IGN Review of Condemned: Criminal Origins
When you were in elementary school, didn't you at least once fantasize about what hitting someone with that gigantic razor on the paper cutter would do? Of course you did. Well, thanks to Monolith Productions Condemned: Criminal Origins, you can actually live out that fantasy as well as do the world a favor by brutally ridding it of drug addicts and their pesky homeless cohorts. This game is dark, it looks great, the sound is insane, it's got an engaging melee combat system, and it's one of the scariest games I've ever played. Even though the game's level progression and puzzles are extremely linear, you'll have a hard time being disappointed by this one. That is, unless you've got a severe aversion to ramming your head into the pulpy face of a grotesque sledgehammer-wielding sewer-dweller.
You play as Agent Ethan Thomas, an F.B.I. agent assigned to the Serial Crimes Unit. As such, you spend your time tracking down serial killers. Though you've had much success in the past, your most recent cases have all gone cold. The game opens as you investigate a grisly murder scene set up by a killer known as the Match Maker. Soon after you arrive, strange things begin to happen around you, and you'll suddenly find yourself framed for the murder of two police officers. Your only option is to track down the real killer and clear your name.
It's a pretty standard set up, but circumstances quickly get much stranger and more sinister than they'd initially seemed. Throughout your quest you'll be in regular contact with Rosa, an agent with the bureau that still trusts you and processes the forensic data you collect and send back to her. You'll also get calls from a few other characters, in addition to being prone to the occasional lapse in sanity and frequent premonitions. As you continue on your increasingly surreal quest across 10 levels to bring down a serial killer and undo the source of evil that's sending those around you into murderous frenzies, you'll gain access to some crude and vicious weaponry and probably scream out loud a few times and be totally creeped out plenty of others.
Though there are a few guns scattered around Condemned's dilapidated levels like sawed-offs, pistols, and eventually SMGs and rifles, the main focus of the action is on melee combat. The system is responsive and makes for some brutally wonderful fights. Combining your kick, taser, and weapon effectively is entertaining as hell and portrays the feeling of fighting for your life very well. More games should have melee combat so weighty!
While many melee titles tend not to translate as well over to the PC and feel better with a gamepad, the mouse and keyboard work fine here. It can be difficult to execute different types of melee attacks (overhand blows or upper cuts), though it doesn't seem to matter much aside from the fun of variety.
Each weapon has a speed, block, damage, and reach rating, which makes choosing the right weapon for you pretty fun. Pipes and pieces of wood are always lying around, and there are also some weapons unique to certain levels, like fire pokers, locker doors, meat cleavers, and my personal favorite, the paper cutter blade. Some of the heavier weapons like the sledgehammer and fire axe take a long time to swing around and don't respond immediately when you go to block so it's often important to find other weapons on the fly. The variety of weapons is great fun, though, especially since when you tear a valve or conduit off the wall it actually affects the environment by bending pipes, blowing steam, and shorting out power.
The way weapons are acquired and used contributes to this game's strongest asset: atmosphere. Condemned is a game that when you play, you fear for your actual life. Well, maybe not, but you will fear for the cleanliness of your shorts. Much of what pulls you into the game world so effectively is the first person perspective. When you swing a weapon, you'll see a slight motion blur trail behind it. When you're hit by an enemy, your vision will distort and blood will splatter across the screen. Sometimes you're hit from off-screen and the game will stay in a first-person perspective as you tumble down an escalator or plummet through a shoddy floor, really giving you the sense that you are Agent Thomas.
Finishing moves are the most shocking example of the first person perspective being implemented effectively. When you beat an enemy close to death, they will occasionally drop to their knees and wobble dazedly. If you approach them, a list showing off the numbers on your keyboard pops up allowing you to choose which method of disposal you'd like to use. You can snap their necks, pound their heads into the floor, deal a wicked punch, or deliver a thunderous headbutt. Though this element doesn't really factor into gameplay (it's actually easier to simply smack them again with your weapon), it's a terrifically immersive tool. It's good enough that it has caused us to wince and turn away. It's really a horrific, excessive effect, and it's great.
You may have heard of the forensic investigation elements of the game, but they don't really count as gameplay, they're more like interactive story sequences. This was disappointing, since being able to use your forensic tools at any time to pick up clues and solve crimes on your own seems like a great idea, especially when mixed with the visceral combat elements already present.
Unfortunately, you're always told when to pull out your forensic tools and it's predetermined which tool you're going to use. It's still cool in some of the sequences to uncover evidence that leads to the confirmation of certain facts, but it would have been way better if you were free to search around on your own accord instead of having to follow someone else's rules.
The excellent sound factors in to a huge degree as well. Through each level in the game you'll usually be able to hear your enemies before you actually engage them. The click of a piece of metal they knocked over, the clunk of a barrel, the crunching of debris they tripped on, a hoarse grunt or a curse word, it all builds tension. The effect of this sound, especially on a 5.1 surround setup, is very powerful. The sounds of the weapon impacts are downright sickening. You'll be especially disgusted with the popping of necks and the wet crack of your forehead against your downed opponents when you pull off a finishing move. It may be gross, but it goes a long way towards hooking you into the game world, and is another reason why this game is so much fun to play.
Given how dark the game is, the importance of paying attention to sound is intensified even more. The flashlight (which thankfully never runs out of batteries), only lights up small sections of passages in front of you. In the darker areas of the game, you'll be using the sound as much as you will your cone of light to locate enemy positions. Since you'll need to use your sight and your hearing to survive in Condemned, you're going to be paying much closer attention, and therefore be absorbed into the gameplay to that much of a greater degree.
Throughout the game you'll also find that music will play over the occasional sequences. It's an awesome melange of moaning strings with metallic sounding drums and will frequently cause your spine to rattle with nervous tension. In one level that takes place in a department store, you'll be treated to the creepiest rendition of Deck the Halls you've ever heard. Combined with the tooth shattering ambient clinks and clanks, the hushed pants of awaiting enemies, footsteps in the darkness, and the realistic grunts and yelps of pain of the battles, Condemned's sound is its most frightening aspect.
The voice-acting is the only weakness in sound. Characters are just on the border of either being good or being cheesy, which is too bad given how great the grunts and yelps of battle are. As a side note, I had a hard time trying to figure out why Agent Thomas was willing to have loud cell phone conversations in such close proximity to people that were looking to break his body into pieces.
Condemned is a very linear game. Though there are twisting hallways and you'll frequently get disoriented because of the dark and your lack of a map, there's always one way in, one way out, and one way to get through. Though the levels are filled with an impressive amount of detail and feature excellent textures, many of the early levels look and feel exactly the same. If you've played Monolith's F.E.A.R. then many of the textures will be even more familiar to you as many have been shared between the games. It's not until you get to the shopping mall that the settings begin to differentiate. Even then, many areas of the mall and levels afterward look very similar in spots, though there are distinct sections among the levels. After playing, you'll have a hard time forgetting areas like the swimming pool, meat locker, and microfiche vaults. Through the entire game you'll always be limited to corridors and closed spaces. There's no wandering around expansive environments in Condemned, it's just a progression of self-contained levels.
The graphics in general can be described as filthy, cluttered, grimy and jarringly revolting in a gorgeous sort of way. It's a good looking game and actually looks better on the PC than it did on the 360 thanks to some higher resolutions. Though as with F.E.A.R., you'll need a great machine to take advantage of all of the detail and effects the game has to offer. What's strange and a bit disappointing is that the game only supports widescreen format meaning any 4:3 resolution is going to be in letterbox unless you know how to fiddle with your monitor to change that around. In 1600x1200 you'll see the menu system in the right resolution but once in the game you'll have a great view of black strips on top and bottom of your gameplay. While we can appreciate the cinematic aspect of the widescreen, a large number of PC gamers don't have widescreen monitors and we would have appreciated being able to fill up the screen.
That said, the environments are gritty and packed with content, the smoke and fire effects are very impressive, and the lighting is disturbingly accurate. If you slap around a light fixture it will sway realistically, sending its light careening around the room which is particularly frightening if you're being charged by a maniac with a crowbar.
Aside from excellent texture work and level of detail, the enemy animations are really what stand out visually. Addicts and some of the creepier beings you meet later on move with a disturbing fluidity that will have you slamming feverishly on the right trigger to bash them in their faces. If you knock an enemy's weapon out of their hands, they'll frantically look around as if they were genuinely panicked and acutely concerned that they'd no longer be able to kill you as brutally as they wanted to. At other times, enemies will spit blood out of their mouths when you've hit them in the face. If it wasn't already obvious, your enemies in Condemned want you to die very, very badly, which is another reason the game is so frightening. They charge at you with a shocking amount of ferocity reflected by the way they eagerly swing their weapons. Some of the later enemies approach you by crawling across the floor like some sort of jittery lizards, so you'll definitely want to use the bathroom before loading this title up.
There are also special graphical effects that accompany your breaks in sanity. When you're about to have a psychotic episode or premonition, the screen will be blanketed in a grain filter. You'll soon after suffer from hallucinations and see shadows and strange shapes of characters flitting just beyond the periphery of your vision, much like in F.E.A.R.. You'll need to stay alert in these sequences since in some of them you're attacked by grotesque foes that can deal actual damage to you.
Not only do enemies move in a highly realistic fashion, they also behave somewhat intelligently. They'll run away from you at times and hide behind walls, then pop out and bust you up as soon as you approach. Occasionally they'll even completely run away from you so you won't know where they are, then pop out at the most unexpected times. Enemies are also capable of attacking each other, and you can actually use this to your advantage. By the last level, it becomes almost necessary to get enemies to hit each other in order to survive.
After you're done with the 10 levels, you'll have put around ten hours into the game. It's a short experience and one that some may feel doesn't provide enough bang for their buck. Those of us that have played it at IGN have all enjoyed it to varying degrees but all of us wish there was just a tad bit more gameplay and variety of gameplay. While beating the crap out of people with different blunt and bladed instruments is some good wholesome fun, some more different events and gameplay would have been welcome. While not every game can be Half-Life 2 there's something to be said about an assortment of gameplay styles.
The only extra content you'll find is in the form of Achievements left over from the Xbox 360 version of the game. Unlocking achievements by finding dead birds, pieces of metal, special TVs (minus the Xbox 360 models) and beating levels means you'll be able to view pieces of special content via the achievement submenu. These are basically production bits including early animations and concept work. While it seemed pretty strange for these to be left in originally, it's actually nice to be awarded for your work through a game. It may not put any achievement points for all PC gamers to see, but it does add something to the experience.
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