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Review - Condemned: Criminal Origins

Bludgeoned with Thrills

There are approximately eleventy bajillion genres out there today, but if I were forced to pick just one out of the steaming pile and award it the title of Most Likely to Age Poorly and Become Forgotten and Sad Within a Frighteningly Short Amount of Time, it would have to be the horror genre.

The effectiveness of the horror genre is tied almost directly to the quality of presentation values to a degree not seen in any other genre. Going back and playing Resident Evil on the original Playstation is more likely to make you scream with laughter than recoil in horror.

A great design and a top-notch art style will take you a long way, but once a horror game’s graphics have lapsed into the territory of the aged, it quickly moves from exciting big budget thriller to the gaming equivalent of a laughable B-movie.

That said, I was amazed that a title as old as Condemned: Criminal Origins held up as well as it did.

Condemned thrusts you behind the eyes of SCU (Serial Crime Unit) agent Ethan Thomas, a man who has just been framed for the murder of two policemen and fired from his job. Seeking justice (and his job back), Ethan must run around the cramped corridors of fictional Metro City (clever name there, guys) and hunt the serial killer that is actually behind the murders, all while trying to figure out why the city’s population is being turned into murdering psychopaths.

It’s hard to find a really original story in the crowded horror genre, and Condemned isn’t one. As with developer Monolith’s other spooky first-person franchise, F.E.A.R., however, a lot of mileage is squeezed from themes you’ve probably seen before, making for an effective plot that serves its purpose of driving you through the game and providing spooky settings to traverse and creepy bad guys to bludgeon.

I will admit that I have played older horror games than Condemned that held up better than I expected them to, Fatal Frame 2 on the original Xbox comes to mind, but Condemned has a little more going against it than just its few year old age. Being a launch game for a console is rarely a good omen in terms of the lasting power of a game’s graphical fidelity (or its gameplay, for that matter), so I was not expecting good things here.

The age of the game certainly shows, mind you, but it also demonstrates how much thrill a game can throw at you while limping along on quickly aging graphics.

This is largely due to the game’s sound design. Audio has an equal, if not greater, importance than visuals in horror titles. Condemned nails this aspect, providing an experience full of convincing atmospheric noises, creepy wails and screams, and audio that really adds to the intensity of the experience. Other games may have done this better, especially since the game’s release (Bioshock or Monolith’s own F.E.A.R. 2, for instance), but Condemned is certainly no slouch and provides the audio quality necessary to really sell the atmosphere of the game.

Condemned uses its premise to provide a couple of key calling cards that it lays on the table to try and differentiate itself from its peers. One of these stems from your role as an SCU forensic investigator. You’ll get to pick up a number of nifty tools and examine crime scenes in order to find evidence and advance the story.

Unfortunately these sequences are usually little more than a virtual equivalent of hide and seek. The game holds your hand through all of them and it often feels as if you’re just going through the motions. That said, I still found them to be a compelling break from the action and a nice change of pace. Even as shallow as they are, I would rather have the information delivered to me this way than in a boring cutscene.

The other, more significant feature that Condemned boasts about is its combat system. This is not your run-of-the-mill first-person shooter. Condemned takes the rather risky maneuver of focusing its fighting on melee weapons rather than the use of firearms. Luckily the implementation is largely solid and the combat works terrifically with the game’s close-quarters, suspenseful nature.

Attacking is done with a press of the right trigger, while defending is done by tapping the left trigger. You can pick up any of a wide variety of items that you’ll find scattered throughout the environments around you, and each one of them has different ratings for attack power, defense, speed, and range. A little more variety might have been nice, but there’s enough to keep things interesting to the end of the game. Whacking somebody with the sharp end of the blade from a paper cutter just never gets old.

I do wish defense weren’t quite so clunky. Tapping the left trigger starts an animation where your character raises his weapon in defense for a certain length of time. Timing this block with an enemy’s attack seems more difficult than it should be. I don’t see any logical reason why I shouldn’t have been able to just hold the block button down to guard as long as I wanted to.

Most of the environments in Condemned are tight hallways and small rooms. Wandering through some of these well-realized, creepy environments with little more than a glorified stick to protect yourself really adds to the mood. It’s nice to see guns treated as a scarce item - a rare treat to break up the action every once in a while - rather than a reason for the game to exist.

The melee focus also plays into the game’s gritty presentation, as the bludgeoning is suitably violent. You even have the option of finishing off some enemies by pressing a button on the D-pad once you’ve knocked an enemy down for a brutal finisher.

With these two tricks, Condemned manages to vary the pace of its campaign and keep proceedings from ever feeling tedious or boring, right up to its impressive (albeit more than a little confusing) combat-filled finale. Still, this is a horror story we’re talking about here. The ending may be thrilling, but don’t expect it to make any sense.

Horror stories aren’t allowed to do that.

As I seem to have acquired a taste for horror games recently, it’s refreshing to come across games like Condemned that can give me that horror atmosphere I crave without the tired trappings of the stale survival horror sub-genre. Its story may not make a whole lot of sense and it may be a little dated and a little clunky, but it still manages to provide a tense, fun experience.

Condemned is honestly one of the scariest, most intense games I’ve yet played and it manages to provide this experience largely without resorting to the cheap tricks that have become so common in this genre. For that I give it high praise, despite some pesky unevenness.

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Reader Comments (2)

This is interesting, I really like your observations at the beginning about how much more dependent on current graphics horror games are. It's an interesting concern to consider, even when thinking just generally about how this medium will age.

August 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWendi

How well video games age is always something I've been fairly interested in, partially because of my own tastes in gaming. I'm not particularly nostalgic, as a general rule, as I find more modern stuff and better production values more compelling most of the time. I think I know why, but that's a different story.

Anyway, analyzing why this is and trying to figure out what attracts people to older games and what I'll think of my current favorites in five years is something I think about a lot. I've never applied it to horror games quite this specifically before (at least consciously), but I think a part of me has always thought that they had a bit of a shorter lifespan.

That said, like I state in the article, artistic style gets you a long way, but I think you still have to be at least relatively modern for "horror" elements to work. Maybe I'll put that to the test someday.

August 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterBrendan T. Smith

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