We have all had that dream where some maniac is chasing you through dark hallways you’re not familiar with and attempting to hurt you – badly. You hear him, all around you, to your left, your right, somehow even above and below you. Your heart races. Suddenly, he lunges at you. In a cold sweat, you shoot up in your bed, before anything bad can happen.
So what happens after? If you play Sega’s Condemned: Criminal Origins for the Xbox 360, you bash said maniac in the face with the closest blunt object you can find until he learns his lesson. In Condemned, you are Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent pursuing a serial killer known only as “The Match Maker.” Your search leads you to an old dingy abandoned warehouse, where two of your partners have been viciously murdered, and somehow all of the evidence points straight to you. In true Hollywood fashion, it is up to you to find the real killer and clear your name.
At first glance, Condemned looks like any other First Person Shooter, but to merely lump it in with every other corridor crawler would be like lumping The Godfather in with every other mob movie. Sure, those same formulaic elements are there, but so much more is going on in Condemned, that it is hard to classify the game in any certain way. There are guns available in Condemned, but they are so rare that when you do get your bloody hands on one, you almost get an invincible feeling. You’ll find your best, and most fun, means of self-defense are weapons you find laying around. Metal pipes, 2×4’s with nails and wrenches are just some of the items at your disposal. Each weapon has its own speed, block, damage and reach ratings that add a strategy element to the game. Big weapons like fire axes and metal pipes may have an excellent damage rating, but due to their size and weight take forever to swing, giving those maniacs an open shot at your face. Specialty weapons like fire pokers, and paper cutter blades add variety to your selection, but they only appear when they are required to complete an objective or advance to another area, for instance when you face an old, boarded up door, you can always count on some maniac with a fire axe jumping at you around the next corner.
The melee combat system in Condemned has more depth than it lets on. Your enemies will come fast, and can pick up the same weapons as you. A well-timed block or a shot from your trusty taser can send your assailants reeling, upon which you steal their weapon and drop them to their knees. From here, an option appears on screen, allowing you to give the junkies a violent sendoff. By pressing the d-pad in any direction you can choose to snap their neck, pound their heads to the pavement, deliver a haymaker like punch or deliver a commanding head-butt. While this is being done, you see your character’s arms outstretch and grab the other character. This is just the start of what the team at Sega did to make sure the player believes that they are Ethan Thomas. One cool aspect is that at times you are hit so hard that you fall down stairs or an elevator shaft, while most games would cut to a movie sequence in this case; Condemned keeps you in the story by staying with the first person view as you tumble.
This is what Condemned excels at; creating that creepy atmosphere that makes any good scary story great. Floorboards creek, pipes drip and shadows dance across the floor as you try to make your way through the old abandoned buildings. While you will find that enemies are around most every corner, Condemned rarely takes the easy way out that so many similar games have by having them standing waiting for you in the middle of the room as soon as you open a door. Instead, it is almost as if you entering the room alerts your enemies, causing them to come after you. In fact, in most cases, you can hear your enemies before you can see them in the darkened room. If you have a surround sound system, make sure it is on, as it truly ads to the eerie experience.
With all Condemned has working for it, its a shame how linear the game is. The buildings are so large that you will find yourself backtracking and spinning in circles to find the one way out. In cut scenes, Agent Thomas uses Windows, and tunnels to navigate, why can’t we in the actual game? It’s a little less frightening knowing that you have a set path to walk through when you’re being chased by maniacs. To add to the disappointment, most levels look very similar to one another. Sure, you’re in a train station, but you can bet before long you’ll be in an old abandoned office located within the train station that oddly looks like the same dilapidated building you were just going through. There are some interesting levels (Two words- meat locker), but it’s just a shame that a game with so much unforgettable atmosphere takes place in such lackluster settings.
To give players a break from head bashing, the developers have included a forensic science aspect to the game. In dark corners of certain rooms, you’ll receive either a cell phone call or merely an on screen notification letting you know that evidence might be near. The right tool for the job, such as a DNA collector or digital camera are automatically selected for you and most investigations are done by lining up a group of arrows in a box that appears on screen. At first, this feature is intriguing, but as the game progresses, it merely serves to slow down the story. It would be more fun if you were free to search for clues on your own, and when you find them, they changed the game play.
Condemned has no multiplayer, so once you’ve finished the 10 levels of the story, you’ve pretty much done it all. There are achievements to unlock, and a slightly interesting side quest that involves collecting dead bird’s, but you’ll find that the reward for completing these quests isn’t worth going through the game again if you didn’t get them all the first time through.
Condemned: Criminal Origins accomplishes what it sets out to do, create a dark, gritty world where you never feel safe. Though it has no multiplayer, the single player story is engaging enough to sit through even if extremely straightforward and linear. Its film noir like atmosphere creates moments of tension that will make you squirm in your seat uncomfortably. Condemned is a horror junkie’s dream, and one of the Xbox 360’s best launch titles.