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Posted on Feb 10th 2011 at 03:47:16 PM by (Ack)
Posted under Condemned, Xbox 360, Monolith Productions, Sega, Modern Gaming

Condemned: Criminal Origins



Its been a while guys, sorry about that.  Life sometimes interferes, but there is lots more horror goodness I haven't yet shared that needs to be played, both retro and not.  And in this case, this games not...though admittedly it might as well be due to its release date.

Condemned: Criminal Origins was developed by Monolith Productions and published by Sega, releasing to the masses as a Microsoft Xbox 360 launch title.  Actually, that is not entirely accurate.  Condemned actually preceded the 360s release, coming out on Nov. 15, 2005, which means its older than the oldest console in this generation (the 360s official launch date was Nov. 22, 2005, in the US).  Of all the 360 launch titles, this was the one that generated the biggest personal interest and was my first game purchase on the console, though admittedly I bought the machine specifically for Dead Rising.  I'm glad I picked up Condemned by itself, as I managed to give it the time it truly deserved.

Condemned is an interesting approach to the traditional survival horror.  While it visits the same dark locales and features what is effectively a supercop as the main protagonist a la Resident Evil, this guys a little different.  Ethan Thomas is tough, has highly 'acute senses, and goes after a particularly disturbing type of criminal: serial killers.  Ethans disturbingly good at this, but it seems it comes with a price that Ethan doesn't even know must be paid, and his life is not exactly as it appears.  Early on in the game he finds himself up against a similar individual on the other side of the law, a super serial killer labeled only Serial Killer X who hunts his own kind and kills them based upon their own methods.  Unfortunately for Ethan, X gets the drop on him, steals his gun, kills two cops with it, and knocks Ethan out a window before escaping.  Ethan wakes up in his apartment with family friend Malcolm Vanhorn, who warns Ethan that hes now wanted for the murder of those policemen.



So Ethan must now evade the police, take down X, and prove his innocence.  To do that, he'll have to crawl through every nasty back alley and condemned building in the city while hunting for evidence.  Sounds simple, right?  But there are a couple of problems: it seems the city's homeless are becoming increasingly violent while creatures and events are beginning to appear around him which are twisted enough to make Ethan question his sanity.

While the plot gives a reason for all of the bizarre occurrences and gives a reason for the hordes of angry and freakish individuals you'll find literally bludgeoning each other to death with whatever they can find, its unfortunately not very coherent.  Ethan has some similar qualities with the character Will Graham from Thomas Harris book Red Dragon.  In Red Dragon, its hinted that Graham might easily have become the same type of monster that he hunts so easily; Ethan suffers a similar problem.  The issue comes in presentation: much of the story goes unexplained unless the player bothers to read the loading screens between levels and manages to piece them all together.  And even then there are several important points which the game never quite gets out, such as exactly what the character known only as The Hate actually is or where it came from.  It takes the sequel to really find out whats happening, and the sequel, well, that's a discussion for another day.  There are scenes where Ethan has to use his police equipment to investigate crime scenes, but as per the norm with television forensics units, it happens absurdly quick and relatively easily.  Its a nice little touch that helps break up the action, but its not very realistic, so if this happens to be a pet peeve of yours about police dramas, you've been warned.

Anyway, Condemned: Criminal Origins features a very different perspective from most survival horror titles; its entirely first person, though not a true FPS.  While you do find guns, they're few and far between, are limited to the amount of ammunition you find in them, but are also realistically powerful.  Some enemies also carry guns, which are subject to the same rules.  Fight an enemy with a revolver who fires off two shots, and the gun will come with only 4 rounds.  Ethan does have a handy rechargeable taser, but its primarily for stunning and does little damage.  Still, its great for thinning a crowd.  Most combat revolves around melee, and Ethan's quite resourceful, so he makes a point of arming himself with just about anything he can find: locker doors, old signs, sledgehammers, mannequin arms, metal pipes, fire axes, loose boards, paper cutter blades (a particular favorite of mine), electric conduits, if it can be pried off the wall and used to bash in someones skull, Ethan is willing to use it.



But then again, so will the hordes of enemies between him and the truth.  Enemies will break off a fight long enough to pry a board or rip off a street sign to beat down you or each other with.  The AIs actually not bad, with enemies taunting you, breaking off to run away when hurt, and hiding in corners or behind doorways while they wait for you to pass so they can ambush you.  In one particularly fun but scripted scene, a bum charges you from behind with a monkey wrench, and you only see him coming because you're looking at a bathroom mirror at the time.

To add to the combat, while there's no combo system, there is an execution system, which involves grabbing an opponent who has fallen to his knees and using whatever you have to smash in his face, snap his neck, or whatever else you happen to do.  It even zooms in on their faces so you have to look them in the eyes before you curb stomp them.  Its not a pleasant feeling.

Condemned is also very dark and dreary.  There really aren't very many clean locales you'll visit, instead hitting up subways and sewers, a dilapidated school, an old house out in the country, or even my particularly favorite level, an abandoned shopping mall that's been overrun by squatters which dress like mannequins so they can get the drop on you from store displays.  Its a terrifying feeling to walk into a display room and see one obviously bating you at the far end, because you can't be sure which mannequins in the room are real, and which ones are murderers pretending so they can lash out at you from behind.



There are also unlockables, based on messing with TV sets and collecting bird corpses and metal plates stuck to the wall and surrounded by charcoal drawings of eyes starring at you.  It adds replayability to the game, which is good as its not too terribly long.

I had a lot of fun with Condemned: Criminal Origins, and when I am asked about modern survival horror, its always a title I heartily recommend.  The controls are excellent, the combat felt quite good once I got the hang of it, and the environments were solidly put together and delightfully creepy.  But it is not easy to get through at times, with its convoluted and mishandled plot, unrealistic forensics, and its overemphasis of violence.  The game was actually so violent, it has since been banned in Germany, with all copies confiscated.  Seriously, its illegal to possess or sell it, similar to Manhunt 2 in New Zealand.  For the rest of us, its thankfully pretty cheap, generally going for less than $10 on eBay.



For those interested, here's a taste, the intro video from the level Bart's Department Store:




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Comments
 
This game sold me on the 'next generation' of gaming.  I had it reserved and even bought before the 360 released, and out of the entire launch lineup (almost all of which I played through) it was by far the most impressive, immersive, and worthwhile game on the system for quite some time.  The dark mood and overbearing gloom this game paints is almost unrivaled, even for it's own sequel.  If the movie Se7en ever spawned a gaming spinoff, this would have been it.

Looking back now, the glitches of 1st gen software are less forgivable, as there are clipping issues, game-stopping bugs, achievement problems, occasionally disappointing textures, and not much replay value.  But the dread and tension still sucks you in, the ending is unforgettable, and the presentation and attention to detail make it a game still worth picking up, especially if you missed it the first time.

Two important notes though, aside from the already mentioned ultraviolence: one, don't bother playing this game without an HD TV, as the black levels used to capture the oppressive mood means you'll be wandering in total blackness and missing vital visual cues.  On an SD TV, navigating some levels is like trying to find the black magic marker on black construction paper in a black forest at midnight.  Underwater.

The other important note is that if you get easily lost in an FPS, especially without any in-game map or compass, then play with someone who can help you from getting lost or even draw a map while you play.  The level design favors a somewhat more realistic approach to layout than easy gameplay concessions, and at least for me, it was sometimes harder to find my way around than the cavern level of Goldeneye on a black and white screen.

Thanks for mentioning this modern gem.
 
I also really liked this games. The end of the shopping mall level was freaky.
 
One of my favorites on the 360.  Look forward to your write-up on Condemned 2.  Nice work on the review.
 
This was certainly an interesting game, but I didn't get too much into it.  Must have had something to do with the whole "Bum Fight Club" thing going on at the time.  Hm.  I'll have to check this games place on my "Games to Buy" spreadsheet. 

As Ghost said, can't wait for a writeup on the sequel, which still remains one of my favorite, yet queasiest gaming experiences of this console cycle.
 
Great review!! I was a little wary of this game when I first heard about it, mostly because and I hate to admit this...SEGA was involved and lets be honest this generation everything sega puts its name on has huge promises with mostly hit or miss results.
I found this game at a good price and jumped on it. Ive played through it several times since and am still impressed!
 
This was one of my first horror gaming titles I experienced. After almost soiling myself during the department store phase of this title, I realized I enjoy the adrenaline associated with this genre.

Soon after conquering this game, I went back and played some earlier titles in my collection. Games like "silent hill", and "Resident Evil" were a good start, but the fear really starts to take a creative turn in titles like "Eternal darkness" and my wife's personal favorite "Phantasmagoria".

This, in my opinion, was a fantastic example of how to find a creative and efficient way to combine multiple genres in gaming.

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