I concur that I liked Rogue One in a way far exceeding The Force Awakens for various reasons.
First of: hats of to the likely previously unknown screenplay talent of Senior Visual Effects expert / engineer John Knoll - who has been for a long, long time with the LucasFilm family. He essentially scripted the story and Kathleen Kennedy and the other producers understood that, if well refined, this would turn out a gem with a full cast.
It took me a while to work into and 'embrace' the character of Cassian Andor as Diego Luna's still-Spanish accent was quite apparent during his dialogues... but okay I figured so why didn't I flinch with the very Mid-Atlantic sounding actors (think Grand Moff Tarkin) in a movie with generally American English accents...
POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT BEYOND THIS POINT (!)
Key reason why I loved this movie even after a second and third screening was that I fully understood the effort put into making an "unlikely" story about Rebel heroes who basically couldn't anticipate the events they would be forced into. The theme of the unlikely hero
(and quest for one's destiny) traces directly back to Luke Skywalker, the restless social castaway on remote planet Tatooine, whose destiny is completely reshaped by... two droids
Here, the key heroine, Jyn Erso, is at first a degraded fellon whose future isn't looking auspicious in a forced labour facility. However she is set to redeem (all) her misdeeds by volunteering in a mission which in fact puts the survival of the Rebels at stake. As for critics claiming that a story about the unlikely hero's redemption, fight(s), struggles and ultimate sacrifice being "a classic Leitmotif", well maybe so but it's brought in a very very Star Wars kind of way that is very likeable.
To nourish the idea of atonement into that larger-than-life finding of purpose, and ultimately, sacrifice - tied to the remembrance of a "stolen" (and heavily distorted) father-daughter relationship
may not have been easy, but I think it stuck. That finding a new purpose was an uncertain journey for Jyn (and maybe some of her companions), for the sake of stacking up the odds and hold on to hope that the strategically weak Rebels would thrive in mythically defeating the biggest menace the galaxy is facing (Death Star)...
To be fair, given the resources the Rebellion seemed to have to commit to the dangerous, tragic battle and intel exfiltration, the odds were indeed stacked high against BUT that is exactly why their ultimate coordinated accomplishment grows into an epic and yes, mythical scale.
Giacchino's score (nailed in a racing 4,5 weeks timeframe!) was a brimstone that helped dramatize the scenes. I actually cringed in the Rebel bomber attack scene on Eadu, a breakpoint because of (a) Galen's death and (b) Jyn's obvious anger over being played / tricked by the Rebels and sacrifice her father, an Imperial collaborator (however reluctant), for a greater purpose.
All the way through from Jyn and Cassian uploading the schematics through the antenna tower on Scarif up to the very final scene, I felt overwhelmed the first time with an almost metaphysical understanding that "all this, it's all supposed to be *this* way" - for their story to end there - even though it's *so* bloody tragic, it's... the 'legacy force' (of the first trilogy?) and process of making the brave Rebels on Scarif and its planetary orbit, finding their way into immortal Star Wars lore as legends.
I specifically read as little as I could in order to dodge hypothesis about plot, endings etc. but only knew the basic outlines (hunt for the Death Star plans, and would involve Tarkin, Mon Mothma and likely General Dodonna at some point). Once that just-in-time Rebel trooper grabbed the disc and shut off the corridor door, the roll-up to the plot of Episode IV was like an acceptance bridge into the true canon and lore of the original trilogy.
One criticism perhaps: who the hell lands their shuttle so far away in a flat barren plain, fully knowing that their targets (the Erso family) are pretty much defenceless... and make a long walk up to meet them? That's the only side rant I'd be able to come up with