Review: Condemned 2: Bloodshot (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Condemned 2: Bloodshot
Genre: FPS/Survival Horror
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 3/11/08

Monolith seems to have something of a hard-on for the horror genre and finding interesting ways to implement it into the FPS genre, like some sort of gun-toting undead version of PB&J. That’s not too shocking, actually; I mean, I thought Blood was pretty horrifying, myself.

Eh? Eh? Oh never mind.

This has spawned two distinct franchises: the first being what used to be named F.E.A.R. but is now named Project Origin because Viviendi owns the F.E.A.R. name (and published two mediocre games under said name to prove it); the second being Condemned, which retained its name because, presumably, Monolith managed to keep Sega from running off with it (if you picture Sonic in a big black robber baron hat and a handlebar moustache, that’s a whole lot funnier, I promise). Names aside, however, both franchises are effectively wholly different takes on the idea of making a horror-themed FPS; F.E.A.R. is a fairly traditional FPS where your enemies employ squad tactics, your character is capable of employing bullet-time, and the story and theme mesh horror science with supernatural oddity, while Condemned was an FPS that relied more on melee combat than shooting, offered small “forensics” puzzles to break up the action, and didn’t really seem to know where its horror was going (but implied it was mostly scientific in nature). Both in gameplay terms and in concept, the franchises went in different directions from the word go and, as a result, garnered different reactions: F.E.A.R. generated a lot of interest among most FPS fans and was highly praised and well received… Condemned was well received by critics (with certain exceptions), but by players? Not so much. It made enough money for a sequel, obviously, but it wasn’t as big of a seller on the 360 as other launch titles, for unknown reasons.

Still, it was, for many, a good starting point for a long-lasting franchise. It had certain issues; the combat was perhaps not as precise as one might have hoped (though it was miles ahead of other, similar attempts… I’m looking at YOU, Breakdown) and the forensics elements weren’t exactly in-depth or anything, but the atmosphere was solid and well-crafted, and the ending left the game open for a sequel to a certain extent. So long as what issues existed in the first game were cleaned up sufficiently, it was assumed, a sequel could be quite good, though it would take a decent amount of work.

I don’t really think anyone was prepared for what Condemned 2: Bloodshot ended up being. Not only does it fix the problems presented in the first game, it actually manages to be the elusive “awesome sequel”, where EVERYTHING in the game is substantially better than its predecessor. If you were a fan of the original, you can seriously just stop reading now and go buy Bloodshot, because nothing I can say will be more persuasive to you than that. Otherwise, let’s keep going.

The story of Bloodshot picks up about a year or so after the conclusion of the first game. You are once again cast into the role of Ethan Thomas, though your position in life is quite different; in the first game, Ethan was a member of the SCU, and was a respected officer, at that; but after the events of the first game, Ethan’s life has fallen apart rather spectacularly and he’s essentially become an unemployed, homeless drunk who can’t cope with his life and the things he has seen. But when Malcom Vanhorn comes calling and more or less shoehorns his way back into Ethan’s life, Ethan ends up having to pull himself out of the gutter in an attempt to figure out just what was going on a year ago, and how it ties to his own life, if he ever wants to be able to move on with his presently wretched life.

Bloodshot, surprisingly, avoids the storyline problems the first game suffered from, that is “asking far more questions than it answers”, partially because of those very questions. Ever wonder what the significance of the dead birds and metal pieces were? Bloodshot answers that. Wondering why homeless people are going batshit in both games? Bloodshot has your hook-up. And not only does the game do a good job of answering questions (while, of course, asking plenty of its own…), it also does a better job of telling a story than the original title. Ethan Thomas is a surprisingly interesting character this time around; a broken, bitter drunk with a bad attitude and a distinct lack of faith in the world, Ethan still shows flashes of the man he used to be in-between cursing people out and being a dick, showing that he’s not a complete loss just yet. The story that ties things together isn’t bad either; though it’s a little far-fetched and the pseudo-science is a little wonky, it’s generally a story one can accept at face value without too much trouble.

On the downside, Bloodshot kind of expects that you’ve played the first game to a certain extent, because it doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. It makes mention of the key elements of the story, but it doesn’t really explain what it was that Ethan saw on this case that drove him to alcoholism and vagrancy, which kind of leaves you in the dark if you’re approaching the series cold. Also, some of the plot points feel a little tacked on (this whole revelation about the Magicman that pops up is something that either could have used another half-hour of development or could have been excised entirely without being missed, for example), though the overall story is strong enough to carry the weaker elements along without much of an issue.

The presentation in Bloodshot, in comparison, is absolutely top-notch. Visually, the game is mostly fantastic; the various character models all animate well and there are a sufficiently decent variety of them so as to not make the player feel like they are killing the same three people over and over again. The environments are also top-notch and appropriately designed, and varied enough that one doesn’t feel like one is playing through the same damn level forever (many levels take place in run-down, decrepit buildings, but others take place in much nicer, cleaner buildings, and one takes place in a snowy forest and a nearby cabin, which lends a surprisingly entertaining contrast to the proceedings). Oh, and kudos to Monolith to actually giving Ethan feet; so many FPS titles fail to do this thing, so it’s nice to see a game company remember that, yes, when a person looks down, they can see their feet and legs. The only significant visual complaints to make are two fold: first, what I’ve come to dub “The F.E.A.R. Effect” pops up here; essentially, enemies occasionally glitch and either get their heads stuck in walls or completely spaz out in death and glitch around (this happened several times in F.E.A.R., hence the name). This is a very rare occurrence in Bloodshot, but it happens. Second, the developer apparently fell in love with their visual effects, and as such, more than a few scenes will involve black and white coloration, camera static, and all sorts of visual distortions, which is fine to a certain point… but it’s not so fine when PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU, especially when it makes killing them something of a production. Oh, and the game also suffers from “next-gen-itis”: if you play the game in Hi-Def? It looks fantastic, no questions asked. If not? Text is rather… difficult to read. It’s not as bad as the text in Dead Rising, mind you, but a lot of the text is fuzzy and hard to properly read if you’re not using a Hi-Def TV. These three complaints aside, the game looks absolutely fantastic and lives up to the “next generation” expectation nicely.

Aurally, Bloodshot is awesome, period. The music is generally ambiently spooky/driving as the case requires and fits the tone of the game spectacularly. The sound effects are fantastic and have a distinctly visceral feel to them, and the ambient sounds are appropriately spooky and nerve-wracking. And the voice acting, well, it’s quite good overall on all parts, from Ethan and Rosa all the way down to the various homeless antagonists and their random insults as they bear down on you.

Presentation only goes so far, of course, so it’s good to note that for the most part, the gameplay in Bloodshot delivers on the promised quality experience. There are two main gameplay mechanics in Bloodshot: combat and forensics analysis. The combat essentially works like a melee-based FPS; the left stick moves, the right stick turns, and the left and right triggers deliver strikes from Ethan’s left and right hands. When unarmed, this allows Ethan to string together punch combinations to stagger foes, but when armed this allows for different strikes with the equipped weaponry. Clicking in the right stick allows Ethan to kick his enemies, and depending on where you’re looking, the kick attack done will differ. Clicking in the left stick, followed by pulling one of the triggers, will allow for a hook punch for staggering foes as well. Pulling both triggers in at the same time will allow Ethan to block incoming attacks, and if done as an attack is incoming, the attack is parried, thus staggering your attacker and giving you a free shot on them. Combining all of these techniques is absolutely vital to your survival, not only because they keep your health bar full and healthy, but also because heaping combination attacks on foes deals extra damage; a little fist icon will pop up at the top of the screen with a depleting bar that circles around it, and if you nail another attack A.) before the bar depletes and B.) without taking damage yourself, you hit for additional damage with that strike. Multi-hit combos can deal as much as ten times the normal damage if chained properly, allowing you to bring the pain with little more than skilled button pressing and maneuvering. In addition, as you injure/kill enemies you build up a rage bar that, when filled, initiates an Active Time Event that allows you to unleash a punishing attack on your enemy depending on the level the bar has filled to. This ranges from a simple multi-hit combo all the way to breaking their neck outright, which can very easily turn the tide of any battle.

Of course, bare-handed combat is great and all, but the main attraction here is the brick-and-bat bum fight nature of the product, and Bloodshot has that in spades. Weaponry is plentiful and diverse, and while the core game mechanics don’t differ from one weapon to the next, the pure variety (and strategic differences) of the weaponry is more than enough to keep combat interesting. See, nearly anything you see around you can probably be used as a melee weapon in some form or fashion, which means you could very well be beating a foe up with anything from an electrical conduit to a track light to a locker door to a toilet seat to a broadsword to a brick to a metal pole with a sawblade on the end of it to… well, you get the point. Weaponry is rated in four basic categories: damage (duh), range (how far away from you the weapon can strike), speed (how fast you can swing it) and condition (how long you have until the weapon breaks). Thus, a weak but fast police baton might fit your fighting style better than a strong but slow fire axe, or vice-versa. Your weapon of choice will, unfortunately, break eventually from the strain of beating psychos to death with it, but there will almost always be something nearby to replace it with, thus allowing you to continue on your rampage unabated. You can also perform various “environmental kills” on your foes when they are stunned, which can range from throwing them over a cliff to slamming their heads in doors and beyond… or you can just break their neck if you’d rather.

As if that wasn’t enough, you’ll also come across ranged weaponry as you progress through the game, and in a game where melee combat is the focus, this is often a wholly welcome benefit for Ethan’s long-term survival. In Bloodshot, ranged combat plays more of an active role in the game experience; a couple of the levels rely on gunplay almost exclusively, and several more have long stretches where guns are readily available and, generally speaking, required for survival. In this case, the right trigger shoots the gun and the left trigger aims… poorly. See, as we noted, Ethan’s an alcoholic, and when he’s not liquored up, he has the shakes, and thus isn’t so good of a shot. By drinking booze, Ethan becomes more balanced and is more readily capable of aiming without shaking (no, really), which is fairly neat way of incorporating a character flaw into gameplay, and by the time it really begins to grate, Ethan manages to overcome it. Towards the end of the game, Ethan also develops a rather… interesting ranged attack (you’ll see) that can be used at any time and is quite entertaining, as it can shatter heads and stun strong foes.

You will need all of this, of course, because your foes are relentless and more than willing to wreck your person. A sizable portion of the time you will confront various homeless psychos as you traverse the game, and while their actual combat mechanics amount to running up on you and trying to beat you to death, they’re often quite sneaky about it, laying in wait behind corners and obstacles until you approach so they can get the drop on you. But unlike the original game, Bloodshot also sees Ethan facing off against otherworldly horrors of various types, some borne of his own psychosis, some not, and all of which are more than capable of ruining your existence, as well as various foes who are armed with high-powered ranged weaponry… and various other oddities. The game also tosses a few different “boss battles” at you to mix things up, which amount to more of a case of you figuring out how to use the situation to your advantage more than simply confronting your foe head-on in battle, as one might expect. Ethan’s also, thankfully, rather durable, as his health bar is quite similar to the one used in Resistance: Fall of Man; you have three blocks of life by default, and as you take damage, a block will deplete; if you can escape or kill your foe before it depletes entirely, the block will regenerate, but if a block bottoms out, it’ll stay empty until you bandage Ethan up with a medical kit. Thus, learning when to run and when to fight is somewhat vital, especially since the homeless crazies will more often than not be content beating the crap out of each other as much as they’ll be content attacking you.

Okay, so, enough about combat. The other major mechanic in the game is the forensics mechanic, which is dramatically expanded from the previous title. In Condemned, forensics activities were, essentially, a case of walking into a location and doing whatever the game asked of you so you could move on with the game, less a puzzle and more of a down time period. In Bloodshot, however, the forensics missions are quite challenging; essentially, the game will tell you that something can be done, and by pressing A, you enter analysis mode. The game will then point out that X amount of things can be discovered in the location and task you with discovering them, either with your own eyes or by using your UV light (for blood trails and such). In some occasions this is as simple as just finding the clue in question, but in many cases you will be tasked with identifying what the clue actually means. So, for instance, you might find a blood splatter and a bullet entry hole in a door, and the game might ask you what TYPE of blood splatter this is supposed to be (IE, an exit wound), or you might have to take a picture of the scene and your focus on the subject will dictate if Rosa can properly process the scene. This becomes significantly more complex as the game goes on, as the game will ask you to use deductive reasoning and visual exploration to plot your way through several of these situations. You’ll also be given a few Q&A sessions with Rosa, where asking the correct question also matters in context.

How you perform in these sessions doesn’t affect the overall flow of the game except in one or two points (where failure = death), but you are scored on how you perform at these by the game, with your score determining your end-of-level upgrades. Based on the forensics performance score, as well as a few other factors (if you completed your secondary objectives and such), you will either receive a Bronze, Silver or Gold ranking and an upgrade for Ethan. The upgrades are set from level to level, and can range from punching upgrades to holsters for holding guns to GPS markers (for your map, so you can mark important locations) and so on, thus giving you more to play with as the game progresses and more to look forward to. Your score will also be affected by whether or not you find all of the news reports (TVs and Radios broadcasting local news reports that you can tune in by rotating the antenna) and whether you break all of the Sonic Emitters (devices that tie into the story) in the stage. Doing so not only increases your end-of-stage rankings, but also counts towards unlockable achievements, if that matters to you.

Aside from ferreting out everything buried in the game as a means of garnering replay from the game, there’s also online multiplayer if such a thing interests you, across four game modes. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are, well, what you’d expect: beat everyone to death to earn points (though the combat isn’t quite the same, it’s similar enough to make jumping into a match doable without much issue). Bum Rush pits SCU agents against Infected hobos in a lop-sided battle where the objective is to kill all the SCU operatives (and who is who changes from round to round) and earn the most overall points. And Crime Scene, which is arguably the most interesting gameplay mode, pits Infected hobos and SCU agents against one another in something of a battle of wits; the hobos are trying to keep the SCU from finding two pieces of evidence by any means necessary, while the SCU are trying to find and scan that evidence to win. Online play is generally quite stable and enjoyable overall, if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, you are offered three different difficulty levels to play around with in the single player campaign as well as an unlockable “FPS Mode”, which provides you with infinite-shot guns to play with as you run around the game… though your foes are also capable of inflicting a whole lot more damage, thus balancing the experience out a bit.

Which isn’t to say that all in Bloodshot is wine and roses and dancing in the streets. While the melee combat is pretty enjoyable and intense, ranged combat is simply “functional” and tends to lack the punch of melee battles (no pun intended). The FPS mode improves this slightly by its damage model and design, but really, the gun combat is simply less enjoyable and entertaining than braining someone with a gumball machine, and the fact that several stages focus on it only serves to show how much more enjoyable the melee combat is in comparison. There’s also a very strange sort of duality to the opposition where, on one side of the coin, the crazy hobos you face have all sorts of different models but end up being similar in combat, but end up being more enjoyable to kick the crap out of than, say, the various monsters and gunmen you face later purely because there’s less strategy in facing down gunmen (as you often have a gun in these sections as well) or monsters (ditto) than in using melee tactics against the psychos you face. And while Bum Rush and Crime Scene are entertaining as online modes, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, not so much; honestly, while I understand the desire to incorporate an online component into EVERY FPS that comes out… Bloodshot really didn’t need one, and the end result is kind of hit-or-miss.

There are also odd gameplay mechanics that the game simply seems to have excised that just feel like they should be there (Jumping and ducking, for example), even if the game never makes use of them directly. A lot of the game relies on Active Time Events, too, and while having Ethan react to the game world or initiate a rage attack in this way isn’t so bad, the final boss battle springs one of these upon you where failure = death (and yes, the game saves beforehand, but that’s not the point), which is kind of silly. And I do wish more had been done with the concept beyond what has been done already (yes, yes, I know, another sequel is coming, even so); the dramatic improvements made to the combat, pacing, and forensics elements of the game are nice and all, but Bloodshot still feels an awful lot like Condemned, and if you didn’t like Condemned because of how it played/felt, Bloodshot might rub you the exact same wrong way.

Might is the key word there, though. Make no mistake: if you are at all a fan of FPS titles, you really, REALLY need to give Condemned 2: Bloodshot a go. It’s fun, creepy, and intense, it plays well, it tells an interesting story, and it’s pretty damn creative. Yeah, the gunplay isn’t as fun as shooting things, but that’s more of a testament to how entertaining the melee combat is than anything else. And yes, the online modes aren’t entirely spectacular, but Bloodshot is the sort of game that doesn’t NEED online play to be enjoyable, so it’s not like we’re saying, “online play really would have saved the game, only it’s shite”, but rather that the game itself is pretty damn good, so even if the online isn’t superb, it’s not like Bloodshot needed it or anything. Condemned 2 is, in all honestly, superb, and if you are at all a fan of FPS titles or shock horror games, you should definitely play it and probably own it, as it won’t be a disappointment.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GREAT
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC

Final Score: GREAT.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Beating crazy people about the head and neck with a locker door or a foosball pole is, according to Condemned 2: Bloodshot, pretty damn entertaining. The ambience, presentation, and gameplay are all quite nice, and what flaws do exist in the game are generally marginalized by the overall high-quality experience the game is overall. Bloodshot might not be the best FPS ever made, but it’s certainly the best FPS released this year, and (judging by the line-up it has to contend with) will probably remain so for the rest of the year to boot. Definitely recommended.



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