Any game featuring a struggling alcoholic beating tramps to death with prosthetic legs in a crack house was never going to be a barrel of laughs, but we were genuinely shocked by the uncompromising bleakness of Condemned 2. If you like your games dark, gloomy and guaranteed to depress, then, boy, are you in for a treat.
You play as Ethan Thomas, a former FBI forensics expert forced into a life of tortured alcoholism after poking through one too many crime scenes. Crash Bandicoot he ain’t, and he’s hard to like or empathize with - especially when he’s murdering innocent bystanders in pubs because he thinks they’re monsters.
The game takes place in Metro City, a festering dungeon of sunless despair inhabited solely by drunks, tramps, junkies and murderers. You’ve been dragged out of the gutter by the police and forced to work on another case, which means reliving the hell that sent you mental in the first place. The game is one part FPS, one part beat-‘em-up and one part puzzle game, blending crime scene investigation with punchy - and horrifying - violence.
The fighting is brilliant. You can feel every horrible impact, from the dull thud of Ethan’s knuckles to the cold, wet clang of a steel pipe, and you’ll find yourself wincing with every swipe. Each of Ethan’s fists is controlled with a separate button, and you can mix and match to perform combos. If you have a weapon equipped, either button swings it, and if you have a gun one is for aiming and the other is for shooting. It’s incredibly simple, and unnervingly intuitive.
There are also context sensitive environmental attacks to indulge in. Beat someone up enough and they’ll fall to their knees, letting you drag them to certain parts of the level and, for example, slam their head against a toilet, sending bits of skull and brain flying absolutely everywhere. The character animation and physics give the game a real sense of weight and each battle feels sharp and visceral. How did this manage to get past the censors when Manhunt 2 didn’t? It’s an odd world.
Shame about the shooting, though. The aiming is dodgy and guns only have limited ammo. You can steady Ethan’s hands by drinking booze to calm him down, but we still prefer the harsh thump of a baseball bat to the game’s range of shotguns and pistols. Headshots, however, are awesome - aim it right and your enemy’s head will pop open like a balloon full of mince and chopped tomatoes. Eugh. Luckily, there’s more melee combat than there is shooting.
But when you’re not flinging a crystal meth addict’s face into a television set, you’re scouring Metro City for clues using your forensics skills. When you enter ‘crime scene’ mode you can focus in on pieces of evidence and then report back to the police about what you think it means. The more accurate you are, the better your investigation score. So if you look at a bullet hole, you have to gauge whether it was an entry or exit wound and what type of weapon was used. The amount of detail in the crime scenes is incredible, and it feels like an interactive version of David Fincher’s serial killer movie Seven. You can also use tools like a UV light to reveal hidden clues and blood spatters. It’s really quite ace.
You will have noticed that this is Condemned 2. If you never played the original, it makes following the story of the sequel somewhat difficult. The scripting and cutscenes are incredibly vague and you’ll be constantly baffled. “Why is the city covered in sticky black muck?” you’ll muse to yourself. “Are those monsters made of oil?” “Who the hell am I?” In the first game Ethan Thomas was a clean-cut goody-goody copper (voiced by Greg Grunberg - Matt Parkman from Heroes, trivia fans), but in this one he’s a shuddering, pale, sunken-eyed alkie. And no longer voiced by Grunberg. Boo. The story’s pretty weak overall, but Monolith aren’t famed for their storytelling skills; remember FEAR? Exactly.
The big question - is Condemned 2 any fun? It’s incredibly well-designed and atmospheric, no doubt about that, and the combat is ultra-satisfying, but it’s so grim. It’s like the Silent Hill series - brilliant, but hard to play for more than an hour at a time without wanting to boil your head in a saucepan. The only thing that keeps you toiling away is the incredible and varied set pieces. It’s genuinely scary - especially when you get to the doll factory - dealing more in unsettling, slow-burning tension than things popping out of the darkness and jumping at you. Although there’s plenty of that too.
While the story mode is plenty to keep you occupied with its decent length, there’s more fun to be had after that. There’s a little bonus mode called The Bloodshot Fight Club that offers up various challenges, including such mini-missions as racing to destroy 100 creepy dolls or helping AI cops take on rampaging hooligans. If that won’t hold your attention, there’s also the multiplayer, and it’s not just a tacked-on obligation. There are two types of Deathmatch that focus on melee combat, yet hold up well for replay value despite the distinct lack of guns. There’s also the survival and seek-and-destroy modes, which are slower paced but do a great job of transferring over the single-player’s tension-building atmosphere.
So if you think you can stomach the relentless dreariness, Condemned 2 is one of the best action games around. It has brutal combat, unique crime scene investigation and some of the most demented set pieces ever. The only reason it falls short of essential is the lack of a coherent story and how the levels can sometimes feel overlong and repetitive. The shooting also needs work, but that’s not a game-destroying problem. Condemned 2’s unflinching violence may seem gratuitous, but is it ever entertaining.
Mar 12, 2008