Parents, be warned: Condemned 2: Bloodshot is not a game fit for children. At choice moments in Monolith's gruesome and demented first-person horror adventure game, you'll impale rioters on rebar, crush the heads of the homeless in a gigantic vise, and force the faces of far freakier foes into toilet bowls. Every one of these actions is accompanied by blood-spurting visuals, shouted epithets, and the slimy sounds of entrails splattering onto the floor and walls. Like a good slasher flick, the game makes no bones about its controversial content; it lets you decide how you want to execute each maniacal foe and then showcases the mutilation in macabre detail. If you played the game's grisly predecessor, the gore should come as no surprise, though it's still impressive how well Bloodshot manages to one-up the original Condemned's violence at every turn. The volume has certainly been turned up.
All of the vivid neck-breaking and throat-slashing action translates into equally intense scripted events. Condemned 2 is, at heart, a series of fantastic moments. These individual moments aren't always connected in ways that make sense, but they're powerful and memorable, and a testament to the ever-rewarding nature of the jump-out-of-your-seat surprise. But a surprise is only as good as its setup, and the game's finest asset is its ability to create a thick, dreadful atmosphere, and then reward your emotional and physical investment in that dread with a shock and a scare. You'll scour the grungiest, darkest corners of a besieged city, from a creepy bowling alley to a claustrophobic dockyard. The payoff in each scenario is proportionate to the terror the game so cunningly instills. Two separate chase scenes come to mind immediately and stand as the most unforgettable gaming moments of the year so far, though even the less-dramatic sequences can feel like a bludgeon to the brain. In the end, it doesn't matter how a magic theater and a doll factory relate to one another. What's important is that each level will cause you to hold your breath, only to expel it in a single gasp.
Somehow, Monolith found a way to fit Ethan Thomas's continuing battle with his own demons into these set pieces, with mostly positive results. Ethan is as bitter and jaded as ever, and he's used the bottle to bury the troubles of his mysterious past. In need of his services, the Serial Crime Unit pulls Ethan from the gutter and implores him to assist them in investigating the enigmatic cause behind Metro City's unstoppable crime wave. During the course of the game, Ethan unlocks the secrets of an obscure conspiracy. Don't be surprised if you get a Silent Hill vibe from the experience: The lines between the real world and the paranormal are confusingly blurred together, and as enjoyable as the overall story arc is, Bloodshot doesn't answer as many questions as you'd hope. Just when you think you might come face-to-face with the truth (and just as some major story twists and a new gameplay mechanic are revealed), you're left with a few savory hints and the promise of the inevitable sequel.
The general anxiety is further enhanced by the most decrepit and decayed visual design in recent memory. You can taste the dust in the air as you traverse Metro City's dank environs, and the rough textures make every wall and object look gritty and run-down. The lighting is evocative and creepy, sometimes even more so when you turn on your flashlight in the darkest areas. The stylized effects that indicate a paranormal encounter are sometimes overdone, but for the most part, they set the right mood and parallel Ethan's battle with the bottle. The sound is even better. The slams of metal against flesh are conveyed perfectly, as are the grunts and cries of your opponents. Furthermore, moments of silence contribute to the sense of fear, making the high quality of the scuffles and creaks that break up those moments even more memorable. In addition, the voice acting is fantastic, and the eerie, understated musical score sets the tone without getting in the way.
It all comes down to vivid imagery and shock value, and Bloodshot gives you plenty of control over how you manipulate them. There are more weapons to play around with than in the first Condemned, thanks to the inspired locales. You'll be spending some time in dark alleys, where baseball bats, pipes, and two-by-fours are waiting to be grabbed and swung, but even better instruments of destruction are found in a deserted lodge and an abandoned bowling alley. Favorites include saws that look like lollipops, deer antlers, medieval swords, paper cutter blades, bowling pins, and locker doors. A good variety of items can be grabbed and used to bludgeon enemies with, but this isn't the only improvement to the formula. The basic hand-to-hand combat is enhanced, and you can attack with both fists this time, using the corresponding trigger to swing. You can also string combos together for more damage, and there's a terrific sense of impact when your fist or bludgeon finds its target.
Melee fisticuffs are rather deliberate affairs. They force you to pay close attention to every move so that you can block when necessary and throw in a combo when your enemy staggers. This isn't always easy: Bloodshot's artificial intelligence will challenge you. Foes run and seek cover, grab weapons off of the ground, and change up their attack patterns, which makes for some challenging fights (and some well-earned sighs of relief when they are over). As if this didn't make for enough variety, there is also a meter that fills as your kill count rises. Filling the bar lets you unleash finishing moves on your opponents. When this happens, everything moves into slow motion and a series of contextual button presses tell you what you need to do to finish off your target. This mechanic has been overdone elsewhere, but it feels natural here because the mechanic is an offshoot of the "pull right trigger, swing right fist" controls used in basic combat.
You can also use the environment to your benefit if an injured combatant falls to his knees. At this point, any number of objects will be marked with a skull, and you can drag your victim to one of them, where an item-appropriate kill will take place. Drag him to a washing machine, and you shove his head in. Pull him over to a blazing inferno, and you toss him into the flames. Some of these kills, such as throwing an undead magician's assistant over a balcony, aren't all that dramatic. Others, such as picking up a muscled attacker and impaling him on a slab of spiked concrete, are insanely violent. In this case, we shoved our attacker into the rebar and pushed him flush into the concrete. The rebar then weakened and the victim slid off and onto the floor, where he let out a single violent tremor before perishing.
You'll be using some ranged weapons as well, though you aren't limited to just standard guns. This isn't the game's strongest suit, given that the confined levels make it difficult to get in a comfortable position for a firefight. In fact, Bloodshot's weakest segments are those that revolve around ranged combat, such as a bland F.E.A.R.-inspired level that occurs in the SCU offices. Nevertheless, the shooting mechanics aren't bad, and the limited ammo available to you at most times means you can't rely on an assault rifle for long. You'll also find yourself lugging around a crossbow, which figures heavily in a few boss fights. There's an interesting twist regarding aiming here that revolves around Ethan's alcoholism. To calm your nerves, you can take a swig from a booze bottle, which temporarily calms the jitters you experience when looking down your sights.
You'll be collecting some evidence from murder sites for Rosa at the lab again, but this aspect of the series has been improved. In fact, it requires some actual thought on the part of the player. In some cases, you need to use a black light to spot the pattern of blood and determine how the victim was killed. In others, you inspect electrical panels, a disembodied head, and a series of X-rays. You'll be pressed to answer correctly based on contextual clues (in one case, paying particular attention to the story), and correct answers reward you with a better end-level medal, as well as an upgrade to show for it, such as the ability to holster a sidearm, or a boost to your health. You aren't going to be doing as much forensic analysis in Bloodshot as you did in the original Condemned, and it's too bad, because this element is much more interesting this time around.
For all that it does right, Bloodshot could have used some tightening up. It tries to be varied by throwing in some puzzle sequences, unusual gameplay twists, and a few other odds and ends, but those added tidbits detract rather than add to the experience. One case in point is a sequence in which you use a magnetic crane to pick up metal meanies and drop them into a compactor. It's annoying, out of place, and simply doesn't work. Another example is the doll factory level, in which exploding dolls wander around, threatening to detonate any time, when all you want to do is figure out the equally absurd puzzle at hand. At other times, overzealous collision detection might get you stuck on the smallest object, or a much-needed prompt to grab a weapon won't appear because you aren't facing exactly the right way. We could have done without some of the unnecessary filler, if it meant smoothing out some of the rough edges.
We could have also done without the mostly unnecessary multiplayer modes, though one of them isn't without its charm. That mode is called crime scene, and it pits a team of SCU agents against a team of Influenced. The Influenced team hides briefcases of evidence while the agents must find them, and it creates a sometimes fascinating cat-and-mouse experience that makes playing on either team enjoyable. The other three modes--deathmatch, team deathmatch, and bum rush--are all variants on the usual killing extravaganza, but they just aren't that good. Not only is online play plagued with a lot of lag, but the calculated pace of melee combat also translated poorly to a multiplayer experience. You should note that a week after release, not many people are playing online, and if you're playing on the PlayStation 3, then you may have particular trouble finding a match.
Bear in mind that if you wince at violence or get nauseous at the sight of blood, this is not the game for you. It's brutal and often disturbing, and certainly not appropriate for everyone. However, assuming you are prepared for the intensity of such a gory undertaking, you'll find that the fierceness of the carnage is paired with compelling gameplay so that each benefits the other. It may take you nine hours or so to finish up the main story, though you can return to it at higher difficulty levels, or take on some of the simple unlockable challenges and compare your scores to those of others via online leaderboards. But the reason to play Condemned 2: Bloodshot is to be scared, to be shocked, and to explore the secrets of a slimy world where the natural and the supernatural become intertwined.