When I got my Xbox 360 unpacked, I looked through the small collection I had made for this moment, deciding on which game I wanted to beat first. First I tried Lost Planet, and shortly gave up on it, the third boss to be exact. The on-foot segments weren’t bad, but any time those clunky mechs go involved, whether you were fighting them or the game expected you to pilot one, the game went to shit. Then I tried Dead Rising, and couldn’t get very far because of the illegibly tiny text (Lost Planet‘s text wasn‘t exactly easy to read either). I started to have doubts on my purchase, then became intrigued by the game case that was missing the name on its spine. All the spine reads is "PLATINUM," perhaps a sign of what you'd need to go through this game unphased.

It's a normal day for SCU Agent Ethan Thomas as he arrives at another gruesome crime scene. A young woman's body has been found, set up in a dinner scene with a male mannequin. During the investigation another man is found in the building. Believing it to be the murderer the investigators seek him out, only to have the suspect swipe Ethan's gun, use it to shoot his two partners, and throw Ethan out a window onto his car two or three stories down. The tutorials were just little messages that popped up as you needed them to hunt down the suspect without pausing the game, and the intro was fast, sharp, and got to the point, exactly the kind I needed to get over the doubts my first attempts with the 360 caused.

Plus, I could read the text without having to be up against the TV and squinting really hard, which was a huge plus. With that said, the game itself is kind of dark, so I apologize if my screenshots aren't that good. Rarely does anything outside of cutscenes have good lighting, while the best source of light for actual play is Ethan's flashlight.

What makes Condemned so effective is first, the game doesn’t just jump out at you and yell “BOO!” then point and laugh when you jump. It's like a tiger that stalks you for a bit, moving slowly and carefully. You think you hear footsteps, but when you stop to look, you can't find it and the sounds have stopped. When the time is right it pounces in your path, then approaches you, corners you, and moves in for the kill. You flinch... then suddenly it's gone, and you're left wondering if it was just in your head, or the animal decided to spare you so it could torment you some more. Second is the environments. They're common areas like a school or a house, but they're all that are now falling apart and filled with trash. But most can be pictured in their former glory (I don't know what the inner workings of a metro is supposed to look like). A run-down department store you can almost picture clean and bright and decorated for Christmas, the musak playing while women try on clothes and complain to their friends in the waiting areas that the dress they're wearing makes them look like a giant watermelon. A school gym you can almost picture the kids playing basketball on. A house with the parents watching TV in the front room while the kid plays on the rocking horse. But they've all been long abandoned, save the occasional squatter.

Lastly, there's the main character himself, Ethan Thomas. After being framed for that double murder, he has to find the real killer and clear his name while avoiding the police who have declared him guilty until proven innocent. All the while, his own sanity is brought into question and he falls deeper and deeper into a mystery bigger than everyone. With everyone else hunting him down, he has only two people on his side: Angel Rosa, a forensics investigator who analyzes the results of Ethan's investigations, and Malcom Vanhorn, an old friend of his father's with questionable motives. But they're rarely around and even when they are they're just driving him around or talking through a cell phone, so most of the time Ethan's only friends are the 2x4s and rebars he can pull from his broken environments or the occasional gun he finds laying around or pinches from a hobo, his flashlight, and his taser. He's a lone Eric Genn up against the world. Up against the blood-crazed homeless, half-zombified teenagers in the metro sewers, and goofy as this may sound, department store mannequins.

Oh, the mannequins. Ohhh, the fucking mannequins.

First they come alive off in the distance and wander off, only to ambush you with a rebar or pump shotgun when you finally reach them. Even ones you'd passed before come to life when you come back, and so you start ripping the arms off all the mannequins you come across and then whacking them a few times, just to be safe. Then they launch a psychological sneak attack, moving when you're not looking, trying to corner you and forcing out a window. It's this kind of mindfuckery I quickly fell in love with, and when I reached that lake of shit water in the basement of the department store and hesitated to go in for fear of ruining my pants, that's when I knew the game had me.

You start the game thinking you're chasing a guy known as the Match Maker. His gimmick is he kills women then sets up a grisly scene with her body and a department store mannequin. But halfway through the game you find the Match Maker's body with a female mannequin. Enter Serial Killer X. He kidnaps serial killers and kills them with their own MOs. He's the man who shot Ethan's teammates, he's the man you've been hunting all along, and he uses Ethan to find serial killers, then gets to them before Ethan does. His next target? The Torturer, whose MO is to drive his targets to suicide so he doesn't actually kill them.

The atmosphere was delicious up until about halfway through the school stage, when I got into a fight with that fat lunchroom butcher woman. Okay, I don’t expect any game to get everything right and dismissed it as a goof. Shortly after, the game compensated for that with two of the most fucked up moments in the entire game with Ethan finding his own dead body and the corpse in the locker, then had another slipup with one of the most irritating moments in the game with the debris-filled pool. The game stumbled again in the house level, when Rosa puts some fragments of a sentence together and gives the clue "The dark path to righteousness is beyond which you see yourself to be" which I took to mean I had to find a mirror. Shortly after, Rosa phones in again and blatantly told me to find a mirror and look behind it, although the result of opening the door the mirror was on was one of the few times I decided to wait until morning to continue.

As I've already picked at, Condemned is by no means perfect. First, combat is at best oppresive, and at worst clunky. The depth perception is way off, like you and your enemy can hurt each other just by making a strong enough wind with your wooden planks. And blocking is hard to time. Ethan only holds his guard for about a second, and that's after a delay between you pressing the block button and him getting the weapon into position. When Rosa gives you a taser upgrade which floors enemies, combat almost becomes insultingly easy as you can kill an enemy that's been tasered in a single hit from anything, and the taser has unlimited uses except for recharge periods.

Also, while forensics usually adds something to the plot, the actual minigames are insipid. The UV light is the only tool that makes you think for yourself. The rest have arrows pointing to the evidence you're supposed to collect, and the camera has a green light that lights up when it's time to take the picture.

And then there's the final stage, I believe a farm, but because of the dark lighting was I never really got a good look at it. You lose your flashlight and taser for this level, so your only friend for most of it is a flaming 2x4 that's both your weapon and your light source. The level also loses its grounding in reality, which is what made the rest of the game so appealing. Your enemies for most of the stage are skinny zombies and big burly zombies, with a couple ninja zombies and normal people in blue jumpsuits thrown in. I'm also not entirely certain why an evil cult would pick an abandoned barn for their headquarters. At first I thought it might have because they were using the pesticide to fry everyone's brains and drive them to homicide, but we find out through collecting all the metals that they use screechy noises to drive everyone mad. Hooray. The final boss is some cross between Penace and Trapjaw, beaten by slapping him around some and tearing chunks of metal out of him when prompted. Your final action is choosing between popping a bullet in the head of the man who ruined your life, or sparing him only to have him commit suicide anyway. Or so we think.

Which brings me to Condemned 2.

Playing Condemned 2 is like watching a bad horror film. The attempts to be scary just come across as cheesy, other moments seem like they were never intended to be serious, and it’s ridiculous the point I’m left wondering if it was intentional, and only when I was able to distance it from its big brother was I able to accept it.

The first level is a city covered in slime which didn’t at all remind me of Ghostbusters 2, and it all ends up being a dream anyway. The second level is a run-down hotel filled with giggling zombies in their underpants, one of which can be found on a toilet if you wander off when Dorland pries the elevator door open instead of jumping down with him. I guess there isn't anything to complain about in the third level, except maybe that buff guy you run into who keeps going “HOO! HAA! HOO! HAA!” but we've already seen him. The fourth level is a freaking doll factory a big burly black guy says he played in as a kid, and is inhabited by kamikaze dolls and a giant Barbie with a lollipop saw. In the entire first half of the game the only thing that even slightly scared me was when the mannequins briefly returned. Actually, that might have been the only thing in the entire game that even slightly scared me. Vanhorn's corpse was more gross than scary.

It really doesn’t help that Ethan’s become a complete asshole since the first game. Now, like when Prime went Rogue on me, I could understand why he became pissed off - he fought unspeakable horrors to clear his name of a crime he didn't commit, only to be used and backstabbed by everyone around him, find out the bureau wasn't interested in him because of his skills but because he was a circus freak with high muscle and bone density and an abnormality in his upper chest area that was worthy of a reduction from an x-ray, and in the end was dumped out into the streets - but the degree to which he was reacting was over the top and came across as forced. Maybe the new voice actor was to blame, but the only two tones of voice Ethan used were irritated and smug. He felt the need to curse every sentence. Where did he get the bright idea to wear a shirt with a big target on the chest? And speaking of "chest," why is everyone so buff in this game? It was easier to worry about Ethan when he was a fairly average-sized guy, and I'm also not sure how he bulked up that much in less than a year on a steady diet of whiskey. That goes double for SKX, who had to have spent most of the past year in bed with his uncle tending to his wounds, but looks even bigger than Ethan.

And speaking of that, why is the left side of SKX's face is messed up when he got shot in the right?

Of course, this could all be overlooked if the game was still intact, but unfortunately two changes have been implemented that break melee combat. The first is the inability to run backwards, or to the sides, and Ethan isn’t exactly a champion power walker with his normal speed. So, you can’t dodge attacks very well. But hey, not only can you still block, but you can hold it for more than half a second, that should make up for it, right? And this is the second problem: weapon degradation. Whacking away at an enemy also whacks away at your weapon, and blocking with a weapon severely damages it. There's something very wrong with the physical world around Ethan. I suppose him smashing the guy's face and the wooden guardrail with his bare fists could be explained with his high muscle density, but this doesn't explain why people started making their bricks from red chalk given the way they turn to dust when they hit somebody, and their broadswords from balsa wood and aluminum foil so people can break them by punching them a few times, kung-fu style. And when a weapon breaks you either have to scrounge around for another weapon or fistfight, and enemies take a freakload of punches to kill even with a Gold-level attack upgrade. And if the enemy has a weapon you‘ll be at an even greater disadvantage, because just as in real life, you can’t block a paper cutter with your forearms.

Combos were added which do extra damage when performed, but they're hard to pull off because Ethan swings so slow you'll almost always get pegged before you can fully execute one (and they didn't fix the problem with depth perception from C1). It's mostly worthless, along with that stupid "hold the control stick in a certain spot to listen to a news broadcast" crap which the game turns into a required minigame in the final level, where you use a red ring of death to blow up some computer equipment. And no, I don't mean your Xbox.

Gun combat is somewhat more tolerable, and given the emphasis on it in in later stages this is probably what they wanted. But first you have to find a gun, and for the first few levels focus is on melee. Now, if you do get a gun, you then have to find a liquor bottle. This may sound backwards, but if you try to hold a gun when Ethan is sober he'll wobble it around, and will only hold it steady when he's got some booze in his system. And if you cross into a checkpoint drunk and get killed, you'll respawn sober, but the liquor bottle will be gone. Not a huge problem I guess, but the nonlinear lodge level is filled with checkpoints that activate every time you cross that point, not just the first time, and is very much a gun-heavy stage. At least there's a decent supply of alcohol there!

And as you can probably tell by the screenshots, it pulled the old "everyone has a giant HDTV by now" bullshit and made the text really tiny, which made the only thing I was finding enjoyable about the game, the forensics investigation quizzes, a pain in the ass because of how hard it was to read the options.

So yeah, I really didn’t like C2... at first.

I continued on. After the doll factory was a boring walk through a boring building and then a few of shootouts, all obscured by a bunch of TV glitch-type effects which were more irritating and nausiating than scary. This also turned out to just be a dream, and then I was directed to Ethan's old boss who sounds like he'd taken up chain smoking since the last game. After answering some questions, a fight breaks out between them I could barely make out because the TV glitches came back and obscured most of it.

Then the game gets incrementally more ridiculous. In the museum stage, I once got caught by a guard who in turn was being pursued by a rioter. Now, you're penalized in this stage for killing guards and instead have to incapacitate them by bitchslapping them for a while, then knocking them out when they fall to their knees instead of dealing a killing blow. But I found it easier to just sit back and let the rioters kill them, then go on my way. I kept trying to run from the guard and let the rioter kill him, but the guard considered Ethan a bigger threat than the guy hitting him with a broadsword, and ignored the other rioter and kept chasing me. Maybe he just liked the target on Ethan's shirt and having something to aim for, I don't know. But I had to reload the save because after five minutes of hitting the guard the rioter never killed the him, and the guard just wouldn't get off my ass. I guess it's worth mentioning there's a hanged guard in one of the rooms, but his stiff pose looks more like they hung a mannequin.

Then there was the bit with the rabid bear. Shortly after in the same level I had to use my UV light to follow glowing trails to points around a nonlinear house level, which if you ask me really wasn't one of the better ideas to recycle from C1. Then I had to disarm a bomb in the good old "Which wire do I cut? WHICH WIRE DO I CUT?" scenario, probably the moment when the itty bitty text was most problematic. Then I went through a bowling alley which led me to the school from C1. No, seriously. The layout was exactly the same, and that fat lunch lady's body was still there and oddly well preserved, except somebody put an electrified cage arena in the basketball court. Then there was that magician boss I beat by lobbing bottles of booze at him, then dropping him onto a spike bed he had the bright idea to teleport above. Most of the next level is spent running from a Big Daddy wannabe, then dropping three into a trash compactor.

By the way, no, I'm not making any of this up.

And then came Ethan's supersonic scream attack. First he uses it to kill a bunch of birds at the beginning of what's probably my favorite level in the game, as it's when Ethan's balance between bastard and respectable finally fell back towards respectable. For the final level I got to use it as much as I wanted, sans recovery periods, but the ability to blow up my enemies' brains by yelling at them really loud was more stupid than awesome, and it’s especially difficult to take Ethan's new power seriously when the icon for it makes him look like he’s yelling “THIS IS SPARTA!”

I went on to finish the game, and was almost floored laughing at the ending, specificially the part where Bush has a heart attack because of something written on an index card (Cheney, I might have bought). When I was done I called it one of the worst sequels I'd yet played. But I was compelled to replay it on Hard and squeeze out as many achievement points as I could. And something happened during that replay: I actually started liking it.

It carried over Ethan's defeat of the alcohol demon from my first play, so for the whole game I didn't need liquor to weild a gun. Melee combat was still broken, but gun combat had been fixed. But at the same time I had to stay on my toes because several things would kill you in one or two hits, namely enemy bullets and the Jesuit monks from the doll factory. NOW we're on to something!

I also carried over my newfound respect for Ethan. I started warming back up to him when he groaned at Rosa getting all excited about finding "traces of fecal matter" on Vanhorn's shoe, a sentiment I shared. He was adding more emotions to his catalogue, including confusion, determination, and relief, and his confrontation with the final boss was especially great. During my replay some of his previous boughts of teenage angst became more palatable, like the aforementioned fight with his former boss. I actually started wanting his shirt, except the only people make a decent one want a small fortune for it. As for the rest of the plot, I stopped trying to take it seriously, and the absurd parts provided some of the best laughs I've had since Sam and Max: Season One instead of pissing me off.

Unfortunately, the good times didn't last too long. C2 is somewhat short, certainly shorter than C1 which wasn't a terribly long game to begin with. Yes, C1 had some really short levels, but most took at least an hour to get through, and that was when you knew what you were doing. Most of C2's can be beaten in twenty minutes to half an hour. The achievements and FPS mode do add some replay value, and I did play through the game three times. Had it not been for the achievements I probably never would have gone back through the game on Hard and would still be hating it, but on the other hand FPS mode and its infinite ammo is pretty dull. I guess they reserved half the disc for the Xbox Live multiplayer, which is unnecessary, but mostly broken. It has lag up the ass, and most of the time I fired at an enemy my bullets went straight through them because they were showing up on my screen a second or two behind where they actually were.

I may have warmed up to C2 in the end, but Mr. Hall? I would be really happy if you did not make a Condemned 3. If you do I'll probably end up playing it anyway, but I really don’t know where you're going with this, or maybe I just don't want to know. I mean, Ethan knows his voice attack now, and I'm not sure how you'd return the focus to melee and firearms short of him hitting his head and getting amnesia like everyone and their dog. And the only thing I can imagine C2's plot twists meaning is the introduction of space aliens. For the love of all things sweet and sprinkled, please don't put me through that.