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Written by Ally Doig, @allydoig
When Ethan Thomas stares drunkenly into the cracked remains of the latest mirror he’s punched, just for a second, he might see Max Payne scowling right back at him. It turns out that he and Condemned 2: Bloodshot’s liquor soaked lead have a fair bit in common. Both are former – and subsequently disgraced – law enforcement officers caught in a downward spiral of dependence. Binge drinking is one thing, but these guys knock back hallucinatory amounts of the hard stuff.
Ethan and Max are both pissed off with the world and their dipsomania is only eclipsed by a thirst for ultra-violence. Not content with simply trying outdrink each other, they both seem to be vying for the title of gaming’s most psychopathic protagonist. But this is where their methods differ a little. As Mr Payne glides gracefully through the air in Bullet Time, Mr Thomas bludgeons his enemies to death with any makeshift weapon he can lay his hands on. This should give you an indication of what Condemned 2 is like. Max Payne is slick and super-stylised, Bloodshot is sick, twisted and utterly brutal.
While events do follow on from Condemned: Criminal Origins, you won’t be left in the dark if you’re not too familiar with the original. Bloodshot does a decent job of filling in any blanks from the past as its own disturbing drama plays out. After resigning acrimoniously from the force, a booze-addled Ethan finds himself homeless in a city gripped by insanity and violence. It’s a phenomena that he himself is inherently connected to and, following a tip-off, has his former employers in need of his services once more.
Bloodshot splices first-person action with psychological horror. Ethan battles both personal and literal demons throughout the game; bi-products of his alcoholism and Metro City’s deranged criminal underworld. Inevitably, the line becomes increasingly more blurred between this dark reality and his own drink fuelled psychosis. There is one certainty, though. Everything needs to be killed.
As alluded to earlier, Bloodshot emphasises crunching melee combat over gunplay. Ethan’s default weapons are his fists and feet. Hefty left and right blows are assigned to the corresponding triggers on the controller, while you can boot enemies by clicking in the right analogue stick.
It seems like the natural approach to first-person melee combat is to relentlessly spam the ‘Attack’ buttons. However, wildly throwing jabs, hooks and kicks around won’t get you very far against the game’s bloodthirsty legions. You will have to think on your feet or quickly get knocked off them. It can be frustrating at first, particularly when outnumbered by freaks and dripping tar-coated monsters intent on tearing through Ethan’s health bar. But when you learn to parry, time your strikes and string together combos to rack up higher damage bonuses it can be grimly satisfying. There’s a hint of arcadeiness to Bloodshot’s fist fighting, but certainly none of the colour or tongue-in-cheek cheerfulness that we might otherwise associate with coin-op gaming. Limbs snap from wince inducing chain attacks and vicious environmental takedowns are wholly advocated and rewarded.
Yet bare knuckle brawling isn’t the extent of Bloodshot’s violent repertoire. Far from it. When Ethan gets tooled up, the dial gets cranked up another notch. Rusty pipes, electrical conduits, baseball bats, 2X4s, planks of wood, planks of wood with nails in, burning planks of wood, crutches, wrenches, bowling balls, champagne bottles, swords, axes, bricks, golf clubs, shovels. And that’s just scratching the surface. When you find yourself beating a demented criminal to death with a prosthetic leg in some god forsaken basement, you know that Condemned 2 has dug its claws in.
Firearms do play a smaller role, but their implementation is no less graphic. Ethan’s alcoholism is also tied to a neat gameplay mechanic. His hands shake unless he drinks from one of the liquor bottles found scattered around the game’s various rundown hellholes. Taking a glug steadies his aim allowing for more accurate shots. As a result, you’ll need to hit the bottle in order to hit your targets more efficiently. Imagine the scene:
Ethan takes a huge swig of gin, pulls out a sawn-off shotgun and blows out the brains of the onrushing pig mask-wearing goon.
In all likelihood – and it probably should – this game will unsettle you. If that’s the case it’s having the desired effect. After all, it thrusts you inside the shoes and mind of an addicted psychopath. It’s totally uncompromising. Bloodshot could easily be viewed as mindlessly violent, but it actually makes you ask far more questions than the multitude of military FPS murder fests on the market; games that conjure up little feeling beyond an aching trigger finger as you mow down cannon fodder. Bloodshot drags you by the throat into its twisted world, consuming you, regardless if you’re entirely comfortable with it doing so.
There’s more to Condemned 2 than cracking skulls. While the brutality itself is jarring, the places Ethan finds himself in are often downright disturbing. Whether it’s a warped hallucination or one of Metro City’s decaying haunts, Bloodshot flings open the door and ushers you into its house of horrors. Take the old doll factory for example. The disused toys have taken on a life of their own and a homicidal jester isn’t too enthusiastic about your presence. It really is the stuff of nightmares. That isn’t to say that the game solely employs shock ‘n’ gore tactics. There are shifts in pace where the outright disturbing is offset by more creepy scares. Suffice to say that if mannequins give you the chills you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise somewhere down the line. You’re never quite sure what the developers have in store next or what lines they might cross, but you’re own morbid curiosity will send you in search of answers.
Along the way Ethan will have to rely on his old investigative skills. He’ll encounter ever more gruesome murder scenes as he goes in search of the serial killer also tied to the city’s criminal epidemic. You’ll first have to scour the vicinity for visual clues, then select the correct description from a list of preset responses. Ethan is then given a rank ranging from Poor to Perfect depending on how accurately you relayed the information back to your partner, Rosa, via radio. These sequences are mostly pretty basic, requiring little more than common sense, but it’s the ritualistic nature of many the killings that really gets under your skin. You’ll want to know where this bloody trail eventually leads and the connection between the madman and the widespread madness.
Unfortunately Bloodshot fluffs its lines towards the end. The overarching themes of murder, insanity and addiction keep you disquietingly hooked for the first three quarters of the game. However, the final hour or so feels unnecessarily contrived. The narrative loses its edge and starts babbling on about Dragonborn-esque shouting abilities. A supernatural theme is present throughout, but the conclusion just feels a bit too farcical for its own good. It’s at odds with the grim and gritty ethos of the rest of the game.
Level design also suffers in the closing segments. If anything Bloodshot peaks at the midway mark. The doll factory, natural history museum, hunting lodge, bowling alley and magic theatre, each open up their own perverse box of tricks. In comparison the last couple of levels seem dull and uninspired, despite the plot vying to be as outlandish as possible. It’s regrettable that the game loses its way, as for the majority of the time it consistently and successfully adheres to its own uncompromising philosophy – no matter how disturbing that can be.
The Final Word: Make no mistake, Condemned 2: Bloodshot is likely to be one of darkest titles you’ll play this generation. It’s not really ‘fun’ in the traditional sense due to how unsettling it can be. But like the protagonist’s own addiction, it’s utterly intoxicating: a swirling cocktail of violence and psychological horror. It’s a real shame, then, that the game’s conclusion feels like a dodgy hangover. That said, how often does a sore head stop anyone from drinking? Certainly not Ethan Thomas.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot is available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 (reviewed).
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