‘Assassin’s Creed 2’ confuses fun, frustration

Such a cool idea in concept. In the continued march of games that desperately wish to capture the purity of essence of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” we have “Assassin’s Creed 2,” yet another largely ridiculous, largely unfun stab at the “climbing ruins” category of adventure game.

The sequel to last year’s arthritis-inducing “Assassin’s Creed” carries many of the same flaws as its predecessor. It contains good voice acting but a needlessly dense and insane story, more repetitive gameplay that lacks creativity, and a control scheme that feels like it belongs back in the late 1990s alongside such nearly unplayable horrors as “Resident Evil.” For all that was improved between the first and second games, so much is left to irritate a player that the fact this game isn’t universally panned is astounding.

In fact, “Assassin’s Creed 2” is a critical darling – despite being really, really boring. The premise and master idea is that the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise would be a darker “Prince of Persia” – rather than climbing through ancient ruins gathering treasure, players would take part in an assassin’s quest to remove evil leaders from cities during the Crusades (in the first game) and the Italian Renaissance (in the second). As the assassin, one could scale buildings, sneak through crowds, get in close and take out enemies with a mixture of stealth, acrobatics, weapons and planning.

The execution is far from being as elegant as the description.

First, the actual assassinations never, ever, go well, because “Assassin’s Creed 2” is littered with minor irritations that amount to blown cover. Walk just a little too fast, stray just a little too far, press the control stick just a little off to one side, and not only is the moment lost, but often the result is a start-over situation, or worse, a tedious battle with a handful of armored guards. And those guards have some ridiculous eagle eyes when it comes down to the actual assassinations – so rather than feel like a sneaky badass, able to attack a situation by studying the best way to approach and eventually murder your target, much more often the player finds herself tearing through the streets after an escaping enemy, eventually chasing him down, pouncing, and then turning to deal with the fallout.

The run claw, or "how to play Assassin's Creed 2."This is the exact opposite experience the game should be giving you. Rather than everything going south at the critical moment because of something dumb like bumping into a random person in a crowd, “Assassin’s Creed 2” should be striving to put you in a position to hone your skills and then use them to accomplish a goal. Learning to play the game well, and then applying that knowledge and skill, is what makes a game fun.

But at no time does “AC2” ever employ skill of any kind.

The problem comes down to a ludicrously poor conception of how to control your character. Walk with the control stick; run by holding down the right trigger and using the control stick; sprint by holding down the A button, the right trigger and the control stick. I’ve heard this configuration referred to as the “Run Claw,” and that’s a perfect description: You spend virtually the entire game in a sprint, squeezing the controller tightly, making your hand sore just to get around. And the game’s sprawling Renaissance cities are just huge, which means just running from place to place is what takes up the bulk of your time and really crafts this whole experience.

And getting around is just not that much fun.

Climbing buildings should be the “Assassin Creed’s 2” bread and butter. Getting up the buildings should be fun, traversing the city from the rooftops and descending on enemies should be fun, and doing so should be challenging but rewarding.

Skip all that in “AC2” because the Run Claw could also be called the Climb Claw – the control is the same to scale buildings. But you don’t actually do anything other than hold the buttons down, occasionally guiding your assassin to a certain hand or foothold so he can get to the top.

Once atop a structure, you can run around it and jump to other structures – by using the same controls. Not by pressing buttons, but by continuing to hold the run buttons down and steering. The character makes the jump you intend automatically, most of the time, requiring absolutely no actual “play” from the person behind the controller.

This is also a major source of frustration, because fairly often, you’ll miss what you’re steering at slightly, or you’ll misjudge the configuration of a building, and the assassin will just hurl himself off a rooftop to fall to his death or massive injury. This happens 900-times as often when “AC2” decides to “help” with the player-controlled camera during certain climbing puzzles in order to show you the path – but without locking the camera in place, and usually moving it while the player is in the middle of a motion, which results in failure after failure after failure.

“AC2” loves to emphasize quickly getting in and getting out of an assassination, and often leaves the player in a “quick, escape!” situation. It loves to require speed and precision in leaping and running, without providing the controls to accomplish either. Whenever the player needs to abscond in a hurry, he inevitably ends up falling, off-course, or being killed and forced to repeat the instance. Or, of course, fighting his way out of the situation.

Combat is just as unsatisfying as climbing and jumping. Swordplay, the form fighting usually takes, is accomplished chiefly by jamming on the X button over and over again. The enemy will sometimes swing in return, causing the player to need to hold down the right trigger to block. The player can then time a press of the X or B buttons while holding the trigger to either make a counter attack or disarm the enemy.

This photo is probably more fun than most of the game.Against lesser enemies, a counter attack will get a kill. Against tougher ones, a disarm will almost always work. Even in battles with a large group of enemies, the combat is never tense or difficult – only frustrating. There’s rarely a moment where you’ll actually lose a fight, even if you get pummeled. Eventually you’ll clear out the enemies simply by smashing the X button or using the appropriate counter.

“AC2” includes some decent innovations to its predecessor. There are more weapons available, an entire economy system that allows the purchase of clothing, accessories and armor, and collectables that offer interesting story elements. The assassin’s base of operations can be upgraded, which itself provides income for the player to use to get more weapons, which is also a nice touch.

Despite this, the economy portion of the game has little discernable impact on the actual game. Weapons are supposedly stronger, armor supposedly heartier, but the only real impact of buying new things are that additional armor gives you more health and additional accessories allow you to carry more expendable items. Even these money centric portions of the game, while adding an additional layer to an otherwise-repetitive experience, aren’t really necessary. Invest your money in the right places, and it quickly becomes so abundant as to be a moot point. You’ll rarely need to complete side missions to raise capital, and really, you can blow right past the racing, fighting and assassination side missions for most of the game without any repercussions whatsoever – and they add nothing to the experience except to break up the repetition.

And then there’s the story. A game can be pretty bad if the story is compelling, because despite that playing it feels like running a cheese grater over your arm, you are rewarded for your toils with something interesting and you feel like you earned a reward. Unfortunately, like “Assassin’s Creed” before it, “AC2” makes sure not only to give almost no useful information to advance its overall good-versus-evil everything-you-know-is-a-lie story, but it grows its psychotically huge evil conspiracy to the point of being idiotic, implying that just about every single historical figure ever was influenced by the game’s special artifacts, or was a member of the evil faction or the good faction. Marco Polo and Dante Alighieri were assassins, and Robert Oppenheimer and Adolph Hitler were Knights Templar. Right.

I can’t fathom why so many people give this game such a positive reception, when it really fails to do what has been established as fully possible by something like 10 or 15 previous adventure games, not the least of which are every single title of the “Prince of Persia” series. And those are made by the same company as  this – so how is it that “PoP” can be exciting and challenging, even at its worst, and yet “AC2” is often more mundane, frustrating and painful than filling out a tax return while being stabbed in the tongue?

The first “Assassin’s Creed,” while awful in almost all the same ways, was at least an unknown quantity and therefore kept the player interested, and the assassination gameplay was a little bit innovative and interesting at first. “AC2” brings nothing at all to the table, so much so that it feels like a punishment – being forced to play the same bad game twice.

Not enough wonder in ‘Wonderland’

Johnny Depp's yellow contacts are the high end of the Mad Hatter's madness. Here’s how it breaks down: Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland” is fraught with insanity. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” contains almost none.

Without all that illogic and craziness, Wonderland has no soul. The characters lose their intrigue, their menace, their magic – and their entertainment value. Burton’s “Wonderland” contains only overbearing plot and Johnny Depp, in his wholly sane and diminished portrayal of the Mad Hatter, otherwise known here as The Character Burton Wishes The Story Was About.

First, the plot. Carroll’s story subsists, as we’ve mentioned, on insanity – and therefore Alice is tossed from situation to situation as she tools around Wonderland, basically getting into trouble before being led or chased to somewhere new.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton instead thrust upon Wonderland an extremely recycled story of good ruler/bad ruler, in which Alice (Mia Wasikowski) is, for reasons never even mentioned, Wonderland’s prophesied warrior/champion/Aragorn/Luke Skywalker.

All the standard inhabitants of Wonderland have been searching for Alice since she first arrived in Wonderland when she was young – no one else, the film suggests, actually lives there. Now 19 and poised to be married off to an irritating British lord, Alice’s need for escape takes her down the hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and back to Wonderland, where she’s immediately recruited to fulfill said prophecy. It seems the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has taken power, and she’s mean. The Wonderlandians would much rather the White Queen (Ann Hathaway) was their ruler. Alice gets to fight a dragon to enact this political change.

None of the ins and outs of this prophecy, Alice’s previous visit, her assumed specialness, or the antecedents of this apparent rebellion are ever discussed. Okay, fine, it’s a children’s movie – whatever. But the end result is not a whimsical albeit dark reimagining of an insane and vibrant world; it’s instead just a far-too-long stop-by-stop tour of an extremely boring Wonderland, in which Alice meets flat character after flat character, who each direct her to her next destination.

Each scene and character is lifted from the original work, and with its weirdo storyline it’s somewhat apparent that Burton’s “Wonderland” is meant to function as a sequel to Carroll and Disney’s 1951 cartoon adaptation. But it’s a sequel that the film itself concedes is a nearly exact replica of Alice’s earlier trip and story (except, you know, the dragon-slaying sword-finding bits). Where Carroll has Alice dealing with crazy, unique and interesting characters, all of Burton and Woolington’s characters are stripped clean of distinguishing traits outside of those rendered in CGI. They are plot devices and nothing else, pushing us toward the supposedly thrilling foregone conclusion.

As overbearing as the plot is Johnny Depp as the orange-haired, white-faced Mad Hatter. Most notably, and most disappointingly, he’s about as far from mad as Depp has gotten in years – especially under Burton’s control. And he has almost as much screen time as Alice, though there seems to be no discernable story reason for this Depp-glut.

The Hatter serves mostly as Alice’s biggest guide. He’s also, for some reason, an understated Alice love interest, freedom fighter and backstory relayer.

All the characters are painfully tame (the Cheshire Cat [voiced by Stephen Fry] has the sole function of appearing in scenes to fill them out), but none moreso than Depp. He appears in much of the plot but never adds anything to the story whatsoever. Lift him from the movie and it would truck along just fine without him, with his plot-device roles fulfilled by any number of other supporting characters. He’s an empty suit, hat and wig in every conceivable way.

There’s no aspect of Burton’s “Wonderland” that gives us the impression the story needed retelling here. We get nothing new from the Burton perspective, or his cast. The script is a pitiful clone of other, much better quest movies. Even the CGI look of Wonderland itself isn’t as lush or interesting or weird as, say, “Avatar,” or even many video games, despite the fact that Wonderland should offer no end of ideas for demented, fantastic things at which to look.

At every turn, with every expectation, “Wonderland” falls well short. The movie is unnecessary, disappointing, and underwhelming – another new adaptation Burton just didn’t need to do.