To the numbers!
Glorious. Every familiar element has been refined: climbing is a joy, sailing is breathtaking, and earning money is a breeze. Combat controls, which have been my constant complaint about the series, are now responsive. The developers even removed the ability to holster four pistols at once, like in AC Black Flag, which I thought was fair since the four shots made things a bit too easy. All these elements combine to make Shay's journey challenging in the right ways (as opposed to because of glitches or shoddy controls).
Shay operates in three areas: traversing the North Atlantic and River Valley requires his ship, the Morrigan, while New York is entirely land-based. Players who favor exploring over advancing the story earn the Fast Travel option to places visited, which becomes convenient later on. In all these places, there are treasures to loot, Viking swords to dig up, Templar artifacts to discover, hunting challenges to complete, and all sorts of other entertaining distractions.
To earn additional money, Shay can collect Prosperity gems, renovate buildings, and conquer gang headquarters scattered throughout the map. Forts, taken initially by sea and then later on by infiltration, are economic zones that contribute to Shay's income. Cash is used to buy weapons, ammunition, and, if one wishes to abstain from personally killing animals, to purchase their skins to craft equipment or outfits.
Meanwhile, ship upgrades require materials such as metal, stone, wood, and cloth. These can be acquired by destroying or boarding enemy ships, looting warehouses, or stealing from supply camps. The naval campaign is also present in AC Rogue, just like in AC Black Flag, but this iteration is much more streamlined: campaigning just means going down the list (until you run into stronger ships, or the game tells you to stop and get back to the main mission).
Since this is an AC game, a tiny part of play time is devoted to the current time period, where the player is a research analyst at Abstergo Entertainment, diving into Sample 17's genetic memories to recreate key points in Shay Cormac's life. The side quests here are simple and diverting, involving repairing computers via puzzle-solving, and finding company tablets lying around. Each discovery offers glimpses of Abstergo's/the Templars' more recent history and goals.
Know thy enemy, et cetera.
The sailing sounds are top-notch, especially the waves when an iceberg gets destroyed. The effects team also did a terrific job with even the most mundane noises, like Shay's footsteps in different types of terrain or guns being reloaded.
A highlight of the game's sounds is the UTTERLY CREEPY stalker effects. In New York especially, the enemy has hidden agents waiting to kill Shay. Usually they're perched on a roof, hidden in haystacks or in sheds, or leaning nonchalantly against a building. When one is nearby, the screen goes blurry, and menacing whispers fill the speakers. At first I was so freaked out that I just ran the hell away, but then I girded my loins, reminded myself that I played Resident Evil (well, watched my brother play Resident Evil), and assassinated my stalkers before they could shank me.
The only thing keeping sound from getting a perfect score is...
Voice Acting: UGH
...Shay's voice. He sounds like he's gargling when he talks. And that's unfortunate, because he's the biggest talker, being the main character and all. His first mate, Christopher Gist, sounds like a self-important balloon. The modern Templar villain, Otto Berg, has a raspy Nazi thing going.
Fortunately, the Assassins sound good, especially younger Achilles, Liam, and Faith. My theory is that the modern Assassins infiltrated Abstergo Entertainment and cast excellent voice actors in the role of Assassins, so players will have aural confirmation of their goodness.
The game tries valiantly to present Shay as a sympathetic rebel with compelling reasons for betraying the Assassins, but Shay's main motivation for his defection appears to be his personal dislike for a couple of Assassins. That, coupled with his severe deficiency in diplomacy, leads to essentially a bloodbath that goes poorly for his erstwhile comrades. The Assassins are presented as bad guys to match Shay's view of them, e.g. those in New York are gang members, but it's just not as convincing as Connor and Haytham's father-son heart-to-hearts. And this is because both Connor and Haytham are charismatic, convinced, and convincing. Shay, however, is a dork.
And in the end, [SPOILER!] the research analyst unspooling Shay's life is presented with a choice: join the Templars or refuse, and this latter choice is presented with a gun. It just highlights the Templar's unwillingness to trust individuals to make their own decisions; they believe they must impose order to save everyone. Ergo: they're still the bad guys, and Shay is still a dork.
No weaknesses noted.
Bonus Category: Glitch Count: 1
I once materialized inside a wall after taking over a fort. Had to reset the game. A micro-annoyance.
TL;DR: An enjoyable entry, thanks to excellent gameplay and controls, despite unsympathetic protagonist.
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