Platforms: Xbox360, PS3
Release Date: 2008-03-11
Regions: USA Europe
Chris’s Rating: ★★★☆
A sequel that hits all the right notes but can’t quite follow the tune.
Condemned 2 is sort of a hard game to write a review for. On the one hand, it’s clearly been designed to address the shortcomings of the original Condemned (mainly, repetitive game play and under-used forensic modes) while improving and enhancing the parts that worked. On the other hand, the game goes in so many different directions that it’s difficult to sum the whole experience up and describe what playing it is like.
Condemned 2 picks up some time after the end of the original Condemned. Our hero, Detective Ethan Thomas, has quit the force and become a body-building alcoholic with a three-day beard and a grudge. Thomas finds himself helping his old agency (much to his disgruntlement) when a mysterious caller leaves a message for him at the precinct. Very quickly he is once again delving into the bowels of the city, which seems to have gotten even worse than it was before. Unravelling the mystery that he is presented requires a lot of exploration, examination of evidence, deductive reasoning, and good old fashioned beat-downs. However, the more he learns about the problems plaguing the city, the more Thomas begins to realize that some larger event is taking place, and that he is somehow an integral component.
Condemned 2 starts out very strong. The combat system is similar to the original game but improved; melee combat in first person is hard to get right, but it feels pretty awesome in Condemned 2. Combat feels visceral and personal, and the introduction of special combos makes for some pretty bloody fights. The team at Monolith went all out in improving the investigation and detective bits of the game too; the CSI-elements are much more complicated and interesting, and the game rates you on how well you are able to piece together the evidence that you are provided. The story is effectively told through in-game cinematics and with radios and TVs that must be hand-tuned, which is a nice touch. There is generally a lot more to do in Condemned 2 than just punch things and hit them with pipes, and this increased level of interactivity is quite successful. The art is very nice; the characters in particular look fantastic. The protagonist, while looking completely different than before, is highly detailed and very well animated. The game also doesn’t rely on him appearing weak to produce its scares; in the very first scene we see him pummel a suspicious character almost to death. In general, the art is improved over the last game (which looked pretty damn good to begin with) across the board.
The levels themselves cycle between exploration levels, horror levels, and combat levels. The game doesn’t make this cycle explicit, of course, but after playing for a while you realize that each level has a particular focus. Condemned 2 is best when it’s in its horror and exploration modes–the modes that are most similar to the game play of the original Condemned. The designers are still very good at making truly claustrophobic and oppressive environments, and this time around they pull a few new tricks out of their hats. In particular, this game has absolutely mastered subtle changes in lighting and contrast in order to increase pressure on the player; the way colors slowly bleed out of the scene as the player descends into the depths of an office building or apartment complex is fantastic. The designers are also very good at leading your eye, so often events will seem to take place right in front of you as you casually look around. When it tries to be scary, Condemned 2 is a very scary game.
The problem is that it only tries to be scary every third or fourth level. The first several levels are focused on fear and quite successful, but then the game switches into combat mode and throws levels at you where you must simply pummel your way to the end. These levels are extremely non-scary, and while they are fun, I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as the exploration levels. The last third or fourth of the game is entirely in this combat-heavy mode, which sort of made the end game a bummer for me. The original Condemned also had some problematic levels towards the end and I was hoping that they would do a better job this time around.
The cycling of level types isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but it is an example of a larger problem with Condemned 2: the game just can’t figure out what it wants to be. Sometimes it seems like it wants to be a horror game, other times it feels like Splinter Cell, and still other times it seems to draw directly from Half-Life 2. In one level you’re crawling through an oppressive basement looking for the bloody remains of some unfortunate murder victim, and the next you’re suddenly in some snowy wilderness running from a rabid bear and defusing bombs. Certain levels show up in the middle of the game (and more frequently towards the end) that seem to have absolutely no relationship to the rest of the story (like the theater level–what the heck was that?). The last couple levels of the game feel like they were taken out of some other FPS and transplanted into Condemned 2 wholesale; they don’t make any sense in the context of the rest of the game.
This sort of frenzied variation is visible in the story too. There are tons of elements introduced (a cult, a serial killer, a city on the verge of collapse, genetic manipulation, the protagonist’s problem with alcohol), but many of them seem like throw-away details or ideas that are introduced once and then forgotten about. For example, there’s really no specific antagonist for most of the game; there’s a serial killer that you’re following, but sometimes you get sidetracked and go off looking for other things. And the end boss is pretty lame and anticlimactic; it’s like they got to the end of the game without a specific bad guy so they just selected some minor character and promoted him up to “final boss” status. Too many of the story threads are left hanging by the end of the game, and major plot events seem to vanish into the ether. The characters themselves all seem to be pretty thin too; we learn a little bit about the protagonist, and his problem with alcoholism seems like a way to make him interesting and unique, but it ends up being really under-used.
But my biggest problem with the story is that it shows its hand to the player. Condemned 2 succumbs to the same trap that has ruined many horror films before it: it tries to explain everything rather than leaving the details of its plot up in the air. In the original Condemned, we’re never given a concrete explanation for some of the events that take place; in fact, by the end of the game we could probably make a plausible argument that the supernatural stuff that Thomas encounters is all in his head. This idea that the protagonist may be going insane was a very powerful plot device. Though the sequel starts out with a trip down insanity lane, over time the details of the plot remove our questions about Thomas’ mental stability. After a while it’s clear that everything is not just in his head, and that there’s actually some crazy explanation for all the weird things he has witnessed. And when we get that explanation, it’s not nearly as interesting as we might have hoped; in fact, as far as horror stories go, it’s all pretty ho-hum run-of-the-mill stuff. In the original Condemned, we get the feeling that human malice itself is manifested as strange skeletal creatures with mental jaws; in the sequel, we learn that these creatures come from a much more mundane source and enjoy Combine-like architecture.
That said, there are some fantastic moments in Condemned 2. I particularly liked the levels that are a mix of exploration, combat, and detective work, such as the hotel level. There’s a great level that takes place within the police station itself, and it’s one of the best in the game. And without giving too many of the plot details away, there are certain levels early on that require Thomas to visit some really uncomfortable areas that have been drenched in some sort of black, oily tar. The forensic investigation elements are much more fun this time around, and they are used much more often than in the original Condemned. And the good parts about the combat (such as the focus on short-term challenges rather than long-term aggregate difficulty) have all survived and are still very high quality.
Condemned 2 is a pretty good game. The game mechanics are all quite solid, and the only thing that really keeps the title from eclipsing its predecessor in every category is the disorganized story and unfocused theme. And that alone isn’t really enough to ruin the game–I had quite a good time playing it through. I just feel like it could have been much better if the horror and exploration bits had been the primary focus.