I lived through the Third Crusade. I knocked out the pope in a secret basement underneath the Vatican. I even sailed with Blackbeard in the Caribbean. But until now, I’ve never waged war as a Templar knight.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (out now for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) is the first game in the long-running action series to feature a member of the Templar Order, the immortal enemy of the Assassin Brotherhood, as its main character. Developer Ubisoft flirted with the idea back in Assassin’s Creed III, so I wasn’t sure if the Templar angle would end up as another short-lived ruse. But that isn’t the case here. Our antihero, Shay Patrick Cormac, is a former Assassin who’s hellbent on stopping the Brotherhood from achieving its goals.
As someone who played all of the main console games, seeing the war through the other side’s eyes on my PS3 was refreshing. While the gameplay isn’t dramatically different from playing as an Assassin (and is ultimately Rogue’s downfall), the Templar perspective is something I hope Ubisoft will continue to revisit in future games.
What you’ll like
A nuanced depiction of the Assassin-Templar conflict
Before Rogue came along, only two things stayed constant throughout all the different historical settings and plot twists in the AC games: The Templars are evil and the Assassins are trying to stop them from taking over the world. The series’ heroes — Altaïr, Ezio, Connor, Aveline, and Edward — all had their own cast of villainous Templars to put down. The most brilliant thing about Rogue is the way it reverses all of this.
Shay doesn’t turn evil, per se. He truly believes that what he’s doing is for the greater good, and it’s interesting to watch him wrestle with that idea while tracking and killing his old friends (you’ll recognize some of them if you played AC3 and AC4: Black Flag). Watching events unfold through that mindset gives you some insight into how the Templars think. Consider the way they treat the Assassins: Early on in Rogue, they refuse to mention them and their associates by name. Instead, the Templars called them “lawbreakers” and “ruffians” who commit acts of terrorism.
Surprisingly, you’ll discover some truth in those words. The Assassins weren’t as smart as they thought they were, and they used some unsavory methods to maintain control of the British colonies in America. So for a while, I felt good about kicking them out of towns and cutting down the “A” flags they proudly hung inside of their forts.
Shay’s first Templar mentor isn’t some generic bad guy, either. He’s calm and level-headed, and he genuinely seems to care for Shay’s well-being. Of course, the Templars have their bad seeds, too, so Rogue isn’t entirely sympathetic to their cause. But all of these elements add some nuance and complexity to what was becoming a tedious conflict. By the end, I wasn’t a fan of either side.
Fighting as a Templar
With two wrist-blades, a ship (known as the Morrigan), poisonous darts, and all the other Assassin weapons at his disposal, Shay’s play style isn’t very different from the Brotherhood’s. But when he does cross over to the other side, Rogue introduces some cool features. The biggest change is when you face stalkers, Assassins who hide on rooftops, bushes, and haystacks — the same kind of places you’ve been using for cover in previous games. If you don’t spot them fast enough with Shay’s X-ray-like Eagle Vision ability, they’ll climb out and stab you before running off to hide again.
You won’t find stalkers in every place you visit, but not knowing when they’ll pop up was enough to keep me on my feet when entering new towns. Since Ubisoft didn’t change the combat for Rogue (it has the same counter-and-execute system from Black Flag), Shay also felt a little more powerful compared to his predecessors thanks to his grenade launcher. The three different grenades — sleep gas, berserk gas, and shrapnel — are great for stunning a group of targets if their numbers start to overwhelm you.
The eternal winter
When I wasn’t killing people, I spent a lot of my time in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic ocean, one of the three geographical areas you’ll explore. It’s a complete 180 from the tropical islands in Black Flag: You’ll sail through blizzards, discover hidden ice caves, and hunt down narwhals. Most of all, I just loved hearing the snow crunch under Shay’s boots while running through Rogue’s winter wonderland (AC3 had some snowy levels, but these were short).
The harsh climate also affects the gameplay. Shay can only swim in the water for a few seconds before the extremely cold temperature starts to hurt him. You can destroy icebergs to collect supplies or to cause tidal waves that damage smaller ships, and you have to use the Morrigan’s ram to cut through thick sheets of ice on the ocean’s surface. These features don’t do much to prevent déjà vu from settling in (especially if you played AC4), but they definitely give the area its own identity.
The North Atlantic also brings back a sense of mystery that I feel has been missing in the last two games, and it reminded me of my time spelunking in the Roman catacombs with Ezio.
What you won’t like
It’s too similar to AC4
Rogue is almost a carbon-copy of Black Flag. The world isn’t as huge or open as Black Flag’s Caribbean sea, some of the animations are the same (Shay kicks treasure chests and reloads his guns just like Edward did), and you go through the same upgrading system for your ship as before. The latter was the most tiresome, as I already did that two times with Black Flag and its standalone downloadable content, Freedom Cry.
Rogue also doesn’t have a multiplayer mode, so if you liked that aspect of the older games, that may affect if you decide to play this. I never really cared for it in the first place, so I didn’t miss it at all.
Shay won’t shut up
Sometimes, I just wanted to tell Shay to shut his mouth. The Irish Templar is a cool character overall, but whenever someone says the word “luck” in front of him, he never fails to utter his life motto: “I make my own luck!” He said this at least half a dozen times. Either he’s insecure, or the writers are just playing some kind of cruel joke on us.
Some bugs here and there
Rogue is a technically solid, but a few bugs did bother me. During what was supposed to be an emotional cutscene early on, dialogue and sound effects were way ahead of the action onscreen (I had to reload back to the last checkpoint to watch it properly). In two instances, Shay got stuck in mid-air while his falling animation looped over and over — he eventually fell to the ground the first time, but I had to restart my PS3 after the second infraction. And at one point, Rogue completely froze during a chase sequence.
After playing so many AC games, a lot of the basics feel like muscle memory to me: “OK, I gotta climb this tower to reveal the rest of the map. I have to swing through the trees to get that Animus fragment.” It’s so automatic that each game I play feels less like a new experience and more like … work. A routine. And the new stuff in Rogue isn’t enough to break away from that rut.
Yet I still find myself drawn to the Assassin’s Creed mythos and the time periods it uses to tell that story. I know the plot is absurdly convoluted and the way Ubisoft continues to insert itself as a character in that world (you can see copies of Far Cry 3 and Splinter Cell in the modern-day levels) still has me scratching my head. But dammit, I need to know what happens next. The events of Rogue lead directly into Assassin’s Creed: Unity, too, so now I all want to do is just play that.
If you’re an experienced AC player, here’s my advice: Rogue feels like a good expansion, and it’s worth seeing Shay’s role in the ongoing drama. But because it’s so similar to Black Flag, I think you’re better off waiting for a price drop. If you’re new to the series, you should pick up Black Flag first; not only is it cheaper, but the story there is easier to understand for newcomers, and you get more out of it.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is out now for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. GamesBeat bought a PS3 copy of the game for the purpose of this review.