Version tested: Xbox 360
I find it darkly amusing that while Manhunt 2 gets kicked all over the place, Condemned's far more gratuitous and realistic brutality slips past almost unnoticed. In Manhunt 2, much of the violence is optional, but in Condemned 2: Bloodshot you have no choice but to pummel your assailants. (You can see exactly how violent the game actually is in our recent Eurogamer TV show special.) Maybe the moral nannies will catch up with it later (I can hardly wait), but for now Monolith's excellent sequel to the undervalued Xbox 360 launch game serves as a one-of-a-kind horror title with much to commend, improved in every area - melee combat, investigations and production values among the most noticeable.
In the first game, the melee system had you swinging a pipe, axe or other instrument with the right trigger, blocking with the left and doing a comedy kick by clicking the left analogue. You could also use your stun gun now and then, but that was about as complex as it got. Bloodshot's much deeper. You can actually use your fists this time, with left and right punches assigned to left and right triggers, and blocking by forming an X with your arms, which is done by pulling both triggers at the same time. Right from the off, Bloodshot puts you in the bear pit, forcing you to learn advanced hand-to-hand and general melee combo techniques. Knocking opponents off-balance, for instance, is the key to building up one-twos and numerous other combos that deal much more damage than trigger-mashing.
At first, you get your arse handed to you, and it's a little disconcerting, but patience and practice quickly sees you through. Once you figure out the predictable timing to block and then strike in one motion, it all slots into place, and you can go about decking all-comers with manic, frothing abandon. You get a bit wide-eyed and feral while playing, and it's definitely not for those who dive behind the sofa during the creepy bits. For once, the BBFC's 18 certificate is something people should take very seriously - this is vicious, close-up pugilism full of desperate grunting and the schlocking sound of metal on bone.
It only gets more brutal. As you fight, successful blows build up a meter in the top-right of the screen, which, when full, enables you to pull off crazed, close-up finishing moves. When the time is right, the action slows down, trigger prompts appear, and a resulting neck snap or equivalent fatality plays out for your displeasure. And if that's still doesn't hit the mark, stunned opponents can be dragged in a headlock to their screaming doom via environment kills, which are signaled by transparent skull icons. You can smash heads into TVs, fling people into the fire, or, best of all, do industrial accidents on tramps' heads.
Mind you, Condemned 2 isn't all about swinging punches and electrical conduits into people's faces. As with the original, it drops in the odd shotgun, pistol and assault rifle, hauling the gameplay into first-person shooter territory. Just like most horror titles though, you have to try and use every bullet as efficiently as possible to survive the inevitable onslaught. Only one level in the entire game really requires a concerted use of firearms, and Monolith deserves credit for steering it away from being just another FPS (and being the only game I can think of where you down booze to steady the shakes).
As much as the game's central theme is maximum violence, there's more than enough going on elsewhere to justify it. For those who need a refresher, you play former FBI agent Ethan Thomas a year on from the events of the first game. These days he's stinking drunk, slumming it with the bums and saying no to personal hygiene, wracked with nightmarish hallucinations.
Unexpectedly called by former mentor Malcolm Van Horn, Thomas finds himself - against his wishes - back in the fold, chasing his arch enemy, Serial Killer X, and investigating a strange cult called the Oro, who appear to have a grip on Metro City's homeless population by virtue of wall-mounted sonic devices that make people insanely violent. With that in mind, you're not quite so put off by the incessant tramp-bashing, because (apart from being a lot of fun) it's a necessary part of getting to the root of all this evil. The narrative, while we're on the subject, is dynamic and exciting, with top-class voice acting, lots of oddball characters and some unexpected twists that keep you going until the typically baffling conclusion.
Meanwhile it's all technically and artistically excellent, from the stunning, chaotically designed and animated character models to the festering hellishness of the environments. The original did well in this regard too (and was arguably the 360's most technically accomplished launch title), but more than two years down the line Monolith has ramped up the engine so it's among the best of this generation.
Best played at night with the lights off, you feel almost tainted by the disgusting, gloomy environments. Knee-deep in unidentifiable matter, you find yourself peering through the gloom of abandoned houses, crumbling bowling alleys, once-grand theatres and the obligatory disused warehouses and dimly lit alleyways, before eventually finding the madman's lair. The quality of the game's environments is variable, and some can feel so dark that you're practically blind even with your torch - but any time the game feels like it's dipping in quality, something impressive and unique will turn up to restore your interest.
Also overhauled are the puzzling and investigation bits. Previously the game lead you by the hand, telling you which piece of equipment to use, where to use it and when. Bloodshot, while hardly very taxing, at least encourages players to pay attention to plot elements and forces you to be more observant. You can now get one of four items of equipment out at any time, and choose whether to gather evidence or not. As promised, investigating is optional; you can work out where the blood trail came from, who the victim was, when they died, and so on, or just not. If you do though, there are equipment upgrades and those ever-tempting Achievement points dangling as a carrot. The initial puzzles are pretty lightweight and obvious to the point of stupidity, but some aren't all that straightforward to earn a 'Perfect' mark for, and ensuring you scoop top marks should prove interesting and may encourage replay value. It's a shame there aren't more puzzles elsewhere - just blowing things up or turning valves doesn't really compare - but we're not going to murder anyone about it.
We've been largely positive so far, but Condemned 2 does lose its way occasionally. The Doll Factory level, while good in terms of its creepy concept, look, feel and atmosphere, is a real slog, with counter-intuitive puzzles. One or two other sections also threaten to derail your fun, but luckily the game has a knack of following up its rare mistakes with something so intense that you quickly forget what you were frustrated about.
But quite what the point was of shoehorning in multiplayer, I'm not entirely sure. Bum Rush, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch just descend into farce from the word go, with everyone raining blows on each other comedically. Something which is fun and measured in single-player just feels clunky and wrong in a multiplayer arena. The one mode of minor interest online is Crime Scene, where the 'Influenced' (i.e. tramps) play against the agents in a measured game of hiding and seeking evidence. The combat is still a bit crap online, but at least there's more to it than whacking each other with pipes and bats. Another bit worth a quick mention is the Bloodshot Fight Club mode - notable not just because of its quickfire, offline series of challenges, but for including an online leaderboard to compete on once you've finished the game: seeing how many bums you can kill in five minutes, or how long you can keep yourself and a bunch of guards alive while crazed loonies lunge at you. It's all welcome if inessential.
Overall though, Condemned 2 deserves hearty praise for improving on everything it did first time around. The melee combat is brutally intense, the investigations play a bigger part, the visuals are top-notch, and the whole thing's wrapped up with engaging narrative. The multiplayer's one rather pointless and ill-judged addition, and a few sections of the offline campaign could have been better, but on the whole Monolith has delivered a compelling, classy follow-up that horror fans will happily devour.
8 / 10