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'Assassin's Creed: Rogue' a bland holiday entry for venerable series

You play as Shay Patrick Cormac, a newly minted Assassin who seems to be a little more surly than most of his peers. After a mission ends with devastating consequences, Shay turns against the brotherhood, throws his lot in with the Templars and ends up hunting down his former colleagues.

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By BRIAN BOWERS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 11, 2014

When you compare the Caribbean to Canada, you think of sand vs. snow. Bob Marley vs. Justin Bieber. And Blackbeard vs. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

So don't go looking for the pirates of the Caribbean in Canada. I learned that lesson with “Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.”

Ubisoft's adventure game spans the gap between the piratical escapades of “Assassin’s Creed IV: The Black Flag” and the Revolutionary War tale of “Assassin’s Creed III.”

When I heard that, I envisioned more fun in the tropics — plundering Spanish galleons, hobnobbing with Blackbeard and searching for Mayan artifacts. I was hoping for “Black Flag — Part 2” — a continuation as the best Assassin adventure ever. Instead, I got something much more like “AC III: Part 2” — a continuation of the franchise's least appealing episode. Sure, you can engage in most of the same basic activities as "Black Flag," but the atmosphere and the storyline are much more bleak — sometimes even bland — so it just isn’t as fun.

“Rogue” focuses on the era dominated by the French and Indian War. Apparently, it wasn’t just a time of imperial muscle-flexing by European powers. It was also a time of especially vicious fighting between the freedom-loving Assassin’s and the order-minded Templars.

You play as Shay Patrick Cormac, a newly minted Assassin who seems to be a little more surly than most of his peers. After a mission ends with devastating consequences, Shay turns against the brotherhood, throws his lot in with the Templars and ends up hunting down his former colleagues.

The game is available only on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 — two venerable consoles that are still used by millions of people. However, it definitely seems that these gamers got the short end of the stick when you compare “Rogue” to the new “Assassin’s Creed: Unity,” which is available only on the newer Xbox One and PS4. 

Of course the graphics are far superior and certain elements of gameplay are more refined in “Unity.” But that must be excused since the new consoles represent seven more years of technological advancement.

And it seems that most of the gameplay elements from “Black Flag” have found a home in “Rogue.” You can still engage in countless sword fights, attack forts, board ships, search for treasure and even harpoon whales. (It’s the 1750s so I guess it’s OK.)

So the problem lies beyond the game’s mechanics. It lies in the story and setting.

Shay’s tale is darker than the typical Assassin adventure. Most of the previous games featured heroes who were driven by vengeance. And many of them faced serious run-ins with their brotherhood’s leaders or at least held them at arm’s length for much of the game. Trouble in Assassinland is pretty much a running theme in the series. However, the other games turned this into part of the adventure without making it a drag.

In addition, the "Rogue" story has some major continuity problems. It seems to conflict with what we've learned in previous games and isn't even consistent within itself. Through Shay and his new companions, we get a much closer look at the Templars and their cause, which involves keeping a lid on chaos and searching for artifacts from a human civilization that flourished eons ago.

Over the years, the franchise has given us plenty of reason to hate the Templars as repressive thugs. For example, in one previous game, Lucrezia Borgia was a Templar while Leonardo da Vinci helped the Assassins. So, in order to present Shay as a hero, "Rogue" turns things upside down.

The Assassins are now depicted as murderous anarchists bent on literally shaking the earth. Of course this runs counter to almost everything we've been shown in previous games. This is confusing enough, but it gets worse as you dig into the obligatory side story about the Templars' modern front company known as Abstergo. This portion of the game makes it clear that 21st-century Templars are, indeed, the reprehensible goons we've come to know and hate. I guess we're supposed to believe that the two orders swapped characteristics for a generation back in the mid-1700s.

Perhaps the story would have been more cohesive if the game weren't so short. A typical "Assassin's Creed" game consists of about a dozen sequences. "Rogue" has only six. A little more exposition might have explained why the Assassin's are such asses this time around.

Finally, the setting is a major comedown from “Black Flag.” It’s dreary and unappealing. To be honest, you spend more time in New York than Canada — but it isn’t much better. Much of your time in the colony is spent in places like Albany and Sleepy Hollow, which are presented as squalid little burgs with little to do. And not only isn’t the Big Apple all that big, we spent a lot of time there in “AC III,” which leads to a serious feeling of déjà vu.

The segments on the high seas also fall short. The main problem is that you’re just as likely to be sailing through a confined river valley as the open ocean. And when you are on the ocean, you're usually surrounded by icebergs and fog. This all adds to the tedium and detracts from the sense of adventure.

I’m am also disappointed that developers chose to reinvigorate the Absertgo storyline. I was glad to see the virtual elimination of the 21st-century elements in “Unity.” I wasn’t pleased to see it revived in “Rogue.” You see, you don’t actually play an “Assassin’s Creed” game as Shay or any of the franchise’s other heroes. You play as a 21st-century tech geek who’s plugged into a contraption known as an Animus, which allows you to enter the genetic memories of the game’s hero. And these modern folks engage in their own skullduggery, which means a set of missions that doesn’t have much to do with the game’s actual hero.

As a result, these modern segments — which tend to be tedious — interrupt the flow of the primary story. I have to admit that Abstergo is a key element in the Assassin universe that Ubisoft has created. However, the games would be much more fun if Ubisoft skipped this step and let you play directly as the game’s hero — like in every other video game.

I have to admit that none of this actually adds up to a bad game and I did have some fun. However, I had much more fun swashing my buckles in the game’s predecessor.

Bottom line: “Assassin’s Creed: Rogue” represents a departure from the franchise’s norm, but that’s not a good thing in this case.

bowers.brian@stripes.com

Rating: Mature, for violence
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Online: assassinscreed.ubi.com

Much of your time in the colony is spent in places like Albany and Sleepy Hollow, which are presented as squalid little burgs with little to do. And not only isn’t the Big Apple all that big, we spent a lot of time there in “AC III,” which leads to a serious feeling of déjà vu.
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