This week on Zero Punctuation, Condemned 2: Bloodshot and the phrase "errant turds."
Being British, middle class, and whiter than a snowman with a bukakke fetish, I'm no stranger to cultural guilt and have ambivalent feelings towards the homeless. On the one hand, they're obviously all tragic victims of an uncaring society, but on the other hand they're also tragic victims who smell and shout at me in the street. So I admit to feeling a bit guilty about looking forward to Sega's newest working class bludgeoning simulator, but maybe it's possible to worry too much about this sort of thing (while you're caving in a teenage runaway's skull with a bit of old pipe). Thankfully, the guilt is assuaged this time around by the main character himself being homeless rather than a squeaky clean federal agent, thus making the action seem more like a series of entertaining bum fights than a class war.
Since the intense teeth-splattering scream-fest that was Condemned, main character Ethan Thomas has gone to the Sam Fisher school of emo haircut transience and become a liquored-up broken bottle street fighter. But all is not well in Whatever-the-Hell-City-This-Is-Ville. Everyone below the C2 demographic has suddenly gone what is medically known as batshit bonkers and have taken to the streets to twat each other with sticks. And then there's the serial killer running around knocking off people who actually matter. As the one remaining competent individual on Earth, Ethan is reluctantly called back into action. By that I mean set loose in a succession of ruined buildings armed only with a bollard and a bladder full of Wild Irish Rose.
The first Condemned was an underappreciated gem, featuring a stark portrayal of society's very lowest rung that filled my pants with unrelenting grit and terrified wee. It's a rare first-person game that emphasizes melee combat and an even rarer one that implements it's so realistically, rather than in most FPSes, where you pretty much just hold down the attack button until everything in front of you breaks. You could almost feel the impact going up your arm as you whacked clouds of blood and broken teeth from the gobs of the down-trodden. But getting past all that, it was not without its issues. The forensic investigation element was little more than an adventure in instruction following, scarcely more fulfilling than clicking an 'ok' button. And the levels featured fucking retarded doors that would rather snobbily only deign to be smashed open by a particular brand of sledgehammer, which you were then called upon to go and fetch from some local murderous junkie's house.
Condemned 2 starts on a high note by throwing those dictatorial fetch quests into a bin on the dark side of Mars, and the note only gets higher, because forensic investigation now takes the form of challenging little quizzes. And while they do demand that the player know slightly more than is reasonable about blood splatter pattern analysis, you're not punished too much for cocking them up. So if Condemned 2 brushes the two errant turds off the otherwise delicious apple pie of Condemned 1, Condemned 2 must logically be a flawless, flaky treat, right? Wrong! And shut up.
For a while, I was seriously all set to name Condemned 2 as my game of the year. Right up until around the halfway point, everything was slinky. Forensics clever, combat visceral, atmosphere pant-wetting. But experience has taught me that while declaring a game shitty because of the first few hours is perfectly valid and completely professional, you should never assume that a good game will stay good.
The first warning light flicked on a few hours in when the creepy doll robot suicide bombers showed up, but at that point I didn't think the worse. So the subtlety had been cut down a notch, I can dig it. The second warning light started blinking shortly afterwards in the museum level, when I suddenly found myself swinging a broadsword at lads in full medieval armor. But hell, it was still reasonable; I'd hardly expect them to be hefting fire extinguishers when swords are available. The warning lights only went off like Blackpool Pleasure Beach when the characters started bandying around the phrase "ancient mystical cult", because I realized I'd been through this before.
Condemned 2 is a textbook victim of Indigo Prophecy syndrome (that's Fahrenheit syndrome in Europe). It's a disease that chiefly afflicts games with a grounding in reality but with a slight supernatural element, with sequels at increased risk. The main and most obvious symptom of Indigo Prophecy syndrome is a plot which, in the second half, goes what is medically known as snooker loopy, with lesser syndromes including total abandonment of subtlety, the introduction of ancient mystical cults, and the main character pulling hitherto unknown superpowers out of their arse.
There's a final boss sequence in Condemned 1 in which you run through a dark, claustrophobic labyrinth with the serial killer in hot pursuit. It's really intense and genuinely terrifying, and part of what makes it so effective is that it takes place in a normal house, exactly like, oh say for example YOURS! Right down to the psychotic serial killer who lives under your bed and is standing behind you right now, but don't look because that will really piss him off! Condemned 2, by contrast, ends on a stupid sci-fi tower thing resembling something the Combine would throw together if they were all drunk, and a piss-easy final boss fight which you win by shouting at him so loud his brain explodes. I wish I was fucking kidding!
Condemned 2 had so much going for it, but as I played through it, all the things I liked dribbled away one by one. The forensic bits became less frequent and more insipid. The melee combat gave way to shooting and using your fucking retarded Dragonball Z Hadouken thing. And the story shits itself inside out. In Condemned 1 it's never explained why the homeless all went kill crazy, and the fact that it was unexplained exacerbated the creepiness. In Condemned 2 it's explained on the first fucking level. Some prick nailed noisy hubcaps to the walls that were keeping everyone awake. Thanks, Condemned 2, I was almost getting intrigued. This isn't rocket science. Mysteries lose all their appeal the instant you explain them. This is why they never explained why Scully never got it on with Mulder, besides the fact that he had the charisma of a cardboard cut-out with a bag of sick taped to it.
Cardboard box realtor: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Should we start selling ZP T-shirts? Make your opinion known to the above address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and persuade the Escapist purse-string holders
It's never too late to talk to your game designers about Indigo Prophecy syndrome