The 360 had a pretty good release line-up but one game seemed to slip by largely unnoticed by the great gaming public. A serious crime in my opinion. Condemned: Criminal Origins from Monolith Software / Sega didn’t seem to fire up the public’s imagination which is quite frankly bizarre as it’s still easily one of the strongest launch titles of the bunch, and introduced us to the harrowing psychological horror-filled world of Ethan Thomas, S.C.U operative and a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Since the original game and its shocking conclusion (which I won’t spoil for you here), Ethan is a man on skid row, filthy, stinking, often the worse for alcohol and sleeping in a cardboard box in the seediest part of town. Ethan’s fall from grace leaves him haunted, scarred and one drink away from oblivion. When Ethan’s one-time mentor disappears under mysterious circumstances, the Serial Crimes Unit once again call on him to sober up and use his expert skills in criminal investigation to find out what happened to Malcolm Van Horn. Condemned 2 is unapologetically mature and horrific from the outset, and displays its 18 certificate prominently, so you should make sure you heed the words of the lovely Dr Tanya Byron and not let your children anywhere near it. The single-player game begins with a violent and bloody encounter in a dark alleyway and this sets the horror-fuelled tone for the rest of the game. Ethan is not only fighting to find out the truth behind the disappearance of Van Horn, but also fighting for his own life at every turn. All is not well with Metro City. It’s rotten to the core from top to bottom and there’s something going on with the city’s transient vagrant population. Strange devices have started cropping up everywhere, turning people into crazed psychopaths. It’s up to you to find out what’s occurring and put a stop to it. In line with its predecessor, Condemned 2 contains one of the most fantastic and well rounded melee combat systems ever seen in a first person game. Despite his stewbum appearance, Ethan Thomas packs a hefty punch and can also scavenge his surroundings to gain weapons. Everything from electrical conduits, planks of wood with nails sticking out of them, or the good old house brick can be used to scrap your way out of trouble. At first, your range of moves is limited but as the adventure slowly eases you into the finer points of the game’s control system, more are unlocked and a whole array of combat options become available to you. You can slug it out with a good old fashioned right / left hook combination, put the boot in or block and then parry an aggressor’s blows before knocking them to the floor and finishing them off. It soon becomes apparent that Ethan’s world is not what it first seems, and mysterious creatures inhabit the dark night, ready to sink blackened teeth into you quicker than you can say “do you sell nappies in adult sizes?” Multiplayer action is new to the series, and a set of locations have been lifted from the single-player campaign to allow you to vent your aggression against LIVE players. There are several multiplayer game settings: Deathmatch – Your standard “most kills” type fare. Team Deathmatch – As above, with two teams of multiple players competing for the most kills (set number of kills or a time limit). Bum Rush – A survival mode. Agents vs bums, with no respawns. Agents get to use guns and have to stay alive as long as possible against insurmountable odds. Crime Scenes – Definitely the most interesting multiplayer mode of the lot. This time, SCU agents have to find two cases of evidence planted by the influenced, using the variety of crime detection techniques at their disposal. Agents must find the evidence and scan it before the time runs out. I’d have to say that the multiplayer modes are a nice piece of extra icing on an already tasty cake but aren’t essential, and although “Crime Scenes” seems like a worthy addition the bulk of your time should definitely be spent on the story mode in single player. Monolith have expertly created exactly the sort of game world that sets all the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. Though it may not seem possible, Metro City is even more dank, decrepit and unsettling than it was in the first game. In the sequel, the walls literally ooze nasty black evil and because of the game’s uniquely realistic viewpoint (you really do feel like you’re behind Ethan’s eyes, lurching and swaying through the shattered metropolis) the setting is absolutely fantastic at making you feel as uncomfortable as possible and by the end of Chapter One, if you’re daft enough to play this in the dark it’ll have you scrambling for the light switch. It’s not all combat though, once again Ethan is ably assisted by Rosa, the forensics expert from the first game – and once again Ethan himself has more than one string to his bow, and can call on various pieces of police equipment to help him decipher a crime scene. These are: The Digital Camera – to allow you to photograph evidence and send it back to Rosa for further examination. The UV Light – useful for finding evidence not visible to the naked eye The GPS – Your in-game map, allowing you to figure out where to head for your next objective. The Spectrometer – Allows you to trace and track sounds and aural evidence. In addition, sometimes Ethan will need to solve certain puzzles by closely examining part of a location to figure out how to progress. Again, these have been designed to look natural and not ruin the feel of the game. Though some puzzle solutions might feel obscure, there is a logic to everything in Condemned 2 and it’s a logic based largely in the real world so when you do happen across a puzzle to be solved, do what you’d do if you were really there and 9 times out of ten you’ll be rewarded. The game really feels quite cinematic, with the minimum of screen clutter adding to the superbly horrific atmospherics. Whether fighting or merely traversing the shattered city’s various locations, you will constantly feel like Ethan is being watched and constantly wish you could spin around and check behind you to make sure nothing’s creeping up on you. Not since Project Zero 2 has a game genuinely had me feeling like this. In fact, on that point – I have to say that three of the things I hate the most feature in this game as baddies. Clowns (or rather street hoodlums wearing clown masks), creepy disfigured dolls (in one of the game’s most awesome settings – a disused doll factory) and…oh god, those mannequins. Remember them in the first game? I hate spoilers but one part of the game literally made me want to stop playing. I’d entered a new part of one of the game’s locations and it swiftly became apparent that a copycat Serial Killer X was up to his old tricks. Heading up a staircase I was confronted by a mannequin, just standing there in a cupboard, fixed expression. I unloaded my weapon at it but it stood firm and did not move. I walked up to it, checking out my surroundings the whole time expecting to be ambushed, looking behind myself to make sure nothing could get me. As I got closer I did one more check behind me and 8 IDENTICAL MANNEQUINS HAD SUDDENLY APPEARED BEHIND ME! Brown trousers? You bet! Sega / Monolith are going to be sent my underwear bill for that one, mark my words! It’s the expert way that the game’s designers play on your innermost fears and unsettle you at every given opportunity that really sets Condemned 2 apart from such schlock horror bilge as Manhunt and its ilk (in fact I’m quite surprised that Condemned 2 hasn’t incurred the wrath of the press as it’s far more horrific and unsettling than Manhunt 2 could ever hope to be so once again I’ll make a point of bringing the game’s 18 rating to your attention). There are so many major improvements over the original game that it genuinely feels completely reworked, and feels like Monolith have learned a lot about the 360’s inner workings in the few years since the machine first hit the market. Graphics are particularly superb. Everything in the game, even the triggers for set pieces, look great and feel like they belong there. Sound production values are also top notch with the right sort of edgy music sparsely used so as to not over-egg the psych-horror pudding. Excellent voice acting and spot effects add a saw-toothed nervousness to the atmosphere too. Condemned 2 is definitely one of the strongest sequels of the year so far, not falling into the trap of just dishing up the same experience as its predecessor but genuinely improving the whole game right across the board.