Review by asherdeus

""Find valve and turn off steam." Ah, so that's why the Half-Life 2 friend network is never working..."

I think we can all agree that the Xbox 360 launch was disappointing. There were decent games to play, but nearly every game on launch day was either a port, franchise, or licensed property. The system was billed as unique and original, but none of the games on it were, outside of Kameo and Condemned: Criminal Origins. Games like Perfect Dark Zero and Need for Speed: Most Wanted are certainly entertaining titles, but they don't offer anything really new outside of a few gadgets or cars.

Condemned really doesn't do much in terms of "new" either, but it takes several conventions of a few different genres and combines them to deliver one interesting and entertaining experience. I'm going to say this from the start of this review: this is not a first-person shooter. It's in first-person and you do use weapons, but this is primarily a survival horror/adventure game. It's combat is more like Morrowind than Doom III, though Condemned isn't nearly as vast and open-ended as the former title. Even if they do share similar combat engines, Condemned is much more violent than Morrowind. The start of the game is a little slow, but you'll be crushing skulls with locker doors in no time (complete with gory blood effects). That's nothing you'd ever see in Morrowind.

Condemned tells the story of an FBI agent named Ethan Thomas, a man wrongly accused of murder. While on a routine investigation of a serial killer, the killer steals Ethan's gun and then turns it against some agents. Since Ethan is the only one with access to that firearm, his coworkers naturally assume that he's lost his mind and are ready to throw him behind bars. Not only that, but a series of strange events have turned his city into chaos. Random homeless people are attacking people in the streets. These events have also caused his fellow agents to assume that Ethan is mad.

He's considered guilty until proven innocent, and no one is going to go out of their way to prove he isn't a murderer. Instead of getting arrested, our hero flees from the scene of the crime and begins a quest to clear his name and maybe figure out what the hell is going wrong with the world. Our hero doesn't have any visions of grandeur and isn't setting out to fix the world, unlike so many giant-sword wielding RPG characters. He's a simple man, just like you and me. He just has a career that is a little more interesting than our day-to-day jobs are.

Going along with this "regular guy" motif, Ethan never picks up giant machine guns or rocket launchers. His typical arsenal consists of whatever pipes, tools, and other blunt objects (in a department store for instance, you can wield a mannequin arm) he can find. He's not highly trained in combat either, so his swinging is awkward and his ability to block is weak. This may sound like it might be a let down, but in general it works really well for setting the tension. Ethan's lack of combat skills creates an image of a character in a situation beyond his control, a situation that he had never imagined possible. Battles are reasonably rare, but the combat system makes most battles tough and memorable. Enemies will run away from you, constantly search their environment for stronger weapons, and they will block a lot of your attacks. This makes the battles challenging, and I died a lot before I figured out the timing of blocking.

The storyline progresses rather slowly in the opening phases of the game, but really picks up toward the middle levels. This game only took me about eight hours to get through its ten chapters. Condemned takes place in dilapidated buildings that are vast and expansive. There are lots of doors to go through, and you will find several locked doors as you progress through each level. In a surprising turn of events from nearly every other survival horror game, most of the doors eventually open. Nearly every room in Condemned serves some sort of purpose which furthers feelings of realism.

Monolith has always been great at developing realistic settings for their games and I'm very happy to report that everything seems very believable. One particular setting, a cavernous subway system, was particularly well-crafted. Dirty tile and scattered garbage dot a poorly-lit cave-like subway system that reminded me of my own real-life travels. The levels, like this subway, seem much more true to life than what has been offered in previous survival horror games. I've grown a little tired of wandering through sewers in games, but since they're so realistic in Condemned, it isn't as painfully boring. I mean, seriously, level design has gotten to the point where every single game on the market includes a sewer, factory, and subway level. While it doesn't buck any trends of formulaic level design, they're interesting enough in Condemned that you probably won't complain about clichés.

Condemned is more of a story-driven adventure game, driven by searching for clues to move the plot forward. You're often asked to search for handprints on bodies using special lights and cameras that Ethan carries around in his ass apparently, but finding them can be tricky. The puzzles are elusive at times, and this compliments the slow pace of the action quite well. Even better, unlike traditional survival horror games like Silent Hill that have you combining hair and a fish hook to reach a key in a drain, the puzzles are actually logical and aren't a pain in the ass.

This game is easily one of the best looking Xbox 360 games I've played so far. The dark, gritty atmosphere is captured perfectly. I can't get over how great texturing looks on the Xbox 360. Tile looks dirty. Graffiti on walls looks genuine. The texturing effects in this game are beyond awesome. The lighting is also incredibly detailed and the use of blacks and shadows really help support the theme of the game. The only thing I can think of that really stands out as a flaw graphically is the complete lack of environmental damage. No object will show any sign of being violated. It really hurts the realistic feel the game was going for. As far as audio goes, nothing really particular stands out as being flawed, but nothing was very memorable.

Once I started playing Condemned: Criminal Origins, I couldn't put it down until the gripping conclusion. The game is different than a lot of the other ones that I've played, and it was a refreshing change of pace from the more typical first-person shooters and survival horror romps. The storyline is very engaging; especially during the concluding portions of the game (the last three chapters or so really rock). Monolith has delivered a memorable experience that challenges a lot of expectations and norms and proves that they're one of the best in the biz. There are some problems with Condemned: Criminal Origins, and if you do pick it up it'll probably be a one-time journey for most of you, but Condemned: Criminal Origins does deliver an excellent experience if you're willing to give it the time.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/27/06

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