Thursday, November 20, 2014

Assassin's Creed: Rogue (spoiler) review

     I've already reviewed the game here but it's one of those which benefits from having its story analyzed in detail. Assassin's Creed: Rogue is, in my opinion, one of the three best video games in the franchise. It, Assassins Creed 2 and Black Flag, are my "holy trinity" of stabbing dudes. I say this as a massive fan of Assassins Creed 3 and Brotherhood.


    The story.

    Rogue follows Shay Cormac as he goes from being a French-aligned privateer in the service of the Assassins to an English-aligned privateer in the service of the Templars. Shay Cormac is the ultimate enemy of the Assassins and the Templar's version of Darth Vader, showing the game's traditional enemy has teeth. This is already a good premise as seeing things from the Templar side of things has long been a request of fans.

    How this comes about is why the story is awesome.

The ever-present cold symbolizes Shay's emotional devastation. There is no peace of traitors, even when treason is the moral good.
    It would have been easy for the game to give us a group of evil Assassins and good Templars, less muddying the waters than showing they were groups of individuals. Instead, the game takes a more daring route by portraying the Assassins as they've always been depicted in the games.


    Sort of.

    The game deconstructs video game morality by taking apart the blind self-righteousness of the Assassins. They are good, the Templars are evil. The Assassins never question this fundamental truth and tirelessly pursue their eternal war with the Templars regardless of how many people die in the process. This is not a new idea as, in Brotherhood, Lucrezia Borgia points out Lorenzo de Medici was a monster. The novels mention Caterina Sforza, one of Ezio's love interests, was a murderer of children.

    Shay is a rough and tumble guy, having spent most of his life on the streets. He, more than most Assassins, is the kind of guy who is aware of the ambiguities which define life. It's ironic that for a group which has its motto, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" they are blind to the nuances of morality.

Achilles lecturing Shay is a tragedy because he never imagines he has not the power nor the wisdom to handle the beast he's about to unleash.
    When we meet the Colonial Assassins, they are a likable bunch of rogues and outcasts. Two black men, a Native American, a woman, and a couple of Irishmen are about the most representative of people squashed by the Man as you can get in the 17th century. There's also a French nobleman but no one likes him. The game predisposes you to respect them by using Achilles and Adewale, both individuals we've come to like and respect from previous games.

    Then it pulls the rug out from under you.

    Some reviewers have called the event which separates Shay from the Brotherhood as cheap. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake is an event caused by the Assassins playing with the Pieces of Eden but isn't something they could have foreseen.

    I think this is missing the point as it's not the Lisbon Earthquake which causes Shay to leave the Assassins but their reaction to it. Achilles blames Shay for doing something wrong then says they have a responsibility to continue pursuing the Pieces of Eden no matter what. In other words, he cannot accept the possibility the Assassins were behind the deaths of innocents. They're the good guys, after all. When Achilles orders Shay to be killed, no one questions the Mentor.

    Not even the entire town.

    At a word, Shay is to die.

The Assassins call Shay a monster for turning against them. But, really, they're just mad because he won't die like other Templars.
    They are, in simple terms, fanatics.

    Lovable fanatics, but fanatics.

    Even so, why join the Templars? Why turn against your former friends and allies before hunting them down like a dog? The Templars, after all, are after many of the things the Assassins are, including the Pieces of Eden. Here, I think its ambiguous as Shay doesn't so much join the Templars as slip into them.

    Shay starts waging war against their agents because they're behind the gangs menacing the people of New York, which is a Devil's bargain that makes them no better than the Borgia, before they start hunting him. The Templars win Shay over with their urban renewal project and the fact the Assassins hunt him first. Shay can't take five steps in New York without someone jumping out of the bushes to try and gut him.

    In that respect, the Assassins bit off more than they could chew. In the end, the destruction of the Colonial Assassins is a tragedy but it's an escalating one. To protect his new friends, men who'd stand by him, Shay turned against the Assassins. It's no coincidence the Assassination contracts are defensive ones. Shay doesn't hunt the Assassins for much of the game, he protects Templars against them. By the end of the game, he IS hunting Assassins and seeking Pieces of Eden. So has he fallen from grace or does he feel now, this is the only way?


    The answer is left to the player.

    The depiction of the Templars in Rogue is fascinating because, like the Assassins, we don't see them changed from their usual way. The Templars are still arrogant, power hungry, manipulative, and privileged. The thing is, we also get a good dose of how those qualities make them qualified leaders. With the exception of the Borgia, Vidic, and WW2 Templars; one thing has always united the Templars and that's their belief they are working for the greater good. They claim to use their power to benefit others.

    The thing is, Rogue shows they actually do. It's possible Colonel Monro and Shay are the exceptions rather than he rule but there's no reason to assume so. When compared to so many corrupt and ruthless monsters throughout history, the fact the Templars bother to make sure the masses are fed puts them above most.

Heroes or villains?
    Yet, the Assassins tirelessly persecute the anti-slavery pro-economic prosperity Templars over other ruthless tyrants simply because they're Templars. At the start of the game, the Assassins have Shay murder two helpless old men simply because of their allegiance (one who was already dying).

    Food for thought.

    I think all fans of the series will love the game these issues. It's a very human story with a lot going on for it. What's the best summary for it? I believe The Dark Knight says it best: You either die a hero or live long to become the villain. The question is whether it's Shay or the Assassins who became such.


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  1. I think the Lisbon event was the final straw for Shay in regards to the assassins, he always had his doubts about what they do, seeing the flaws of their teachings in how they preach about how everything is permitted and yet their actions seem to contradict this, especially when James Wardrop says his last words, that to me shook Shay to his core. I loved how that line was said in a self serving way but yet was valid in other contexts.

    There is much context in the writing in this game, and the fact much is left to gamers to make up their own minds is what gives this game depth to me on a personal level, as well as being fun and having interesting characters helps to maintain tension and interest from start to finish. That to me is the greatest a work of fiction can achieve. Being both enjoying and also making you think and reflect.

    1. I completely agree. I think this is the best writing the game has had in a long time and the most interesting story they've done alongside Edward Kenway's journey in Black Flag. Shay's journey ends in a very ambiguous place and it's left to the gamer to judge whether or not he's unwittingly served an evil cause in the long run or become corrupted. I hope they do a sequel because I'd like to see where Shay ends up.

  2. The Templars aren't necessarily anti-slavery. People assumed from Black Flag that Laureano Torres was speaking for all Templars. But in ROGUE, Lawrence Washington is a slaveowner and openly described as one, he is also a high ranking respected Templar. I would say one or two Templars are sincere abolitionists but that is about as far as it goes, since the reality of the 18th Century Economy means that there is no way you can be a Templar, crave order, wealth and influence and not condone, enable and/or participate in the slave trade.

    1. I think the games imply the Templars are "vaguely" anti-slavery in a way the Assassins are much more passionate about. After all, Liberation has the Templars make use of an underground railroad which has people used as indentured servants before joining a Templar community. Likewise, it can't have just been Governor Torres because Woodes Rogers was kicked out of the Templars for slave-trading. Of course, historically, slave-owners were looked at differently than slave-traders. You could be a respectable one of the former (and often were) while the latter were considered scum in the 18th century. So slavery is probably frowned upon in the Templars rather than outlawed.

    2. That might be the case. It is a fact that abolitionism never gained ground in England until it stopped being necessary for economic profit. For the Templars to bleat on about progress and order, especially in the New World, they would have had to support slavery in practice, for all they might disavow it with words.

      The French and Indian War was fought by two slave owning colonial empires, with the French being overall marginally better in terms of relationships with the Native Tribes than the English. Their defeat meant that Indian tribes no longer had another power to turn to stop expansion. So the Assassins do have a point in supporting them in the game and the English victory, even for the tribes that did support them backfired in the long run(after the war, the English introduced the famous poison blankets).

      It's a pity that having given you a playable Templar they didn't have you really go down a dark side in the darker episodes of the French and Indian War.

  3. At the end Shay is willing to kickstart the revolution even though thousands will die. By the End I'd say Shay is the villain fully willing to commit mass murder and that he is indeed a monster. Also in AC3 Achilles warns Connor against rushing forwards like he can do no wrong or rush forward because the cause is perfect. He's learned his lesson, unlike Shay.

    Another thing to realize is that the Templars really DON'T care. Haytham, when offered a chance to end the bloodshed not only tries to manipulate his son but put an incompetent (Lee's only skills were as a general, whereas for his faults washington was a good politician) in charge of the new nation even though he knows Lee isn't really suitable. The Templars Johnson tries to force Natives to sell land at gunpoint, so his concern is patronizing white man's burden

    A major reason Achilles didn't believe Shay is that Shay accused him of DELIERATELY causing Lisbon's destruction. He says "do you want me to smite any other cities". And Shay tried to steal the manuscript right away rather than simply trying to talk to Achilles again later. That's why it's tragic. If both Shay and Achilles had calmly talked things out, than the whole split could have been averted.

    Finally, it's heavily implied Achilles only became a jerk after the death of his family. In his scene before stealing the manuscript he states that the death of his family doesn't give achilles the right to be a jerk.

    All in all the Templars are still worse than the assassins. The assassins are able to admit when they are wrong (Achilles does in the end) whereas the templars never admit their mistakes and when the cause mass death tend to be deliberate.

    It's Assassins Grey, Templars black.

    Another important thing; any arrangement that has a small group of people with no accountability controlling everything is always going to be corrupt to the core. Inevitably the Templars will stop giving a shit and only care about themselves

    1. Eh, the problem with blaming Shay for the French Revolution is the French Revolution's Terror and thousands of deaths are contrasted with the fact it outlawed slavery. Conservative counter-revolutionary narratives to the contrary, the Revolution started as a fairly civil affair before it went utterly nuts (in large part because the King was going to betray all of his previous agreements and crush the rebellion with Austrian troops--hence his execution for treason).

      This, obviously, is not the narrative forwarded by Assassin's Creed: Unity but even there, the Assassins and the Templars are WORKING TOGETHER to bring about the Revolution. At least under Mirabeau. There's no Pro-Royalists amongst either faction, much like there's no side supporing slavery. We can't really know if Shay would be a Saint Germaine follower or Elise's dad. All we know is he supports a Revolution in Europe as a counter to the Assassin-supported one in America. Which is bizarre, really, as Connor and Haytham both supported the Revolution too.

      Shay and Achilles' falling out is brought about by Shay's PTSD combined with anger and guilt but it's also not helped by the fact the latter orders Shay's death without sufficient investigation of events as well as continues pursuit of the Precursor device despite TWO previous earthquakes which killed thousands. One could be passed off as a coincidence but two in such close proximity shows Achilles showing gross misjudgement as the Colonial Mentor.

      Also, I love the Assassins but "Another important thing; any arrangement that has a small group of people with no accountability controlling everything is always going to be corrupt to the core." The problem with that is the Assassins have the same position of zero accountability. Likewise, their claims of freedom are wonderful but always fall short when you remember that they kill the Templars because of their beliefs. Usually, the Templars are up to something nefarious but the Assassins mono-focus on them and refusal to reach any kind of accord is, IMHO, the manipulation of Juno. The fact the worst of the Templars deeds (WW2 being a fake war have been wiped away is helpful to the moral ambiguity).

      I say this, knowing 90% of the time, the Templars are asshats and the Assassins heroic.

  4. I'm personally not a fan of the story. For one, the reason the Shay defected has to do with Earthquakes & 1st civilization artifacts. After the confusion that the previously hypnosis & mindcontrol stuff can do that, I feel it's contrived because a Templar could have just as well activated it & Shay remain an Assassin in revenge. Shay's constant "I make my own luck" (Odd as he doesn't really do that) seems to convey a theme of luck going through the game but I'm only left thinking it's contrived that luck is all that determines good or bad.

    Another problem I have is regarding the Templar philosophy. The game didn't really dive into it. Compared to Haytham's sequences in 3, I didn't feel the Templar. It's not just the gameplay being the same as another Assassin game. It's the behavior of the characters leading me to wonder "Okay, Assassins are bad because Earthquake, how are Templars good?" & leave me puzzled at how so little of the Templars' philosophy of purpose & order was explored. As Darby said: "One thing that confused me about Rogue actually was the line "We don't have the right to decide people's fate." Since Templars DO believe that. So Shay is actually arguing the Assassin POV here. He should have started his own Order." Maybe it was intentional that Shay, a Templar, represents the Assassin ideals better than the actual Assassins but that only makes me think "So Templars are good only when they're Assassins?". Ironically, that & Shay causing a revolution at the end of the game, likely killing thousands just like the Earthquake but intentional this time, made me think Shay's story makes the Templars seem evil & Assassins good no matter what. Years down the line, Shay's just another corrupt Templar. I'm curious what Shay during most of Rogue would have thought of his last sequence self, so eager to kill thousands in a revolution just to get back at Connor.

    Overall, I have an idea of why someone can like the story but I find things too contrived, a surprising lack of exploration of the Templar philosophy & a protagonist I just find to be a raging hypocrite & not compelling. I wish Haytham'd get his own game. I liked his sequences in 3 more than I like Rogue's story.

  5. My perspective on the story is more based around the concept that Shay actually has issues with the Assassins from the beginning which include the fact he questions why killing the Templars is axiomatically a good thing (when George Washington's brother is a sick old man) as well as why they're supporting the French against the English when they're opposing the French in the South (because the Templars are supporting the English in the North--obviously).

    Shay's loyalty to the Templars is probably a good deal of stockholm syndrome, PTSD, and the fact the Templars are playing him like a fiddle. However, I think that adds to the story that Shay is letting himself be played that way. Certainly, the fact the Assassins turn on Shay on a dime and are every bit the mindless killers the Templars want to turn everyone else into is a decent critique.

    Would I have wanted more? Yes. Then again, I'd really have liked a Templar game where you're about building a better civilization and someone make the argument. "Yes, freedom is awesome but you can't have freedom without civilization and why are the Templars worse than any of the other guys you leave alone?" That would seriously hurt the series' penchant for Assassins=Good, Templars=Evil, though. Part of why I think they chickened out and made Shay's reasons for leaving the Assassins be something beyond their control.

    I will disagree with the issue of Shay's involvement in the French Revolution because while Ubisoft clearly wanted that to be a sign he's become evil, the simple fact is the French Revolution should be something the Assassins should have been behind. Robspierre gets a lot of (deserved) flack but he also outlawed slavery and making him part of a sinister cabal is pretty eye-rolling even for this series in terms of historical villain upgrades--especially since he was paranoid about those trying to reverse the revolution. Shay overthrowing the French nobility and being part of what leads to a more representative democracy despite lots of deaths is hard to really say, "oh my god, you monster."

    Then again, I thought V's attempts to do the same thing was eye-rolling.