Games 4/9/08: Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

Condemned 2: Bloodshot
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Monolith/WB Games/Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, use of drugs and alcohol)

There are horror games, and there are first-person games, but there hasn’t been another game remotely like “Condemned,” which mixed the two in shockingly competent fashion when it arrived in late 2005. That it arguably was one of the most frightening games ever made didn’t hurt, either.

Think a few folks are hungry for a sequel? You bet they are. Happily, “Condemned 2: Bloodshot” not only (mostly) matches its predecessor in tone, but blows it away in most major respects when it comes to actual gameplay.

While portions certainly fall into the first-person shooter bin, much of the action in the “Condemned” games finds you fighting with fists or blunt objects rather than guns. The original game handled this surprisingly well — a feat, given how many games before it utterly failed — by keeping things simple and focused on the sensation of actually being in a first-person fight for your life.

“Bloodshot” recaptures this sensation but also dramatically expands the arsenal, adding the ability to fight more defensively and respond with combos, special maneuvers and the occasional environment-aided finisher. The suddenly-loaded control scheme flirts with contrivance, and it arguably succumbs to it in the game’s final level. But the steps forward vastly outnumber the steps backward, and Monolith gets major points for not breaking the whole system in the process of tweaking it so heavily.

Beyond survival, “Condemned’s” gameplay consisted of a handful of humorously pedestrian detective missions that required almost zero intelligence to complete. “Bloodshot” brings back the detective portions, but it smartens them up exponentially and actually applies actual consequence to them this time. The better your detective work, the higher the reward, which results in special upgrades and additions to your arsenal.

With both chief gameplay ingredients seeing such significant improvements, “Bloodshot” almost can’t help but be an inarguably better experience than its predecessor. All that remains is the arguable point of how the sequel’s story and environments stack up to what the original delivered.

This, unfortunately, is where “Bloodshot” is at its shakiest. As suspenseful storytelling goes, it’s first-rate, gifted with exceptionally good character building, healthy sprinklings of madness and a second-act twist many fans of the original will absolutely love. But the story dictates the design more than it did the first time, and that leads to a game that’s more darkly mysterious than scary. You’ll still jump, but anyone looking for a legendary scare (department store, anyone?) isn’t likely to find it.


Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
For: Sony PSP
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Square Enix has tried — lord, has it tried — to capitalize on the undying affection so many gamers have for “Final Fantasy VII.”

Finally, after a full decade and some projects we’d all like to forget ever happened, it’s struck oil with “Crisis Core.”

Ironically, part of what makes “Core” work is how non-reliant it is on the game that inspired its creation. The game builds its story around a character, Zack, whose role in “FFVII” was relegated to flashback duty only. That creates a win-win situation for all: Fans of the original game can sink their teeth into “Core’s” expansion of the “FFVII” universe, while the mostly self-contained storyline allows newcomers to dive in without fear of alienation.

On the other hand, what also makes “Core” shine is the way it applies bits and pieces of “FFVII” to what is, at least on the surface, an entirely different brand of gameplay.

Whereas “FFVII” was a turn-based role-playing game in the traditional “Final Fantasy” vein, “Core” places a much greater emphasis on semi-real-time action. Battles are self-contained per usual, but within that space, you’re free to run around, attack at will, and cycle through items and spells while simultaneously trying to avoid enemy attacks.

Such action-oriented leanings will come as terrible news for those “FFVII” fans who simply want a verbatim return to that game’s turn-based combat. But things aren’t as simple as they first seem, and many of the underpinnings that powered “FFVII’s” combat remain intact despite the new approach. “Core” automates and randomizes certain processes that previously were left to player discretion, but the ingredients that power engagement — from hit points to limit breaks — are still there. Gamers fearful that Square Enix has lumped together a dumbed-down button masher in “FFVII” clothing need not worry. For those with the desire to dissect the game’s intricacies, the depth is there.

“FFVII” devotees may not have a choice anyway. While “Core’s” gameplay almost certainly will polarize fans, Square Enix’s knack for transcendent and visually dazzling storytelling is off the table. “Core” was simultaneously tasked with playing the nostalgia card and feeling epically fresh, and it rises to the challenge with scary ease. On this merit alone, it’s a must-play for any “FFVII” fan, and those who don’t care for the new gameplay approach had best find a way to deal with it.