Condemned 2 is great, if you're prepared to face its craziness
If you've ever played Monolith's excellent Condemned: Criminal Origins, then you might remember that game for having a great atmosphere, a pretty intriguing plot and some truly psychotic enemies that you brutally smashed down with all manner of blunt and sharp objects. In Condemned 2, you can find all of those things, but the game has been cranked up a notch in terms of violence and overall craziness. If the first Condemned left you wanting more, but on a more convoluted level, then Condemned 2 will please you to no end. However, if Ethan's helplessness, clumsiness with weapons and humanity among all the crazy stuff that went down was what you liked about the previous game, then this new game may feel too over-the-top for you. That said, Condemned 2 is a damn well-constructed game that can satisfy your most violent visions, and as such I can quite easily recommend it.
Condemned 2 picks up 11 months after the events of the first game. Ethan, having seen horrible things in the first game, has quit the law enforcement agency he was with and turned all of his attention to a new addiction: drinking. We meet our tormented hero in a bar, where the booze and visions haunt him. After a trippy introduction to the game's combat system, he encounters his old mentor, Malcolm Vanhorn. Soon after, however, Vanhorn is murdered, and Ethan gets recruited back into the SCU to help investigate the case.
Much like Monolith's FEAR 2, the sequel to Condemned: Criminal Origins answers rather a lot of questions, though, just like in that game, the story's climax is basically a sneak-peak at what Condemned 3 is going to be all about. The plot is also a bit more convoluted, and takes a turn for the supernatural. The first Condemned hinted at some of this stuff, but never truly dabbled in it. Condemned 2, on the other hand, dives face-first into it. Ethan used to be an average schmuck with a steel pipe, but now he's turned into a Superman of sorts, and the enemies he's fighting have other, more outlandish tricks up their sleeve than “I have this wooden stick and I will attempt to hit you with it, hurr hurr.” This change occurs about half-way through the game, and you either like it or you don't.
Another slightly weird change is the shift in character design. Specifically, Rosa's character design. In the first Condemned, she was a middle-aged, somewhat obese-looking woman. However, it seems that she's been on a serious diet in the down-time between the two games. She looks about 15 years younger, and has just been plain sexified. It made me frown. It just seems so unnecessary. These are no Ivy antics, thank god, but it did remind of me her.
Gameplay-wise, Condemned 2 is quite similar to Criminal Origins. You still have the same melee combat system that's centered around parrying blows to throw enemies off and retaliate. Monolith apparently felt the last game was too tame, however, because they devised some interesting ways to dispose of your enemies. There's a heap of new melee weapons, like a foosball rod, some (invisible!) deer antlers and various medieval swords and axes, among other things. All of those weapons can be used to combo foes by tapping both attack buttons in various orders. You can also execute enemies by getting them close to death and then dragging them around until you see an object with a skull item in front of it; this indicates that it can be used to dispose of your victim in a cool way. The enemies still retain their behavior from the last game. They'll try to ambush you, run away if they're losing, pick up weaponry and start hitting each other by accident, upon which they'll get mad at each other and do your dirty work for you. This last tactic is key to surviving some of the later encounters, where the enemies are extremely aggressive.
There's also that other part to the fighting: firearms and projectiles. Simply put, the shooting action is not good. Monolith have proven they're capable at crafting good shooters, with FEAR, for example, but in Condemned, it just feels clumsy. It's a shame, therefore, that the second half of the game is basically all about gunplay. You start meeting lots of soldiers that come packing with assault rifles, and enemies that you can't tackle with melee weapons. It's seriously annoying. At one point during the last level, I my game even got hit by a glitch. When I loaded up my savefile, I found that Ethan had lost his precious assault rifle. It made that stage hell, because there were practically no enemies around that you could beat without an assault rifle!
Then you've got the crime scene investigations. They're great. Ethan has got access to a pretty wide range of high-tech equipment that analyses evidence really fast, and the crime scenes are always very visceral and cool. The bodies are nicely detailed, and the blood smears are all over the place, making you wonder just what the killer was doing. Rosa will help you interpret your findings, and you get rated on how you do. Sometimes, you won't get punished for doing badly, but the more significant pieces of evidence require accurate work. The gathering of evidence breaks up the pace nicely, and is really well done, all in all.
Aside from the glorious melee combat, probably the biggest part of what makes Condemned Condemned is its presentation. The environments are just so dark, so dreary, and always make you feel depressed... But in a good way. Ethan isn't exactly going through happy times, and this is reflected in the atmosphere of the game. The walls always seem to close in on you, and the growing madness in the enemies as well as Ethan himself is almost tangible. You've got your flashlight, but it just barely illuminates these dirty, dirty surroundings. It's fantastic. Weapon damage also looks great. When you hit someone with a steel pipe, you can literally see the blunt-force trauma on the characters. Blood spatters, heads explode, bodies have some real weight to them as they fall to the ground, bereft of the pitiful life they'd been leading. Fantastic work by Monolith. FEAR has got some serious atmosphere going, but it's nothing compared to Condemned's.
However, most of this is, highly unfortunately, lost when Ethan becomes this Superman, once he starts wielding guns with great efficacy and doing stuff no other human can. Suddenly, Ethan is in control. The fights become shoot-outs, and crazy enemies no longer come storming at you, with the desire to murder you readable on their faces, because you've shot them in the head before they're halfway across the room! It's a terrible, terrible shame, and one that sort of keeps this game from being truly great in every single one of its 11 levels. Some of them are genuinely fantastic, some of them get brought down by this.
One final aspect deserving of praise is the sound design. The sound effects in Condemned 2 are fantastic across the board. When you hit a dude with a shovel, you can hear his skull crack. When you pound away at his flesh, you hear that delicious crunch. Condemned 2 looks and sounds amazing.
The follow-up to the excellent Condemned: Criminal Origins is not perfect. The act of shooting a gun in this game is simply not fun or satisfying, which makes the fact that the game wants you to do it for about 40% of the game so obnoxious. Furthermore, Ethan has changed, has become more powerful than before. How that works, with him being an alcoholic and constantly hallucinating, I don't know. The result is that the game just feels so much less claustrophobic, so much lighter towards the end of the game, which is truly to its detriment. However, I can still recommend Condemned 2 to those who are looking for some spectacular violence. And when the game does hit its stride, it infers some insanely atmospheric action. If you're the squeamish type, then you shouldn't play this game. But, if you think you're up for the challenge, and you want to have some great moments swinging axes at crazy people in deserted buildings and other, more imaginative locales, then you should definitely play this game.