March 18, 2008
I'm starting to worry about the mental state of the guys at Monolith. What sick and twisted things happened to these poor souls that their imaginations are capable of conjuring up such gruesome and macabre fare? Thankfully, rather than seek counseling it appears Monolith has chosen to get their therapeutic release with a sequel to the underrated sleeper hit of the 360 launch, Condemned: Criminal Origins. This clearly disturbed bunch who have already scarred many of us for life with F.E.A.R. and the original Condemned have apparently set out to put those 'light-hearted romps' behind them and give us something really gruesome with this sequel.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot begins approximately a year after the events of Criminal Origins. Ethan Thomas has been cast out of SCU and as a result of his continuing hallucinations that are troubling to say the least, we find him curled up at the bottom of a bottle, doing the only thing there is left for him; drink the pain away. However when Malcom Vanhorn, an old friend of Ethan's, places a strange call to Ethan's former SCU sidekick Rosa and then promptly goes missing under suspicious circumstances, SCU Director Farrell has no choice but to bring Ethan back into the field to track Vanhorn down. Much like the story of Criminal Origins, Bloodshot has its fair share of plot holes and unexplained moments, however it does a much better job of explaining things and the finale is more satisfying while still being open-ended. Along with plenty of changes in gameplay between the first and second games, the plot and feel of Bloodshot is quite different from Criminal Origins, almost to a dismaying degree. Bloodshot is more intense and disturbing in nature than the more subdued Criminal Origins which was subtle in tone and achieved its thrills through the visceral feeling of isolation you got trudging through the seedy underbelly of a dilapidated city. Perhaps one of the reasons for the change in tone is that while guns and ammo were a precious commodity in the first game, Bloodshot is much more liberal with the arsenal, especially during the latter missions which the original was also guilty of. Still, it's a bit hard to be scared of things going bump in the night when you are running around with an assault rifle with a 30 round clip and laser-sighted scope. As a result of the decision to up the arsenal, the developers seem to have made a conscious decision to go a little more brutal this time around.
While Criminal Origins was satisfied to put you on edge and leave you there, eventually shattering your nerves, Bloodshot would rather shock and horrify you with brutal and grotesque scenes and trade enemies that are less disturbing and menacing than it's predecessor for enemies that are much more bold and violent. At first this can be a bit jarring for rabid fans, such as myself, of Criminal Origins to accept, but eventually you come to appreciate that it's not just a carbon copy of the first game. It's much like the difference between Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4, I suppose; both great in their own right, it's just a matter of taste as to which you'll prefer. Fans of the original, however, will not be completely alienated with Bloodshot. The heart of the original that we fell in love with is still there, even if the exterior is somewhat different.
Condemned: Criminal Origins was a refreshingly original title with some good ideas, but it had it's fair share of rough edges, with some room for improvement. Monolith was obviously eager to fix every flaw and shortcoming of the original with Bloodshot and most of the improvements made for the sequel are welcome additions that fix or add to existing elements of the first game. The forensics system, for example, has been vastly overhauled from the original game in which you'd approach evidence, tap the 'X' button a couple times with the game selecting the right forensic tool for you, and be on your merry way. Bloodshot gives the player more control of how they collect information and evidence, including the ability to chose which tool to use or even to skip over most forensics collection altogether. Additionally, whereas in Criminal Origin forensics collection was a clear-cut case of either doing the right thing and advancing, the forensics of Bloodshot are graded on a scale depending on the quality of the pictures you take or how observant you are of what is presented to you by giving you different responses to the presented evidence. If you merely make the most general and obvious observations you may only receive a moderate or poor rating; to receive a perfect rating you'll have to pay close attention to detail. It all combines to make the forensics collection much more involving and this time around it will actually require some thought to collect the appropriate clues.
The hand-to-hand combat of Condemned has also received a major overhaul with Bloodshot. Whereas in Criminal Origins you were limited to single-button combat with melee and hand-to-hand combat, Bloodshot features a much more complex fighting system. The left and right triggers control the corresponding fist of Ethan, while pulling both at the same time will block.. Building on the new system of 'dual punching' is Bloodshots' combo system. By timing your punches and doing certain combos, Ethan can have a chance to strike an additional blow which will do extra damage and fill the chain meter faster. For example, the Bum Rush combo involves running at an enemy and landing a couple quick shots while you still have that forward momentum. If you land the entire combo without being hit in the process, you'll receive a 4x multiplier to fill your chain combo meter, which will allow you to to start a chain combo in which time slows down and a quick-time sequence happens that will deal substantial damage to your transient enemies if you complete all button presses. There are three levels to your chain combo attacks which you will unlock as you progress through the game and deal varying degrees of damage. Unfortunately the choice to activate the chain combos with a double tab of either trigger is a bit problematic and you may finding yourself starting a chain combo without meaning to. It all becomes even more convoluted during the final stage when an additional ability you gain that I won't say too much about involves double tapping both triggers. With all this being controlled by the triggers and the face buttons hardly being used at all, you have to wonder if a different control scheme would have been more intuitive.
The quasi finishing moves of Criminal Origins have been replaced by environment-based finishers like throwing your enemy into a dumpster or over a railing after stunning and grabbing them. The environmental finishers don't have quite the visceral feel of some of the better finishers found in Criminal Origins, but on the whole the combat is so much more deeper and improved, it's easy to overlook this one small step back. It is a bit strange though that just throwing punches will spill gallons of blood while ramming someone's head through a television doesn't spill a drop. It's also a bit disappointing that the finishing moves weren't any more creative than they are in Bloodshot. Where is the option to jam your thumbs into people's eyes or rip their mandible off? That's what I want to see.
Another new addition to the series is for all those of you that wondered what Condemned would be like as a straight FPS. The aptly named FPS Mode gives you the ability to replay the entire game with guns-a-plenty and unlimited ammo. It's certainly not a huge addition to the game, but an interesting extra that gives the single player a little more replay value once smacking bums with pipes gets old (but really, does it ever?). A nice touch to make FPS Mode still somewhat challenging is that enemies do a significant amount of extra damage and also take a bit more themselves. To add even more replay value is the Bloodshot Fight Clubs for those times that you just want to beat the crap out someone without the hassle of narrative or objectives. There are five in all ranging from Streets of Rage mode in which you'll attempt to stop rioters in the quickest time to a bum cage match. Like FPS Mode, the Fight Clubs are a good addition to take some of the sting out of that $60 price but is nothing really substantial enough to get very excited over. The online leaderboards for the Fight Clubs were a nice touch.
But who cares about leaderboards when Bloodshot has a full-fledged multiplayer component, right? To start, you have the multiplayer stalwarts deathmatch and team deathmatch. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary or unique about deathmatch in Bloodshot, there is something hilariously satisfying about 8 people running around trying to punch each other to death with drive shafts and toilet seats. It definitely isn't going to replace the DM of Call of Duty 4 for anyone, but it's good for a few laughs while they last. Unfortunately, after it stops being funny most of enjoyment you'll get out of deathmatch in Bloodshot will be gone.
Luckily, there are two additional modes that are a bit more interesting. The first is Bum Rush in which one team of one or two people will play as fully-loaded SCU agents while everyone else constitutes 'the influenced' and will try to swarm the SCU agent until he is killed or time runs out, at which point one of the influenced becomes the SCU agent and the whole thing repeats. While this mode is definitely more inventive and original than the deathmatch options, it's not particularly well thought out either. Gameplay is entirely unbalanced as the influenced will have to pound away at the SCU agent for what seems like forever to finally kill him while the SCU agent can kill anybody in one hit. This is a pretty good deal if you are the SCU agent as you'll rack up the kills and it's actually quite fun to see how long you can last. If you are the influenced, however, this can get annoyingly tedious after a couple rounds. Running at someone hoping to get maybe a punch or two in before they kill you isn't the most exciting multiplayer experience ever, especially when you consider the SCU agents will start with an assault rifle and the best you can get as the influenced is a Molotov cocktail to wing at him. A little tweaking and this could be a somewhat enjoyable multiplayer experience, but as is, it gets old fast.
The fourth and final multiplayer mode and easily the most fun to play is Crime Scene, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Spy and Upsilon Force dynamic of Splinter Cell: Double Agent if the roles were reversed. This time, it's the SCU agents with their gadgets and guns that must capture the objectives, in this case scanning severed heads in coolers that the influenced are defending. Besides the fact that scanning severed heads is about the coolest objective ever, the influenced can pick up and reposition the coolers to their advantage so they can sneak up on the SCU agents while they scan the heads. The best part is that there is hardly any of the balancing issues that Bum Rush mode has, as the SCU agents guns aren't nearly as powerful and the influenced can easily kill an SCU agent in 2-3 hits versus the multitude of knocks an agent can take in Bum Rush. Again, Monolith isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here with the multiplayer but Crime Scene alone is worth a look, even if you skip over the rest of the modes.
Graphically, Bloodshot is head and shoulders above the first Condemned. It's not the kind of huge improvement that is going to completely blow you away and you may even not notice it until you go back and play the original Condemned again. The first game had serviceable graphics for a launch title, but the sequel steps things up in some key areas, including the lighting and just the overall fidelity of graphics. Easily the most noticeable difference is in the level of detail to character models and environments. In Criminal Origins most characters, and indeed environments, were lacking detail. Bloodshot doesn't have any problems there at all. Best of all, Monolith seems to have gotten rid of most of the very distracting shine that skin had in the original Condemned. That alone makes the character models look much more realistic. It's pretty clear that Monolith was working with more of a budget this time around and they definitely put it to good use to enhance the visual presentation of the game.
Character animations are another area where Bloodshot really begins to outshine the original game. The fluidity of the motion is much more realistic this time around for both Ethan and his various foes, as well as an increased number and diversity of animations in Bloodshot, compared to the first game. Rather than the one swing for all weapons the first had, the animation in Bloodshot for swinging a hammer will be different than that of a broadsword or sledgehammer. It's a small thing but it really adds to the level of immersion the game achieves.
Much like the original, Bloodshot shines like a crazy diamond in the audio department. It's one of the few games that uses 5.1 surround sound to its full effect and honestly neither game in the series would be nearly as effective or enjoyable without such a good mix. You'll instinctively use the various peripheral environmental sounds to identify impending danger coming before you even see it. At the same time, the sound is used masterfully to get you looking in the wrong direction, setting up plenty "oh sh*t!" moments as you turn to investigate a sound, only be be attacked from behind. Music doesn't play much of a part in Condemned 2: Bloodshot, and rightly so as sound is such an integral part of the series and it just wouldn't do to drown it out with a bunch of music. While it was a bit disappointing that none of the voice cast from the original game returned for the sequel, it's obvious that Monolith went with some quality voice talent for the sequel. You can't complain when they crib their voice talent from Metal Gear Solid.
The achievements of Condemned 2: Bloodshot is a more varied and well-thought out list than the original. Bloodshot features an achievement split of about 60/40 between single player and multiplayer, respectively. While you do still have the obligatory collection achievements that seem to be in every game these days, they are integrated much more seamlessly in Bloodshot. First of all, you won't find any $400 gaming consoles inexplicably lying around in filthy abandoned schools or decrepit subway stations. The antennas you'll be searching out in Bloodshot make much more sense and actually are a nice little bonus of information, like the audio diaries of Bioshock. The responses are also probably the most original 'collection items' I've seen thus far. There are also a couple achievements for using different weapons and making use of the chain combos, all of which can be done in the Fight Clubs but aren't really anything revolutionary. Most of the multiplayer achievements are standard fare, including one for killing 1000 enemies and winning each game type a couple of times. The only real standout here is the SKX achievement, which is awarded for killing 9 people that have the 1000 kills Serial Killer achievement. It's just a nice little nod for fanatics of the first game that remember that SKX killed 9 serial killers. None of the achievements are incredibly difficult, especially considering all but two of the multiplayer achievements can be done in player matches. Why only those two must be done in ranked is a mystery I have yet to figure out, but all in all, it's a pretty decent and challenging achievement list.
With Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Monolith took the best ideas of the original and improves on them, while repacking them in a new and more stylized package. The forensics have been drastically altered to be more engaging and thought provoking and the combat is much deeper and varied than the first. While the changes in mood may be difficult for die-hard fans of the original to adjust to, it's a fresh take on the series that is unique in its own right. With production values exponentially larger and more refined than the original, Condemned 2: Bloodshot is a sequel Monolith can be proud of and a worthy heir to the throne that fans of the original should not be without.
Carrying over the tradition of the first game, Bloodshot really shows it's stuff in the audio department. It's not so much that the score is so great or that the dialog is the best in the world, but the masterful use of the 5.1 mix will make you wonder why more games don't focus more on such an important aspect. The voice casting is improved over the first game as well.
While the graphics have received a decent overhaul from the first game, Bloodshot is still behind the overall curve in the graphics department. While it can't compete directly with the best looking 360 games, it certainly is not an eyesore.
A huge overhaul to the combat system is stymied somewhat by the overuse of the triggers for practically anything combat related, which can lead to frustration occasionally. Overall, however, the changes are for the best and greatly improve the gameplay experience.
The plot is a pretty natural progression from the first game and connects the two well and while Bloodshot won't win any awards for plot or dialog, its about on par with the first game and is still better than most games today. The entire presentation is much more professional looking this time around. It's still one of the premier gaming series for chills and thrills.
The achievements of Bloodshot are nothing revolutionary but a good split between multiplayer and single player will keep you coming back and the fetch related achievements are integrated into the overall mood of the game much better this time around than the first.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot is not just a carbon copy of Criminal Origins, but instead the natural progression of the series. Take every complaint you had about the first Condemned and assume it's fixed. The combat is deeper and more engaging, forensics gathering is actually fun this time around, and the presentation of the whole package is much better as well. The change in mood between the first game and Bloodshot may turn some hardcore fans of Criminal Origins off, but Bloodshot manages to stand on it's own two feet and progress the brand rather than just falling back on the series name like so many sequels that are shoveled out the door these days.