Bowling pins. Toilet seats. Drive shafts. Deer antlers. These are just a few of the makeshift weapons that you will beat your deranged, uncontrollably violent opponents to death with in Condemned 2: Bloodshot. This first-person action adventure game is far and away the most unflinchingly sadistic and gruesome video game I've ever played, outclassing its predecessor in virtually every way possible. This is a game that puts faint hearts and weak stomachs through a battery of tests, but if you're up for it, Condemned 2 is thoroughly and brutally entertaining.
Special agent Ethan Thomas, the two-fisted protagonist from Condemned: Criminal Origins, is in bad shape after the events of the first game. Having quit SCU, the law enforcement agency he was previously working for, Ethan now spends his time drinking in dodgy bars, hiding from the creeping darkness and twisted hallucinations that haunt his every waking moment. However, it would seem that the case from Criminal Origins still has some loose ends, and you end up getting dragged back into the investigation of the nefarious forces behind the widespread madness that chokes the city.
While the story in Criminal Origins was deliberately disorienting and brimming with unanswered questions, Bloodshot makes a point of explaining the seemingly unexplainable insanity that has been a driving force in the series so far. It's not necessary to have played Criminal Origins to appreciate the grimy setting and relentless brutality of Bloodshot, though the story revelations probably won't resonate if you haven't. If nothing else, the conclusion of Bloodshot leaves you with the promise of something exciting and different in Condemned 3.
Like Criminal Origins, the action in Bloodshot is an 80/20 split between hand-to-hand combat and forensic investigation, though it expands on and adjusts both in a number of meaningful ways. First-person melee combat is an exceptionally difficult concept to pull off convincingly, due to the disconnect from your “body” that's felt in most FPS games, where your presence in the world is defined by the barrel of your gun. While there are a handful of firearms in Bloodshot, ammo is usually scarce enough that you'll be using your fists, along with whatever else you can pick up, to take on your enemies most of the time. Even when there are firearms at your disposal, you'll likely opt for the hands-on approach, just because it's so damn satisfying. The mechanic of guzzling bottles of hard liquor to steady your aim with firearms is an entertainingly morose idea, but you just can't beat caving in a dude's skull with a rod from a foosball table.
The basic combat assigns each of your fists to a different button, and pressing both at the same time will allow you to block or parry incoming attacks, almost making it feel like a no-holds-barred boxing game. There's a new combo system that rewards you with more punishing attacks when you're able to land a number of consecutive blows without getting hit yourself, encouraging you fight somewhat intelligently, rather than with pure, blind rage. You can activate chain attacks by double-tapping one of your attack buttons, which will slow down the action and prompt you with a string of button presses which, if done successfully, can result in some exceptionally savage attacks.
Opponents will drop to their knees when they're at the verge of death, at which point you can grab them and execute them using an environmental kill, which can range from tossing them in a dumpster to crushing their head in an industrial press. Save for an awesome--if shamefully underutilized--late-game addition, the core combat in Condemned 2 doesn't really change that much over the course of the game. The constant change of scenery and the regular introduction of new objects, new combos, and new chain attacks with which you dispense your murderous justice, however, are just enough to keep your attention throughout.
You'll occasionally take a break from all the bone-crushing violence to do a little crime-scene investigating. You'll use a UV light to turn up blood trails, take photos of evidence with a digital camera, navigate serpentine environments with a GPS unit, and use a spectrometer to sniff out the sonic emitters that are driving everyone totally bananas. The most interesting aspect of the forensic stuff is the way you're rated on the quality of the questions you ask Rosa, your in-ear contact back at SCU, and the accuracy of the evidence reports you submit. The separation between the combat and the forensics still feels a little odd, though by forcing you to do a little quiet meditating on the net results of all this violence, it keeps the game from feeling too relentless.
A lurid, rundown atmosphere is a significant factor in what makes Bloodshot so engrossing. The environments are consistently filthy and busted, with either harsh lighting that creates lots of unnerving shadows, or no lighting at all, forcing you to rely on your flashlight to make your way. Bloodshot sounds as nasty as it looks, with a static-washed, screaming soundtrack that creates a perpetual sense of dread, sickening thuds and crunches punctuating the intimately punishing combat, and some of the most convincingly rage-filled epithets you'll hear in a game. You'll hear muffled movement and muttering from rooms away, reinforcing the sense that there's someone (or something) right around the corner, ready to tear you to pieces.
The single-player game in Bloodshot is probably about as long as Criminal Origins was, though Bloodshot definitely maintains a better momentum throughout. Bloodshot also features some multiplayer modes that are interesting in theory, but in the plainest of terms, the melee combat just doesn't work well in a multiplayer context. While I'm generally not much of a fan of gore-porn like Saw or Hostel, I loved Condemned 2 start to finish, despite it coming from a similarly depraved place. This game is all raw nerves and bloody fists, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll find plenty of both in the equally damaging Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Condemned 2: Bloodshot.