Rogue. It's kind of a clever title, because it works on a few levels. Because Shay Cormac, the sometimes-beardy and always-Irish protagonist of the latest Assassin's Creed outing, is a roguish chap who enjoys a good bar brawl or two and chats enthusiastically about the nether regions of Cuban womenfolk, but he also goes rogue - a disillusioned Assassin who throws his lot in with the Templars. Oh, and there's some 'rogue data' Animus thing going on as well, I suppose.
But in terms of rogue meaning outlier, errant figure not willing to play by the established rules, I can't help but raise my special skeptical eyebrow. Because for all of his changing sides and being all Templar-y, Shay's AC game is as conformist as they come.
A good time was had by most in AC Black Flag, with its freebooting, buccaneering hijinks. Then, here's Unity and everybody's a bit meh. So what do you do with Assassin's Creed Rogue? Why, you release AC Black Flag again! And this is the big shrug that's going to have to accompany Rogue. It's a criticism which is often levelled at AC games, and at Ubi stuff in general - they all kind of seep together into a mostly-indistinguishable mass, and if there's a target acquiring system that works in, say, Far Cry, we're likely to see it cropping up in AC before too long.
So there you are. Upgrade your hull strength and your mortars. Chase flapping sea shanties across rooftops and then get your crew to sing them. Loot enemy ships, play a million and one subgames (every time I see that Nine Men's Morris guy in the tavern I want to punch his stupid face), craft pouches for more weapons out of the pelts of slain wildlife a la Far Cry, buy new clothes (for prices equal to the haul from two treasure ships or twenty five treasure chests), and so on and so forth. Quite honestly, it's hard to really pick out a lot that's really genuinely new.
But while many of the cast are recycled from previous creeds (namely AC3, Liberation, Pirates and Black Flag), the Ubisoft guys are pretty good at taking real historical events and weaving them into the Assassin's Creed tale of conspiracy in every corner. Cormac's story - which frankly starts out pretty dully for the first couple of hours - gets much more interesting as things progress. Friends become enemies and vice versa, and Cormack does a pretty good job of agonising over his tortured loyalties.
Ubisoft used to be pretty open about which AC games were the flagship releases (if you excuse the pun) and which were sort of 'AC lite' episodes. But when the numbering went out the window after AC4, it's all been drifting toward the middle. Rogue was not made by the Ubisoft 'A' Team, but it feels every bit as well put together as the main-stage releases, which is perhaps more than could be said for Liberation. Again, though, it's a port of a stop-gap console release. Really, it's going to come down to how much you like Assassin's Creed. For, as an AC game that is very, very similar in pace and activity to Black Flag, it's good. Cities (particularly New York) are bustling with activity and life, the Templar take on things allows for a new design aesthetic to take the stage (although life as a Templar is remarkably similar to life as an Assassin) and the breadcrumb trail of upgrading everything from your ship's wheel to the number of taverns you can visit is as curiously addicting as ever. If you finished Black Flag and thought 'well, dang, I didn't want that to end!' then you're in luck. However, as a part of the larger narrative of Ubisoft's creativity pouring into stories and characters while the game design team do very little to explore new ground, it's really another step along the road that many fear the company is going.
Which, once again, I need to swing back from. There are a few genuinely good ideas. As a Templar with a knowledge of Assassin tactics, you can catch the carrier pigeons used by your enemies to communicate missions, then provide protection for the Assassination targets by taking out the incoming Assassins in a tight time frame. It's an interesting and relatively fun subversion of the recognised convention, even if you are basically just whacking a bunch of guys. A few things just never get fixed, though. 'Renovating' buildings (by clicking on a guy and spending some money and resources in order to get a larger regular income) is uninspired and coquettishly flirting with the drudgery to AC3's horrifically bad trading system, and no matter how much of a big deal you become in the New York upper class, soldiers will still blast you if they see you on a roof.
There I go again, swinging back the other way! The problem is this. I am a little upset at endless Ubisoft FIFA-esque annual updates that, also like FIFA, are very slight variations on a theme. But these games will never be wholly beige and uninteresting, because they're built on a tried and tested way of making you have fun. Sailing the seven seas with a crew of salty sea dogs, taking on a pair of angry French frigates is just fun. Sneaking through the bushes at a governors' soiree, then sneakily shooting one of his guards with a berserk dart and watching him slaughter all of his erstwhile comrades - that's always good for a giggle. You can feel the swagger when you first buy the captain's uniform and cut a dashing figure through the streets of the colonies. The weaving of historical fact and off-the-wall videogame fiction is engrossing and superbly crafted. So what that it's basically a game you've already played? That doesn't stop it being fun.