When the Xbox 360 arrived, in November of 2005, one of the console’s launch titles was a unique, first-person fright fest, called Condemned: Criminal Origins. Developed by Monolith Productions and published by SEGA, this un-hyped game took fledgling 360 owners by surprise, mixing survival horror with a first-person perspective. While the occasional gun was still involved, most of the time your character would defend his self by picking up harsh environmental objects, such as a 2×4 with nails in it, or a metal pipe torn from the wall. This mechanic, on top of its eerie environments that are always shrouded in darkness, is why Condemned delivered such a terrifying experience. Being completely underpowered and outmanned, bumping around in the dark having only a flashlight to see by, while fending for your life from psychotic thugs and ghoulish transients with nothing but random bits and pieces of debris.
The original game’s ending was purposefully left wide open for a sequel, and nearly two-and-a-half years later, Monolith and SEGA team up once again to bring us Condemned 2: Bloodshot. At the end of the last game, the bone-weary anti-hero, SCU (Special Crimes Unit) Agent Ethan Thomas, had been put through nine levels of hell on a horrifying chase throughout the city slums, and eventually the countryside, by the devilish vigilante killer, Leland Vanhorn, a.k.a. Serial Killer X. Fast forward to now, and after enduring SKX’s carnival of horrors, Ethan has lost confidence in himself and in the world. He’s quit his job at SCU, has stopped bathing regularly and now drinks his troubles away every night at the bar. That is, until SKX’s uncle, and one of Ethan’s only allies, Malcolm Vanhorn calls him and warns him of impending death and mayhem.
Of course, there’s much more to the story than that, and, in the end, it all ties together nicely with the first entry. The only difference this time around is that Ethan’s no longer a suspect on the run, chasing down a killer. Instead, he’s put back on the job by SCU, to investigate Malcolm Vanhorn’s disappearance, and is subsequently drawn back into a dark world of psychopaths, killers and inescapable fear. The developers have managed to keep the noir-ish tone and style, which made the original game so unique, intact, although Condemned 2 does tend to steer more towards science fiction and the supernatural than the first game ever did. There are sure to be a few fans of the original that will be put off by some of the new sci-fi directions, but I assure you – the overall plot never falls too deep into the abstract or unthinkable. However, on the other side of things, this new title offers absolutely no back story or recaps of the first game, so it isn’t necessarily recommended for newcomers.
Either way, Condemned 2’s most noteworthy attribute is not its story, but its relentlessly haunting atmosphere. The dark isn’t just a nifty gimmick to setup a few cheap thrills in this game. It’s a living entity that opens up its sickly-toothed grin and devours you whole the moment you start playing! I’m sure it’s a safe assumption that you wouldn’t feel particularly safe if you were actually traipsing around in an extremely dangerous, abyss-like environment, save but a rusty pipe and a dimly lit hand torch – and that’s the uneasy feeling you’ll have every moment you’re in control of the game. Unnerving growls, rattling fences and other fear-inducing noises will come from all around you, in an ominous circle. A soda can will knock over here, a door will creak open over there, and an empty wheelchair might inch forward a short distance ahead of you, down a seemingly empty hallway. And as soon as you even start to think everything’s going to be okay, you round that next corner and someone (or something) is waiting for you, patiently; ready to strike.
On top of the worldly creatures and shapes that already make your heart skip a beat more often than not, the foreboding dark will not only heighten and exacerbate your gloomy surroundings, but also occasionally take hold of Ethan’s sanity, forcing him to see menacing spiritual manifestations that may, or may not be, actually standing right there in front of you. Whether you scream like a teenage girl in a slasher-flick, or shout out random obscenities, the only thing that’s for certain is, that at one point or another, this game will scare your pants off. Literally. So you may want to wear some fresh underwear if you’re planning on having company over.
When you’re not soiling yourself in fear, Condemned 2 offers up a fairly competent melee combat system. Unlike most other first-person games that throw in melee as a shallow afterthought, the emphasis in this title is on the raw, visceral, intensely violent fists and handheld weapons action. If Ethan lands a grisly strike to an opponent’s face with a baseball bat, you’ll not only feel the hit rumble through your controller, but you’ll hear a sickening crunch, as blood and teeth erupt forth like a crimson geyser from their busted mouths. This game clearly earns its mature rating with detailed and grotesque violence galore, so if you’re bothered by extreme gore and violence the experience may not be for you.
In the previous entry, Ethan was limited to either swinging a weapon or blocking with it. He’s now able to string together various combo attacks that will lead to a combo finisher. If you manage to complete a combo chain without being hit, a timed icon will appear on the screen and successfully landing the finisher will result in anywhere from 2-to-10x the amount of damage dealt. Combos can be achieved by stringing multiple alternating left and right strikes together, controlled with the left and triggers, or by combining attacks with other specific actions, such as leading in the first attack with a sprint or blocking an attack first and leading in with a counter move. Each successful combo also builds to your chain attack meter, another new edition to the series. Once the chain attack meter is full, double-tap either of the trigger buttons and you’ll be presented with a sequence of timed button presses that will punish your foe to maximum effect.
Along with the new combo system and chain attacks is a bevy of new ways to finish off an adversary. Last time, if an enemy was brought to their knees, you could choose between one of four different finishing moves. This time around, you can grab a downed enemy by pressing both triggers and then decide where to take it from there. You may want to just break their neck, which can be pulled off easily by pulling the right trigger. However, you may prefer using the environment around you to inflict maximum pain. Dragging an enemy to highlighted sections of the environment can lead to shoving their head through a television, snapping their neck in between a door and its frame, tossing them over a balcony or placing their head into a maniacal vice, applying pressure and turning their heads into flesh and brain matter confetti.
As mentioned earlier, you’ll also come across the occasional firearm, but ammo is very limited and the gunplay is by far Condemned 2’s weakest point. There’s no targeting reticule (even in the options menu), so you can’t always tell if you’re properly lining up a shot, unless you go into precision aim by pressing in the left trigger. Unfortunately, you can’t move at all when you’re peering directly down a weapon’s sights, which leads to the occasional frustration and/or cheap death. One humorous aspect of using pistols or shotguns stems from Ethan’s alcoholism. Conveniently placed bottles of liquor can be found all throughout the game, and can either be used in conjunction with fire to create a Molotov cocktail, or Ethan can tip the bottle upside down for a dose of some of grandpa’s old cough medicine and it will then steady his normally shaky hand. As silly as that may sound, it actually adds more gravity to the character and the situation.
The combat isn’t the only portion of Condemned’s gameplay that’s been upgraded, though. Evidence gathering has taken a much needed step in a more interactive direction. Before, the game would hold your hand through all of these segments and instruct you every step of the way. Now you have to spot and determine proper evidence. You zoom in your view and investigate possible points of interest by holding down the left trigger and then try to pick the correct response from a list of multiple choice answers. You’ll be rated on accuracy and whether or not you located the best evidence. It’s an interesting game mechanic that’s hardly used, but it greatly builds to the overall experience.
As good of developers as they are, and as strong as the game’s single-player mode may be, Monolith was sadly bitten by the “Mandatory Multi-player” bug. Most publishers are afraid to release any game these days without tacking on some form of multi-player experience, and this usually results in under-cooked, throw-away MP gameplay that doesn’t really survive on Xbox Live for more than a few weeks. And it hurts me to say that Condemned 2’s multi-player falls into that subpar category. For the most part, the game offers up the usual modes (deathmatch and team deathmatch), but there is at least one decently interesting match-type, called Crime Scene. In this match-type, one team of up to four players will play as SCU Agents trying to gather evidence, while the other team will play as the Influenced, who must hide and defend the evidence from the Agents. This can lead to some interesting and strategic battles that are sorely absent from the other MP match-types.
Since the first Condemned was a launch title and is now over 2 years old, it should come as no surprise that the visuals have seen a major overhaul. Everything, from the textures to character animations and realistic lighting effects, has been tweaked to faithfully rival the best looking games available on the console. The flashlight, in particular, has a much more realistic look and feel. Often too bright in the original offering, the flashlight in this new game will occasionally flicker and will reveal more or less of your surroundings depending on the environment. This helps amp up the fear to a whole new level, as it acts much like an actual flashlight. You’ll consistently wish it was bigger and brighter than it really is once your heart starts to pound in your chest. Also, notably better is the detail and design put into the vagrants and thugs. Their overall look and range of animations are much more impressive this time around, as well. There’s a lot more variety, and the character models have lost most of the unusual “thickness” they had, previously.
By far, Condemned 2 has some of the best sound design you’ll ever likely hear in a survival horror game. Like I had stated, earlier, the ambient sound effects, the creaks and groans, your character’s breathing, which will become heavier in scarier situations, and the cackles and taunts your enemies throw at you, will envelop you in a wall of uncertainty of dread. The voice acting also seems to be a step above the first iteration, as the delivery and tone from all of the characters involved are much more professional. There isn’t much music to be heard in Condemned 2, at all, but when there is music playing, it has a techno-grunge sound that’s perfectly fitting for the game and its setting.
In the end, Condemned 2 one-ups the original game in every single category. While a little bit more delusional, the story, and the voice-acting that accompanies, is much more solid, the fear quotient is taken to new levels and the combat and evidence gathering are a lot more fleshed out. To borrow from the popular UPS Commercials, when this game asks, “What can brown do for you?” the appropriate answer is, “Fill your pants!” This is easily one of the most frightening games I have ever played. So much so that I often found myself gasping or screaming aloud, and nervously shining my flashlight into every possible nook and cranny. Especially memorable is a chase sequence, more than halfway through the game, which takes place inside of a service station in the middle of the frozen wilderness. This game is an easy recommendation for fans of the original and to horror fans alike. If you expect more from a game purchase than a moderately lengthy single-player experience, no matter its excellence, then the game’s lackluster multi-player may drop this into the rental category for you. Either way, this is one stellar game that is truly worth your time and money!