Like a lead pipe to the face, the great melee-centric Condemned clubbed 360 gamers into believing that yes, gritty hand-to-hand combat can indeed work in an FPS while still delivering great graphics and a dark, brooding story worthy of films like Se7en. This isn’t to say it wasn’t without its flaws, but as a stellar title with a silver screen feel, it delivered more than its fair share of visual gut-punches and jump-out-of-your-seat scares. However, its ending did little to wrap up many of the questions littered throughout the game, a problem Condemned 2: Bloodshot tries to clear up right from the get-go. Despite improving on this and a number of other key flaws, Condemned 2 nevertheless manages to trip over its feet before it can deliver the knock-out punch.
The second game picks up shortly after the events of the first had come to a close, with our FBI hero Ethan Thomas having decidedly turned into anti-hero, having left the force after the death of Serial Killer X (SKX) to wallow amongst his own very literal demons. Having become little more than an intensely violent drunk, Thomas now sports a full field of facial hair and a “screw you” attitude, though it’s not long before he’s dragged back into the FBI’s search for SKX’s manipulative uncle. From there, he’s pulled through yet another series of investigations into the eruptions of the city’s less fortunate into raging, mindless murderers, the possible existence of a shadowy world domination cult (of course), and into the legacy of SKX.
That the storyline bookends the first game almost perfectly is a considerable plus, as the rising intensity of the original’s plot was one of its strongest suits. Indeed, the first few missions of Condemned 2 feel as though this tradition may well continue, though it’s not long before something seems amiss. Whereas the first game featured a structured plot with true sense of purpose, i.e. the pursuit of the increasingly dangerous SKX, the second feels much more directionless. Your motivation for exploration or making your way through any given area typically boils down to simple survival, which tends to ratchet down the value of the plot. While the delivery of key plot points throughout these segments helps to temper the disappointment, it doesn’t make up for the distinctly different feel. Those left scratching their heads at the end of Condemned may feel somewhat gratified to know however that by the end of the sequel, most of your Big Questions will have been answered, with enough new ones left over to leave the chance for another sequel wide open. However, the problem is that, by the end, the story has wandered into fairly ridiculous territory; one has to wonder if the writers haven’t painted themselves into a bit of a corner.
For all the possible qualms about the storyline, however, nothing bad can be said about the game’s biggest star: the combat. Ethan Thomas has picked up more than a few tricks since his last time out, and now has access to a truly impressive range of moves and complex combos with which to murder an endless stream of violent hobos. With the left- and right-triggers mapped to Thomas’ fists, players can now dish out damage using straight punches, uppercuts and hooks; by mixing and matching them between types and sides, damage modifiers can be applied to the many, many, many people who lunge themselves at you with furious abandon. It takes some time to get used to, and while it’s easy to stick to one or two comfortable combos, it’s certainly satisfying to have access to a more complete range if desired. The visceral feel has been carried over nicely from the first game, and you can almost feel it when Ethan lands a right hook in the face of a drug-addled junkie. Prop combat, one of the series’ central features, remains much the same; you can only arm yourself with one item at a time, and you can collect potential weapons almost anywhere. From steam valves to foozball rods and even to crutches (and even a few gleefully fantastic items from the medieval area of a certain museum), there’s little you won’t be able to pick up and pound with.
Even gunplay, which in some ways runs counter to the premise of the series, is done well here. You’ll eventually be able to holster any one firearm you come across, meaning that no longer will you be forced to choose between a flaming two-by-four and a shotgun, which is certainly an improvement over the original Condemned. Of course, now that Ethan is a raging alcoholic, he needs a bit o’ the sauce to steady his hand, and you’ll have to find and kick back some booze if you want a straight shot. This particular game mechanic may seem irritating, but given the prevalence of alcohol throughout the levels, it helps to affirm the dark turn our hero has taken without really interfering with the enjoyment of the game.
The “investigation” mechanics also makes a return, though it’s been so drastically improved that returning fans won’t even recognize it. While there are still instances where you’re explained in painstaking detail as to which tool to use and generally where, you’re now given a considerably greater deal of independence in figuring things out. By carefully sniffing around your environment, examining the area and drawing your own personal conclusions from various crime scenes, you’re asked to provide answers about the problem before you. It’s tremendously satisfying and easily one of the best parts of the game; you’ll kick yourself for stupid answers and feel good for having bothered to seek out the right ones.
There’s no real penalty for getting the wrong answers, of course, though obtaining the right ones helps to build towards your detective “grade” for each level. This grade is also enhanced by seeking out the game’s collectibles, though gone are the dead birds and hidden metal strips from the first game. Instead, the optional hide-and-seek content comes in the form of old TVs and radios, which deliver some non-plot atmospheric content about the violence and chaos shutting down the city. You’re also asked to destroy sonic emitters, the real reason as to why seemingly normal people are going berserk, as you’re so casually informed within minutes of starting up the game. Find enough collectibles and ace enough investigations, and you’ll be able to earn bronze, silver or gold detective grades at the end of the level, which come complete with various personal upgrades. This may mean more body armor, additional combos, and other benefits that will drastically improve your odds for survival. This is another nice touch, and provides more incentives to seek out the hidden items instead of just racking up Achievement points.
Condemned 2 does its best to offer a solid non-single-player package, which the original game lacked. In some ways, it succeeds, particularly in the Crime Scene multiplayer mode. Here, players are split up into feds and murderers, with the latter having to place and defend two boxes containing a human head, while the former uses their guns and forensic tools to sniff out and scan said boxes while avoiding a hand-to-hand beatdown. This mode in particular perfectly captures the tremendous tension and terror of needing to look around that next corner or room, unsure if the darkness and shadows are hiding someone waiting to tear your face off. It’s perhaps the most like the single-player experience, and it’s great. There are a handful of others, including an endurance run where two feds with heavy hit-points have to survive for a set period against infinitely respawning murderers, though these are less appealing. However, as entertaining as Crime Scene may be, it’s not likely to provide the game with much of a shelf life. Much the same can be said for the offline multiplayer-styled missions, entitled Fight Club; while interesting, it will do little to keep you interested in the game in the long-term.
With more blood, guts and gore than any game you’re likely to see this year, Condemned 2: Bloodshot is a perfect poster child for the M rating and certainly in keeping with the dark and gritty tone set by its predecessor. However, the plot is much more reactive this time out, diluting much of the intensity and drive to move forward. This largely leaves savage hand-to-hand beatings as the main incentive, and in that regard, the game certainly delivers. Couple that with the much-improved investigation system, and Condemned 2 is left as a lop-sided sequel: its actual gameplay is appreciably better, but the plot – which was perhaps the real star of the first game – is anemic, and a noticeable step down. The destined-to-be-shortlived multiplayer doesn’t help its long-term odds, either, meaning that for a brief period of time, Condemned 2: Bloodshot is a fairly decent way to gain some storyline closure, or simply to beat up murderous hobos.