Condemned: Criminal Origins

December 15, 2006

Slow paced, single player games played from the first person perspective are nothing new. This sort of game has a small but dedicated cult following amongst PC gamers in the US as well as console gamers in Japan. What is new for Sega and developer Monolith ([i]F.E.A.R[/i], [i]Shogo: Mobile Armored Division[/i]) is taking a chance to publish this game on a system that is becoming known for its fast action games and expansive multiplayer capabilities. There is no multiplayer. There is no downloadable content. Every character is middle-aged, unattractive, and surly. It’s a first person console game where firearms are used perhaps once an hour.

[i]Condemned[/i] and games like it eschew gameplay variety, multiplayer options, and fast action for one single conceit that maintains a visceral atmosphere. The rub is that the gimmick of the game is repeated with little variance until you reach the end. [i]Condemned[/i] is one of the few games of this kind that is so expertly paced that it remains enthralling from start to finish.

The gameplay conceit for [i]Condemned[/i] is straightforward: insane people surprise you by jumping at you from dark corners. You then bludgeon them to death with whatever’s available. Unlike most games of this kind, however, [i]Condemned[/i]’s settings stay rooted in reality. The more supernatural events that appear in the game are invariably hallucinations. Rather than a haunted house or secret laboratory, the levels are decrepit, realistic locations that have been abandoned by humanity. Instead of zombies, the enemies are the junkies, gang members, and homeless psychopaths who have made these places their home.

You control an FBI profiler named Ethan Thomas who is on the trail of a serial killer. The game’s introductory level has you get pretty close to him before something goes wrong, forcing you into a lone pursuit of Serial Killer X through the worst parts of an unnamed metropolis and its suburb. While a few types of firearms are present, the plentiful combat that ensues is comprised primarily of bludgeoning people with blunt objects. You are also equipped with a rechargeable taser that can stun enemies, giving you a chance to kill them easily or disarm them. You can also perform a defensive maneuver with any weapon to deflect an enemy’s attack.

The fun thing about [i]Condemned[/i] is that the multitude of melee weapons are taken from the scenery itself, Ethan (as well as any enemy) is capable of ripping up wooden boards, various pipes, even desk drawers to use as weapons, each with their own set of attributes. You will also be able to locate tools like a shovel or fire axe that can not only be used as weapons, but will function to let you break through a specific type of obstacle as well (the fire axe lets you destroy damaged doors, etc.). All of these items can be used by the enemies with equal effectiveness, which is part of why the combat is constantly involving. No individual enemy is difficult to defeat, but just like them, you can only make a few mistakes before running out of energy. The enemies themselves are an interesting group. Their AI is realistic in considering that each and every one wants to kill you. Since most will rush at you with melee weapons, you have to be careful not to be surrounded, as you can be overwhelmed very quickly.

In addition, for each group of enemies you encounter, there’s always one or two that are smart enough to hang back and ambush you or try to work their way behind you. This combined with very intelligently timed placement of new enemies into the levels keeps you constantly paranoid. The final touch is that, for the first time since classic Doom, you can try to hang back and let enemies from different groups do damage to each other. To counter these berserkers, some enemies are more passive and will walk around calmly unless you get very close to them, these being even more frightening since their lack of aggression causes you to often only catch brief glimpses of them in the darkness until you’re right on top of them.

Aurally, the game is flawless. The voice acting is done without a bit of camp and makes you pay attention to even the most minor of characters. The weapon sounds and the sounds of their impacting onto the enemies are especially impressive, giving you a great visceral feeling whenever you plant a sledgehammer into the side of an opponent’s skull.

The music is typically low and slow. Repetitive in a good way, it recalls the use of music in the Silent Hill series while still adhering to more traditional film score style rhythms and melodies. All these sound design elements combine to have you on the edge of your seat the entire time you’re playing. It’s very impressive given how slow paced Ethan’s movement and the pacing of the game in general is. The game is all about slow burn build ups to very intense encounters with enemies fully capable of killing you, and the sound only helps this.

The graphics, while also outstanding, are not without some issues. The most notable is that while the game’s engine (the same that powers [i]F.E.A.R.[/i], actually) presents incredible scenery, almost none of it can be interacted with despite the decaying surroundings. This lends a sterile feel to some of the settings that hurts the immersion and sense of dread the game is otherwise so great at providing.

Throughout the game you will encounter countless complex bits of dilapidated furniture, rubble, and other wonderfully rendered signs of stagnation, but you won’t be able to walk within two feet of it. This problem is made worse by the sheer darkness of the game. At first it works great in conjunction with your ever-present flashlight at setting the mood. On subsequent plays through the game though, the quality of the shadows, subtle use of color and light, and texture quality in general will make you instinctively want to explore every nook and cranny of the game world, only to learn that the game simply won’t let you.

The end result is that while the game looks marvelous and instantly atmospheric, the cost of these looks goes hand in hand with the game’s biggest flaw, the “exploration.”” You come equipped with some pretty high tech evidence gathering equipment, and using it at the right moment is the main way to advance the game’s plot and allow you to progress. You have next to zero control over the equipment though. When you enter an area where evidence is present, you get a que to hit the attack button to bring up which ever forensic tool is appropriate. You then line up the tool with the evidence and press the right trigger again. You’ll then get some dialogue explaining what you just found out.

The result is that you play a detective who does no detecting. The only time evidence ever appears is at points that advance the plot when searched. You have no control over which tool to use when, making the information gathering aspect of the game completely brain dead. This leaves you with every little incentive to play the game more than once. There are a few unlockable galleries and summaries of the plot, but most of these will be revealed after a single play through the game, leaving you with nothing left to due but earn some more Gamer Points.

Despite these flaws, the game is definitely worth playing. It provides a no-nonsense, visceral descent into horror accomplished on atmosphere alone, the game earning what few cheap scares it does pull on you. It is also, despite being a launch title, a showcase for the XBox 360’s graphical prowess even now.

Score: 5/5

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