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Condemned: Criminal Origins Review

By Jeff Buckland, 1/31/2006

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Condemned is the first, and so far, only horror game available for the Xbox 360. Veteran PC developers Monolith went on a big horror kick, with two separate teams making F.E.A.R. for the PC and Condemned for the 360. While my thoughts on F.E.A.R. are well-documented, I'll say that I enjoyed Condemned quite a bit more.

You'll play as tough FBI agent Ethan Thomas, part of the Serial Crimes Unit. Ethan's been having trouble catching the murderers recently, and has had little success on his latest suspect, a serial killer nicknamed the Match Maker. The first scene in the game builds atmosphere and introduces you to the killer by way of having you investigate the scene of his latest murder. You'll use various forensic tools to get clues which turn up little on their own, but soon you realize that the killer's still in the building - then the chase is on.

It seems at first that Condemned might wind up being just a somewhat-creepy adventure game, but it's not long before you'll be fighting for your life. It's a first-person game, but considering how little ammo you'll have for the game's limited range of firearms, I don't think it's really right to call this a first person shooter. It plays quite a bit more like a horror survival game, because your enemies are scary as hell and you'll usually be forced to get very up close and personal with them.

Condemned will drop you into various abandoned buildings - well, mostly abandoned - to keep on the trail of your serial killer. In the meantime, you'll be investigating various areas with your high-tech toys, but the biggest part of the game is its atmosphere and melee combat with the many drug-addled junkies and newly possessed loons who are all after you as well as each other.

My favorite part about the action in this game is that you can pick up well over a dozen different types of melee weapons, as well as a smaller selection of pistols, shotguns, and submachine guns. Both you and your enemies can literally yank stuff right off of the walls to beat each other down with. Want that chunk of pipe? No problem. A big flat sign? Yep. How about the blade from those big paper cutters? Oh yes. You can even grab a locker door and beat someone to a bloody pulp with it.

Fighting is not a matter of just mashing buttons here, because there is a blocking system (which you'll need to get good at if you want to survive) and weapons even have statistics. The 2x4 (with nails sticking out of it, of course) is fast but has little reach and you won't be able to block well with it. The fire axe or sledgehammer are big and slow, but they pack explosive power. Plus, you can even deliver a nice Duke Nukem-style kick at almost any time with a separate button. Not only is this hilarious, but it works to stun opponents for a second if you time it right.

Yes, this is a violent game, and it becomes apparent the first time you are given the option to take a stunned enemy, who's kneeling in front of you, and bash his head against the floor, break his neck, or give him a finishing headbutt. Combat is kept interesting because enemies will fake an attack, causing you to try and block, and then they'll throw their real assault while you're recovering.

The guns in Condemned are really fairly weak, but you can of course kill multiple people at range quickly - the problem is that you can basically carry only a single weapon at any one time, and you've rarely got more than four or five rounds at your disposal. Generally, you're just better off with something that you can effectively swing in melee than constantly worrying about how many rounds you have.

You've got another tool at your disposal when it comes to taking out your assailants: a taser. You've got infinite charges with it but you'll have to wait several seconds for it to recharge. Still, it gives an impressive jolt (both visually and from a gameplay perspective) which will momentarily stun or even knock down your enemies. This makes guns almost obsolete, although not totally.

From a graphics perspective, I'm highly impressed with Condemned. Monolith used the right amount of special effects without overdoing it just because they can, and the texture quality is very high - when you get right into a guy's face to give him a finishing headbutt, you'll see a level of detail that previous console generations can't even touch. But it's also the art and creepiness that's built in that makes this game both unique and engaging. Sure, there are a lot of somewhat-darkened hallways; that's a staple of horror games and movies. But the many different settings, the character designs, and ability to literally rip pipes off the wall (causing steam to pour out, or even knock the room's lights out) to beat your enemies senseless adds up to a visually stunning result.

The story in Condemned is pretty damned good up until near the end when the developers seem to have, at least in my opinion, gone just a little overboard. The team at Monolith that worked on F.E.A.R. did much the same thing at the end of that game as well. I don't want to give too much away as far as the plot goes, but there are several twists that will keep you guessing. It's just at the end that it got a little too far out there for me.

When comparing Condemned to F.E.A.R., I found that the latter game's combat was just a little too disjointed from the horror scenes. It was fun, but in Condemned, the scary stuff most certainly can kill you. You'll also find that this game takes place pretty much exclusively in, well, condemned or abandoned buildings, much like Monolith's other horror game. The difference here is that the level design is a little smarter and the environments do much more for atmosphere without constantly relying on cutting the lights to scare the player.

Condemned is a very solid game with great horror elements, great sounds and voice work, and plenty of in-your-face action. It's nothing like pretty much any other game on the Xbox 360, and really helps to fill a niche in this new console's library. While the replay value is going to be little to none for many players, it's still worth going through no matter how you get your hands on this game.

Overall: 89%



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