Just what the hell is Condemned: Criminal Origins? It's a first person action psychological horror title…an interesting departure from Monolith's more exotic fare, but not terribly different from FEAR, a similarly horror themed FPS game which was released a year before. The player is Ethan Thomas: homicide detective and CSI agent. There's a serial killer going around the big city committing some rather gruesome offenses against not only innocent civilians, but other serial killers as well. Even worse, he's managed to frame Ethan for the murder of two fellow officers. Stripped of his police resources, Ethan must go undercover hiding from the police and the city's more homicidal inhabitants, in a desperate bid to find this deranged madman and bring him to justice. But there's a little bit of a twist. Much like Deadly Premonition (which came out much later), Condemned is one of those "surreal" thriller games where reality and fantasy mesh together and nothing is as it seems. Throughout the game, Ethan is plagued by a series of grotesque visions of monstrous humanoid abominations wandering the street, and gory spectres secretly influencing his actions. These…unnatural occurrences are spliced in with the more down to earth occurrences and since the entire game is played from Ethan's perspective, it's difficult to tell if these dastardly visions are real or the result of poor Ethan's crumbling sanity. Don't expect the narrative to make the answer clear though because it never really does. There is an implication that there is an external influence turning Ethan into a maniac, but the narrative doesn't elaborate on this anymore than just dropping clues. Whatever the case, if you're here for a totally coherent narrative, look elsewhere. CONDEMNED is about spooky atmosphere first and foremost.
CONDEMNED is a first person action-survival horror-brawler-shooter hybrid. An entire 10 hour game centered around the chase of one serial killer wouldn't be very exciting. So in between Ethan and his quarry are an abundance of homicidal hobos and psychopaths doped up on some crazy PCP-style drug. These are your basic enemies: the less socialized folk you will be cleaning out of the fair city's gutter. You spend most of your time in CONDEMNED walking along dark corridors and fighting these uglies in some very intense and brutal melee combat.
Now I mentioned "shooting", but really the emphasis is on close quarters beatdowns. Given that Ethan is a cop, you'd expect he'd have the advantage of a firearm on his side. Not so. Condemned ingeniously enough confines the player to melee combat for a majority of the game. This is totally appropriate for a survival horror game…Silent Hill 2 had a similar setup back in 2001. What you might be surprised by though is just how MUCH of an emphasis places on close-quarters combat. Unlike Silent Hill 2, where it was often more advisable to run around an enemy if you could, Condemned forces the player to revel in beating the stuffing out of every humanoid creature in sight.
You swing with the Right Trigger, Parry with the Left, and Kick by pressing the Right Joystick. You can also perform swings at different angles by pressing the Right Trigger by moving the left thumbstick in various directions. There haven't been too many "first person brawlers" on the market. Notable exceptions I can think of were the Namco action title BREAKDOWN and EA's CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, both of which were released (ironically) for the Xbox. I guess it must have to do with the controls or something. Or maybe it's easier to visually evoke the impression of a bruised and battered pugilist when you can actually see him. Most likely it's that melee fighting evokes the entire use of the human body, and in the first person view, you're only getting a slice of that picture.
Still, the fighting is damned intense. Ethan can grab tons of tools to use as weapons in this game. Lead pipes, fire axes, 2x4 boards, gas pipes, corporate ad signs, electrical conduits, etc. can all be used as weapons. This is the greatest thing about CONDEMNED...it makes you feel DESPERATE. This is a world where guns are limited and the hero must use whatever random object he can get bloody hands to survive. In that sense, it kind of reminds me of DEAD RISING, except grittier and more brutal.
When Ethan swings, he swings HARD. Smacking a baddy in the face usually makes him twirl around. Continue to hit him hard and he'll spit out his teeth. Once they're weakened, Ethan can finish them off with a strong kick or one of four "Killing Moves" (such as ramming them in the head, or punching through their skull, etc.). These attacks so brutal, you actually might end feeling sorry for these nutcases in the end. Alternatively, if your melee tools aren't cutting it, you can always taze the enemy, stunning him for a while. While stunned, you can either steal his weapon or use the opportunity to continue your vicious assault upon his person.
Or maybe you won't because the uglies you fight are equally ruthless in their combat tactics as well. These aren't the slow, idiotic zombies you're used to facing off in so many classic horror titles. These guys jump into the scene real fast. Sometimes they use cover and clobber you when you get close by. When your blows twirl them around, they respond by twirling to face you, backhanding you with their weapon in the process. Occasionally, they'll call for support and you'll be overwhelmed by two crazed psychos trying to down you with their melee weapons while one hides in the background popping you with bullets from afar. If you deprive them of their weapon, they swiftly run at you like a rabid animal and try to suffocate you to death. The canny tactics employed by these dirty vagrants reminds me of the intelligent AI in so many classic FPS games like HALO and HALF-LIFE. The soldiers and goons in those games knew how to use cover, call for backup, and sneak attack you if they ever got the chance. Clearly the designers did their homework here.
You'll eventually get a hang of the combat system and start dealing death to these guys in a professional manner. However, mastering the combat system brings up one of CONDEMNED's primary faults; specifically the fact that it's damned repetitive. The enemies you face, though highly ingenious, rarely change their tactics. The combat system just isn't that deep either (BLOCK, SMACK, BLOCK, SMACK, TAZE, repeat…) Also, despite having a ridiculous number of melee tools to smack enemies around with, each weapon functions kind of the same. Ten hours of dark, maze-like, claustrophobic, run down environments might look good on paper, but understandably gets boring after a while. The game provides a number of unique settings (a farm, an empty warehouse filled with creepy mannequins, and a city library) to keep things interesting, but the environments don't really change the gameplay around. Aside from the thrill of repetitive hobo smacking, there's really no sense of positive reinforcement pushing you along in your quest. CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK at least understood you had to keep the gameplay types shifting in order to provide a dynamic single player FPS experience.
But do you always have to fight in this game? Well, there's also a "detective mode" in here as well to break things up. You see, once awhile you'll come across a unexplained crime scene or a wealth of evidence to point you in the direction of your serial killer. Ethan, being a police investigator has access to a number of special tools like UV Lights, 3D scanners, enhanced digital cameras, and that kind of business to process this evidence with. Detective Mode brings out your inner CSI agent. With the UV Light, you can see blood trails leading back to the murder scene. With the digital camera, you can snap photos that can be sent back to your associate Rosa to be analyzed. These sections, though painfully scripted, are an amusing diversion from all the skull smashing. Amusing partly because one has to wonder why the thugs suddenly leave Ethan alone to perform these delicate procedures in the middle of their hideouts. It's also amusing because of how strangely addictive they are. The sound effects and variety of cool gadgets really immerse you.
Now let us move onto the visuals. This game was a first generation 360 title, so it would be anything to expect anything with the miraculous detail of, say, BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM. Like PERFECT DARK ZERO, the characters look more like the products of claymation than sophisticated computer programming. They also move quite awkwardly, which is especially apparent in the cutscenes. The stiff and unnatural eye and hand movements reminded me of marionettes. The cutscenes are prerendered but they're still created with the in game engine. Because of this, I would say (in an unexpected twist of circumstances) the game actually looks better during gameplay than it does during the cutscenes. The enemies you encounter move very realistically and have a very diverse range of animations. The in game environments are appropriately dark, grimy and highly claustrophobic. When you shine the UV light, the illumination effects are quite impressive, almost photorealistic. Like KANE AND LYNCH 2, the game has a constant, grainy filter permeating the visuals making it look like you're watching a hidden snuff film or something. Fortunately the effect isn't overused and doesn't terribly block out the exquisite detail put into the dark subway tunnels and drooling psychopaths you come across. The game does lack the sparks and light shows of FEAR's gun battles, but overall, I think it's an improvement.
The sound is another area which I feel is...good...but could have been better. Since the game is played in 1st person, immersion is a major component of the experience. Thus I would highly advocate the use of a 5.1 home theater system or a good pair of 'surround sound headphones". It really adds to the experience. The howls of psychopaths circle around you like human vultures. When you step on shattered glass, you can hear the clinking of debris trailing behind you. However, if you do use a surround sound system I would also recommend you turn down the music since the murky soundtrack (if it can be called that…it's more like spooky ambient noise) really eclipses the main sound effects.
Overall, CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS is a dark, fun ride. It certainly evokes the feel of Monolith's other FPS horror title, FEAR, and like that game, is similarly marred by repetitive design choices to the point where it feels tedious rather than fresh. Like so many launch titles, it feels more like an experimental showcase of technology than a fully fleshed out game. Still...despite coming out in 2006, the game is still pretty effective for a 360 outing. I would say its aged better than FEAR, but that might be me. Fans of experimental horror titles and urban themed beat-em-ups need to try this out. Fans of FPS games might want to give this a peek, but I'm pretty sure it will take a backseat to their other interests.
And before somebody asks, they DID make a sequel: CONDEMNED 2: BLOODSHOT, which I will discuss later. Unfortunately the franchise didn't go much farther beyond that. Here's hoping that the 720 generation will see the advent of CONDEMNED HHD COLLECTION or something. :)
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