Condemned: Criminal Origins Review
Pentium M 2Ghz
GF 7800GTX video
2GB DDR2 RAM
Condemned: Criminal Origins is lovingly referred to by its fans as the world's first hobo-bludgeoning simulator. This horror game from Monolith, creators of the PC horror hit F.E.A.R., does include a lot of up-close beatdowns, that's for sure. But Condemned is also a very scary, creepy game; sure, you'll be knocking teeth out of junkies and other people of questionable ethical motives to start, but it's not long before things take a turn and you'll start having to smash things directly in the face that, well, are pretty far away from being human.
It's the in-your-face action that winds up being possibly the most disturbing thing about Condemned. Many horror games can be scarier than this, that's for sure, but here you're going to have to meet your assailants in brutal closeups with violence you probably haven't seen in any past games yet. Sure, you've comically blown people to tiny little pieces in Quake, but there's just something more painful to watch when you're so close to an enemy's face that it's all you can see as you slam it into the concrete or snap his neck.
Condemned follows the story of Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who's waking some kind of supernatural ability in himself. On the latest trail of a serial killer called the Matchmaker (who positions the young women he kills with creepy mannequins in compromising positions), his adversary gets the better of him, takes his gun, and uses it to kill the two cops that Ethan had just been working with. Now, with the rest of the feds after him, Ethan gets some help from an old friend as well as Rose, a desk-working operative, back at the FBI crime lab (as she's pretty sure he's innocent). Soon, he's off on his own hunt to track down the Matchmaker. There are plenty of twists in the story as the player goes on, and Ethan finds out he's dealing with more than just a "mere" serial killer. The ending is pretty wild, but I didn't feel like it was so crazy that it made me turn around and suddenly hate the rest of the game overall. The Xbox 360 version's been out for a while now, and I understand my opinion the game's ending is rather unique (as most seem to hate it), but I stand behind my beliefs that if you can truly play the rest of this game with your disbelief suspended, the ending should not be a big leap.
But let's rewind a bit and talk about stuff that happens, you know, before the end. While Condemned launched along with the Xbox 360 back last November, the PC version is still graphically sunning almost six months later. We might not see massive, open environments, but those claustrophobic hallways and darkened rooms have never looked so detailed. The texture quality and overall art in this game raise it to a level beyond just high screen resolutions, frame rates, and full-screen antialiasing. Although, being able to turn all that stuff up on a fast PC will certainly help make this game that much more immersive.
Many have compared Condemned to F.E.A.R., the other horror-first-person game that Monolith was working on simultaneously alongside Condemned last year. F.E.A.R. had an action element that was similar to The Matrix or Max Payne, while its horror elements were almost completely compartmentalized and separated from the action. You'd go from one shooting sequence to another, and then on to a horror sequence where you were almost totally sure no real harm would come to your character, then back to the action, and just repeat and repeat. It's not that F.E.A.R. wasn't a bad game, but horror veterans quickly realized that with only a few exceptions, the real scares were only there to be seen and not interacted with.
This is not true with Condemned. The scary things in this game can and most certainly will kill you if you give them a chance, and they will do so by tearing conduit piping out of the wall and beating you to death with it. And hey, if the electricity to that room happens to run through that pipe, too bad - the lights can and will go out in some cases if you don't deal with enemies quickly! Luckily, your uniform-mounted flashlight works at all times during the game with few exceptions.
Of course, Ethan will get his own chance to dish out some pain. He's a big guy himself and he's got no problem with smashing some druggie in the face with anything and everything he can get his hands on. One of Condemned's most unique features is the variety of weapons that Ethan or his enemies can wield, many of which can be ripped right out of the environment. In a warehouse? The wood plank with nails is a decent choice, but maybe the fire axe is better. No? How about a shovel? A sledgehammer? Head over to that abandoned high school and you can snag the blade off of one of those big paper cutters, or - my favorite - beat down an enemy with a locker door (complete with combination lock on the side).
Not all weapons are created equally, though, and many of them also have unique statistics that the game presents you with - it always compares the weapon you're looking at against the one you've got in your hands. The wood-plank-with-nails is fast, but its reach sucks and you won't do much damage with it. The Fire Axe is powerful but slow (yet sometimes you'll absolutely need it to tear down a door and get through to the next area of the game), while the larger stuff like signs or locker doors are great at blocking but they obstruct your view and are kind of unwieldy when it comes to actually hitting people.
Bludgeoning instruments are going to be your main way of dishing out the damage, but that's not all that Ethan has at his disposal. He doesn't start off as a neanderthal with a club; his pistol can quickly take out an enemy with a headshot, and as you go on, you'll find pistols, shotguns, and even submachine guns. The difference here, though, is that the ammo pretty much never lasts long, and using guns as melee weapons isn't really that great. Since you can only ever carry one main weapon at a time, period, having that pistol's not the greatest idea because it's almost useless once you fire the three to five rounds it's likely got in the clip.
The game basically wants to push you into using melee to win, and with the ability to block incoming strikes, counter attack, and even use a Tazer gun (which has infinite shots but must recharge for several seconds after each use) or a quick boot to the midsection, you're going to find yourself right in the face of your enemies pretty often. And believe me, after a couple of hours of this game, that's not really a comfortable place to be. Still, the combat is kept interesting because you can't just hold the block button and wait for your enemy to stupidly swing at you. Your block is only active for a split second, and those bloodthirsty heathens will try and fake you out or might wait for you to try and hit first.
There is this whole "investigation" part of Condemned, but it turns into being little more than just a gimmicky way to move the plot forwards. Ethan's got some high-tech tools at his disposal to get a clue for the next destination, and while some of the special effects associated with these look great, the whole thing feels like a chore after somewhere around the third time you're forced to press the button, line up the stupid digital camera on the killer's handprint, and snap a picture for Rosa to look at. This would be a great way to break up the action and pace the game better, but the developers didn't seem too interested in keeping you out of combat for very long - usually, you get no more than a minute's break if that. Then it's back to the severe beatdowns with sledgehammers.
Looking at the technical aspects of Monolith's PC port of Condemned, I've got to say I'm impressed. This game has none of the feel of many games that go to consoles first and to PC later. Nothing's "dumbed down", and the interface is smart and has been correctly adapted to work with mouse-and-keyboard setups on the PC. The graphics look just as good as long as you've got the hardware to support it, and while you'll need a pretty damn powerful system to make the game look better than the Xbox 360 version, it's worth it because Condemned doesn't just look good because of some whiz-bang special effects. The textures, style, and atmosphere absolutely make this game, and having a fast enough computer to display all that detail is certainly not going to hurt.
While the Xbox 360 version tried to at least add a bit of replay value with its Achievement points for finding the secret hidden stuff throughout the game, Condemned gives you no motivation to find this stuff at all. Finding little pieces of metal, dead birds (it ties into one of the goofy parts of the story), and other bits and pieces grants the player absolutely zero reward. Hell, at least secret areas in most FPS games will at least give you some extra health or maybe a powerful weapon for you to use or something. While the PC version of Condemned does come in at a reasonable price of $39.99, the six-to-eight hour play time is not going to be enough for gamers unless they really enjoy the story and wouldn't mind just experiencing it all over again, whether it's at the same difficulty level or higher. And I think there are a good chunk of players out there who will be plenty happy with that.
Condemned: Criminal Origins filled a unique niche on the Xbox 360, and it does so on the PC even alongside games like F.E.A.R. and classic horror favorites like System Shock 2 or the PC ports of the Silent Hill games. Its brutal, in-your-face action will make you cringe, while the creepy atmosphere will have your heart fluttering as you wonder what's around that next corner. Even the hardened veterans of the world's best horror games will find this to be a fine addition to their collection. It may lack in lasting appeal, but that's not a quality that people are looking for in horror games anyway. They want to be scared and to be able to fight back in a satisfying fashion, and in that respect, Monolith has certainly delivered with the PC version of Condemned.