Developer: Monolith Productions
Release Date: November 16, 2005
Buy 'CONDEMNED: Criminal Origins': X360
What the hell was that?!?
After much ado about something, the Xbox 360 is here and after the initial consumer onslaught and frantic last-minute snatch-and-grab missions for off-the-shelf units, the gaming has begun, as well as absurd eBay bidding wars. Within the 360's launch lineup (which, no matter how it may be spun, is anemic, to say the least) is Monolith's Condemned: Criminal Origins, a game centered solely on fear and desperation and which, sadly, didn't receive nearly as much hype as other launch titles. The game plays from the first-person perspective but isn't a shooter, playing more like Resident Evil and feeling much like Fatal Frame. Take that for what you will, but if anything, Condemned is bold and unflinching.
Condemned begins with a very cinematic introduction that immediately reminds you of films like "Se7en," "Jacob's Ladder," and "Saw." You play the role of Ethan Thomas, an FBI investigator who processes crime scenes and hunts serial killers. The narrative erupts as you are helping two cops process a crime scene in a vacant office building and quickly introduces you to the various gameplay mechanics.
In the process of hunting down a serial killer dubbed "The Matchmaker," you are framed for the murder of the two cops you first encounter. The story evolves into one of tense intrigue as you discover this nameless city's rampant crime outbreak is due to a nasty psychotropic drug that turns the city's slum dwellers into psychotic monsters. The game aims to create a first-person movie where you experience the horrors of what happens firsthand. The style and conveyance of the plot are effective and keep you involved and engaged, although the game plays along a straight line without much deviation. Even so, to propel the story, you need to use your character's skills to figure out what's really happening to and around him.
Thomas has many tools at his disposal which allow him to quickly process evidence and further his investigation from the field. You'll use black lights, gas spectrometers, laser lights and a digital camera to sample and process evidence that your crime lab contact will analyze for you and report back what she finds. You will also have to defend yourself, and most of the time, it will be with makeshift weapons mixed with the odd firearm, but be assured that you'll be doing your dirty work with what's available. This means 2x4 planks, iron pipes, crowbars, fire axes and sledgehammers; it's not quite the sexiest lineup, but it's brutally effective.
Condemned is a game that relies on atmosphere more than anything else. This is not a party game that people will enjoy playing with you or watching you play. Turn the lights off, turn up the volume, and sit close to the television to get the full effect. While very dark, Condemned does much to be visually impressive. Texture mapping is gritty and realistic; you will not see texture maps repeated very often so things look very real and tangible. Textures are also bump mapped, and characters are normal mapped so everything you encounter will have a solid look and feel. The levels are laid out realistically and logically, but they are designed along a linear path. There isn't much exploring to do, and you won't have the freedom to look into every room, but this is all meant to keep the story taut and the action tense.
Some might say Condemned is slow or boring, but I say that Condemned is methodical and moves at a pace that keeps you on your toes just enough so that you are not desensitized and cool enough to wonder just what is in the next room. Your world is primarily lit with your flashlight, and the light sourcing is excellent and plays a crucial role in the whole experience. You won't be able to see much, but just enough to start thinking something is there when it isn't, or that it was really nothing when it actually was something. Sounds vague? Well, it is. Monolith wants you wondering what's out there, and you ought to be worried because when you encounter your foes, you'll wish you hadn't.
Thomas' foes are the city's worst. They are drug-addicted creeps who look like deranged and homeless vagrants who don't just want to harm you – they want to savage you. They are creepy and shambling; they move with weight and purpose, and they'll sneak up behind you, corner you, run and hide if they're hurt, or simply ambush you as you turn a corner. The first thug you encounter breaks down a wall to get to, you and you're left wondering, "What the hell is wrong with this guy?" as if he's really trying to rip your throat out. Smack him a few times with a pipe fixture, and he'll be dazed enough so you can deliver a finishing move from which you can snap his neck, head-butt him, crush his face with a punch or simply smash his head into the ground. The ragdoll physics does a sickening job of letting the corpse fold over in a heap of dead meat whether you take his head off with a well-timed strike or if you snap his neck.
Occasionally, you'll have a gun, but the guns you find will only be loaded with a few shots and can be used as melee weapons only until they break. You can only carry one weapon at a time so you're always left with the choice: carry a gun with a few shots, or carry a sturdier weapon but leave yourself vulnerable to counter-attack? Neither choice is comforting.
If there is one thing Condemned nails from start to finish, it's the game's sound. To really appreciate this aspect, you need a 5.1 surround sound setup. There is not much music, but the ambient noise kills you; the first time you hear someone getting their skull caved in around the corner and little footsteps come up behind you, you'll practically pee in your pants. I've experienced some impressive sound design before in consoles; Call of Duty 2 makes excellent use of directional sound, as did Splinter Cell, but I haven't played a game that requires you to listen so intently. Because you can't see everything, you need to rely on your hearing, and when you finally hear labored breathing behind you or echoing steps that you think are somewhere up the hallway, then you'll understand. Sometimes you'll hear someone running above or below you, or someone running up the stairs you just came up, and if your echo location fails, then you'll find a blunt object in the back of your head.
Despite all of this, the question begs to be asked: Is Condemned a "next-generation" game? It breaks my heart to say no, but I do see glimpses of evolving gameplay and design elements within Condemned that I don't see elsewhere. Condemned is the only pure 360 game that boasts such a strong narrative (Gun doesn't count because it's a port, but its story is pretty good, too). The only persistent on-screen icon is a health meter, and the minimalist display and interface goes great lengths to keep the game cinematic. The graphics are certainly impressive and the sound dazzles the senses, but Condemned is aiming to feel like a playable movie and to a greater extent, it succeeds.
The problem with this design choice is that you are left with a linear gameplay experience. You won't get to branch off different paths or find different ways to navigate a level, and backtracking is limited, but progression is strictly determined by the designers. To get through a certain door, you need a certain weapon, and to find a certain clue, you need to throw a certain switch. There isn't any emergent means of figuring out the game for yourself, as you will be prompted to collect evidence before you realize it is there, and when you do collect the evidence, the right device is brought out for you. It all lends to a very scripted experience which will be unsatisfying for those used to more freedom.
In any event, it is undeniable that Condemned: Criminal Origins is a thoroughly wrought game. Condemned may be linear and short, and there may not be much incentive to play through once you're finished, which means an extended rental for most gamers. For me, I'd gladly pay full price for Condemned because of its ambience and atmosphere and scares. I haven't experienced a game that freaked me out this much in a long time, and that alone makes this title praiseworthy. It may not receive the hype or the commercial success of other products, but Condemned is most definitely worth everyone's time. It's brutally honest and doesn't pull any punches, and it manages to look and sound good, too. That's not necessarily a revelation in game design, but then again, the game is still loads of fun, and that's what matters.
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