Assassin's Creed Rogue review: Avast ye, clone!

PS3, Xbox 360

Here are just some of the things you can do in Assassin's Creed Rogue: climb a tower, hunt a whale, hide in a haystack, steer a ship in a storm, stick a sword through a man's eye socket, air-assassinate a fox, fight off a boarding party.

If the opening of this review sounds mostly familiar, it's because it was mostly copied from our review of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. This was done to illustrate a point: If you're looking to Rogue to bring something fresh to the table, keep pillaging elsewhere. Assassin's Creed Rogue is essentially a clone of Black Flag's setting and systems.

If you can accept rampant copy-and-paste in another full priced entry, you'll more than likely enjoy what Assassin's Creed Rogue has to offer.

Rogue follows the exploits of Shay Patrick Cormac, who begins the game as a loyal member of the 18th century Colonial Assassins brotherhood, until a horrific event causes him to rethink his allegiance. The game dutifully introduces players to a world where templars and assassins race to locate important artifacts that lead the way to ancient temples containing Pieces of Eden, the franchise's favorite MacGuffin. It's this race that leads Cormac, initially a young recruit climbing the ranks as an assassin is wont to do, to the forefront of the conflict.

After Cormac lands in Lisbon in search of an ancient temple, things go awry, and the region suffers a disaster that can only be described as cataclysmic. Blaming his Brotherhood for the events – and the trailers explain this, so it's not necessarily a spoiler – he falls out of favor with the assassins and becomes their number one target. The story ramps up quickly and shows a focus that many Assassin's Creed games unfortunately miss, but then it finds familiar footing and slows to a halt.

Cormac's story is interrupted mid-way through with a series of quests that turn the ruthless former assassin and newly self-professed assassin hunter into an errand boy. His efforts as Colonial FedEx slowly reintroduces him to his purpose: stopping the assassins from finding more temples, potentially leading to more disasters.

In terms of controls, Rogue is identical to Black Flag. Movement takes a nod from the franchise's legacy, where the trigger dictates the climbing command – a system that was altered in the current-gen exclusive Assassin's Creed Unity. And, of course, Shay can utilize his trusty wrist blade to dispatch opponents. The major difference – and a new component for the franchise - is an air rifle weapon and a grenade launcher attachment that Shay acquires post-Assassin fallout. This weapon and be outfitted with various projectiles, including darts and bombs that put enemies to sleep or others that enrage them. The latter is, by far, the best strategic element in Rogue.

In one mission I stalked a former ally to a small village surrounded by enemies. Rather than assassinate my target and fight my way out, I used the air rifle and enraged a group of adversaries near him. Enraged enemies attack anyone they come across, so I sat back as soldiers began to slaughter each other and, in the process, my target. The ability to create chaos from a perch and watch as swaths of would-be obstacles take care of themselves never gets old. I gleefully used the tactic at nearly every opportunity.

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The focus on ship-to-ship ocean combat from Black Flag continues in Rogue. The fighting has been refined, making it a little more simplistic, so Shay's ship, the Morrigan, is easier to steer than Black Flag's Jackdaw. It turns on a dime, allowing you to focus on combat without managing the vessel too much. Ships move faster, cutting down idle travel time in favor of more action. The North Atlantic is littered with enemy ships and the Morrigan is outfitted with a handful of unique tricks. Shay's ship can leave a trail of burning oil behind it, igniting any ship that dares to tuck into its slipstream. In another twist on the Black Flag formula, enemies can now board your ship if theirs get close enough to the Morrigan (or just plain crash into it). Then it becomes a battle to dispatch the invaders on your decks before your crew is killed. These moments can be exciting, but I was rarely boarded. I guess my cannon proficiency was just too good. Overall, however, Rogue maintains the invigorating thrill of battling monstrous ships in the middle of a raging sea.

You can, of course, board enemy ships yourself and, once a set number of crewmen are defeated, the vessel is yours to do with as you please. Has The Morrigan taken too much damage? Strip the captured vessel for parts and repair your ship. Prefer to add some coin to your reserves? Salvage it for a specified amount of money. Or send the ship to your fleet, if you'd like, which allows you to use it in a meta-game set within the Seven Years War. As in Black Flag, this basically amounts to choosing ships and sending them on "missions" with varying levels of success, which adjusts depending on how many you send. Succeeding adds money and supplies to your reserves, which can be used to purchase upgrades for The Morrigan.

Rogue isn't an exact carbon copy of Black Flag, though, as it's missing some significant content. Most unfortunate is the complete lack of multiplayer modes. In a franchise known for its unique multiplayer concepts, the total absence of any multiplayer – not even so much as directly copying Black Flag's existing modes – is both strange and disappointing.

When it was announced, I thought of Assassin's Creed Rogue as the throwaway franchise game of the year – something designed specifically to cater to Xbox 360 and PS3 generation console owners who would otherwise miss the annualized franchise thanks to Unity's Xbox One and PS4 exclusivity. But Rogue is a better built game than Unity, with few glitches (though it's not free of them, and I found some funny ones). Completing the story will only uncover a portion of the world map, with the majority of the environment reserved for ship combat zones, collectible-riddled islands, and other side missions – including a favorite in which you must attempt to hunt down and stop assassins before they kill a target.

Even so, Assassin's Creed Rogue's adventure is shorter than previous games in the series, with a running time closer to the Vita spin-off Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation in terms of campaign completion and extras. It's also missing the franchise's staple multiplayer, which leaves little to focus on after the campaign and collectibles have been exhausted. What remains is a game that feels like a direct continuation of the style and scenarios featured in Assassin's Creed 4. Rogue's gameplay lacks an identity, and feels like it's offering more of the same game for the same $60 price.

Apart from actual missing content, there's a spirit missing from Rogue. The game is constructed almost completely of ready-made pieces first discovered in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. There's little awe to be found, and the game's present day narrative virtually gives up on offering any indication that the storytellers have the faintest idea where their tale is going. The modern element takes place, once again, at essentially the same desk at Abstergo Entertainment. Someone has sent a virus to the company and nearly every machine has been corrupted. But don't worry, the multi-generational arm of the Templar Order has entrusted you with their future; a guy they literally refer to as numbskull throughout the entire game.

The lack of forward progression in the mainline narrative and the removal of elements like multiplayer illustrates the major difference between Rogue and other side-quest adventures Brotherhood and Revelations. Those games took chances, introduced new gameplay elements and proved their value with long and epic adventures that offered players some semblance of franchise momentum. Rogue feels like a stopgap – a cobbled together pile of last year's ideas to offer something to fans that have yet to adopt a PS4 or Xbox One.

Assassin's Creed Rogue is not a bad game, but it is a derivative game. If Abstergo Entertainment is a parody of Ubisoft, Rogue is its Animus – you're just replaying old memories.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Assassin's Creed Rogue, provided by Ubisoft. Images: Ubisoft.

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