He’s more alcoholic, bum-killing, and psychic than ever.
Ethan Thomas, the protagonist in the Condemned series, just got a major emo makeover. Apparently, all the cool video game characters are doing it. Greasy, moppy bangs sweep moodily across his face. His pasty white complexion belies late nights spent contemplating the meaninglessness of life. His manly stubble hides his inner sensitivity. If I didn’t already know he was a middle-aged ex-FBI agent, I would have assumed he was just another angst-ridden teen whose parents just didn’t “get” him.
[image1]Condemned 2: Bloodshot is the follow-up to the most pleasantly surprising launch title for the Xbox 360, Condemned: Criminal Origins. The original game was an unexpected combination of the FPS, survival horror, and beat-'em-up genres. In it, you played as Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent tracking a serial murderer who kills, well, serial murderers. Condemned 2 picks up where the last game left off, and we quickly learn that Ethan is now living the life of a destitute alcoholic, traumatized by his experiences in the prior game. Apparently, whacking a bunch of homeless zombies over the head has taken its toll.
As an initial word of warning, if you’re at all bothered by the game’s cavalier and brutal attitude toward the homeless, stay away. In the world of Condemned, the line between a homeless person and a monstrous, drooling zombie is thinner than the game’s plot. You will need to put your political convictions inside a canvas bag with some kittens, grab a shovel, and, well, you can imagine the rest.
From the get-go, it’s obvious that the folks at Monolith listened carefully to what fans of the original wanted to see improved. The combat system, the forensic gameplay, and level design have all been massively enhanced. Unfortunately, as cool as these overhauled elements are, they don’t add up to a coherent or terrifying experience.
In the first title in the series, Ethan moved with all the grace of a two-ton gorilla wearing cement boots. Condemned 2 trims away a lot of the fat and gives Ethan added mobility and an impressive array of hand-to-hand combat techniques. He’s still no nimble gymnast, but living on the street has made him a bit sprier than he used to be. After all, Ethan’s heavy, lumbering movements were and still are a big part of what makes the experience suspenseful. It’s like a dream where you’re trying to run from something, but you can’t move your big legs fast enough to get away.
[image2]In the first game, combat was very simple: You pick up a blunt object and beat your enemies with it. Sometimes you would add in a kick just for good measure. If they tried to get back up, you beat them some more. This time around, you’re presented with a wide array of attack combos, projectiles, guns, swords, quick-time events, and environmental kills. A new combo system adds a whole array of possible attack strategies that give extra oomph to your attacks. You’ll also find a much larger variety of blunt weapons at your disposal, as well as a substantial amount of sharp weapons, guns, and projecticles.
Unfortunately, all of these added possibilities for bloody murder take away the sense of urgency and expediency, and the visceral feeling of “Oh my god, get this fucking thing off of me!” Because Condemned: Criminal Origins kept everything so simple and brutal, it was able to tap into the primal root of horror. True fear doesn’t need anything flashy or complicated, and when you’re overrun by fear, you don’t want to have to think about fancy combos or special moves. You just want to get the hell away and stop that screaming psychopath from chewing your face off. You know… simple. But in Condemned 2, your ability to survive a fight depends on learning the ins and outs of the combo system, and as you progress, that combo system gets bigger and bigger. It's a well-designed system, but It’s all too cerebral for a game that should be tapping into raw instinct.
The other major change is the forensic investigations. In the first Condemned, these were ridiculously dumb moments where you were asked to whip out a UV light and follow a trail of some unidentifiable “organic” liquid. There was no puzzle solving involved. In Condemned 2, however, your arsenal of forensic tools (UV light, spectrometer, GPS, and digital camera) can be used at any time in any number of ways.
[image3]Not just that, but you’ll also happen upon crime scenes and objects of interest. Here, you’ll have to put your puzzle-solving skills to the test by combining your forensic tools and your own keen eye to figure out “whodunit”. Sometimes it’s as simple as identifying the serial number written along the side of some object, but other times you’ll have to put your inductive reasoning to work and learn how to make some educated guesses. It’s a great addition that fulfills the promise suggested in the first game’s rather anemic forensic sections, and unlike the combat system, these mini-investigations add to the suspense. The only drawback is that these scenes and possible answers don’t change, so once you figure these out, they’ll pose no challenge on a second time through.
The most crucial ingredient of Condemned 2, however, is its sound design. Since most of this game takes place in perpetual degrees of darkness, you’ll have to rely on your sense of hearing more than anything else. More often than not, you’ll know where an enemy is by the sounds he makes. In full surround sound, it’s impressively immersive. You’ll hear things creeping and crawling around you in all directions, threatening to jump out at you at any moment.
Another great aural detail new to this game is the use of incidental music during certain key fights. With each blow you give or receive, you’ll hear an orchestral blare or a screech of violins. It’s like conducting an orchestra by bashing some dude’s face in, or like playing the violin with your mutilated teeth. Sound even plays a crucial role in the game’s plot, a role not fully unveiled until the game’s final few levels.
Since so much of the game takes place in darkness, there isn’t much reason to pay attention to the visual details. But in the few levels that are well-lit, the drab textures and unimaginative lighting effects stand out. It’s not a game made to please the eyes; this one’s all about the ears. Which is why it’s so surprising to see the frame-rate run all over the place. At no point does it interfere with the gameplay, but it can be distracting. Similarly, I ran into a number of audio dropouts in high-action sequences. Again, nothing that affected my ability to play, but it was a little annoying to have it happen multiple times.
[image4]The final major addition present in Condemned 2 is the inclusion of two new play modes. Bloodshot Fight Club is a standard challenge mode that asks you to do things like take on 100 enemies as quickly as possible or defeat as many enemies as you can in a given time. Nothing special, but leaderboards may keep you at it for a little while. The addition of a multiplayer mode seems like even more lip-service. Nothing’s unusual or all that engaging; there’s only so many ways to keep deathmatch games interesting. The maps are uninspired, and the alternate modes of play won’t add much to the very average multiplayer gameplay.
This is a game full of highs and lows. Condemned 2 is at its best when it most resembles its predecessor. The best levels feature just you and a blunt object wandering through a dark and deserted building. There are moments of terrifying brilliance; the abandoned doll factory level even gives Bioshock a run for its money. In another stunning sequence of pure “oh shit!” caliber horror, you’ll be running in sheer terror from an animal every bit as terrifying as Jaws or Kujo. But all too often, Condemned 2 falls into the tired old FPS tropes of running around shooting paramilitary dudes with an automatic rifle, and in trying to please everyone, ends up spreading itself too thin.
As a survival horror game, Condemned 2 is too short on horror. As an FPS game, it’s too short on strategy and level design. At best, it’s a brawler with some horror and FPS elements. The robust combat system goes for the “more is better” approach, but it’s just one more way in which the sequel keeps pulling you away from the taught creepiness and thrills of the original. There are some truly inspired freak-out moments in Condemned 2, but you have to put up with a lot of excess baggage to experience them. The first game may have been as blunt as a crowbar, but it never lost sight of its ultimate goal: scaring the crap out of you.