There aren't many games that provide genuine scares. The original Condemned managed more than cheap shocks by taking you to locations dripping with atmosphere and terrifying just to be in. Subtle is how we'd describe the first game, yet somehow it's the last word that comes to mind when talking about the sequel. Although still highly entertaining, it seems developer Monolith decided gamers clearly wanted everything ramped up a few notches. Despite this sequel being extremely entertaining, we're not sure they did.
Condemned 2 follows on from the events of the first game, which, if you missed out on the excellent Xbox 360 launch title, saw cop Ethan Thomas slipping further and further into an insane world, where demons walk among us and a Serial Killer X is slaughtering people. In this sequel you learn more about Ethan's link to the almost supernatural goings on, deal with his burgeoning alcohol problem and beat up an awful lot of tramps - something that feels just as uncomfortable as it did in the original game.
Revealing any more would ruin what is one of Condemned 2's biggest assets. Although the story takes some turns that are pretty hard to believe and features one of the strangest cults you're ever likely to see, it's told well through some impressive cutscenes and in-game action. Condemned featured some neat CSI-like moments and these have been vastly improved in the sequel, testing your awareness of what's been going on and your ability to pick out vital info at crime scenes. Rosa returns as your forensics expert (although she's had somewhat of a Hollywood makeover) and she'll regularly update you with new info based on your findings.
Even with the increased quality and quantity of crime scene investigation segments, you'll be spending most of the game laying into tramps and demon-like things. The biggest change comes from the new combo system, which makes you link attacks and blocks together in order to take down enemies. It takes more than a little getting used to and may initially put fans of the original game off, but there's no denying that it's a far superior system to what we got in the original. As before, you can pick up anything lying around in the environment and use it as a weapon, smacking demented enemies with everything from a plank of wood to a bowling ball.
Guns play a part too, more and more so as you work through the game. Ethan is a drunk so his gun skills aren't exactly up there with a member of an elite tactical unit. His shaking hands will make precise aiming nearly impossible, but down a bottle of alcohol, which happen to be freely available in many of the derelict environments, and his shakes are subdued for a short time. As with the melee weapons, guns feel brutal, which is something many games just don't get right. Although ammo is in short supply, when you find a gun you feel almost invincible, only to come crashing back down to earth when your five bullets are gone.
What really sets Condemned 2 apart from its prequel is its tone. In the original you played a cop who slowly descended into hell, whereas here you're already there. The grizzled, dirty looking has-been that Ethan has become is nothing like the clean shaven cop of the original, and for many he just won't be a likeable character. Combat comes thick and fast, scares seem to rely on things jumping out at you and there's less cohesiveness between the environments - you go pretty much everywhere during the 8-10 hour story.
Whereas Condemned felt like a low budget classic, the sequel falls into the trap of trying to make everything bigger, better and more exciting. There's barely a moment when you're not fighting and this puts you on your toes all the time. After a few levels you're expecting something to happen around every corner, and it does - which is why many will prefer the original. Being able to take down enemies with environment kills is all well and good, but it just takes the game further away from the tense experience found in the original.
Dark pretty much sums up Condemned 2's look. It's as if Monolith, after playing through the game, realised it wasn't quite as spooky as the original and then decided to turn down the lights a little more. You have a torch but it's one of those made for video game torches that barely illuminates the floor a few inches in front of you. Yes, it makes for some heart attack moments when something jumps in front of you, but we'd have preferred a few more subtle scares. What you can see ranges from being up there with the best you'll see on current consoles to looking rather dated, but a constant barrage of filters and effects makes the overall appearance quite memorable.
It's the audio that steals the show though, with Monolith once again confirming itself as a developer capable of creating a completely unbearable atmosphere. Played with surround sound the shrieks and yells you hear all around you add an incredible amount to the game. Voice acting is solid too, although facial animations don't look as believable as in other recent story-driven games. A nice touch is the inclusion of radios and TVs, which Ethan can tune-in to get news reports on what's going on in the city - completely avoidable if you want, but Xbox 360 owners will need to tune them all for maximum Achievement points.
Multiplayer is supported, although the gameplay doesn't really make for a game that will gain a large community. Straight up deathmatch games are largely pointless, with the melee combat simply not working as well as we'd hoped in a multiplayer arena. The one game type on offer worth trying is Crime Scene, which sees a team of influenced hiding evidence, while a team of SCU agents must find it. SCU members can use their tools to find the evidence, while the crazy influenced have numerous tricks to stop it being found. Whether or not this is good enough to keep you away from CoD4 is debatable, but it's worth giving a shot.
Coming to Condemned 2 as a huge fan of the original game will be hard. With such high expectations it'll take time to adjust to the game's more action packed tone, but persevere and you'll find a game with vastly improved gameplay dynamics that make up for shortcomings in scares. We should be happy that Monolith wanted to do more than package the original mechanics in some new levels, but at the same time it's hard not to be slightly disappointed that the best of the original game couldn't be paired with the best of this sequel.