Upgrading Assassin’s Creed: Rogue’s Upgrade System

It’s something of a small miracle how in my post on romanticization I didn’t once bring up pirates, the single most infamous example of the process. When someone says the word “pirate,” the image which typically comes to mind is of the swashbuckling, peg-legged, black-bearded, booty-looting heroes of the high seas, even though real-life pirates were terrifying. Nobody holds Somalian pirates in such kind regard.

Also, I’m a bold-faced liar. That very first sentence makes it seem like I oh-so innocently didn’t think of pirates whatsoever for things which are romanticized, when in reality I deliberately omitted them so that I would have an easy introductory paragraph for this blog post and therefore a smooth-as-sanded-gangplank transition into the video game which inspired this time’s topic, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue.

A little personal information about me: I like tall ships. Like, like them a lot. One could even put super in front of like to more accurately describe my affinity toward the antique vessels. So the first time I played Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and received my own tall ship for the commanding, I shortly after received a summons in the mail to act as defendant against charges for hearing loss incurred after a deafening squeal reverberated throughout the neighborhood, the origin of which was my house.

Then came the greatest news of my life—in the spin-off Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, I got another tall ship! It was like Christmas in July, then celebrating a second Christmas in July two Thursdays later. What more could an enthusiast ask for?

Then came reality…

The second Christmas wasn’t an actual holiday, and all my presents were Chinese knockoffs.

(Rogue isn’t enough name to be able to make stupid jokes from, so for inspiration, I’ll be tapping into a memory from an old job, where I once dealt with a customer who drove a Nissan Rogue but swore up and down that it was spelled Rodge, pronounced like Rodger, but without the r. So that random lady, even though she’ll never know about it, gets to leave her mark on the world through a stupid running gag in this blog post.)

Rodge sits pretty low on my tier list of AC games I’ve played. It takes the worst parts of AC3, waters down the best parts of White Flag, and splices them into a Frankenstein of unremarkable, unmemorable quality. I don’t remember any of the naval battles from Rodge, but I sure as hell remember my first encounter with El Impoluto.

I could harp on about why I didn’t like it, but everyone does reviews, but not as many people pluck a segment from a game and observe it waaaay too closely underneath a microscope. That’s right. We here at CCC Yabbering like to think we’re some sort of special.

Anyway, let’s start with the combat.

There’re two types of combat in Red Flag and Rodge: the traditional sword-to-sword combat where you swat at a bunch of guards who take turns dueling you one at a time, and the pirate ship combat where you fire cannons, ram the prow into hulls, fire mortars, and treat your enemies to flaming rum before kneeing them overboard. It’s a cannon blast, but the pertinent point is how victory in sea skirmishes is determinant on your skill.

Compare and contrast an RPG like Dark Souls versus one like the classic Final Fantasy titles. Your level and stats play a fair role in the Souls games, which I’ll get into more later, but by and large, whether you triumph over your foes or become another wall ornament is a product of your ability to outmaneuver and outsword or outmagic them. In turn-based combat like that fundamental to most FF editions, on the other hand, your level and stats are king. If you’re level 20 and encounter an enemy who’s level 40, your day is probably gonna end with you as a wall ornament.

Yellow Flag and Rodge aren’t RPGs by any stretch of the genre or its respective mechanics, but they both do feature an upgrade system where you pillage enemy vessels for money and supplies to pimp out your own ship. However, upgrades aren’t core to the combat. They’re just there to determine which numbers you throw at your opponent and which numbers they throw back. That in and of itself isn’t bad, as each new deck-out to your ship busts you over the head with a dopamine rush and tangible evidence that you’re making progress in something. But Rodge carries over the same ship mechanics and the same upgrades from Green Flag, and therein lies the rub.

I played Rodge after Purple Flag, so coming off my first pirate gig, I was an expert sea captain who could make even enemy galleons do a 180 back to port. But in Rodge, when I challenged said powerhouse ship, I got my booty plundered and then my other booty handed to me. Not from any changes to the ship design or combat, but because I didn’t have the proper upgrades. My numbers weren’t high enough.

Upgrades are a curious thing. As mentioned, they’re an easy sign of progress on the player’s part, and it gives them something extra to work toward while they’re doing their usual romping about. But they also affect which sections of the game are accessible. In this sense, they’re keys, albeit soft ones.

You can’t enter Snowhead Temple until you know the Goron’s Lullaby, Peach Wilkins won’t let you through to the Smuggler’s Hideout until you’ve found the camera, and you can’t leave Cerulean City until you’ve stood up to the wrath of Misty’s Starmie. These are what I’m dubbing hard keys, which are the conditions you need to meet to waltz through whatever obstacle is barricading your progress. I might get into these another time, but I’m bringing them up now to contrast soft keys, which is what upgrade systems create.

This specific example has been talked about in better, more interesting ways, but there’s a soft key at the beginning of Dark Souls right after the game drops you at the Firelink Shrine. You have two ways to go, the first of which is the cemetery way. There’s no NPC standing there who says, “HALT! YOU CANNOT GO THIS WAY! IT IS TOO DIFFICULT FOR YOU! COME BACK WHEN YOU’RE LEVEL 30.” That would be a hard key. Instead, there’re skeletons who will beat you over your head with their femurs, rip out your own femurs, then beat you over the head again with them. After forty-eight attempts, you’ll wander off, thinking there has to be an easier way, and come across some zombies who’ll soak up the rays as you wail on them with their femurs.

This soft key early on in Dark Souls acts as a switchback to funnel the player to the leg of the game they’re supposed to be legging it through, and since it allows the player to retain their sense of agency by “deciding” to try their luck with the zombies, it creates a more organic environment. The stubborn nature of the skeletons also leaves an impression on the player, so once they’re properly leveled up and equipped, they won’t forget twice about coming back to give those skeletons the one-two and showing ’em who’s top undead thing around.

But perhaps the biggest selling point of angry skeletons vs. invisible wall NPC is that sufficiently skilled players or those drooling for a challenge can prance into the cemetery with nothing to their name but a dagger and raggedy cloak and skip over a sizable chunk of the game for the time-being. It doesn’t cut out all that you have to do, but in a hypothetical game, this does create the possibility of sequence breaking for experienced players if they’ve got the chops to go toe-to-toe with the game’s toughest baddies.

This leads me back round to Rodge and its galleons, which I had combated hundreds of times before, and when you’ve done something enough, you grow reasonably confident that you’re able to pull it off no sweat. It’s this intuitive belief I had which created the disconnect I felt having to raise the white flag through seeming no fault of my own. You could argue that I just suck at pirating and could sink any vessel I come across once I’ve got approximately 10,000 hours of practice under my belt, which is a valid argument, so let’s pretend for a moment that I do buff my skills to pirate and can sink one whole galleon with nothing but my flintlock and dashing good looks. To perfectly illustrate the result of this, I would like to direct your attention to a bonus boss in Tales of Zestira. Spoilers.

At the center of the bonus dungeon is a dragon skeleton just doing what skeletons do best and chilling, and after torturing yourself by completing this bonus dungeon, the dragon skeleton returns to life, and you face what’s either one of the hardest bosses in the game or one of the easiest. See, Mr. Draco Bones hits likes like a runaway eighteen-wheeler in the Rockies, and if you fight him head-on, you’ll have a very bad day.

There’s a glaring flaw in Mr. Draco Bones’s battle strategy, however, and it’s that he only fights on a 90° axis, so if you stand at a 45° angle, you’ll be a cat to his dog chained to a post. This makes it possible to survive this fight without needing to grind another 50 or so levels, but it also makes the fight a test of patience that even a saint would struggle with. It took me half an hour to beat this boss, and that was just half an hour of slowly whittling away its health by poking it with arrows. As I stated in Part I of my trilogy on Fragile Dreams, time consumption is not a substitute for difficult, so I wouldn’t find galleons—or any high-stat enemy in any game, for that matter—worth getting into scuffles with if it takes upwards of half an hour to beat them.

Duking it out against Rodge’s galleons all but requires that your ship be loaded with the sturdiest plywood and blowiest cannons if you want to avoid a slog of a skirmish, so you essentially need to buy your way to victory, which highlights how the game’s upgrade system practically strips away the need on the player’s part to improve.

It’s a guarantee that in any game you’ll get a hold on the mechanics and arrive at a level of competency where your skill plateaus unless you go out of your way to improve. My favorite platformer in recent years is Celeste, which is an occasionally somber and occasionally heartwarming but always colorful and all-around inspiring indie title with the sole goal of reaching the peak of a mountain. But beyond the endless praise I could heap onto it and its lovely soundtrack, it fits nicely here as an example because your character has a set number of actions they can perform, and those couple of moves are all you’ve got for the entire game. Whenever you walk into a room that decides it’s going to kick you in your gluteus maximus approximately sixty-seven times before letting you through, it’s up to you to get your hops right if you want to see how many beatings the next room plans on giving. There’s an assist mode if you absolutely need it, but you won’t find a hookshot lying around to drag yourself over half the game’s hardest jumps.

None of this is to suggest that I’m vehemently opposed to upgrade systems and RPG elements in non-RPGs. In Bastion, another indie darling of mine, when you find a new weapon, then upgrade it, there’s always a sense of satisfaction which comes with taking your lightning-bearing, quake-causing, sun-blotting, child-protecting hammer of obliteration and pulverizing swarms of baddies into subatomic particles. This makes the game too easy when you do new game+, which is recommended if you want the full story experience, but it compensates for this with the inclusion of Spirits, which up the difficult through a myriad of combat conditions.

So, would I have felt more content with Rodge’s combat with the inclusion of something like Bastion’s Spirits? Arguably, but they would have to be available at the start of the game, and since those are unlockables requiring almost full playthroughs in the aforementioned example, it would be a moot point if they’re included how Bastion include them.

While we’re discussing fixes and I don’t have more to add that isn’t a discussion on existing mechanics, let’s pretend we’re experienced game designers capable of turning this beast into a civilized aristocrat. There’s no guarantee that the player will tackle this game after Turquoise Flag, but we’ll assume that’s the case, though it won’t matter for reasons you’ll see in a minute.

There’re two routes we can drive down if we maintain the skeleton and muscle of the design, the first being to switch up your ship’s arsenal. Handing players a brand-new weapon is a quick, easy way to freshen up the gameplay. A sniper rifle plays differently from a shotgun, so it’s a whole, unexplored world to pick off baddies from the neighboring town’s bell tower when you’ve spent the last four hours flossing their teeth with buckshot. Even if we airlift the schooners and whatnot from Maroon Flag, players will need to relearn how to sink those baddies.

The second option is to do the opposite and hire a new red shirt army to face down. If you’ve got a sword, murder scene investigators will deduce your modus operandi for killing as slashing a baddie into tender ribbons, but once you come across one who recently went on a shopping spree to Forever Armored, suddenly you have to stop and rethink how you’ll keep demand for the crime investigation industry up.

The massive barricade barricading us from tweaking Rodge, aside from the fact that a.) the game’s long since completed and b.) Ubisoft wouldn’t hire us even if Ezio fell from the roof of a three-story apartment complex and sang all our praises on a lute, is that Rodge’s time period doesn’t make a lot of wiggle room for bolting ray guns to the poop deck.

Now that I’ve gotten this far into the post, I’ve come to the realization that I’ve created this awkward dimension for this mechanic to exist in. The assumption on any developer’s part should be that their game is the first thing the player has ever picked up and as such should lay out everything to accommodate those newcomers, but everything I’ve discussed here assumes the opposite, that the player has done this song and dance before and is ready to crank their dance step to 150 beats per minute. It’s a unique scenario and one you can’t even expect for sequels (2 million more gamers bought Halo 2 than Combat Evolved, and 3 million more players bought 3 than did 2), and I’m not sure how to comment on it. I feel as though I were stitching together a teddy bear but somehow made an abomination that’s harmless but has this problem with staring at me all hours of the day.

But game design is a tricky machine that needs to be inspected from all angles. Developers need to consider how their game pans out for new players, but they should also throw some bones for old ones as well. I have yet to play it, but Toki Tori 2 is a metroidvania where progression is based on your knowledge on how the game’s systems interact versus the usual find-item-clear-obstacle-with-it shtick. Newbies will see all the game’s content, but replayers can skip entire chunks if they so please.

The upgrade system in Aquamarine Flag is barrels of fun, and it’s barrels of fun in Rodge, too, once you get your ship back up to snuff, but before then, it feels like the game’s shackling you down until you’ve paid your dues. Guess I should count my lucky doubloons it didn’t tie an iron ball to those shackles and throw me off the gangplank, because wouldn’t this be an interesting article, since dead men allegedly tell no tales?

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