Author’s Note: When discussing protagonists’ identity in the Assassin’s Creed series below, I opted for glibness over complexity, cracking wise when I could have dug deeper into still-influential historical processes and identities. I flattened where I could have deepened. Apologies.
"I heard it’s glitchy," several friends said when I told them I was writing about the new Assassin’s Creed game. I had to explain that they were thinking of the other new Assassin’s Creed game, the one Cameron Kunzelman reviewed last month. That’s Unity, this is Rogue.
Rogue is the story of Shay Patrick Cormac, an Assassin who leaves the brotherhood. The series has never done a terribly good job of making the Assassins or their Templar enemies as nuanced or as philosophically consistent as they try, and the event that causes Shay to leave is the exact opposite of subtle. There’s also the modern-day storyline, involving a virus that shuts down Abstergo, security consultants dealing with the fallout, and the reconstruction of Shay’s genetic memories which, we’re told, are fragmented and glitched out. So I guess, in a way, it is the one with all the glitches.
While Unity jumps to a new generation of consoles, dealing with all the issues that brings, Rogue is the seventh—and, I assume, final—entry in the series for the hardware on which it was developed. In some ways, it’s all been leading up to this: I have no idea if it would make sense narratively or mechanically without at least familiarity with the previous six games. It’s impossible for me not to see them all here. Even some multiplayer mechanics make an appearance in this single-player only game.
The Carribbean-set Black Flag successfully executed mechanically what III tried to do: moving the game’s action out of its dense urban areas, full of religious and other massive architecture, and creating satisfyingly navigable natural locations. Condensed outdoor spaces (literally islands) tied together by a relatively low-intensity naval simulation.
Black Flag also returned the story of the series embracing its conspiracy-theory style roots: multiple sources of story, multiple levels, piecing together audio and text and image into an ever-expanding paranoia. III had the unenviable task of drawing Desmond’s story to a close and tying up/explaining a lot of the First Civilization plotlines. The explanation people thought they wanted misses what they enjoyed, though: competing views and stuff that just doesn’t quite make sense now. The explanation destroys its promise.
Rogue’s settings feel like the lessons learned from Black Flag applied to the colonial America of III. The Caribbean is replaced with the frigid North Atlantic, meaning sometimes there’s snow and sometimes the water is so cold you’ll be damaged and sometimes there will be geographically inappropriate penguins.
The Appalachian River Valley is Rogue’s version of III’s Frontier—the wilderness of the eighteenth century condensed into a space that allows on-foot travel between locations that were weeks apart in a matter of minutes. But this version of nature is built differently than its predecessor: there’s a lot more water, so the spaces between those locations are more easily traversed by sailing the Morrigan, Shay’s ship, than by running and swimming. Even though the River Valley’s land-to-water ratio is the inverse of the North Atlantic, the spaces where you play (explore, climb, do missions) are their own kind of island in both.
The Animus continues to play its weird in-between role of sort-of-super videogame. There are "glitches" in some partial memories, missing polygons and surfaces, "unknown areas" where your menu shows gibberish instead of a location. Of course, these in-game "glitches" are the equivalent of the film technique where you see it "burn" and then cut away to something else. As much as they try and acknowledge a technology, they are still within another one. This is opposed to the glitches that, for example, result in Shay falling through a pier and being stuck in the water beneath it. Or falling through the ground. Or getting stuck in a rock. The Animus is never used to explain away these actual glitches, which are just, you know, the software doing what it was told to do, rather than what its programmers intended for it to do.
These spaces are vertically varied, with rocky cliffs and outcrops straight out of Black Flag, but with more snow. It’s the lessons learned from that game put back into the same general area visited in III. The Middle Eastern and European Assassin’s Creeds have centuries of massive Catholic and Muslim architecture for climbing and leaping off of. Eighteenth-century North America’s lack of Catholic architecture is filled in by an early-game jaunt to Lisbon on All Saint’s Day 1755 . It’s a combination quick visit to the past games’ monumental-architecture-as-puzzle, set-piece escape, and a massive upping of the series’ paranoid explanations for everything that has ever happened ever.
It’s "early game" mission-wise. I hit it at about 14 hours in, because unlike the previous games in the series, almost the entirety of each region you visit is available to explore as soon as you get there. This means that if you’re compelled to remove as many map markers as possible before going on to the next story mission, Shay might not go rogue until, oh, hour 16.
The series has always been piecemeal, a variety of seemingly disconnected sections and mechanics that come together with varying degrees of success. The Assassin’s Creed games open with a note that the game was created by a group of people of different religious faiths and beliefs. Those people are grouped into studios around the world, and it feels like if one were so inclined, one could assign each of the game’s pieces (modern day office building, naval battles, timed chase sequence, self-contained architectural puzzle) to each of these different studios.
There’s clearly an intended link between Abstergo (the Templar-run organization developing the animus technology) and Ubisoft, not the least of which are their multi-location natures, including one in Montreal. It made things weird when, in Black Flag, you found internal emails with arguments about representation in Abstergo’s products. Was this some resistance and pushback against an industry unwilling to broaden their audience? Or a bald-faced attempt at placating critics? And what to think about an in-game message to employees that includes, "Do not engage with the so-called entertainment press without a PR representative with you. It is embarrassing to the company and threatening to your job security", in light of the reaction to comments made by an Ubisoft employee about the difficulty of adding women characters to Unity?
After Connor and Aveline and Adéwalé and Altaïr, I hoped for another non-Western European dude protagonist. But the Irish Shay, like the Welsh Kenway before him, only gets so far as being of a group colonized by the English. Still, the supporting cast sees Shay trained by the British-Caribbean Achilles Davenport of III. Assassination techniques are taught by Hope, a woman Assassin who seems to be animated without a problem and who, like Aveline, uses other people’s assumptions against them (when Shay asks why she doesn’t need to hide from authorities, she tells him, "I’m just a very devoted housekeeper"). And it’s a little groan-worthy, but the Native American Assassin teaches Shay the hunting mechanic that provides the materials for the crafting system that provides upgrades. (Justin Clark does a great job of looking at the series’s protagonists’ race and representation, so read it when you’re done here.)
Rogue’s security consultants working for Abstergo don’t have extended email discussions about how a particular woman pirate would have made a great focus for a game, but there is another layer of the found-document storytelling. Videogame standard emails and audio files are there, but so are dossiers on other antagonists in the series. Like a sociopath’s Pinterest board, these dossiers are grouped under the heading "Inspiration", presenting a very Templar-skewed view of these "villains". Like the emails that describe the games’ protagonists as bloodthirsty or serial killers (if you look at your in-game statistics with the number of kills, that’s not really a stretch—there’s an implicit lesson about historical perspective vs what "actually happened").
Everything in this game feels like it has a point of view. Annotations attributed to different characters reinforce and expand upon what happens in the game and its cutscenes. The series’ audiologs and text logs and hacked emails and letters read like a paranoid’s history book, and you’re never quite sure if gaps in the entries will be filled in by your missions or not. I’ve often ended up doing light research on people and places from the games because I want to know what there’s historical documentation for. Its paranoia blurs the lines between the real world and the game. Once it accused John Roberts of being controlled by the Templars.
Those points of view try to create a contrast of written history with the (re)lived experience of the genetic memories via the Animus. Like a film where the voiceover contradicts what is happening on screen, what you see (what you play) is what “actually happened”. But like the game’s “glitches”, the memories you (re)live are just as constructed as the things you read.
Rogue’s story is Shay navigating the conflicts of points of view with his experience. An attempt to understand and live with and prevent recurring consequences of actions. He doesn’t take the long view, there’s little that suggests sacrificing people now to possibly save more later is something he believes in.
Rogue explicitly stitches the pieces of the series together. Letters you find give you backstory on characters in other games. A ‘"glitched" memory sends you off to Paris but only renders the area immediately around you, like a backdoor commercial for Unity and its "fully realized" version of that city. Why aren’t you buying a new console so you can play that game?! That is the only one they advertised, what is wrong with you?!
Sometimes the game quotes its spaces directly from previous games: the Abstergo offices from Black Flag are back, and you revisit the Davenport homestead from III. They appear to be identical to their previous appearances; most probably they use the exact architecture / texture data from the previous games. I’m sure for some people this reuse will seem lazy, but it brings continuity to the series in a way that the push for NEW! INNOVATIVE! marketing-driven nature of large-scale game development doesn’t allow.
Their familiarity adds to the legibility of the environment. You have to read the environment, recognizing the repeated tree models or rock textures that indicate a path. That these are similar to (or, in some cases, reused from) the earlier games means there’s less for a returning player to learn. Same with the basics of combat—counter-kill is still the most effective move in your arsenal, and if you’ve mastered it then staying alive in a fight is not much of a challenge.
Several iterations of the series’s multiplayer tested and tweaked mechanics to convey the sense of being tracked by active enemies even as you tracked your own. Rogue takes parts of these systems and uses them with AI opponents. Shay and others are the targets of the Assassins, and the city is full of "stalkers" and Assassins, waiting to attack.
When you’re near one, the edges of the screen pulse and you hear whispering sounds (just like in the older multiplayer games, where it would happen if you were near another human player). Turning on eagle vision displays a compass that gives you the general direction and distance from your opponent. It forces you to slow down as you move through the city: in the previous games you were fairly safe as long as you didn’t initiate combat or stray onto clearly marked "restricted areas" on the map. Now you have to slow down, pay attention to your surroundings, and watch out for opponents that don’t wait for you to start the fight.
Just make sure that when you’re sneaking up on one to take them out, their friends don’t jump out of the tree above them and stab you. Like velociraptors with retractable blades instead of claws. In trees. That are people.
Darts and bombs and swords and guns, all weapons seen before in the series but all here, together. Naval combat is a bit more complex, and the new ability to blow up icebergs and ice walls which will cause ship-damaging waves adds a new tactic to the (still satisfying!) circle-and-shoot-and-brace-and-board rhythm. Gang headquarter takeovers feel like a stealth version of ship-boarding. Renovating cities makes a return: Shay’s introduction to the business comes by way of his Templar recruiter, who tells him, "Urban renewal is a new science." Sure, it’s 100 years before Haussmann’s work in Paris, and 200 years before it becomes A Thing in the United States, but it feels less like an anachronism and more like an indictment of these and other programs throughout history. The Templars are fascists, and the goal of so much urban renewal is focused on bringing the "right" kind of people to an area, so take that as you will.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Rogue’s development costs are the sum of all the previous games’ budgets minus whatever money they brought in sales added to the budget exclusively for this game. I’m not sure how many of the people listed in the 20+ minute end credits worked on the rest of the series, how many of the on-the-ground development lessons learned were put into practice here, but as a player and critic it’s impossible not to see some kind of pattern of development.
I wonder, if like so much of the Assassin’s Creed series, and like so many videogames, what really appeals about Rogue is what it’s grasping at. A whole mess of things that feel like they don’t quite click together, but that they should. That you’re just missing one key piece that will bring everything back into joint. Like the conspiracy theorist, you just know it’s all connected, and so you start perceiving things in a way that they fit into the patterns of what you think you know.
Brian Taylor; has it bad for any game that lets him climb on stuff.