The Xbox 360 launch was marked by a selection of games that mostly featured sequels (or a prequel in the case of Perfect Dark Zero) and ports of popular sports titles. King Kong was based on an already-existing intellectual property so in fact there were only two titles based on original properties. Condemned: Criminal Origins is one of those two titles. From the twisted minds at Monolith, Condemned is a first-person psychological thriller in the vein of the serial killer movies Se7en and Resurrection starring Christopher Lambert (how's that for an obscure film reference). So grab your crime scene kit as we begin our investigation of Condemned: Criminal Origins.
In Condemned, players take on the role of Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent that specializes in hunting down serial killers. As the game begins, Ethan is called out to investigate the scene of a brutal homicide, this one at the hands of a serial killer known as The Matchmaker. When one of the other officers smells smoke in the next room, it becomes evident the killer is still at the scene and just as the rules of horror films dictate, the officers split up in an attempt to capture the suspect. Predictably, it's the killer that gets the jump on Ethan, taking his gun and killing the two other cops with it, leaving Ethan as the prime suspect in the shootings. Unwilling to turn himself in to authorities, Ethan goes on the run in order to track down the killer and prove his innocence. But as Ethan quickly learns, there's more to this latest serial killer than meets the eye.
The ensuing chase through the game's ten chapters will see players visit some of the most decrepit parts of the city: a vacant subway terminal, an abandoned mall, and a school that was shut down several years ago (though apparently nobody informed the lunch lady and let me warn you, she's real pissed about it), just to name a few. These areas have all been overrun by drug addicts. On the one hand, that means you won't have to worry too much about running into the law; the police tend to avoid these drug fiends like the plague. On the other hand, you will have to worry about all the crazed junkies desperate and willing to kill for their next fix. Enter Condemned's brutal combat system.
Since Ethan is on the run and no longer has access to the FBI's stockroom, you'll only be equipped with a flashlight and a taser as you begin each chapter. That's not to say you won't find the odd pistol, shotgun or submachine gun somewhere in a locker, lying behind a dumpster or on the person of one of the addicts, but you will be confined to the bullets that are left in its chamber. Unlike typical shooters, you won't find extra ammunition conveniently and generously left in the subway station. So, as soon as you run out of rounds, you'll want to drop the firearm and find an object in the environment you can use as a makeshift weapon; be it a sledgehammer, fire axe or even a locker door. Melee weapons make up most of the combat in Condemned, a skull-crushingly violent game to say the least.
What makes the melee combat so satisfying, aside from the amazing sound which I'll touch on later, is how unpredictable and vicious these street thugs are. Some of the enemies will throw chairs and other objects at you as you enter a room; others will rip conduits off the wall both to use as a weapon and to knock the power out; some will grab nearby two-by-fours and aggressively attack you; and still others will hide in the shadows and wait patiently for you to approach. When engaged in combat, they're just as unpredictable. Some will swing wildly at you while others will be more tactful, faking a swing in an attempt to catch you off guard. Get into a fight with a group of addicts and you just might be able to get them to fight amongst each other, allowing you to slip past unnoticed.
The controls of combat are very simple. The right trigger is used to fire or swing your weapon and the left trigger is used to block attacks. If you time it correctly, a block will open a window of opportunity where the enemy is vulnerable to attack. It basically comes down to a timing factor as to when you should swing and block. If for some reason you walk into a fight without a weapon, that's when the stun gun comes in handy. Firing a round into the enemy will render him incapacitated for a brief time, allowing you to take away their weapon and use it against them. Be careful though, if you miss, it takes a moment for the stun gun to recharge.
Every now and then you'll come across a new crime scene or an area where there's evidence that needs to be collected and processed so you can stay hot on the trail of the killer. Unfortunately, these CSI-esque moments are unrewarding because the game leads you by the hand throughout the entire process. When you reach one of these scenes, a message will appear on the screen indicating that it's time to pull out one of your detection tools. Rather than having to choose, the game automatically selects the correct forensic tool for the job. All you have to do is locate where the evidence is in the room. Once you've done that, the game will automatically select the correct tool for collection purposes. Again, all you have to do is press the button to collect. The raw data is then sent back to the lab where Rosa, the only friend you have left at the bureau, is able to provide insight via cell phone. There's no skill involved in detecting and collecting evidence and that was probably the most disappointing aspect of this game.
Evidence collection isn't the only issue in Condemned, there are other minor annoyances that should be mentioned as well. The first is backtracking. In some instances, you'll be following a lead only to have to backtrack and locate a newly opened path. Sometimes you'll come across a gate that requires a shovel to open (why doesn't the fire axe work in these cases?), at which point you either have to backtrack to find one, or backtrack to the gate once you locate a shovel up ahead. In either case, I have a feeling this will cause some gamers to get lost due to the dark nature of the environments. I also wasn't totally satisfied with the end of Condemned. It felt like the last act was rushed and didn't fully explain everything, though perhaps that was the intent, leaving just enough mystery for a sequel. Speaking of mysteries, there are also metal pieces and dead birds that you can collect throughout each chapter, though their purpose is never fully explained (likely just for achievements sake).
In the end, what drives the entire Condemned experience is the dark, edgy atmosphere created through a combination of amazing lighting and stellar sound. Visually, the game looks fantastic, with the exception of a few character models. The environments are incredibly detailed, from the crumbling, grattifi-laced walls to the debris littering the hallways and alleys. Luckily your flashlight is fully juiced because you'll need it several times in the game when there's little light to guide your way. Even when the lights are working, there's always the chance that a junkie will rip a conduit off the wall, rendering the environment pitch black. And then there's the audio. I don't know what it sounds like to hit a guy over the head with a rebar, but I imagine it sounds a lot like it does in this game. The sampling of everything down to the noise a two-by-four makes when it strikes the floor, is spot on. This game just screams to be played in the dark with the sound ramped up, it's that effective and that scary. The only ineffective part of the audio is the voice acting, which for Ethan in particular, doesn't exude enough emotion considering the circumstances.
When all is said and done, smashing a street thug over the head with a crowbar and then snapping his neck with your bare hands has never felt this good. Condemned: Criminal Origins is all about delivering a disturbing atmosphere and brutal melee combat. In that regard, Monolith has hit the nail on the head. Although it's a little rough in spots, particularly with regard to the forensic evidence collection and all the backtracking required, Condemned is a unique blend of first-person shooter and survival horror genres that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout the entire experience.