‘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.

‘Bioshock 2’ more rehash than sequel

A new scary monster in Rapture, the Big Sister. It’s important to qualify my following complaints about Bioshock 2 by saying that I loved Bioshock and played it through no fewer than three times.

For a sequel, Bioshock 2 does a lot of things right. It recaptures the feel of the first game while presenting new locations and a storyline that moves in interesting directions. It improves on some of the more annoying aspects of the original in organic ways that make sense.

So I loved it for a lot of reasons. I played it zealously because the tone and story are as engaging as they were in the first iteration of the game. And the gameplay, while largely the same, is just as fun as it was in the first game as well. It isn’t broken, so publisher 2K Marin hasn’t bothered to try to fix it much.

Set 10 years after the first Bioshock, the game takes players back to Rapture, the city built by laissez-faire-touting billionaire Andrew Ryan to be a haven for science, art and business uninhibited by pesky morals, society or gross poor people.

Along the way, Rapture’s scientists discovered Adam, a substance that lets people rewrite their DNA, and suddenly the economy of the city turned from oxygen and food to splicing, or using Adam to make people better-looking or give them special abilities – like telekinesis or the ability to throw lightning bolts.

Splicing drove Rapture-ites insane, and Adam became the most precious commodity in the place. People were dying, and the Adam in their bodies was going to waste.

So the guys running Rapture made some monsters: Little Sisters, who can reclaim Adam from dead bodies, and Big Daddies, who protect Little Sisters.

Enter Subject Delta, one of the first-ever Big Daddies. He was killed and his Little Sister was stolen back from him by her mother, psychiatrist Sofia Lamb.

You wake up as Delta 10 years later with a burning desire to find your Little Sister, Eleanor. Because if you don’t, the psychological conditioning the scientists implanted in your brain will make you slip into a coma and die. Nevermind just yet how Delta happens to be alive right now. It’s time to smash your way through Rapture and find Eleanor.

Unfortunately, the whole game could stand to be creepier, like this Little Sister's doll. My major problems with Bioshock 2 are that it fails to go far enough. The story, while still cool, is far less engaging than that of the first game. Instead of a stunning revelation with a backdrop of discovery – finding out how a city built beneath the ocean fell into utter murderous chaos – 2 is much more “do this, do that, because you have to.” The first game imparted a sense of moral obligation to you for much of the game; you were looking to escape and you were helping allies to do the same. Now, you’re hunting Eleanor because that’s what you do, The End.

And you’re supposed to be a Big Daddy – essentially an unthinking Frankenstein monster whose sole function is to kill things that threaten the Little Sister.

It might be difficult to make the player feel like a brainless zombie, but Bioshock 2 doesn’t even really try to do so. Stylistically, tonally and thematically, this is virtually the same game as the first iteration. The bummer of that is, for people who’ve already played Bioshock, there’s not a whole lot new going on here.

The other thing that’s always bothered me about Bioshock, and which is therefore a problem in 2, is that the horrors that descended on Rapture don’t seem to affect the player’s character. You spend all of both games splicing up more than most of Rapture’s denizens, hitting people with lightning, fire, even bees that come out of a hive created in your forearm. Yet the player receives no abnormal effects: no homicidal mania, no deformed face, no hallucinations. I wish 2K had chosen to push the envelope further.

Bioshock 2 makes playing the game a little easier and a little more fun – you can use Plasmids, your gene weapons, at the same time as firearms, instead of switching between lightning and shotgun as in the first game. This dual-wield action lets you pull off some nasty combos and suit your weapons to the situation a lot better than in the previous game. Basically, it makes the game easier and more fun to play.

The multiplayer mode puts you in the shoes of a splicer during Rapture's civil war. The big change for the sequel is the addition of a multiplayer mode, which, like all first-person shooters, lets you murder other players over the Internet. Bioshock 2 has the added benefit of letting you use telekinesis, pyrokinesis, lightning and the like to do it.

That doesn’t really make Bioshock 2’s multiplayer all that different from that of any other game.

All the standard bases are covered – team-based combat, free-for-all modes, a keep-away mode and a territory mode. This is all standard fare in a game of this type and nothing about Bioshock stands out.

It’s the reward system that makes the multiplayer worth playing. The more you play, the more bad guys you kill, the stronger your character becomes and the more access your character has to better Plasmids, gene therapy and weapons.

And Bioshock rewards you for doing random other things too – like hacking machines, collecting vials of Adam scattered around each level, capturing Little Sisters, even performing “research” on dead enemies to get a damage boost against them – which is nice, because every game you play in, regardless of whether you play poorly, lets you advance your rank and eventually earn new stuff.

It’s fun – that’s important to remember – but a whole new installment of what is largely the same game is tough to swallow. Bioshock 2 does have a lot of the original’s greatness, and with some friends on board the multiplayer can be a good time, but for players who don’t intend to make a big commitment to the game, this is a rental that can be completed in a little less than a week.