if you've already played Black Flag and the DLC expansion Freedom Cry - it will be the third time you start the journey from a ship that's barely afloat and make it the most fearsome ship of the seven seas. The process isn't much different from the first time around, and therefore it does come across as a bit repetitive this time.
It's not helped by the fact that the two areas you can sail on, come across as small puddles compared to Black Flag. The river valley is made up of rivers and bays, that have an air of claustrophobia over them, while the Northern Atlantic comes across as cut into small bits by the large landmasses in between. You never get the sense of the open seas that you had in Black Flag. There is no sense of freedom. (Maybe the developers took the different creeds of the templars and assassins too literally - as freedom is clearly exclusive to assassins)
I'm never struck by the same sense of exploration where I go "wow, that looks interesting, let's go there" in Rogue as I got with Black Flag. And it's not because the game lacks collectibles - there's Abstergo fragments at sea, viking tombs, bonus income. You can still hunt, but the game doesn't encourage it as much as before. Other mechanics, like taking down forts, are joined by new ones where you take down pirate lairs. Same basic idea, slightly different methods. There is lots to do, but it's never as captivating, it feels more like filler material you can ignore.
There are new mechanics on shore as well. In New York there are dilapidated buildings that you can invest in, and later you'll earn rent. And another difference is that you're chasing assassins that might hide in haystacks and behind street corners - and they'll attack you unless you first spot them using eagle vision. None of these new features really make for meaningful additions, especially the assassinations as they often only annoy.
To put in plain writing, many of the additions to Rogue are underdeveloped and they could have done with more time on the drawing board and in the meeting rooms. Something to give them more substance. And that takes us back to the story. Because Rogue is really a missed opportunity. For seven years we've followed the struggle between Assassins and Templars, and Rogue could have offered a unique perspective into the motivations of the other side of the conflict. But during the course of the game you only learn that the Templars enjoy order and that Assassins are boring types who tries to destroy everything and therefore need to be hunted down.
The same goes for the story that takes place in the present outside of the animus at Abstergo Entertainment. Templares are good, Assassins are evil - that's the long and short of it. We are given some further background on some of the Templars we've run into previously in the franchise, but nothing of vital relevance or that's truly a relevation.
And unlike Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, that did a stellar job of introducing new characters to the franchise and integrating them to the universe, Rogue assumes you've played the previous games. You don't know who Otso Berg is? Too bad, cause he'll be there.
The biggest issue lies with the main character Shay. He's got the charisma of a wet piece of cardboard and the personality to match. He starts out the game as an Assassin, but we're never really given an insight as to what his role in the brotherhood is. Thier carelessness is the direct reason for a giant earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755 killing 100,000 people, as a result he turns his back on them. The brotherhood is chasing pieces of Eden, but when they remove these they trigger massive earthquakes and he wants no part of that. Instead he steals their notes and takes off, something that almost costs him his life. And as it turns out he is saved by a Templar.
Fair enough, but why is the brotherhood, led by Achilles, after these pieces of Eden? What's their end game? That is never explained, they just want them at any cost. It lacks an explanation and the whole gallery of characters feel underdeveloped. Some of them we only meet in the introductory tutorials, only to see them again when their time to die has come. It's meant to be about vengeance, but it lacks the necessary pathos. Where is the drama?
Things aren't much better on the Templar side of things. Haytham Kenway appears to lend some chronological credence and most cutscenes typically go along the lines of "Hey Shay, one of our enemies is here" followed by "okay, I'll kill him", or "Hey Shay, one of our friends is in danger" followed by "I'll save him", without much context. I often get the sense that I leave my boat just to hear three lines just to return to my ship. The game takes place during the Seven Years' War, but Rogue does little to explain what was at stake, other than the French and British fighting each other.
Slight spoiler: There is more gameplay meat to the bones in the mission in the latter third of the game, but it never gets truly good. The story is thin, the motivations of friends and enemies are poorly (if at all) explained. What did Achilles want with the pieces of Eden and why didn't they rethink things after having levelled Lisbon? We'll never know. And at the end there is a definite lack of resolution. You've killed some former colleagues and that's pretty much it.</i>
Compared to Black Flag, that masterfully switched between history lessons and a peek into the philosophy of pirates and their thirst for freedom, where we early on faced our enemies, learned what they wanted only to run into them again and again, where we knew what was at stake; there is none of that in Rogue.
On the other hand you may be glad to learn there are none of those often frustrating stealth missions. It's something. But if you've played Black Flag and were hoping for more of the same, you will be disappointed. While Rogue builds on the same foundation, it is all too obvious that it's the B-team that has developed this game. If you still haven't played Black Flag that's a way better experience as Assassin's Creed: Rogue never really fires on all cylinders.