Imagine looking through a stranger's window to see the person inside dancing around by themselves in total silence. Would you think them mad, or would you stop to wonder if they were cavorting to a tune that no one else could hear? The magical song drumming inside Torque's head sounds like razors through flesh. He's not only a captive in a physical sense (formerly an inmate of Carnate Island Prison), but also of his own bloody past and more recent homicidal tendencies.
Ties That Bind suggests an inescapable past. Not just the horrors that Torque went through in the first game, but the shame and misery of slavery, poverty, gang violence and rape that runs through Baltimore's veins. Just like the first game, this unrelentingly brutal tale is as much about real American nightmares as it is about strange creatures and supernatural beings.
Although Ties That Bind is only set in a prison during the opening level, its clever trick is to make the city of Baltimore seem like a detention camp. It's partly down to deliberately linear, constrictive level design, but more importantly it's a product of well-considered artwork. The city's appearance mixes urban gothic with 1950s kitsch and 1990s decay, a very surreal but totally believable world.
One standout scene is when you return to Torque's apartment where his wife and sons were murdered. It's straight from the movie Se7en, with its bloodstained floors and nasty-looking mattress. Suddenly a train rushes past the boarded-up window, light and noise rattling through the cracks. The lighting's softer and more realistic this time.
As in the first game, Ties That Bind springs interactive flashback sequences on you, revealing Torque's and the city's heinous past. Most follow his family and criminal ties, ending in bloodshed and a long stay at Carnate. In the city's case, you'll witness the atrocities committed by a black slaver called Copperfield, and The Creeper, a sickeningly misogynistic serial killer. That's not to mention a few urban legends, such as the reverend who feeds his starving ministry with human remains.
It's storytelling so twisted and intriguing that you almost don't need any combat to make it entertaining. But thankfully the game's blend of first- and third-person shooting is well executed, and has been turned up a notch since the original. Torque's arsenal now has a contemporary gangland twist, with modern machine guns, bazookas and the exquisite .357 Magnum. There's still an unsatisfying shortage of ammo, but pointing a sawn-off at one of the monstrous Gorgers and watching its body explode more than makes up for it. Limbs flying off and ribcages being ripped open are a common sight, as is the presence of dead junkies and mutilated homeless people.
Pleasingly, you can switch between third- and first-person at almost any time. You'll probably have to make more use of first-person this time, as some levels are designed more like a traditional corridor shooter. The human enemies are better armed and more intelligent than before. Most are part of a special ops squad called the Foundation, out to capture you for your unique special ability...
The combat is fun and satisfying, but runs out of tricks after a while. When you know what patterns the grotesquely designed monsters (each based on a method of execution, starvation or addiction) follow, predictability starts to slip in.
While the more linear levels have their good points, such as ensuring you see all the cut-scenes and making you feel trapped, they can also be frustrating when you still manage to get lost and confused. At several points, you have to find a door lever or ventilation shaft to access the next section, but there's little to point you in the right direction. The game is very dark, making pathfinding very difficult at times. It's not for the easily frustrated.