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.
Bad guy say ouch.
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.
Bad guy go boom.
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.