Review by DragoonAnger

"Passing on this game would be criminal"

It's dark. The faint light from your flashlight is the only thing illuminating your path as you wander through a long-abandoned building. You come across a light switch and flip it on: nothing. The bulb burned out long ago. Your footsteps make faint rustling noises as you slowly walk through the debris on the floor. Suddenly you stop, but the footsteps continue. You know you're not alone. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a flicker of movement. Was it just a shadow cast by your flashlight? You prise an old plank off of the wall and advance, readying yourself for what awaits. Welcome to Condemned: Criminal Origins.

Story – 7/10

You are Ethan Thomas, an SCU agent with a reputation for being tough. The game starts out with the player arriving at the scene of a murder, and investigating with the help of two detectives. The grisly scene is typical of the Match Maker, a serial killer Ethan has been tracking for quite some time. However, you and the detectives are not the only ones at the crime scene. Events spiral out of your control, and you end up on the run, blamed for two murders that were committed with your gun. You must track down the man that did it, clear your name, and stop him before he kills again.

The story of Condemned is intriguing, but it comes off as slightly unfocused. The clear goal of tracking down your nemesis is obvious, but the game constantly brings up hints and clues that suggest Ethan is more than he really is without going anywhere with the idea. There are several questions left unanswered at the end of the game. As there is a sequel, this is understandable but more closure would have been preferable.

Atmosphere – 10/10

Condemned's atmosphere is what makes the game. As you walk though the dimly-lit locales of the game, squinting to see past the beam of your flashlight, you are on full alert. The atmosphere is oppressive, and the tension created when you hear a faint rustling in the next room is impressive. While you periodically receive phone calls and transfer data to the lab, you never lose the feeling that you are alone. Oh, there are others there, but they are not with you. You are alone, chasing a serial killer, armed with only your flashlight and whatever weapons you can find along the way. Combined with the periodic lapses in sanity Ethan experiences, you are left questioning whether the horrors you are fighting against are actually all in your head, and the effect is brilliant.

Graphics – 8/10

Given that the game was released in 2005, the graphics have become slightly dated, but are still strong. Your flashlight casts suspicious looking shadows, and light bulbs send showers of sparks cascading down as they burn out. The environments you explore throughout the game look the part. As you wander through the grungy locales of the game (including an old metro, a deteriorating department store, and a long-closed school) you get the sense that no sane person has been there for a long time. The enemies you encounter look appropriately ragged and desperate, and move with a lurching gait. Combat is visceral, with each swing of your weapon leaving its mark on your opponent's face. Seeing an enemy pause and spit out teeth after a particularly brutal blow is repulsive, and the realistic look of the game's combat adds to the atmosphere very well. There are sections of the game where your view shifts to an unnerving black and white hue, and you begin to question whether the events you're going through are actually occurring or whether they're merely a product of your mind as you slowly become more and more disturbed. Flashbacks are presented in the same manner, and are equally disturbing. The game's graphics go along perfectly with its atmosphere.

One area in which the graphics are lacking, however, is in some of the character models. The enemies themselves are fittingly grotesque, but Ethan and other friendly characters look artificial and lifeless. As you rarely see these models it doesn't detract too much from the experience, but it is noticeable.

Sound – 10/10

The game's audio is your best friend, while at the same time your worst enemy. Sounds echo convincingly, and anything you hear will put you on alert. Muffled curses from adjacent rooms, clattering just beyond your vision, and the faint sound of footsteps are all used to create a feeling of tension. Enemies will curse and shout at you during combat, and every hit you land produces a sickeningly satisfying sound, as well as cries of pain from your foes. The periodic flashes that Ethan has are accompanied by unsettling white noise, to disturbing effect. On the occasions that music is used, it always adds to the scene.

Gameplay – 8/10

The gameplay in Condemned can be broken up into three sections: navigation, forensics, and combat.

As you navigate through the dilapidated locales of the game, you will no doubt be taking your time. This may not be your choice, as Ethan moves laughably slowly. While this ensures that you don't rush your way through the game, the developers also taunt you by giving you a sprint button. Sprinting is hardly any faster than walking, and you can't even sprint for very long before Ethan begins gasping for breath. As you make your way through the levels, you will also encounter various doors and gates blocking your path. Each type requires you to go and fetch a specific kind of weapon in order to proceed. You may end up wondering to yourself why you need a fire axe to chop down an old door when you have a sledgehammer and shotgun (and even functional legs) in your possession. Backtracking and grabbing the required weapons feels unnecessary, and can get tedious. However, even though Ethan's speed (or lack thereof) and the backtracking needed for weapons pads out the level length, the levels are so well-designed and immersive that spending more time in them isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Periodically, you will come across something that requires investigation, such as a fingerprint or a spatter of blood. You will be prompted to take out an investigative tool, scan the item, and wait for results from the lab. That's about as deep as the forensics gets. It's a neat little diversion that serves to advance the story, but they could have done more with it.

The core of Condemned's gameplay lies in the combat. The player has to make use of what is immediately available in order to defend against the violent enemies encountered throughout the game. As firearms are scarce, the bulk of fighting is done hand-to-hand with whatever can be pried from the environment. Pipes, 2x4s, electrical conduits, pieces of rebar, desk drawers, paper cutters, and even metro signs are all fair game when you're trying to survive. The enemy AI is excellent, keeping away from you when you have a heavy weapon or a firearm, running away when injured in order to ambush you later, and feinting attacks to get you to parry too soon, leaving you open. As mentioned before, the combat is visceral and unlike many other games it feels as if you're chipping away at the enemies themselves rather than some ethereal life bar. When you've bopped an addict enough they fall to their knees, giving you the option of performing one of four executions. While not necessary, it can be satisfying to get petty revenge on an enemy that gave you trouble. Overall the combat is solid and it's unlikely you'll ever find another way to have as much fun beating hobos without legal repercussions.

Replayability - 4/10

Condemned is a rather short game. You will likely finish its ten chapters in as little as six or seven hours. Completing achievements unlocks extras such as character and environment sketches and videos of the beta gameplay, and you will most likely need multiple playthroughs to get all of these. However, once that is done there is no real incentive to keep playing. The game is very enjoyable while it lasts though.

Pros
- Excellent atmosphere
- Realistic, detailed environments
- Good enemy AI
- Satisfying combat

Cons
- Unrealistic character models
- Unnecessary backtracking + slow movement speed
- Relatively short

If you're looking for a game that's immersive and intense, then Condemned: Criminal Origins will surely satisfy.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/21/10, Updated 06/22/10

Game Release: Condemned: Criminal Origins (US, 11/16/05)


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