Three of us on staff have a habit of disagreeing on...well, almost everything when it comes to Assassin's Creed. So what happens when Kotaku's three AC fanboys sit down with the shortest, least-hyped Assassin's Creed game in years? The unthinkable...
...we actually agree. Well, about most things when it comes to Assassin's Creed Rogue, which was just released for PC (and came out for the Xbox 360 and PS3 last November).
NOTE: The first half of this conversation only covers the first half of AC Rogue and is spoiler-light. We then kick Kirk out and discuss everything. You'll see a big warning before that happens.
Luke Plunkett: OK, so, Assassin's Creed Rogue! Stephen, I read your review last year, and heard all about how good you said it was, but at the time—enjoying Unity and basking in how next-gen it was (in parts, at least)—I couldn't bear to go back and play an "older" game on PS3. So I decided to wait for the PC version. I'm very glad I did, because this is a very good Assassin's Creed game.
Kirk Hamilton: I'm in a similar boat (ship?) to you, Luke. I believed Stephen when he said how good it was, but didn't want to play on an old console. I'm glad I'm playing now, and I'm surprised at just how much I'm liking it. It's great.
Stephen Totilo: Finally, you're both right about an Assassin's Creed!
Luke Plunkett: You're just saying that because this game opens on the Homestead
Kirk Hamilton: Though I had to laugh that an early mission objective was ESCAPE THE HOMESTEAD. I was like, finally, a mission just for Luke!
Luke Plunkett: The thing is, that mission kinda summed up everything that I liked about Rogue's design; yes, it took a lot of content from ACIII (and IV), but it did so smartly, so instead of feeling cheap, or rushed, it often just felt like it was making good on past mistakes, or that you were slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes. Yes, the homestead was there, but it was brief, it served its purpose and then you moved on; if only ACIII had been so ruthless!
Kirk Hamilton: I'm still early, but I keep getting the impression that these missions have been consciously designed taking into account user ratings of the missions from AC IV. There was one "follow mission," but it was short and easy. Other than that, it's been nothing but cool stuff.
Stephen Totilo: The missions are laid out really we. AC Unity was designed for more open-ended missions, which sounded good in theory. I think people were expecting a return to some of the less scripted, pure-gameplay moments of the first Assassin's Creed. But Rogue demonstrates how wonderful it is when designers lay out some good paths for the player while still giving them the liberty to deviate from them.
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah - it lifts a lot of cool mission ideas from previous AC games. Which I find I don't mind! They were fun then, they're fun now. One of the very fist missions has you jumping off your ship mid-stealth-mission to follow along behind an enemy ship while on land, which echoed one of the neater missions in ACIV. The scripted chase sequence in Lisbon was cracking, and felt like some of the better scripted stuff in AC Brotherhood. And so on.
Stephen Totilo: Lisbon was when you knew these guys weren't fucking around. The first big AC game not made by Ubi Monteal? An AC game led by a team that made the AC Vita game? Whatever. They were here to make a statement. This game matters and it's not here to be safe and predictable. Luke, I thought of you when playing the Portugal mission, because I know you're a history buff and figured you would dig how they wove a major historical event into the lore.
Luke Plunkett: I did! I also appreciated the way they once again managed to weave another colonial power into the game without having to break their existing system of "good" and "bad guys" (you met the Portuguese in Assassin's Creed IV for a while, remember). It's also cool how Rogue manages to do that: the game is still clearly based in North America, but the way you deviate from that a few times felt almost like there should have been an Indiana Jones map montage. It's handled cleanly, those sequences are brief and they're worth it.
Kirk Hamilton: Ha, totally. You have to assume that at this point, they've got the assets to re-create so many locations they've already done, so it's much easier and less "wasteful" for the game to include one-offs like the short bits at the homestead, or the Lisbon cathedral/earthquake one-two punch. It makes the game feel so much more confident and willing to mix things up.
Stephen Totilo: I have said this before, but I'll say it again. I love when you get games made late in a console generation, when the devs are comfortable with the tech and can just be creative. I was stunned at how large the game world was, but I was more pleased with how much they played with conventions. You've both mentioned, for example, how excited you were to have your ships gets boarded. Rogue does that a lot, turning the tables on standard AC conventions.
So good, yes?
Luke Plunkett: It's like Kirk said, it's about confidence. It felt like Revelations did for many of the same reasons: being the (presumably) last game in a "series", the developers could afford to both experiment with new stuff while building on what they know worked (and didn't work) from previous games. So all of Rogue's missions were the best kind of missions from ACIII and IV, its story was brief and held together VERY well (unlike III's bloat), its side-missions were plentiful but also serving more clearly-defined purposes. Basically, Rogue is probably as tight a game as Ubisoft are ever make with this older tech.
Kirk Hamilton: Yet they fit so much in, mix in all this multiplayer stuff, so many locations, so many interesting flipped mechanics and narrative inversions. It's tight, but so expansive! And to the confidence thing, I love the way Rogue inverts the old Assassin's Creed trope of finding the precursor relic. It's one of the very first things you do. In other AC games, the story always ends with the discovery of a relic and some new teases about the precursors and the meta-fiction. That's become so predictable. I really liked that they cut the shit and got right to it, then used that as a way to flip everything around.
Luke Plunkett: And now we're getting to what's really good about Rogue, at least from an Assassin's Creed fan's perspective. So many twists and turns, so many changes to the way you view the world and the people in it. Now that I've played as a Templar, I REALLY hope we can do it again soon, because the way you turn in this game felt like a metaphor for how sick people have been getting of the Assassin's Creed series in general.
"Oh, these boring Assassins are getting boring? Ok, well fuck it, now you're a Templar, and everything you thought you know about the series, from its systems to its plot, has now been turned on its head"
Kirk Hamilton: In a sense, that's true, though it also underlines an ongoing problem I've had caring that much about the meta-story. It was also a problem in Unity, and has been an ongoing problem in the series. Can anyone even tell the Assassins apart from the Templars? What characteristics define these people? It used to feel like it kiiiinda made sense (Templars are for imposed order, Assassins are for freedom), but these days I can't even tell. It feels like the motivations of the various orders change to suit the whims of the story. Which is fine, really; I guess it was inevitable that we'd get to start playing both sides.
Luke Plunkett: See, that's what I liked about this! For so many games you've played as Assassins, and your goals have been....what? Find some stuff that does...what? The way your role is explained in Rogue feels like blowing the dust off that story. You're suddenly just stopping these morons—and they're really portrayed as naive morons—from messing with everything.
It's blunt, it's clear.
Stephen Totilo: Sure, but Achilles seems to be more ruthless than you'd expect from the Assassins in this game. Does he seem like the same guy you got mentored by in ACIII? Though maybe that's the point. He's older and wiser in III.
Luke Plunkett: No, and that's my one criticism of the "flip". It feels too drastic.
Kirk Hamilton: This all sounds cool. And I should say, I'm very early in Shay's conversion to Templar-hood.
Luke Plunkett: It also feels weirdly-handled, in that you're being made to feel sympathetic to the Templars on one hand, but on the other the game still goes out of its way to show you that THEY'RE THE BADDIES. I'd have rather seen ubisoft go 100% in, and really make the Templars seem like the good guys. Every last one of them. Leave the ultimate decision of how good they are up to the player.
Kirk Hamilton: If they wanted to make the Templars more sympathetic, I guess they could have had Shay make out with a hot redheaded templar chick at the beginning of the game.
Luke Plunkett: So much of that factional schism is portrayed as a moral quandry in series lore, that both sides think they're doing the right thing, so why not commit to that? You get put off almost instantly when Munro is like "yeah, we're bad guys, but me, I'm not that bad. You and me, we can be good bad guys"
Stephen Totilo: Sure, sure, but can we talk about the platforming? I want to know how it felt to go back from Unity's new parkour to the IV/FreedomCry-style.
Luke Plunkett: I barely noticed the difference. Maybe that's because the "old" controls are so hard-wired into my brain
Kirk Hamilton: I think I spent so long getting used to AC IV's style that this feels more comfortable to me than Unity did. But that doesn't mean it's good. I mean, I still run up trees all the time.
Luke Plunkett: That's as much down to level design than the actual controls, though...IV's strength was that it still had janky platforming, but you were out in the open so much it didn't matter so often. Rogue keeps that going...you wander through tall grass ad over low rooftops more, which gives you less opportunities to get stuck jumping on fences or hopping onto the wrong tree.
Kirk Hamilton: Still, it feels like putting on a familiar old pair of gloves. A weird, funky old pair of gloves with a few too many fingers, that you sometimes put on backward. But still familiar. They're very good about offering you lots of "stalking grounds" in open areas, and good throughlines in towns. And some of the new traversal methods seem cool!
Stephen Totilo: It's nice to whistle again, huh?
Kirk Hamilton: God, is it ever.
Luke Plunkett: Nice to whistle, even nicer to be able to fast walk, which in the end was my biggest frustration with Unity.
Kirk Hamilton: Luke and I were talking about this the other day—every stealth game needs a whistle or a pebble, some inexhaustible way to manipulate the AI. I couldn't believe Unity got rid of that.
Luke Plunkett: What I liked about having that back though was, again, the level design, the way you were given opportunities to use the whistle again. Rogue has SO MANY missions where you're infiltrating a fort, or camp, and I can't remember ever being frustrated with the way the enemy was patrolling, or that they were being cheap about it. So it wasn't just nice having the whistle back, but they were smart about when and where you could use it.
Stephen Totilo: Yeah, weird move on the Unity team's part, but part of what I described as their "atomizing" of AC game design. Everything in that game can be measured in units, sometimes, the better to sell you more units of, sometimes just to limit and challenge you.
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah, I find that I approach missions in Rogue like I did in IV, where I look at the layout, formulate a plan, and execute it. It feels good, fun, and challenging. Sometimes I have to improvise. Sometimes my plan goes perfectly. Often, in Unity, I'd find myself in a room simply thinking "I have no idea." I'd go forward, get spotted, and kinda fail. And then usually stop and go play something else. Not to turn this into a kvetch session about Unity or anything!
Luke Plunkett: Whereas Rogue had SO MANY of those big, open missions, with plenty of places to hide or recover from being spotted, that you never felt like you were being punished for not adhering strictly to their mission design. So long as you got to the other side, or killed the guy you were supposed to kill, who cares how you did it.
Kirk Hamilton: Right. It's partly just setting. It's much easier to work with these controls when you're on a big plantation, as opposed to the inside of a cathedral or whatever. Which also goes to how much less frustrating the controls feel, though they're probably not much better or worse than the new ones in Unity.
Stephen Totilo: Kirk, I'm getting that feeling now that we have to kick you out. It's not because I dislike you, but, just.... there are spoilers that have to be talked about. And you are not ready.
Luke Plunkett: So many spoilers
Stephen Totilo: Think of this as you being booted out into the Abstergo offices!
Stephen Totilo: Luke and I will be remaining in the Animus.
Luke Plunkett: Kirk, can you go downstairs and reboot the servers?
Stephen Totilo: I know you love the modern-day stuff.
Kirk Hamilton: Considering how excited you both are about these spoilers, I'm pretty psyched to see them for myself. But until then, yeah, I will go out into the offices and do some hacking minigames. Godspeed!
Luke Plunkett: *closes door*
Stephen Totilo: Phew. OK.
Stephen Totilo: Luke, we fucking killed Adewale! That was incredible and very sad.
Luke Plunkett: As soon as I saw him in the game, I got sad. I thought Ubisoft, you bastards, you're going to make me kill him, aren't you.
Stephen Totilo: Have you ever done this in a game before? Killed a character you played as in a different game?
Luke Plunkett: A very sad and almost anti-climactic way to off him in terms of the overall canon, perhaps, but it had a big impact on THIS GAME
Stephen Totilo: You did play Freedom Cry, yeah?
Luke Plunkett: Oh yeah, I loved it. Killing Adawele It had such weight to it. Liam, Hope, whatever, you knew what was going to happen the moment you turned, but introducing Adawele was brutal. You'd seen so much of him, played as him, helped him rescue all those slaves...he was a good, good man, and that was baked into the player's understanding of the series. To then turn around and have you kill someone who used to be you, well
Stephen Totilo: Yes. The order of what people are calling the Kenway "trilogy" (it's really four or five games, depending on how you count Freedom Cry and Liberation) is weird, but it's resulted in a really interesting emotional journey for players, one that I dare say has been more satisfying than the Ezio trilogy. When we played as ACIII, we were charmed by Haytham, found his son, Connor, hard to like and didn't really make much of Achilles. At least, that's how I felt. We then played IV and grew fond of Edward and maybe lamented that his son, Haytham, would turn "bad". We met Adewale, too, and played as him in the way you recapped. But this all really hits harder when we get to Rogue, this strange middle chapter, which basically positions America's assassins in need of a hero and puts Achilles in need of redemption while casting Haytham in a more problematic light. In killing Adewale, I think we set ourselves up for—maybe this is corny—wanting or needing Connor to enter the saga and undo some of Shay's actions. In retrospect, Connor feels like a more heroic figure and a triumph of the conflicted Kenway lineage.
Luke Plunkett: Oh, that's definitely what's happening. This entire game exists to add context to not just Assassin's Creed III (which I think it does wonderfully...I envy the kids in 5-10 years' time who can play Rogue first then ACIII), but Unity as well. Which in one way might undermine its own strengths, but if Rogue's DESIGN can come swooping in and improve on ACIII's failings, then I can't see why it can't do the same for its narrative ones as well.
Stephen Totilo: The kids who play III after Rogue are going to be crying at how bad III's inventory system is. Remember how the game basically pauses whenever you want to switch out items? That said, Rogue is extraordinary in how it connects threads from Liberation and then even ties in to Unity. You didn't see that coming I take it.
Luke Plunkett: Nope. Not even with those busted flashbacks. I thought they were going to reuse assets, maybe (and why not, they must be EXPENSIVE), but I didn't consider that they'd be able to link a single character to both Haytham and Arno. As for the final kill, for a brief moment I was terrified it was going to be Assassin's Creed's "midi-chlorians" moment, but it was actually handled rather well.
Stephen Totilo: No, I mean... I can just say it, right? Because we are in the spoiler zone... you stroll into Unity and kill the protagonist Arno's dad! Which left me dying, no pun intended, for more Shay adventures.
Luke Plunkett: Oh yeah, definitely. The lone wolf, out on his own in the big wide world, with a mission to complete and a long list of people to kill.
It also helps that, by actually following a single character for that long, you grow attached to him as a CHARACTER, in a way I probably haven't been since Ezio's journey from young punk to smooth older gentleman. He's not just an avatar with some quips, you've seen (and been involved) with most of his major life decisions, so you can relate to his scars and grey hair and jaded worldview.
Stephen Totilo: One weird aspect of open-world design is that they can't really change the state of a character, so as I thought about it, I realized that he wasn't going to be able to revert back to Assassin. Just for him to be able to do any uncompleted side missions, he had to stay Templar. It's impressive that they could hold him off from being a Templar even as long as they did without breaking the design. I really enjoyed the inversion of gameplay mechanics, of now hunting people who were hiding, of having to worry about Assassins jumping down from rooftops. I can't think of many anti-stealth games that I've played.
I am really hungering for more and yet, if you think back to when I was playing this game, Rogue was released with barely any comment from Ubisoft and I have little faith they'll advance much of what they have here. Rogue is, best I can tell, an accident of Ubi hedging their bets to make a last-gen AC in case the new-gen platforms hadn't taken off by late-2014. It's a game obsessed with franchise lore that was released at a time when Unity signaled Ubisoft's desire to mention as little of the animus, Juno, Desmond and the modern era as possible.
Luke Plunkett: 1) I actually didn't enjoy that "Assassin" hunting as much as you did, because it was so often busted; they'd glitch jumping off a bench, or something janky would happen when I tried to stab one. It also felt like a very strange kind of collectible, in a way, in that very rarely were those guys and gals directly impeding your progress; it felt like I had to go out of my way to actually find and kill one. I like it in theory, though, and would like to see them try it again when they (hopefully) let you play as a Templar again later in the series (though maybe next time they can drop the pretense of them being "gang members").
2) I actually think Rogue signals the best way forward with the game's "lore". Unity did the right thing by ditching the modern stuff, because as Rogue shows, even keeping it to a minimum is still intrusive and continually breaks the pacing of the game. What Rogue does so well is double down on the historical lore; all those cameos and twists and turns involving 18th century people you know, love and hate are the story elements I think more people (myself included) want to see explored, rather than wasting time on the modern characters.
Stephen Totilo: Dude. Shaun Hastings is great! Don't knock Shaun. He writes some mighty good database entries.
But, sure, I like the modern stuff but would be okay losing it if they'd keep stitching more of the historical stuff together. I liked seeing Altair again in Revelations, for example. So, sure, more of that.
Luke Plunkett: Or Shay in Unity 2!
Stephen Totilo: Do you think Rogue was too big? You're not a sidequest guy, so you probably don't care much. But I do wonder if they goofed in making two massive sailing overworlds. Naturally, I will eventually return to the game to sidequest it to 100%!
The campaign was short, and maybe the right length, but the game's overall map is massive.
Luke Plunkett: Yeah, I think they got it half-right. The campaign felt like almost the perfect length. I never really felt like I was spinning my wheels too long in any one place, and it was brief enough that the story never lost its thread, which must be a first for an Assassin's Creed game
But the side stuff is, again, a bloated mess. It seems to exist only for crazy completionists. They try and lure everyone into attempting them, by offering blueprints and money, etc, and tempting you with gear, but you can easily complete the game without any of that fancy tech, and with only some above-average weapons.
So what's the compulsion to actually go and do all that tedious stuff? It's not like Skyrim, where there's a single coherent world. And it's not like you need to do any of it to provide any real benefit to the main game. They're just points on a map that you visit so that there's no longer a point on your map.
Stephen Totilo: Well, no, you're wrong.
If you care about the deepest parts of the lore, they are rewarding. The war letters, the cave paintings, etc do connect some of the series' elements. But, you might say, the game is giving you busy-work to access short text entries and images, that's dumb. Maybe, if the paths to those things aren't enjoyable. And I've found that, for whatever reason, I enjoy the quasi-physical feelings of free-running and sailing my way to this or that thing to collect. I was disappointed by the hunting quests I did, because those felt like missions designed with a spreadsheet, but Ubi's designers have gotten good at tucking collectibles in places that are fun to get to—and in the case of recent AC games, tucking them in places that are beautiful to look at.
I know, though, that I am indeed a crazy completionist. So let's end this by indulging with one of your AC manias: the naval missions. Top flight, yes?
Luke Plunkett: Very much so. They played to the setting very well; the Seven Years War wasn't on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, but it was still fun being in the middle of a larger naval stoush. The two big missions where you sail into the thick of it, cannons blazing, the fog of war all around you, were awesome.
Stephen Totilo: Indeed. Well, Luke, I'm glad your March finally lived up to my November. Let's do this again if they ever make another Assassin's Creed!
Luke Plunkett: Next year, in Jerusalem! (Or, well, London)
Stephen Totilo: To the moon!