Monday, July 23, 2012

Condemned 2: Not as Good as Criminal Origins

The original Condemned: Criminal Origins from 2005 was a surprising success at the time, offering a splendid survival-horror atmosphere with a brutally visceral melee combat system. Creepy and immersing, with lots of good scripted scares, it quickly found its way into my list of favorite horror games. Its 2008 sequel, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, was one of my most highly anticipated games. I waited years for some kind of press release saying Monolith would port it to the PC like they did the first game, but that news never came. It wasn't until 2012 that I finally got a chance to play it, and I found myself rather disappointed with the game.

As it turns out, Bloodshot is the type of sequel that tries a little too hard to be bigger, better, and bolder than its predecessor, and ends up losing most of its unique charm in the process. With a greater emphasis on combat, a bizarre supernatural premise for everything, the wider availability of guns, and a nearly constant presence of other NPCs, Condemned 2 effectively undermines the very qualities that made Criminal Origins such a suspenseful survival-horror experience. Despite some crucial improvements with the crime scene investigations and a more robust melee combat system, the overall experience proved far less enjoyable than the original.

The main thing that made Criminal Origins such an effective horror game is that the premise felt like something you could plausibly imagine happening in reality. You were just an ordinary crime scene analyst working a typical (albeit unusual) murder case, who then gets thrust into a life or death situation as he tries to track a serial killer while clearing his own name of two framed murders. It was easy to identify with Ethan Thomas, you understood what was going on and what was at stake, and you had clear, concrete goals to work towards. The game's close adherence to realism set a plausible foundation for your expectations, which allowed the game's creepy and mysterious elements to get under your skin. It was genuinely uncanny.

In Condemned 2, the story takes a hard detour into the realm of the supernatural, to the point that it starts feeling like an unbelievable farce. The very first level does away with any realistic subtlety or foundation established in Criminal Origins when it has you fighting bizarre tar monsters that come out of the walls, and grotesque, fleshy sacks that dangle from the ceiling. Later enemy encounters become so exaggerated that they're difficult to take seriously. Over the course of the game you also fight explosive kamikaze dolls, lollipop saw-wielding clowns, knights in full plate armor, uniformed magician's assistants, truck-sized dudes made seemingly out of scrap metal, and an enemy called "the alcohol demon."

Condemned 2 immediately establishes a tone of other-worldliness that detaches you from the setting. If it's not the zany enemy encounters undermining the game's own plausibility, then it's the absurd story. Early on they establish that the events of the previous game and everything happening now is the effect of some mystical cult with supernatural capabilities. As much as that conflicts with the series' established tone, they don't even develop it in an interesting way -- it comes off feeling like a contrived after-thought, especially when Ethan suddenly gains the ability in the final stretch of the game to kill enemies by shouting at them.

The storytelling itself is just not that effective, either. Criminal Origins gave you a solid imperative of "find the serial killer before the cops catch up to you," which kept the pace flowing consistently with exciting tension, and gave you good reasons for all of your actions. In Condemned 2, Ethan is called back into service of the SCU for basically no other reason than a retcon. From there, he doesn't have much of a convincing motivation to continue the investigations, apart from the forced pretense of giving the player more stuff to do, and hoping that the player feels the compulsion to carry on and to get to the bottom of things.

Meanwhile, there's supposed to be a larger story happening in the metro area of the city. While Ethan Thomas trudges through claustrophobic buildings and alleys in search of Malcolm and Leland Vanhorn, the greater city area is succumbing to psychotic violence as the result of supersonic sound emitters placed about the city by the mystical cult. We never see or experience this, mind you -- it's all conveyed through broadcast news reports and random police walkie-talkies that just happen to be conveniently lying around. I wasn't sold on this passive background storytelling, and thought it took away from the isolation one is supposed to feel in a horror game.

The other big thing Criminal Origins has over Bloodshot is that it spent more time building tension to set up the scares -- of which there were also more. Simply put, Bloodshot was not scary to me. I can only recall a handful of moments that were meant to be spooky or frightening, and only one of those was actually executed well. There's one level in particular that was obviously meant to be "the scary one," but most of what it does is distort the screen with static while stuff jumps from literally out of nowhere to clock you in the face or the back the of the head -- cheap scare tactics that ultimately prove more annoying than scary.

Exploring the SCU building

It doesn't help that Bloodshot is a much more action-oriented experience than its predecessor. It's difficult to feel horror when a game glorifies the thrill of the action, and Bloodshot definitely does more to emphasize its action than its horror. The combat system in Criminal Origins was pretty simple -- left click to perform a single attack, right click to block. There were no scripted combos available or anything really fancy about it, but its simplicity was effective at making you feel vulnerable (because all you could do were basic attacks) while also letting you feel the brutality of bashing someone's teeth out of their face.

The melee system in Condemned 2, by contrast, has like a dozen scripted combos built from five or six independent actions assembled in different combinations. For the most part, all of these combos go to waste because they all do basically the same thing; once you figure out which combos are the easiest to pull off, you kind of forget about the rest, since you can't really think about all these complex patterns when you've got several raging psychos pounding on your face. Each combo multiplies the total damage dealt by 3-10 times, and enemies now have seemingly more health to compensate for the extra combo damage.

The game expects and almost demands that you use the combos -- clobbering enemies to death with single attacks takes a really long time now -- which makes you focus more on the game's controls than anything else. All of this expansion can be a good thing if you're interested in a more intricate melee combat system, but I feel that it really undermines the suspenseful horror elements the first game was known for. Not to mention, the awkward timing for combos practically defeats the entire system, anyway; enemies attack much faster than you can, and a single hit interrupts your combo sequence, which doesn't make for an especially fun time.

There are also far too many guns in Bloodshot. Guns were very scarce in Criminal Origins, and you could only carry one at a time. Now in Bloodshot, you're constantly tripping over firearms, and there are many levels where you can go the entire time using only guns. With the holster upgrade you get for completing level four, you can even carry two assault rifles at a time. It should go without saying that having access to this many guns overpowers you and turns long sections of the game into a generic first-person shooter, thus losing most of the unique style from Criminal Origins.

For some reason, the levels in Bloodshot just don't feel as interesting or as memorable as the levels from Criminal Origins. Everything just feels like a dilapidated slum with only slight aesthetic variations between them. The handful of somewhat unique levels all prove rather disappointing. The magic theater had potential, but it's so small and over with so quickly that it's completely anticlimactic. The museum level basically just consists of a series of rooms with the exact same display cases copy and pasted all over the place. The doll factory just feels like a generic "industrial plant" and doesn't do much to capitalize on the doll motif. The Black Lake Lodge is the only level that I can really remember -- nothing else really came close to the department store, elementary school, or Appleseed Orchard from the first game.

Then there are other, smaller issues that managed to annoy me, like the bullshit airlock-checkpoint save system. At one point I followed a trail of blood to its source, where I could stop to investigate the crime scene. Looking around, I saw a prompt to "Open elevator door," so I pressed the action button and then watched as the game wrestled all control from me; Ethan opened the door, looked around the elevator shaft, climbed up a ladder onto the next floor, and shimmied across a small ledge before I was finally in control again. All-the-while I was raging at the screen because I never investigated the blood splatter, and nowhere in that prompt to open the elevator door did it inform me I would be passing a point of no return.

Mix in some fairly frequent trial-and-error and you have a game that's almost more frustrating than it is fun. There were at least two major sequences that left me no other choice but brute-forced trial-and-error to figure out what I was supposed to do, because the game didn't offer any hints or feedback for my actions. In one level, a bear starts chasing you through a mountain cabin and you're supposed to run for your life because the thing can kill you in one hit. Well as you start running down hallways, you come to forks in the road and you arbitrarily pick one, only to find that it's a dead-end and then you die and have to start over. I must have died four or five times in that sequence just determining what I was supposed to do, usually because I didn't know any better until it was too late.

The crime scene investigations are definitely Condemned 2's strongest improvement over the first game. In Criminal Origins, you had a variety of tools at your disposal, but for the most part they all functioned identically to one another and just required you to pick the right tool (which was usually auto-selected for you) and then point and click at the right spot. Now, in Condemned 2, the crime scene investigations take the form of miniature quizzes that ask you questions about the scene, testing your observation and deduction skills. These "puzzles" are pretty satisfying to solve and make you feel really connected to the environment.

In some cases you just have to observe something and report it back to your lab technician, and other times you have to make inferences about the evidence based on what you know of the situation. You might find a dead body and have to determine the cause of death by searching the body for wounds, determining what could've caused that particular wound by selecting from a list of options. You can also search the room looking for possible murder weapons or follow a trail of blood to further evidence. There aren't any major penalties for screwing up on these investigations, but there were a few occasions when I struggled simply to interpret what the options were supposed to mean because some of them were a little vague or seemed to overlap with another option.

But alas, the improved crime scene investigations cannot make up for the underwhelming disappointment of everything else. I know the melee combat is supposedly an improvement, but I thought it got kind of boring after a while, and its greater complexity only served to detract from the feeling of survival-horror atmosphere and vulnerability. The wider prevalence of guns just goes to make the game feel like a slightly watered-down, generic shooter, and the horror and story elements just aren't as gripping as they were in the original.


  1. Dude were you trying to kill this franchise, this is a pretty powerful article that most likely convinced allot of people to not buy it. Well I hope your happy to know that the Franchise is dead now and we will never see a 3rd, because they didn't make enough sales. How about having a positive review swaying more to the topic of improvement for the third rather then obliterating the second. This is your review in a nutshell "Don't buy it" rather then "Give it a go in homage to the first, and hope for improvements for the future" Dude you are a dick

    1. Yes, I single-handedly killed the franchise with this review. Please note that I wrote this review over four years after the game released, long after Monolith and Sega stopped making money off it. If I convinced anyone not to buy the game, it would only have been to the detriment of private retailers trying to make money on used sales.

      Never mind the fact that the Condemned series has retained a cult status ever since the very first installment, and never achieved enough success to warrant a continued franchise, and never mind the fact that in the five years since Condemned 2's release, Monolith hasn't made even the slightest suggestion of making a third game.

      As much as I would like to see more of these games, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed a third installment if it continued the trend established in the second game -- which it most definitely would have if Condemned 2 were actually successful enough to warrant a third game. If people excuse and forgive legitimate problems in hopes simply of seeing another sequel, instead of holding developers accountable for their shortcomings, then we would definitely see zero improvements in the future.