Developer: Monolith Productions
Release Date: April 11, 2006
There comes a time in every gamer's life when you just have to stop whatever it is you're doing and pummel something hideously abnormal to death with a blunt object. If this sounds like you, you might want to check out the latest offering from developer Monolith, just as soon as you check out of rehab. Condemned: Criminal Origins puts you in the role of FBI agent Ethan Thomas as he tries to find a dangerous serial killer without losing his tenuous grip on reality. In the course of your travels, you'll get to meet, greet and brutally pound a cohort of deranged subterranean entities. The game manages to evoke the bloody violence of hand-to-hand combat in a way that hasn't been seen since Starbreeze Studios gave us The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Not only that, but it all executes with slick precision, smart design and bucketfuls of eye candy.
From the game's twitchy opening credits and the first gruesome crime scene, the game starts off dark and just gets gloomier. It's not long before things start going wrong, and you find yourself all alone wandering the grimy oppressive corridors of an abandoned tenement building. Take your time to look around. The dimly lit, garbage-strewn claustrophobic spaces are just the sorts of places you don't want to hang around. This is unfortunate because that's precisely where the game takes you. From dank and fetid sewers, to derelict subway tunnels, to the burned-out shell of a city library, the sense of lurking horror is always just around the corner. In the darkness, the constant shifting, crawling, lurching or scurrying motion that you catch out of the corner of your eye does everything to nurture your unease. The sometimes long periods of silence spent solitarily tip-toeing through narrow walkways with your flickering flashlight only add to the dread and foreboding. You know that it's coming; you just don't know when.
This may not come as a shock, but it doesn't take you long to lose your gun, which is also about the time when the real fun starts. You see, the buildings in which you run around are the equivalent of a blunt weapon wholesale. You can pick up practically anything that isn't nailed down, which adds up to a smorgasbord of harmful implements. Shovels, paper cutters, crow bars, mannequin arms, street signs, gas pipes – the list goes on and on. Each weapon has its own stats covering damage, speed, block and reach. The 2x4 with nails is quick and rapid, but for reach and sheer stopping power – accept no substitutes – it has to be the sledgehammer. Like Goldilocks in the three bears' weapons emporium, you'll want to try them all out to see which one suits you best. In addition, there are firearms in the game, but these just aren't as satisfyingly implemented as the melee weapons.
Some weapons, like the fire axe, double up as keys to get past locks, and you'll have great fun reenacting the "Here's Johnny!" scene from The Shining as you hack your way through wooden doors. Combat is somewhat limited to one strike, without variety or the possibility of combo attacks. However, you do have a tazer gun, which allows you to electrically stun the psychos long enough to disarm them. At this point, they'll either run off to find the next heavy object, or go berserk and attempt to head-butt you into the ground. It's a terrifying attack that leaves your vision blurred and bloody and does tremendous amounts of damage. Avoid at all costs.
The rabid addicts, psychopaths and hobos who block your progress may be in the early stages of having their brains rot from the inside out, but that doesn't mean they're stupid. They are innovative and resourceful and will stop at nothing to inflict lethal harm on you. They'll hurl things in your general direction before lurching off into the darkness, only to catch you unawares later on. They'll hide behind pillars and wait to smack you in the face with a wooden plank as you pass. They'll even fake a hit to throw your guard before really laying into you. From the straightforward ferocity of their attacks, it's clear they want you dead, and quickly. All of this makes combat an intense, gory and bloodcurdling experience. The erratic drug-fuelled movements of the bad guys make them dangerously unpredictable. Happily, their distorted reality means they're also not averse to occasionally whaling on each other, and a lot of fun can be had getting ringside seats to these bouts, where all your work is done for you.
It should come as little surprise that fighting requires strategy. Rather than blindly hacking away with your left mouse button, you'll need to time your blocks and attacks well if you want to live. At other times, you can sidestep or move out of range of an oncoming slaughter. You can sometimes beat enemies into submission, at which point they'll groggily kneel down and invite you in for the one of four enormously violent set-piece finishing moves. Whether you are on the giving or receiving end of a hit, the effects are visceral and bone-jarring and manage to evoke the traumatic sense of what it must be like to be bludgeoned about the head. The blood that splashes across your screen and flying bone and teeth fragments are details of an uber-violent action that have to be experienced to be believed.
The creaking, scuttling, groaning, incoherent sobbing and haunting 3-D ambient sounds do wonders at tingling your spine. Because it's so dark, you'll be able to hear your adversaries long before you see them. The rattling wheezing of their breath as they lie in wait behind a pillar, or the pained guttural shrieks and yells as you smash them in the face are hair-raising and will have you constantly looking over your shoulder. Whether it's the sickening impact of metal on skull or the unknown rustling in gloomy corners, each sound is captured with fidelity and dedication to the ideal of scaring you into submission.
The story is set against a mysterious bird flu-like epidemic and soaring rates of violent psychopathic crime, which is never really explained to any satisfactory degree. Things gradually get weirder, with various peripheral characters making random appearances to adorn the storyline and thicken the plot soup, which is expounded through unsettling grainy cut scenes and eerie flashbacks. After the initial novelty wears off, you'll find a gradual sense of monotony creeping into the gameplay. Most of your time will boil down to highly linear rat-like exploration of mazy corridors looking for the cheese that will let you out to the next maze, and you can only watch your foe fall beneath your vicious melee attack so many times before you begin to think there must be more to life.
The designers must have agreed at some point because besides ruthlessly bashing the skulls of demented crack-addled fiends, you'll also get to spend time using extremely high-tech crime scene gadgets to gather trace evidence that will lead you toward your killer. Despite the fact that you can only carry around one weapon, you cart around practically an entire laboratory's worth of these sophisticated tools. At certain junctures, you'll be prompted to bring one out to scan for signs of foul play. The data gathered by your UV light, sampling unit, 3-D scanner, and digital camera are all relayed electronically to a lab for immediate analysis. It's a bit of a silly concept if you think too hard about it, and it's never particularly challenging, but it does do something to alleviate the monotony of slaying and also helps to advance the storyline in a more interactive manner.
In a sign of just how morbid Condemned wants to be, it encourages you to collect the stinking fly-ridden carcasses of birds littered throughout the game in order to unlock hidden extras in the form of concept art and behind-the-scenes footage. This feature, as well as three different difficulty levels, means that after the eight to 10 hours it will take you to finish, there is some limited potential for replayability, but perhaps only for those of you who actually enjoy wandering around in the dark, nurturing their latent homicidal tendencies. The PC version is screaming for a multiplayer option only a little louder than the horde of frenzied vagrants is screaming for your blood.
No gamer can go very long without satisfying the urge to hit something. The people at Monolith feel your pain and want a bunch of dangerous psychopaths to feel it too. Forgive the lack of variety and sometimes-baffling storyline, and Condemned is a brilliant undertaking. If you thought Seven and Saw were works of art and Doom and F.E.A.R. were sunny walks in the park, you should probably go out and buy this game. Make sure you buy a change of pants while you're out, too.
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