In 1980, legendary casting director Michael Shurtleff published Audition, which is widely considered the ultimate book on how to get yourself a role in a movie or play. Buried just past the hundred page mark is the sharpest chapter ever written about acting, but I submit that it’s equally valuable to all entertainment.
“Consistency is the death of good acting.”
That’s it. That’s the whole chapter. One line. Eleven syllables. And what magnificent syllables they are. But swap out “acting” for “writing,” “plot,” “gaming,” or whatever you please in the world of entertainment, and it still applies. It always applies. Particularly in the gaming world, the longer the line of any given series, the more suffocating consistency becomes. Put more simply, consistency is the death of fun.
We’ve all invested at one time or another in at least one AAA IP that churns out predictable entries, relying on proven patterns rather than innovation. We’ve felt that quality go cold and stiff, watched high water marks do dry. We’ve played those games, but did we really enjoy them? Madden, Resident Evil, Call of Duty—whatever your brand, you’ve almost certainly noticed a factory-line feel to a beloved franchise at some point.
Occasionally, developers felt enough financial sting or creative pangs to find ways to break things up. Sometimes this variety came in terms of tone, others found success in altered perspective, some got downright wacky. Often the answer had something to do with zombies.
In one fantastic example, the Assassin’s Creed series took a brave step away from consistency by switching perspective in a way that showed the evil lurking in the hearts of the self-righteous and the dangers of hating any “side.”
And they did it in the most criminally underrated of the Assassin’s Creed titles: 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Rogue.
With the Xbox One a year into its life cycle and the PlayStation 4 not far behind, an unusual plan unfolded at Ubisoft. Obviously, the financial bottom line demanded that they continue their vaunted Assassin’s Creed series, and yet their clockwork release strategy was facing a crossroads: a sizable number of Assassin’s Creed gamers were lingering on the soon-to-be-defunct Xbox 360, but tons of potential revenue plainly existed in the burgeoning next-gen field. Should the company, the dilemma went, aim to end the AC 360 and PS3 era with a brave flourish, or should focus shift to the future and the still relatively-new but technologically superior latest-wave of machines? And in the most American of decisions, the execs opted to gobble up both pies: pushing studios under their umbrella to develop two games in the same franchise for simultaneous release on two separate systems. Literally: the release date for two separate stand-alone entries was exactly. The. Same.
Assassin’s Creed Unity was developed exclusively for the PS4 and Xbox One. You may have heard of it. It featured forward progression in the over-arching Assassin’s Creed plot, incredibly high-numbers of on-screen assets at one time, a gorgeous revolutionary-France setting, and rather flat, forgettable characters whose faces occasionally rendered as inside-out, Cronenbergian horrors.
Meanwhile, literally at the same time, Bulgaria-based Ubisoft Sophia spearheaded, with support from a few other, “lesser” Ubisoft branches, something… different. The project was Assassin’s Creed Rogue, a half-step forward plot-wise, bridging a time gap between the fourth main Assassin’s Creed game—the highly-acclaimed Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and the technologically superior Assassin’s Creed Unity. This “bridge” of a game was to use the engine and many of the tools from Black Flag with a new setting and plot. Rogue was conceived as part fan service—series devotees had long been asking for a chance to step into the shoes of a rival Templar to the assassin heroes—and part rehash of proven gameplay mechanics. Now, a cynical view would be that Ubisoft wanted to soak up money from both platforms, new and old; the cutting edge gamers would have access to the (theoretically) superior franchise beauty, Unity, while those that hadn’t upgraded yet would get a game running on an older engine, using recycled assets, for full price.
This view would be correct.
Sophia and friends produced something greater than the sum of its parts: a game that found new ways to use older tech, and an experience willing to forgo the pressure of large-scale plot development to focus instead on more complex character questions for the men and women leaping into hay bales bent on bloody murder. When a series is dealing with ancient civilizations, the perils of corporate espionage, piracy, centuries-old geopolitics, and inventory management, well, sometimes less is more. Enter Assassin’s Creed Rogue.
Rogue ended up being smarter than most other entries in the Assassin canon specifically due to the ability of its developers to take some overdue chances with a series suffering from plot and gameplay fatigue. For example, rather than receiving kill orders via specialized pigeon coop, the hero this time can spot these trained birds during their deliveries, intercept their orders, and intercede—if he can beat the clock with out help—to rescue the intended target. The shrill eagle’s cry that accompanied so many impossibly high plunges in games past now serves as a dire warning: hooded hunters are bearing down upon our protagonist, and his heightened senses become a tool for ferreting out assassins before they can launch a surprise attack.
More importantly, Rogue doesn’t clumsily open with us taking up the standard of the series’ villains with a shrug. We begin as an assassin, knowing he’ll fall from grace at some point. Thus, the early missions are all shot through with anticipation of the enormous shift in loyalties. It’s all a matter of when. And, more importantly, of why. Rogue takes the time to build our character up as a capital-“A” Assassin. We carry out a number of missions operating well within the traditional mold of the usual anti-authority, wrist-blade-wielding malcontent. For a good quarter of the game’s plot, we guide Shay through very familiar territory: bad Templars are over there, sneak up on them, kill them, be snarky, repeat. All of these early missions take on the feel of a storm swelling on the horizon. The twist is coming. But where? And why?
By the time the twist occurs, the writers and the crew behind Rogue have offered up a chance to see two historically-warring factions as equally-flawed groups of human beings. Yes, the Assassins represent freedom, and we should harbor no illusions that their ideal world is rather a bit better than the Templar ideal of forced obedience and rigid order. The game never overplays its hand in flipping its narrative loyalty, but it does drive home the critical notion that no side is ever pure. Many assassins are straight up jerks, Rogue shows us. They’re in it for the money. Or for a shot at glory. Or even simply because they want to hurt other people.
And some Templars, we learn, want to protect people from chaos. To safeguard the world from instability. To save lives. One, we learn, lost someone very special due to Assassin actions, and wants to prevent this from happening to anyone else.
Don’t worry, now, this all plays out while we scale buildings, wage sea battles on the icy waves, and hack our enemies to pieces. I don’t want to over-promise, here: the game isn’t perfect. Like me, you’ll likely cringe at some of the ham-fisted tutorial sessions early on, and one wonders if a longer and even more successful game could have resulted if this whole thing wasn’t given the stepchild treatment by Ubisoft, but still: something different this way came! With zero accidentally transparent nightmare heads! And for so long, this gem was exclusively for those clinging to our older systems. Oy.
As with many pre-Origins Assassin’s Creed games, there’s a sort of nesting-doll narrative going on with Rogue. In an over-arching sense, we play through the entire game as a low-level programmer at Abstergo, tech conglomerate and front for the world-dominating Templar order. Our task: help the team turn genetic memories locked in human DNA into valuable VR entertainment/brainwashing opportunities. Our focus? Playtesting the experiences of Shay Patrick Cormac, 18th century Assassin ne’er-do-well and turncoat turned Templar elite. Aside from a bit of modern-day puzzle solving for decent plot nuggets, the joy of this, like any entry in the AC franchise, is stepping into the parkouring boots of the long-dead protagonist.
Here, as in Black Flag, Shay is s gifted swordsman, marksman, and naval combatant. The controls are a complete mirror of Black Flag’s, with battles more about timing than complicated combinations, and the barest bit of patience turning Shay into a prowling ninja when the situation calls for stealth. Essentially, Rogue is a continuation of Edward Kenway’s exploits, shoving the action ahead several decades and north to the frigid waters off North America during the era of Seven Years’ War, with colonial America rumbling its way ever closer to the fateful war of independence.
As Europe and its western colonies plod through their wars, the ever-present conflict between the secretive Assassin and Templar orders rages on. As ever, this conflict is focused primarily on the acquisition and control over Pre-Cursor artifacts, bits of powerful technology left behind by an ancient and mysterious race of beings whose mighty intellects led to grand civilizations and a strange amount of platforming built in their most sacred sites. Our hero, Shay Cormac, finds himself quickly embroiled in a race between Assassins and Templars to snag a small group of Pre-cursor tech described in the Voynich Manuscript. This (real life) oddity points each group toward potentially all-powerful eldritch tech beneath Port-Au-Prince, Lisbon, and a few other regions across the globe. Any history buffs reading this might notice that both Haiti and Portugal were the sites of devastating earthquakes in the 18th century, and that, friends, leads us to poor Shay’s central problem.
The Colonial branch of the Assassins is determined to seize these items at any cost, preventing the Templars from using said tech to finally take over the world. To that end, Shay is dispatched to fetch one such piece deep in the catacombs below Lisbon. He’s got some misgivings—another Assassin reported deadly seismic upheaval after another artifact was removed from Haiti—but orders are orders. Shay lays his hands on the shimmering MacGuffin, which promptly disintegrates, setting off a historically deadly earthquake that levels the densely populated city. Barely escaping the tragedy with his own life, Shay realizes the horrible cost his elders are inflicting during their ancient feud.
He moves to prevent further losses like Haiti’s and Portugal’s, and, well… it doesn’t go great. Ambition, it turns out, has consumed the Colonial wing of the Assassin Brotherhood, and no cost is too great to win out over the Templars. This, it happens, is a bridge too far for Cormac, whose memories of the death in Portugal are too haunting to ignore. He swipes the manuscript, preventing his fellow Assassins from pursuing more carnage, earns the ire of his former friends, and the rest… the rest is wonderfully fun treachery.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
The designers of Rogue made a number of choices that undermine the stifling consistency that causes so much boredom in well-funded games. Towering, European landscapes give way to a starker, colder, more unforgiving landscape North America in the mid 1700s. Gone are the lush landscapes of Tuscany, and far away are the vibrant colors of the Caribbean. Shay is in the bitter grip of wintertime in Appalachian river lands, trudging through a moody, muddy New York, and pilots his deft, narrow-decked sloop-of-war—the Morrigan—into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, the Northern Lights glowing serene above jet-black sea.
Where a winking Edward Kenway boldly swam among glittering shipwrecks off the coast of Cuba, Shay must crash through sheets of ice, avoiding the health-sapping sub-zero water as much as possible. Ezio Auditore, famed Assassin of the Italian Renaissance huddled in haystacks and lurked along roofs, waiting to silently snuff his foes. Shay, soon a target of his former colleagues, drops into a heightened state of awareness, telltale shifts of scenery and whispered breaths clueing him (and us) in: death awaits nearby, ready to strike. And it is an unexpected joy, striding from quest to quest, errand to errand, never quite sure when a vengeful killer is primed to leap out of a nearby well, to melt through a clot of bystanders, or plop from a higher vantage point to drop massive pain on Shay’s health bar. High stakes hide and seek, what a winning idea!
Beyond the gameplay and perspective changes—and each feels like a breath of fresh air, frankly—the real fun for this solo player was the willingness to tarnish the halo hovering over the usual heroes’ heads. The Templars aren’t elevated to some wonderous, benign club of peace-makers, of course (the game ends with our faceless player character offered membership in the Templar order, or a bullet to the face should they decline), but it’s refreshing to see Assassins lose the air of wisdom—the damnably near infallible wisdom—marking the group since the days of Altair. Rogue, for all its re-used pieces, its familiar engine, its kinda-a-sequel feel, is willing to cast its heroes and villains as human beings. The Templars and Assassins filling the game world are notably human. They’re believable blends of noble and petty, capable of decency and cruelty, patience and recklessness, loyalty and betrayal, the lot of them.
When Shay is forced to kill a returning character and a series hero, he does so with bitter regret, hating the choices both sides have made to drive him and his former compatriot to a fatal clash. In a series so often marked by hollow bloodshed, some visceral anger over the necessity of killing is bracing as the Arctic wind, friends.
THE EPIC SCENE:
Here, I’m forced to cheat a bit, as the truly epic sequence in Assassin’s Creed Rogue is split into two halves, each playing a signal part in Shay’s move from Assassin to Templar agent. The first half begins in the aforementioned catacombs beneath Lisbon, as a glowing artifact crumbles to dust. The screen shakes, Shay realizes too late what he’s unleashed, and soon we guide him, sliding here, leaping there, through a city suffering the terrible power of a massive earthquake. Our path is repeatedly blocked by rubble, collapses into debris-ridden pits, or heaves high into the air as tectonic forces rend the area to a smoking pile. Citizens shriek and run blindly in our way as the music spirals madly. Our goal, beyond simply escaping the mass death all around us, is to reach the harbor and the relative—and very temporary—safety of our ship. Getting there requires some solid timing, and the cataclysmic atmosphere of the mission is downright thrilling.
The counterpoint to this scene occurs just a bit later. Back at Assassin HQ, Shay relates what happened, bitterly dressing down his superiors over their blind pursuit of power. The Assassin authorities, it seems, are willing to trade the lives of those Shay saw buried under a falling city if it means defeating the Templars. It’s a tradeoff that finds us stealing into the darkened home base, filching the document pointing the way to more artifacts—more apocalyptic losses of innocent life—and, of course, staring down the barrel of our allies’ guns. Another pursuit kicks off, this one spent eluding our former comrades as they attempt to cut off our escape. Shay is eventually cornered at a cliff’s edge. His friends demand that he return the manuscript. Shay refuses, and the chapter of the game ends with the reluctant traitor plunging into the sea, a bullet in his back.
The pair of frantic escapes cut a dramatic parallel in Rogue: the first is a rapid realization that grand ambitions often forget about collateral damage. Sunlight beams down, illuminating for Shay the human cost of power struggles, leaving no question as to the suffering he and his brothers and sisters are causing. The second, a quieter, nighttime escape from a familiar setting casts shadows on lost ideals, and pushes a good-but-not-great Assassin’s Creed game into new and pulse-pounding territory.
A LAST THOUGHT:
I won’t pretend to know just how daunting it is to make large-scale financial calls on the business end of video game development. Even a casual glance at AAA-title budgets suggests that there’s plenty of incentive to just find what works and hammer that same equation until the returns go flat. So I think it’s worth paying attention when we find out that a powerful studio—even if it’s a kind of second-string sub-group within a studio, as with Assassin’s Creed Rogue—takes a chance on telling a slightly different version of their usual story. By virtue of being an experiment, games like this one, and similar ventures like Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and the Paper Mario series have their share of uneven features. But it’s worth giving them a shot, encouraging big studios to remember that risk-taking can be worth the occasional loss. That kind of experimentation by the Big Dogs can go a long way toward opening doors for smaller studios to jump in with their own unusual games as well.
Rogue turned enough heads (and yes, comes from a parent studio with enough cash to revisit an older project) that it got an Xbox One and PS4 remaster last year. I cannot recommend checking it out enough, particularly since it comes at an improved price point these days. Take the risk: check out the best Assassin’s Creed game you probably didn’t play. Walk on the Templar side. Make some new and dangerous friends. To heck with consistency; let’s be irreverent, you and me. Let’s admit that the Good Guys and Bad Guys tend to overlap a lot. I mean, if one were to stare at the flawed Assassins vs. Templar dynamic, set against the destruction left in the earthquake-tossed dust of their wake, we might find some metaphors for modern life, but with guns and swords and puckle guns to boot!
By the way, did I mention there were cute “penguins” in the game? And that they make adorable, squeaky penguin-y noises as you go about your business in the frozen north? Because there are. And they do. Sort of.*
*Ok, fine; they’re Great Auks, a now-extinct penguin-like bird that lived up north until humans killed them all. But they’re every bit as cute as penguins and Rogue knew enough to put them in the game because they love us enough to bother. Go play this thing already!