Monday, 2 March 2009

Condemned 2

The original Condemned was one of those ambitious-but-flawed titles that pop up now and again to keep gaming interesting. Its chief innovation was a melee system that had the player ripping pipes, 2x4s and even guillotine blades (of the paper-cutting variety) from the environment in order to execute some of the most graphic beatdowns ever represented in pixels. Besides that, it boasted a profoundly unsettling atmosphere; a few hours of creeping around sewers and abandoned high schools (under constant threat of attack by gibbering maniacs) had me trash-talking the TV screen just to stay psyched. And that’s not even mentioning the groundbreaking forensic-investigation element (yes, yes…it was totally crap).

In Condemned 2 the player reprises the role of Ethan Thomas, whose experiences in the first instalment have led him to quit his job at the Serial Crimes Unit and turn to the bottle. In a big way. Cue a brutal tutorial in which he drinks heavily, has a schizophrenic episode or three and beats up a succession of homeless people/tar monsters. Thereafter, he’s recalled to service in order to help with a new murder investigation, initiating a story arc that takes in grisly serial killings, an Illuminati-style conspiracy and an army of aspiring pugilists, ready to pulp or be pulped in the name of entertainment.

It’s clear from the outset that the game is a massive improvement on its precursor. The graphics have been upgraded, naturally, but the combat’s also much more sophisticated: it now features arm independence (choose which fist to punch someone’s teeth out with!), combos and environment-specific fatalities. Everything feels more substantial, too, so demolishing a hoodlum’s face (while your in-game alter ego screams obscenities at him) takes on a rather unnerving quality, particularly when you follow up by crushing his head in a vice. But as long as you’re completely sick, you’ll have a ball – even the forensic bits are okay this time around.

So what’s not to like? For one thing, Condemned 2 is embarrassingly preoccupied with being gritty. Many of the characters, including Thomas himself, exude an air of playground toughness, as though they actually think that saying things like “let’s give this shit hole an enema” is cool. (This is a game in which one of the most sympathetic characters is a horrendously disfigured mass murderer.) There’s also a suspicion throughout that the plot only exists as a way of stringing together creepy environments: dilapidated hotels, snowed-in hunting lodges, abandoned high schools (again) etc. And if you found the sudden provision of magical powers at the end of Fahrenheit contrived, you’ll probably feel the same way when Thomas starts popping people’s heads with his voice.

None of this detracts from the action too much, though – at heart, the game is all about taking a holiday in horrific brutality. Or maybe it’s like a big budget porn movie: the sets are convincing, there’s a semi-coherent script and the performers are doing their best; but you’ll never mistake it for a real classic. It all comes down to how much you enjoy porn. In my case, that’s a lot.

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