Monolith delivered a double punch of modern horror to gamers near the end of 2005 with F.E.A.R. for the PC and Condemned: Criminal Origins for the 360’s launch, demonstrating a morbid penchant for psychological horror mixed in with plenty of gratuitous gore. But while F.E.A.R. put a gun into the sweaty hands of would-be soldiers seeking to survive the kind of psychic apocalypse that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira had reveled in, Condemned would put players into the unassuming shoes of an FBI investigator on the trail of a serial killer with only his wits and a good swinging arm.
Condemned: Criminal Origins had its case file opened on the Xbox 360.
Staring into the Abyss
Condemned takes the player through the abandoned corners of a city ripped apart by the murderous actions of a serial killer and the dregs of humanity that dwell in those dark spaces. Taking on the role of FBI investigator, Ethan Thomas, who is called in to investigate the latest crime scene set within an abandoned building, the player will use the forensic tools at their disposal to find the clues they need to unravel the mystery. Things take a turn for the worse when Ethan and his partner discover that the suspect hasn’t left.
In chasing him down, Ethan is trapped by the monster that he intends to catch and is forced to watch as he kills both his partner and the officer helping them with his own gun, taunting Ethan to come after him right before throwing him from a window several stories above the street. Ethan survives, only to flee with the FBI in pursuit as they believe him responsible for the killings. The player will need to guide Ethan through one lead after another as he explores the depths of fear.
It’s Not All In Your Head
Ethan isn’t completely helpless, but the oppressive feel of being a mortal peon in a mentally deranged world of killers and cutthroats will put the player on the edge of their seat thanks to the decrepit feel of those places that civilized society has conveniently discarded. An abandoned shopping mall with the tattered trappings of Christmas, the bowels of a subway system, and a library at night are only a few of the places that the player will explore through Ethan’s eyes and each one of them has enough eerie detail to really ask what might be waiting just around the next corner or past that open doorway.
But a much larger reason for the nervous tension that the player might feel as Ethan will come from the discarded members of the gene pool that will come at him with everything ranging from pipes torn from shattered, concrete walls to fire axes swung at them with wild abandon. Ethan can defend himself by tearing conduit from fuse boxes or by tearing the leg off from a table to use as a crude mace. He’s also armed with a taser that can stun his foe, allowing him to run up to disarm them or use the opportunity to kick them or take a swing with whatever he’s armed himself with. He can also use a gun, although ammo is scarce and once a weapon is spent, it’s useless. This doesn’t make a lot of sense especially when the enemy can reload their guns and Ethan can’t, nor can he search the unwashed bodies of the fallen to stock up on what might allow him to do the same thing. He also can’t carry more than one weapon at a time making it even more of a challenge in deciding what might be better…the shotgun, or the cleaver?
Ethan will also get to use a variety of forensic tools to gather clues as to what he has to look for next, although these happen only at certain points within the game much like how adventure games will only allow the use of certain objects at precise locations to do something special. While the tech looks good and gives the player a sense that they’re working with a futuristic version of CSI, most of these moments boil down to following a breadcrumb trail of signs and in passively taking pictures or samples to send back data to the lab where Ethan’s only friend will explain it all. It’s nothing like what spy investigators had an opportunity to experience in Activision’s i[Spycraft]i, where they needed to piece together pictures and use the tools at their disposal to unravel a political conspiracy. It’s interesting, but it really feels as if it could have been expanded. Towards the end, Ethan’s tools start to really become a part of the gameplay, but it’s too little to really make them feel more like a storytelling gimmick.
Much of this scripted feel also extends into Ethan’s actions. He has no jumping ability, nor can he apparently climb over chain link barricades without a hot spot to indicate where and when he can do so. While it literally makes Ethan more grounded as a normal guy with extraordinary abilities, it also makes him feel like a remote controlled avatar on wheels. This bizarre logic also extends into the game world, where a fire axe can chop through a rotting, wooden door but a sledgehammer apparently can’t dent it, nor can a fire axe sever a conduit line to cut power to an electronic lock but a shovel is more than adequate because it has…a sharp edge? What?
But the fighting system might be what will be the most frustrating part of the gameplay for would-be FBI investigators as it can be a trial of extreme patience. While it bears some resemblance to the system used in Starbreeze’s excellent Chronicles of Riddick, it doesn’t share its ease of use. This can probably be explained by simply saying Riddick is a cold killer trained to disembowel men in ways that would make a billy goat puke (thank you Steven Seagal), whereas Ethan Thomas is just a regular guy trying to survive. It would be like putting Riddick in with Fox Mulder and asking who would really survive. Escaping from Butcher Bay isn’t survival horror. But there is also something to be said about a survival horror title that goes from tension filled moments of occasional combat to a battle fest at the end, forcing the player to struggle with a combat engine that doesn’t do so well against multiple people…especially when that is what Condemned throws at them towards the end, forcing an ordinary guy to fight like Rambo.
It also doesn’t help when the blocking system is a timed mechanic requiring the player to exercise the kind of reflexes normally reserved for twitch action games. It makes it all the more frustrating when it doesn’t seem to work, only to realize that it is as much based on position as it is in timing, requiring another layer of skill that some might not appreciate. While it isn’t impossible to use, it can be frustrating especially when more than one sick bastard tries to attack.
The AI isn’t bad as bad guys will put aside their insanity in order to take advantage of cover, run away only to suddenly charge back at the player, and fake attacks to trick the player into blocking at the wrong time. It’s also refreshing to see that the psychos have as much fun beating on each other as they do on Ethan and can actually be a life saver in trying to get them to accidentally hit each other. But don’t expect this to happen often.
As for the ending, it’s appropriately creepy but it arrives almost too soon. Condemned isn’t a very long game and can be finished in about ten hours or less, but what it might feel lacking in gameplay it more than makes up in atmosphere. Monolith proves that they can weave horror into the lives of ordinary people and hardened super soldiers in the same breath. As long as you are willing to put up with a frustratingly limited fighting engine along with training wheels for most of what Ethan is allowed to do in the 360’s fear filled journey into the depths of madness, you might find yourself taking the long way home to avoid having to pass through the bad part of the neighborhood after delving into Criminal Origins.
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