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Condemned: Criminal Origins

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-04-10 15:53:19

Condemned: Criminal Origins - Rank B

Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Sega
Date: 11/16/05

Also available for PC

Condemned is an FPB - "First Person Brawler". Yes, there are firearms, but ammunition is at a premium. Instead, you use whatever's handy to bludgeon enemies: pipes, crowbars, two by fours, and so forth. The bloodiest is the blade of an industrial grade paper cutter. I found it both satisfying and highly disturbing. While we're on the topic, Condemned is also the most menacingly effective horror game for the Xbox 360 to date.

You play as FBI agent Ethan Thomas on the trail of a serial killer. While investigating a crime scene, things go so far south that toilets start flushing in the other direction. You lose your gun and it's promptly used to kill fellow officers. Wanted for murder, you operate off the grid to hunt the real killer. The entire game is a descent into the proverbial heart of darkness, as you contend with your own increasing madness and the supernatural evil engulfing the city.

I'm fairly confident in proclaiming that Condemned features the best first person melee combat of all time. I frequently use the word "visceral", or describe a game's mechanics as "feeling good". Condemned's visceral combat feels good, and has a tangible brutality to it. When you swing a weapon, you feel its weight. A light pipe has a distinguishable zippy mass to it, in contrast to the bulky heft of a fireman's axe. When you make contact, the teeth rattling impact is convincing, from the onscreen physics to the rumble in the controller. Like in Monolith's other game, F.E.A.R., the A.I. is good. The desperation is palpable when a crazed junkie is alternately evading and assaulting you from the shadows. The whole experience slams you like a sledgehammer to the face.

The control scheme itself is simple and direct. You can block, swing, fire your taser, or perform a finisher. Different weapons are faster or slower, with varying timing, range, and power. Here's the word "visceral" again; it's the best word to describe the feel of zapping a killer with your taser, slapping the gun out of his hand, ferociously beating him down with your nail-studded bat, and grabbing his skull to snap his neck like a twig.

Condemned is excruciatingly immersive. You never leave the first person perspective. The only time you see yourself is by looking at a mirror. In one instance, you're flung down an escalator, and instead of pulling the camera out to show it, you directly experience the head over heels confusion of the tumble. The visuals reinforce the substantialness of the game world: every item and structure is solid and gritty, with a concrete weight behind them. The starkness of your bobbing flashlight ramps up the paranoia of fearing the potential threats lurking in the darkness. If possible, play Condemned at night with surround sound. At one point, voices whispering in the distance creeped me out so hard that I physically jolted at the sound of something I accidentally knocked over. The sound of my own footsteps would freak me the fuck out.

Unfortunately, just like F.E.A.R., the urban environment is extremely repetitive. A pervasive sameness settles in, as you grind your way through the same dingy, dilapidated, and depressing corridors. I found myself accidentally backtracking occasionally, because I got disorientated without any distinguishable features to use as landmarks. The vast majority of the game consists of fighting your way through ever-similar "condemned" buildings. Plot points break up this oppressive monotony, but as more of them are revealed, it turns out that the story is fairly weaksauce. Perhaps worst of all are the half-assed CSI sequences. Agent Thomas lugs around a bag full of forensics gear, but instead of implementing these meaningfully into investigatory gameplay, they only come into play during what amounts to interactive cutscenes.

You may want to play Condemned in chunks. This will allow you respite from the game's repetitiveness, and also let you shake off the heebie-jeebies that are sure to leech onto you during this creepfest. Condemned deserves a look because it serves up a unique experience. Its strengths are so engaging that you should be able to forgive the rest of the game for not being as good.

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