One of the best launch titles for the Xbox 360 was Condemned: Criminal Origins.  While it did have some faults, it was a great title that didn’t apologize for its over-the-top brutality or savage storyline.  In Condemned: Criminal Origins, Agent Ethan Thomas of the Serial Crimes Unit tried to track down a psychopath named The Matchmaker.  Unfortunately for him The Matchmaker had other plans and caught Ethan off guard, framing him for the murder of two police officers.  Working with a trusted officer to unravel the motivations of The Matchmaker, Ethan finds his own grip of reality slipping.  Suffering from psychotic breaks, Ethan begins to see things from the perspective of the perpetrator.  As the story closes, Ethan has trouble discerning between the reality of the freaks attacking him and the monsters in his head. 


Condemned 2: Bloodshot opens one year later with a man named Van Horne (a man from Ethan’s past) being chased down by an unseen assailant.  Leaving a cryptic voice message with the police, Van Horne pleads with Ethan to save him, punctuating his message with screams of terror.  The only problem is that Ethan has become a raving and violent drunk.  Seeking solace in the bottom of the bottle, Ethan tries unsuccessfully to drown his visions.  The police call on Ethan to help them track down Van Horne, but it doesn’t take long for Ethan to be swarmed by his own personal demons once again.  

There is a vast difference between a launch title and one that comes 2.5 years later, and it is usually in the graphics department.  To that end, Condemned 2: Bloodshot is no exception.  If you want a textbook example of how to create an immersive environment, this is it.  The game ebbs and flows, moving players through dark and varied environments throughout and below the city, each more creepy than the last.  For instance, if the projects weren’t creepy enough complete with its steroid freaks and emaciated drug addicts, then you’ll be happy to know that the next area is an abandoned doll factory.  Once the dolls and mannequins come out, the freakiness ratchets to whole new level. 


This couldn’t be a Condemned game without some crazy paranormal wackiness.  I won’t spoil the scary moments, but there are plenty of points where you think “Oh man, one of these times I know I’m going to turn arou…AAAAA!!!!” and end up jumping out of your seat.  Towards the end of the game these moments occasionally become a bit predictable, but it really won’t matter – you’ll be sitting tense anyway.   When you toss in the dark nature of the game and the meager amount of penetration your flashlight cuts through the inky blackness, you’ll spend as much jumping at the debris in the environment as you do with the real threats. 


The only real hitch in the graphics department carries a very familiar tune – framerate.  Connected to a sound issue we’ll talk about later, the framerate occasionally drops below an acceptable level, pulling the veil of terror right off your head.  It doesn’t impact gameplay a great deal, but it is there just the same. The game relies so heavily on immersion and suspension of disbelief that I am just amazed that the game shipped with framerate problems. 

I praised the first Condemned title for creeping me right the Hell out, but I have to admit that the sounds are that much more creepy this time around.  The chattering of otherworldly enemies, the throaty growl of the various psychopaths, and the distorted screams that blend with the music and steel scraping sounds present throughout the game.  The results are unsettling at best, but it is in the silence that your enemies beset you.  The game will press you wish raucous music only to slowly fade it down, leaving you enveloped in the sounds of your own footsteps.  It is in these moments of silence when you can best hear the haggard breathing of your enemies as they creep up behind you.  Better yet, you may get that feeling like something is about to happen, only to have nothing happen at all.  This dynamic tension works perfectly…except when the audio problems rear their head.


Throughout Bloodshot there are moments where the game seems to be streaming and unfortunately looses synch.  Whatever audio is playing at the time (voice, effects, music, etc.) will begin to skip and cut out, once again breaking the immersion.  Many times this is tied to the aforementioned framerate hit, but sometimes it isn’t.  That said, any other time it is an auditory feast.  If you want a perfect example, just find a plastic 5 gallon bucket to kick over – it simply can’t sound any more real without being in your living room.  Similarly, the sound of metal on metal or the high-speed shuffling of your more paranormal enemies is eerie and unnerving.  Monolith has taken a great deal of care in this department. 


You may recognize a few of the voice actors in this title, but you’ll recognize them from other games – nobody made a return from the first game.  Ethan is now voiced by the more gruff André Sogliuzzo (Fred from Psychonauts and many other titles), Rosa is handled by Angel Parker (a comparative newcomer to voice work), and Michael Bell (one of my personal favorite voice actors who has voiced hundreds of our most beloved characters from Plastic Man, Lance from Voltron, Allstar from Snorks, Prowl from The Transformers, Duke from G.I. Joe,  and Grouchy Smurf to Raziel in Soul Reaver, Haer’Dalis in Balduer’s Gate II, the Spy/Sniper in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, Muramasa in Ninja Gaiden Sigma, and most recently Sed in Lost Odyssey) who handles the voice of the President and Magic Man.  All of the performances are decent with only a few over the top moments.  As with the previous game, there are plenty of expletives to go around, so play this one when the kids are in bed.

One of the best things about Condemned: Criminal Origins were the weapons that could be physically ripped from the very environment that surrounds you.  If you needed a club, you simply ripped a pipe off of a nearby wall.  The weapons are back with a vengeance, and they are even more odd than before.   Beating down a psychopath with an underarm crutch, a bowling pin, bricks, a forearm crutch, doll pieces, a prosthetic arm, wooden baseball bats, metal baseball bats, 2x4s with nails, lead pipes, 9mm pistols, machine guns, submachine guns, pump-action shotguns, double-barrel shotguns, stun guns, and much more just never gets old.  There are a few more guns in the game, but there isn’t a ton of ammo for any of them, so you’ll still end up going toe-to-toe with the crazies eventually.


The controls are well handled on the PS3.  Knowing full well that this game wouldn’t be enhanced in any way by motion-sensing controls, Monolith simply didn’t utilize any of them.  You’ll use the left and right stick for movement, as was the case in the first game, but this time around we also get a left and right hand to use.  The L1 and R1 button punch with the left and right hand, creating obvious punching combinations.  Double Tapping R1 or L1 when you’ve charged your Attack Chain gives you a button pressing sequence to follow that will allow you to cause massive damage to an enemy, often defeating them immediately.  L2 makes your character sprint and R2 throws whatever weapon is in your hand.  As before, the R3 button kicks your opponent, and the L3 adds a medium attack modifier to the mix.  When you’ve unlocked them, you can use the D-pad up or down to fire your stun gun or holster a firearm, accordingly.  Unlike the previous game, you can’t spam the stun gun to incapacitate your enemies.  Each fire of the stun gun depletes a battery charge, so you’ll have to use them more sparingly. 


Mechanics aside, the combat in Condemned is a bit slow in the beginning.  Without a weapon you’ll have to rely on hand-to-hand combat and I just get the nagging feeling that your enemies are hyped on sugar and our character is taking cold medicine.  Everyone seems to be able to stop your counter punches at will, so you’ll have to be more careful with how you tackle combat.  When you start adding weapons and the brass knuckles you’ll find that the playing field is a bit more even.  The AI isn’t stupid by any stretch.  Enemies will seek cover, grab weapons, run away, hide, throw feints, and otherwise frustrate your attempts.  To that end, you have new tools as well – you can grab a downed opponent and use the environment to take them out.  This can be as simple as pushing them into a fire or over a ledge to the far more graphic smashing their head through a TV or impaling them on nearby objects.  It’s all morbid fun, but I think it’ll be even more fun when we can get our hands on controllers that vibrate – yep, it is supported.


The forensic system is back and is improved.  One of my primary complaints with the previous games is that it was carefully separated into combat and forensics, and they never overlapped.  In this game you can run into forensic targets directly in the middle of a combat arena.  There is now a persistent fear that while you are using the UV light to scan for body drag marks you’ll be attacked. 

Condemned 2: Bloodshot is one of those games that is best played in the dark, alone, with surround sound, and on a big TV.  If you get a thrill from creatures suddenly consuming almost your entire screen as they clutch you by the back of your head, you’ll love this game.  In terms of keeping you on the edge of your seat, Condemned 2: Bloodshot succeeds. 


Since Ethan was a cop, he is still familiar with the forensic sciences.  Monolith introduced a new element to this forensic system by allowing players to use their sense of observation to reply to conversations and perform more in-depth analysis in their investigations.  For instance, Rosa will give you the opportunity to ask a few questions from a list of options.  You won’t be able to ask all of the questions, so choosing the most relevant and probing questions will yield the most information, and consequently the best rating at the end of the level.  Since these ratings are directly linked to upgrades like brass knuckles, a gun holster, and body armor, it is pretty important that you pay attention.  Similarly, you’ll be asked to use your observational skills and tools to find obnoxious sound emitters, analyze cause of death, snap pictures of dead bodies, inspect equipment, and much more.  There isn’t as much of the forensic elements as there were in the first game, but they are much better executed.  It is a shame it wasn’t used more.


Since Ethan doesn’t really interact with a lot of people (aside from clubbing them in the noggin), much of the story is told via collectable TV broadcasts.  Throughout the game you’ll find TVs that are showing static on screen.  With a bit of adjustment to the antenna you can pick up either the local news or some psychopath in a mask that looks not unlike the Killroy mask in the Styx Mr. Roboto video who give you some backstory or sharp information on what is coming next. 


There are three things that troubled me with Condemned 2, but don’t let any of them dissuade you from picking it up.  The first is the storyline.  Occasionally, and most notably near the end of the game, the game feels like a bunch of guys sat around a table and came up with several awesome locations, but didn’t know how best to connect them all.  The second thing is the Havok engine.  Sometimes objects are cemented to the ground, and other times they are loaded with springs to make them fly all over the place.  You’ll also occasionally see bodies float in mid-air or clip through the side of objects.  The third issue I hinted at in the control section – forensics.  I just feel like the forensic system could have been utilized more, and without making it so obvious.  It is a step up from the previous game, but it is simply underused.  Again, it isn’t anything that hurts the game too badly; it just breaks the immersion a little bit.

You can whip through the single player game in Condemned 2: Bloodshot in about 9 hours.  At this point you should simply stop and come back to it on a higher difficulty (there are three, the last one is locked) at some later point.  While there are online modes in the game, there is little to nobody playing them.  Several modes are going unused this go around, the first of which is called Crime Scene.  You’ll split into two teams, SCU agents and “The Influenced” (read: bad guys).  Straight out of Sev7n, the loonies try to hide a box with a head in it, and the SCU folks try to find it.  The SCU team can use their tools, and the nuts can drop sonic emitters to slow down the SCU folks.  It plays almost like a demented version of the multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.  You can square off in melee with other folks online, but the tactical blocking and punching goes right out the window, replaced with button mashing and swearing. 


I think there is some sort of law that says that you have to include deathmatch and team deathmatch in your game, so they are represented here as well.  You can also join the Bloodshot Fight Club for a chance at getting your name on top of the leaderboards.  Given that I’m reviewing this on the Playstation 3, it really isn’t that difficult.  Most folks will give up on this mode fairly quickly.  The online mode supports up to 8 players online or through system link.  The very thing that makes Bloodshot awesome for a single player game just doesn’t translate well.  There is little to no surprises, and almost no feeling of immersion. 


Moving back to the single player game, there is a whole set of collectable elements for you to enjoy.  I’ve already mentioned the TVs that provide the backstory, but there is usually several other sub-objective like destroying a certain number of meth labs or blowing up sonic emitters that you can accomplish for the already-mentioned upgrades.  Finding other areas where creatures can pop up and scare the hell out of you is the reward here, you won’t have too much difficulty as long as you can maintain a silver or better on every mission.  Of course, that really is the same thing that could be said about the game – it is the scares, not the scars. 

Condemned: Criminal Origins did a lot of things right.  Condemned 2: Bloodshot improves on that foundation in nearly every way.  More brutal, visually fantastic, an aural treat, and familiar gameplay makes for a compelling and decent title.  While there are a few elements that could have stayed in the cooker for another week or two, what is here is high quality.  For those of you looking for a well executed game that envelops you in its world, look no further.

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