Reviewed: January 12, 2006
Released: November 22, 2005
There are certain genres that you just expect with each new system launch and the FPS is one of them that is ranked right up there with sports and racing games. The Xbox 360 has several FPS games available at launch ranging from military action in Call of Duty 2 to blasting mutant aliens in Quake 4. And then you have Condemned: Criminal Origins.
Condemned tells the story of Ethan Thomas, special agent for the F.B.I. assigned to the SCU (Serial Crimes Unit) – I smell a new primetime series here. Ethan has an impressive track record of nailing serial killers until recently, where things haven’t been going so well. When the game opens he is joining local law enforcement at the crime scene of a suspected killer known as the Matchmaker.
The first fifteen minutes serve as your tutorial into this virtual reality that will soon turn into a supernatural nightmare. It won’t be long before you are plummeted into one of the most terrifying games of all time and easily one of the signature titles for the Xbox 360 launch.
Gameplay flows through numerous chapters that are always set in desolate areas like an office building, subway tunnels, metro station, library, department store, school, or rural farmhouse. The backstory hints at strange events such as mysteriously dying birds and violent, almost psychotic behavior by the vagrant population. But that is only the tip of the iceberg as you soon learn the true secret of the serial killer at work.
Early on you will be framed for the murder of two police officers and will be left on your own to prove your own innocence. At least you will have the help of Agent Rosa via your ultra-cool cell phone and a backpack full of C.S.I. forensic tools.
Condemned defies the typical boundaries of the classic FPS game by infusing the game with an almost virtual reality style. Anyone who has ever played Namco’s Breakdown will know exactly what I am talking about. The camera perspective is basically the character’s own eyes, so arms and weapons and even the dizzying camera movement is an extension of that artificial reality.
To further complicate the gameplay, or rather make it more challenging, the game is heavily geared toward melee combat. To encourage players to perfect their melee abilities, the game actually rewards you with Achievement points if you are able to finish the game without using a firearm. Good freakin’ luck!
Very rarely will you ever get an actual firearm and when you do your ammo is limited to only a few shells. Whereas most FPS games will load you down with 5-8 weapons and a few hundred rounds, you’ll be offering up a silent prayer of thanks when you find a revolver with three bullets or a sawed-off shotgun with two shells left in it.
Condemned is not a fast game. You will creep through dark sinister levels lit only by the white cone of illumination from your flashlight. You will learn to use your ears to detect subtle sounds and their direction. More on that below.
The game holds your hand considerably when it comes time to investigate a crime scene. You will automatically be prompted to use a detection tool when you enter a “crime area” and when you find the evidence you will be prompted to use the collection tool to secure and transmit the data to Rosa. You never have to worry about when to do this or what tool to use.
Between the various crime scenes you will have to fight off increasingly difficult enemies ranging from junkies and gang members to animated mannequins and some really twisted supernatural creatures near the end of the game. This is where the challenge really kicks in.
Combat is very flexible, both in the style of your tactics as well as your choice of weapons. Virtually anything in the game can be used as a weapon whether it be a 2x4, a piece of rebar, a locker door, a pipe, a fire axe, a shovel, or sledgehammer…you get the idea. Each weapon has unique stats for speed, damage, block, and reach and when it comes time to choose a new weapon the stats of that weapon are compared with what is currently in your hand.
Additionally, some weapons are required for use in certain situations. You might only be able to open a door with a fire axe, or bust a padlock with a sledgehammer, or pry open a safe with a crowbar. These items are almost always in the vicinity of the item that requires their use, and they all double as useful weapons.
Attacks are simple with the right trigger and blocking is a carefully timed action with the left trigger that you must synch perfectly with the incoming attack based on their speed and range. Weapons are fired with the right trigger or can be reversed and used as melee weapons with the RB button. I’ve literally beaten a guy to death with my shotgun stock until it was nothing more than splintered wood.
If you find yourself without a weapon you can always make use of your rechargeable taser. Actually, this item will become part of your routine strategy in almost all your encounters in the latter half of the game. You can zap an enemy and stun them for just long enough to rush up and snatch any weapon they might have then proceed to beat them down with it, or you can kick them.
Very often you will need to execute sophisticated combos of kicks, taser, and melee strikes to take down harder opponents. Later in the game you will get your taser upgraded and will be able to kill lesser enemies with a single zap or even burst them into flames. The taser has a nominal recharge time to keep you from abusing the device, and they take it away from you in the final level to really test your combat prowess.
Periodically, you can knock an opponent down into a submission mode where they will be on their knees swaying about in a stunned state. You can now rush up and face them and perform one of four extremely violent finishing moves assigned to the D-pad. These are pretty fun the first few times you see them but get pretty stale later on.
Enemy A.I. is programmed to be very cautious and even quite clever. Very seldom do the enemies just come rushing at you. You’ll hear them knock over an object or curse at you as they run away and then you have to find them. They will hold their position and wait for you to get impatient and make a mistake, or just surprise the hell out of you by chopping through a wall or door.
Sometimes you will encounter multiple enemies but they seldom work together. In fact, if you can time your attack just right you can actually get many of these crazed junkies to fight each other. It’s refreshing to see a game where everybody isn’t focused on killing you, a fact made evident in a massive alley brawl where you can lurk in the shadows and wait for the enemy to reduce their own numbers.
Condemned just oozes with creepy atmosphere from the opening movie that smacks of real movies like, Se7en, and 8MM to the periodic black and white “visions” that Ethan will be forced to endure. Apparently it is these visions that have made Ethan a top priority with the feds, and if you watch these premonitions, or recollections, you will gain useful knowledge in the location of clues and crime scenes. Be warned, some of the shadowy enemies in these visions can deliver very real damage.
Despite the darkness of the environments there is an impressive amount of details in the textures and architecture. Some levels are extremely complex and others, like the drained swimming pool are just inherently creepy. Every level looks totally abandoned and littered with trash. Even when the levels aren’t scary, they look very dirty and dangerous.
The weapons are extremely detailed and will get splattered with the blood of your enemies as they are used. The coolest effects are reserved for the forensic tools, each with a nice 3D model and brilliant special effects and colors than enhance your surroundings. Snapping a photo or capturing some DNA and then seeing that information on your cell phone is very rewarding.
Lighting effects are very realistic and on more than one occasion an enemy would swing his weapon into a fluorescent fixture and start it swinging about causing all sorts of eerie lighting effects and real-time moving shadows.
Character design is highly detailed and animated with extreme fluidity and violent attention to detail. It’s almost shocking to see some crazed junkie bearing down on you with a pipe or board bent on crush your skull. Taser him and watch him jerk and shake and drop to the floor in a smoking heap if you are lucky, otherwise he will snap out of it and start looking around the room for a new weapon to resume his attack.
Never before has sound played such an important role in a game. Since Condemned is so dark you will find yourself relying more on what you hear rather than what you can see. To that end you literally must play this game on a 5.1 surround system. More times than I care to count was my life saved by hearing somebody grunting or shuffling up behind me, and I was able to turn around and stun them just in the nick of time.
Sound effects are especially brutal and violent with the splattering of flesh and the cracking of bones as you beat into these guys with all sorts of makeshift weaponry. The finishing moves are perhaps the worst, and the grisly sounds combined with the in-your-face perspective will have all but the sturdiest of gamers looking away.
The voice acting ranges from passable to slightly above average. There are numerous cutscenes and even more phone calls between you and Rosa. These exchanges communicate the necessary information but are far from exciting. In fact some of the more convincing voice acting comes from the random encounters, even if they are only curses, grunts, or groans.
Music is more ambient than actual score. There is a sinister rumble of machinery down in the subway tunnels and generator rooms and don’t even get me started on the creepy department story music that was playing all distorted and wobbly like the reel-to-reel deck had been stuck in a loop for ten years and counting. There were literally some levels that freaked me out so much I had to stop playing when I had finish them.
Expect a 12-15 hour experience to get through all ten chapters and substantially longer if you plan on hunting down all the birds and metal plates, hidden TV’s, and secret badges. The gameplay is rather linear but no less challenging, and will provide a substantial and quite terrifying experience for anybody who can last to the exciting finale.
Condemned features some collectibles that really don’t factor into the story or gameplay, but do serve as a reward system for the Achievement points and some possible replay potential. There are metal plates and dead (or dying) birds in each level, many of which are extremely challenging to find. I don’t mind these types of challenges when they can be met through normal gameplay, but most of these birds and metal plates require exploration off the beaten path and hunting for items that aren’t pertinent to the story turns the game from interactive fiction into a scavenger hunt.
There are 50 Achievements totaling 970 points, many of which are easily earned by finishing the chapters and finding at least a few of the birds and metal plates on each level. Other Achievements are earned by completing the game only with melee weapons or finding all of the collectibles in the levels. There are also special TV’s and Xbox 360’s hidden in out-of-the-way rooms that can be discovered for more bonus points.
While there is no actual Xbox Live multiplayer component, the game will track your score and accomplishments and compare you to the rest of the world on the Condemned leaderboards.
Condemned: Criminal Origins is more of an “experience” than a game. You’ll come away from each game session emotionally and physically exhausted and even a bit timid about walking across the dark room to flip the light switch.
Despite the hand-holding during the crime scene segments, there is a bit of mastery involved in learning the timing of the various weapons and which ones to use in certain situations. This is one of the few games where I have actually backtracked across a large portion of a level for a weapon with two bullets in it, and also one of the few games where I was startled or scared enough to yell out loud.
Condemned is truly a showcase title for the Xbox 360 and a must-own title for anyone who loves FPS games, scary movies or a frighteningly good time. Turn off the lights and prepare yourself for the thrill ride of the year.