My problem with the Assassin’s Creed games is that I always try to play them like stealth games, and Assassin’s Creed is not a very good stealth game. It’s a great action game, when it wants to be, but it’s just not built for stealth as anything other than a side-mechanic. It’s not adaptive enough; stray from the level designer’s script for a second and you’re screwed, drawn into running or fighting instead.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is looking to address all of this with a few borrowed techniques from Splinter Cell and an emphasis on flexible level and mission design that lets you take three or five or ten different approaches to a situation rather than struggling to find the exact way that the designer intended you to do it. I didn’t expect the same from Rogue, the last-generation Assassin’s Creed coming out later this year. Mechanically, it isn’t much different from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, but in the absence of making big changes to the game’s systems, Rogue makes big changes to the tools you get to play with - and to the story.
See, in Rogue, you play a Templar rather than an assassin, and Templars have much better stuff. It stars Shay Patrick Cormac (who is an Irishman, in case that wasn’t painfully obvious), an assassin-turned-templar for reasons yet unknown. He has an olde-tyme grenade launcher that can fire all kinds of troublesome ammunition from shrapnel grenades to tranquilliser bombs, and a silent air rifle. He has firecracker darts that make flammable things explode to cause a distraction or destroy supplies. He has beserk gas that can turn enemies or animals against each other for Far Cry-style mayhem. In short, he has options.
Playing as a Templar also obviously changes the central dynamic of Assassin’s Creed, which usually revolves around killing or avoiding Templars. Cormac is an Irishman who is, for some reason, working with the British Empire out in the frozen Atlantic in the 1700s, during the Seven Years’ War. Rogue takes us back to probably the least beloved setting in Assassin’s Creed’s history, revolutionary America, but gameplay-wise it’s like Black Flag: Part 2, with a mix of naval and on-land exploration and combat.
Instead of taking on assassination missions and infiltrating forts, Rogue has us tracking down and eliminating “gang outposts” - assassin dens, basically. The Gamescom demo has Cormac running around causing distractions, blowing up poison reserves, cutting down assassin flags and generally upsetting things in such outposts; it’s a reverse version of Black Flag’s camp infiltrations.
Being a templar also means that there are people trying to assassinate you, hidden in bushes or on branches above your head, waiting to suddenly appear and end your life with a hidden blade. Sacking the gang outpost culminated in a fight with the commander, an assassin with all the tricks of the trade - parkour, smoke bombs, different weapons, the lot. Instead of just pressing B to counter and X to kill as soon as you get into a fight, you have to actually chase the dude around and find a clever way to stop and kill him.
The templars’ better equipment extends to the seas as well. Rogue features faster, better naval warfare with more weapons: Cormac’s ship can drop and ignite and oil slick, creating a giant wall of fire across the sea, and it has far better swivel guns. There will be a lot of naval combat in Rogue, I’m guessing - I must have sunk about seven or eight ships just in the Gamescom demo.
Despite the basic similarities to Black Flag, Rogue’s beautiful frozen setting could not be more different from its predecessor’s Caribbean capering - it’s a huge aesthetic change that, I imagine, will help to alleviate the sense of familiarity in the seafaring and island exploration. You can’t swim far, because the freezing water will kill you after a few seconds. Icebergs lurk below the water and peek above it (weirdly, you can shoot them with your cannons to “release” frozen cargo, which makes absolutely no sense).
At the end of the demo I came across a shipwreck caught in planes of ice, and docked to investigate. A little flock of penguins was gathered on the edge, and they all slipped into the water when I approached. (“Thank you for not trying to kill the penguins,” said a Ubisoft developer at this point, making me wonder what kind of arsehole attackspenguins in a game demo.) I spent five minutes climbing up the ruins of the ship, picking out a path through broken masts and jutting wood. At the top, as Cormac crouched up on high, the Northern lights played out across the sky.
Rogue is a Black Flag remix rather than a step in a different direction, like Unity, but as Black Flag was my favourite Assassin’s Creed in a long while, I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. It’s just a shame we won’t be seeing it on Wii U.