Review by Scottie theNerd

"Condemned: Proving the destructiveness of lead pipes"

Monolith Productions must have something with melee combat in first-person shooters. F.E.A.R. was a more conventional shooter with some interesting flying kicks. Now they go and develop Condemned: Criminal Origins, a game built entirely around hand-to-hand combat. It's less first-person shooter and more first-person beat-em-up.

To go with this innovative approach is a story devoid of futuristic conspiracies and big guns. Instead, Condemned is a humble plot revolving around FBI Agent Ethan Thomas, on the trail of a serial killer known as the Match Maker. Investigating the latest Match Maker murder during a string of violent outbreaks across the city, Thomas is ambushed by the murder suspect; witnesses the shooting of two police officers with his own weapon and hunted by his own FBI colleagues. It is up to the player to guide Thomas through the derelict slums of the city to uncover the identity of the murderer and clear his name, in the process discovering a far more sinister, paranormal force behind the killings.

The horror side of the game is made immediately clear as players start the game and watch the opening cinematic. Driving peacefully through the night, Thomas is interrupted by a sudden bang on his car window. Glancing across, he discovers that it's only the impatient senior detective from the local police department. While F.E.A.R. received negative feedback over its cheap “shock horror”, Condemned uses a more believable thriller method of horror. The degenerate setting of the game, filled with hobos and drug addicts, is spooky enough; and the game plays mind games through lighting, visual tricks, shadows and eerie noises. The effect is a sense of fear that the game maintains throughout its entirety, forcing players to be cautious of enemies lurking around or even conscious of the noise they make themselves. Condemned features hallucinations similar to that of F.E.A.R., but most take the form of flashbacks of Thomas going into the mind of the killer and unravelling their actions, assisting him in finding evidence. This is combined with sporadic sightings of demonic figures and shadows which make no sense to Thomas at all.

Using his instincts to piece together the killer's actions, Agent Thomas can pull out his impressive array of forensic equipment. Thomas is linked to an FBI lab through his cellphone and contact, Rosa, who analyses samples from the crime scene. The game prompts the player to the presence of clues, automatically selecting the appropriate tool. Tools include a UV light to detect organic traces, a laser to detect chemicals, a gas spectrometer to detect rotting corpses, and a digital camera to take photos to transmit to Rosa. Tools are used differently, for example the laser can be waved around with the left analog stick until evidence is found, and the camera is brought out, aimed and zoomed to the indicated level before taking the photo for transmission. Other clues require combinations of tools and sometimes require the player to analyse the same scene with multiple tools.

Unfortunately, the forensics side of the game is sorely underdeveloped and leaves much to be desired. While the idea of crime scene investigation is an intriguing aspect of the game, Condemned doesn't allow the player to pick what tool they want to use. Instead, the game automatically uses Thomas's detective instinct to identify areas with clues, and pressing the tool button will automatically bring out the needed tool. Instead of free investigation scenarios, the game simply gives the player one action at a time. You get situations like “Something stinks here, use your gas spectrometer to find where the body is” and “It's a dead body. Shine over it several times with your UV light and laser and take photos just like we tell you to”. It feels too much like watching someone else doing the investigation instead of the player uncovering the evidence.

Of course, investigating isn't the only thing Thomas does, and the aforementioned hobos and addicts aren't going to simply let Thomas waltz around their slums without a fight. Using whatever improvised weapon they can get their hands on, the denizens of the city's dregs will stop the nosy FBI agent at all costs. Enemies range from addicts and criminals to malnourished crawlers and big, burly firemen wielding sledgehammers and fire axes.

While Thomas has a trusty .45 pistol to start off with, players will lose use of it pretty soon, falling back on anything they can find, delving into the core of Condemned's gameplay. Players can approach a huge range of debris to use as weapons. For example, players can rip pipes and 2x4's from walls, pick up large planks and student desktops, locker doors and steel rebars to fend off attackers using various swings while blocking and dodging. Combat is surprisingly smooth though it can take a while to get used to swinging a pipe instead of blasting them with shotguns. The AI is awfully tenacious, excelling at surprising the player from around corners and executing a large range of blows mixed with feints and smacking the player after a mistimed block. Thomas does have access to a taser, which players can use to stun an adversary to knock them out or strip them of their weapon.

Apart from improvised weapons, the game also features a selection of entry tools required to pass certain areas. Padlocks can be smashed with sledgehammers, gates can be cracked open with crowbars and wooden doors can be hacked through using a fire axe. These entry tools can also double up as slow but powerful melee weapons. Enemies and players also have access to some firearms, including handguns, shotguns, a submachine gun and a rifle. These are rare, and often must be taken from enemies before they kill you with them. Players cannot reload or replenish ammunition, forcing them to use empty guns as clubs until they find a more appropriate weapon. Unfortunately, while the inclusion of guns makes sense, they do somewhat ruin the flow of the game. Enemies can reload, and it's awfully easy to suddenly die because you're looking for a health pack and you get zapped by a guy with a shotgun.

There's also something that makes the level design potentially headache-inducing. The levels aren't that bad; they're not intentionally linear yet most sections give you a fair idea of where to go next. It could be because the levels tend to have lots of multiple paths or backtracking sections which leads you back to where you started without knowing if you're meant to be there. Maybe it's the Doom 3 Flashlight Syndrome, with every area requiring the flashlight, making it rather pointless to not have it turned on. Maybe it's the conflicting ideas of investigation combined with fighting off addicts; it honestly does get a bit vexing when you can't wave your cool laser around because you need to awkwardly switch back to your lead pipe to bust some guy's head. The huge variety of settings is admirable, but there's always a sense of frustration in the back of your head. The fact that Thomas has a ridiculously slow movement speed makes the game's progress and combat unnecessarily clunky, and his “sprint” ability is more like a cop waddling from too many donuts.

The sound...well, you wouldn't want to buy the game's soundtrack; there's only one menu track. Rather, the game uses cleverly placed environmental effects to achieve a permanent eerie feeling, using the typical creaks, animal noises and ghost voices to give the game its spookiness. Graphically, the game is quite smooth, especially with brutal blood effects, although the inability to permanently damage enemies with gashes and hacking limbs off lends the feeling that you're hitting a crash dummy with a fire axe instead of an actual person.

The game's interface is surprisingly sloppy. I'm no expert in user interface design, but I would imagine that developers would want to make the game as pain-free as possible when it comes to using menus. From my extensive gaming experiences, pressing the closest button (“A” for the X360) while paused would by default resume the game; Condemned for some reason places “Restart Chapter” as the default option, and despite the confirmation screen it is shockingly easy to accidentally wipe out your progress. While collecting dead birds and metal pieces to unlock the extensive behind-the-scenes clips and backstory, the game doesn't give you an easy way to see how many you have collected in a level, making it easy to miss those goodies.

Monolith comes up with some pretty radical ideas that can turn out to be excellent games, and Condemned is very close to that level. It's a shame that Monolith tried too hard to do too many things, combining ideas that might have been better developed independently. The story is outstanding, the presentation is great, but the gameplay feels too basic at times and leaves something to be desired. It's a good horror game, and the unlockables provide plenty of replay, and it's fun to chuck into the Xbox 360 and bust a few heads, but lacks the fluid pace a good game should have.

Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 7/10
Gameplay: 6/10
Replay: 9/10
Overall: 8/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/02/07

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