Just for the sake of being a grump, I’m not convinced “Rogue Agent” is a very good title for Rogue Agent. Maybe it’s because it conjures up images of the worst of the schlocky spy movies from my dad’s generation or because there aren’t any actual rogue agents in the game, just normal agents going about their normal day jobs, but hey — in either case, I think it’s fair to say my expectations were far removed from what Rogue Agent is actually trying to be.
And since this is the third game I’ve played from designer David Ausloos, the first two being Panic Station, which was so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to review it, and Dark Darker Darkest, which I thought was pretty good but sort of uneven, it’s also safe to say that my expectations were quite low. Bad schlocky spy movie low.
I’ll say this right up front: some of my concerns were completely and utterly well-founded.
Rogue Agent is about the absurdly dangerous Rain City and the special agents tasked with cleaning it up, since the invincible police squad can only be arsed to patrol a single of the city’s districts at any given time. But here’s the rub: your agents are kind of scummy, more interested in growing their own reputations than really saving Rain City. It’s fine and dandy to make a name for yourself by hauling in criminals, taking out assassins, and defusing the bombs that are scattered around the city, but the instant one of those bombs is primed to send an opposing agent to the hospital and kill one of his informants — well, excellent! Sorry, I just don’t have the time to defuse that one!
Unfortunately, learning Rogue Agent is a pain. The rulebook is a mess. There are multiple ways to gain influence (Rogue Agent’s codeword for “victory points”) and rather than display them all in one place for easy reading, they’re laid out haphazardly in every possible corner of the manual. Sure, there’s the straightforward stuff, like removing the threat tokens that appear across the city, but you can also arrest sets of criminals, have a bunch of informants, have a really cool car, turn in evidence back at HQ, or take out android traitors. It’s a great thing that there are so many options, since it lets you chart your own course to being baddest badass in the agency, but don’t expect the rulebook to click until you’ve played a couple times. This is one of those games that will benefit immensely from player-made reference cards, because Rogue Agent is more interested in leveling up its sunglasses than it is in telling you why you’d want better sunglasses in the first place.
And some of these problems bleed into the game itself. For instance, as you journey through Rain City, you can search for resources like ammunition, fuel, evidence, or upgrades. This is one of the best ways to stock up on equipment, but it’s dangerous, since you might get jumped by thugs in the process. Unless you search at the HQ, that is, where you’re not only safe from thugs, but you can also choose which dice to roll. Which sort of undermines searching everywhere else, where you’re limited in your picks of dice, have a good chance of being attacked by thugs, and never get to roll more dice than you could at HQ anyway. So why bother, other than those few times you don’t have enough fuel to drive back to base? It feels a bit like post-release playtesting at times, which isn’t very cool at all.
But Rogue Agent has a Shyamalan-esque twist coming. Bruce Willis is dead, the trees are making people kill themselves, the live-action version of The Last Airbender ends abruptly when you walk out of the theater — and Rogue Agent is good. As in, shockingly kickass for a game that doesn’t seem to want you to learn how to play it.
I’ve already mentioned how your goal is to gain more influence than your fellow agents, but where Rogue Agent shines is in how it lets you go about doing that.
The rulebook calls it the “living city,” which is a fancy PR-speak way of saying that threats appear at random at the start of the round and then move clockwise through the city at the end of it. But the thing is, simple as this system is, it works like a charm, and without any irritating AI routines. All at once, there are bombs ticking down, cops taking down threats and robbing you of the prestige but also making areas safe to travel through, and criminals and assassins running amok and killing your informants or ambushing you in back alleys. The constant motion of these threats, paired with the natural hazards of the randomized map, makes it feel tangibly dangerous just to move from one end of Rain City to the other, let alone gauge whether you have enough spare bullets to take down that criminal or if you should use up some gas to take a trip to the hospital first.
At any given time, there are plenty of things to do. In addition to searching for evidence or spending your hard-earned credits on better sunglasses, just hunting down the game’s three varieties of threats is a joy. The assassins are the most straightforward, but they’re also most liable to fight back. The bombs, with their random timers, present a match-three minigame that isn’t at all tedious. In fact, disarming a bomb is tense and fun because its minigame presents you with these agonizing little tradeoffs, where extra options equal fewer seconds on the timer and sloppy work might make the bomb detonate even if you successfully crossed all the right wires.
Best of all are the criminals. These guys enter the city as face-down cards, so you have no idea what you’re getting into if you choose to run in and start a fight without laying some groundwork first. You can do that by spending your hard-earned evidence and well-placed informants, which might be a good idea since facing down a criminal blind might result in all sorts of bad things happening. Like Ghost Jockey, who kills one of your informants, or Brenner, who runs away and wastes your turn. And if you don’t successfully take them down, they might retaliate with a firefight, or a car chase, or instantly detonated nearby bombs, or — my favorite — April Dark, who places a bomb in your otherwise-impregnable HQ. Each criminal is different, and since there are over 40 of them and you’ll only see a handful in any given game, you’ll always have to stay on your toes.
Since these criminals are often the toughest to take down, providing influence for both beating them and at the end of the game for having arrested matching sets, they tend to be hotly contested. So, even if a rival agent manages to beat the high-value Abryn Lacrosse and arrest her, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just jack his cruiser and take the prisoner for yourself. Hey, Rain City is mean like that. Anything’s fair out on those streets.
There’s also an additional “Android Mode,” which sees one or more of your fellow agents playing as hidden traitors. One of my criticisms of Dark Darker Darkest was that a traitor mode seemed like a good fit given the horror theme but nothing like that had made it into the game, and I hope David Ausloos didn’t take that criticism too much to heart, because as cool as it sounds, this mode is slightly underwhelming. It’s bogged down by some weird rules, special conditions, additional actions, and spurious balancing. It’s madcap fun once you’re revealed as an android traitor, since you can just run around the city blowing up every district you come across and killing agents left and right, but the implementation left my group cold. Largely in part because you’re only an android once you’re revealed — there’s no benefit to being an android and remaining hidden, or working to undermine Rain City while pretending to be its savior; rather, one moment you’re human and the next you’re an android, with very little coherency to the whole thing.
And anyway, we were having so much fun just being badass special agents and arresting guys and trying to undermine each other’s reputations in non-direct ways (for instance, by overlooking that assassin who’s about to kill off a player’s informant — nice), so why should we bother with a mode that doesn’t add much to the experience? Android Mode is optional, and leaving it out doesn’t subtract a single bit of fun from the main game.
And make no mistake, the main game is a load of fun. It’s a game of resource management at heart, where your primary goal is to carefully weigh the risks against your dwindling stockpiles of ammo, gas, evidence, and credits. Should you bother installing an informant in that hot intersection, or is he too likely to be killed off by an assassin? Should you use one ammunition on this criminal and save the rest to fight that other girl over there, or is that stretching it too far? Can you use up a bunch of your gas to get around the city and defuse two bombs this turn, or are there too many street thugs out tonight? Should you buy better sunglasses or a bigger gun? Choices, choices. And boy do I love choices.
It’s safe to say I’m pleasantly surprised by Rogue Agent. It isn’t perfect, tarnished somewhat by the obtuseness of the rulebook and a couple eccentricities, not to mention the fact that it still feels a bit like it hasn’t been playtested enough, but overall it’s a solid experience that I expect I’ll be holding onto. Which I did not see coming.