The Xbox 360 has its fair share of racers, shooters and sports games, but the survival horror/psychological thriller genre gives gamers but one choice this holiday season: the Monolith-developed Condemned: Criminal Origins. Like F.E.A.R. (review), which Monolith also developed, Condemned is driven in large part by the main character’s bizarre illusions, but unlike the first-person shooter, Condemned has only a handful of guns, focusing instead on melee combat.
The use of melee combat increases the fear factor (no pun intended) tenfold, if for no other reason than gamers get to see their contorted enemies up close. It also means, though, that lightning-fast reflexes are necessary to fend off the in-your-face enemies, which makes even the smallest environmental sound both scary and exhilarating at the same time. The result is a psychological thriller that, even though it’s uncontested this season on Microsoft’s next-gen console, provides eight to 10 hours of sheer sadistic pleasure.
Fans of fast-paced first-person shooters might cringe at first at the melee weapons slow movement and damage potential, but give them a chance and you’ll see their use and selection can be just as strategic as picking out the right combination of machine gun and laser rifle. Each weapon has different attributes for speed, damage, blocking ability and reach. And since you can pull off pieces of the environment, from gas pipes to rebar to a flaming two-by-four, you’ll definitely need to pay attention to the attributes of each. A fire axe, for example, may do some serious damage, but if you’re entering a basement where you might be surrounded by fast, crawling enemies, you might just want to consider ditching the lumbering axe for the less-powerful but faster “stick” (fancy rebar). The blocking attributes also come in handy, because in the last few of the game’s ten levels, blocking is absolutely necessary for survival.
The variety of weapons isn’t strictly about combat, though. In almost every linear level, specific weapons are required to unlock a certain part, be it a bonus area with new weapons or health or the next stage of that environment. This makes Condemned feel as though it’s stooping to some classic “find the key” stunts, albeit in a “find this weapon” mold. But while that’s exactly what Monolith did, the sheer immersion of Condemned, if you can actually let yourself really get into the game and environments, will actually make you get scared when you see that the fire axe you need to reach the next stage isn’t in its case…which means an enemy has it and is ready to use it against you.
Every weapon in Condemned, if you’re not using it, is subject to be picked up by the intelligent enemies and used against you. And since ammunition for the game’s few guns is extremely limited, you may find yourself cringing every time an enemy fires a shot, because that means there’s one less bullet for you to use. Aside from picking up weapons, the artificial intelligence in Condemned is pretty good, with enemies hiding if your weapon is better than theirs or finding an alternate route in a building to flank you rather than coming at you head-on. There are a few flaws, though, particularly enemies who find that running in circles around an alternate path is more fun than taking you out. Maybe someone at Monolith likes playing tag…
Don’t start to think these are high-speed pursuits, though. The main character in Condemned moves incredibly slowly, which makes the levels seem even longer than they already are. The environments in Condemned occasionally feel artificially extended, as you traverse the level a few times, but at least each level is diverse in design and structure. Ironically, such artificial extending is admissible in certain fast-paced games, but Condemned is already a slow title, which makes these levels seem to drag. I actually played through one level in tandem with another game just to keep my interest. Most of the levels are fine, but a couple of them are surprisingly extended.
Regardless of the level, the combat can be deep, with gamers needing to learn how to effectively block and time their swings. It can also be rather basic, though, as the early stages of the game require little more than moving back to let the enemy miss his swing, pressing the attack button and then running back in to see that your attack hits its target. In many respects, this makes the early stages seem more like they should be called Condemned: The Rhythm Method.
Gradually the depth increases, but not really until the last level, when blocking is an absolute must. The only major exception to the slow combat, in fact, is one level that involves a mine-cart scenario in which the gameplay deviates to an on-rails shooter with a melee weapon. This level couldn’t have been better timed. And, somehow, the minutes leading up to this mine-cart sequence are paced so well and are so immersive that the on-rails portion is even more frantic than half of the moments in the rest of Condemned.
Yet the entirety of the game taps into something that nobody ever wants to admit lives within them. Because of this game’s amazing graphics, you’ll see bums, drug addicts and all manner of evil creature in gruesome detail, but the scenarios you play through will actually make you feel, deep down inside, just as demonic and guttural as the characters you’re trying to kill. There’s a certain sense of id that Condemned brings out, and it does so in a way that’s almost as scary as the game itself. One minute you’re jumping all over the sofa, scared at the sound of your own footsteps and frantically swinging the in-game flashlight. The next minute you’re curling your lip, beating a drug addict with a paper cutter over and over and over and over again…even though the first blow knocked him cold. And you like doing it. Don’t begin to tell me that’s not scary.
What that says about the game’s replayability is up to individual gamers, as it depends on how much each person wants to play the role of “good cop bad cop.” Monolith did include some features to encourage people to play again, including achievements for beating the game using only firearms or only melee weapons, and achievements for finding every dead crow or shard of metal in the game’s dark environments. Poke around each level looking for these things, and you’ll probably end up getting more scared than normal because you’ll be looking at the ground instead of keeping an eye out for enemies. You’ll also find the levels to be even longer, though, which has its drawbacks at times.
It’s obvious that Monolith is in a dark and dreary mood. First they make F.E.A.R., now they team up with Sega for Condemned. Both games are psychological thrillers, both involve hallucinations and both are so dark in places that you won’t see where you’re going. But for a pure fright and pants-wetting experience, Condemned takes the cake. Condemned provided the scariest eight hours I’ve experienced in 2005, and they’re among the scariest and most visceral moments I’ve ever had as a gamer. If you’re looking for something different this holiday season, Condemned has “different” written all over it.
- Gameplay: 8.5
- Simple combat in the beginning, but its depth increases. Levels are well designed but occasionally drag.
- Graphics: 8.7
- Great environmental detail, lighting, textures and character models, but the animations are repetitive within each “class” of enemy.
- Sound: 9.5
- You will jump, cuss and pee yourself because of this game’s immersive audio.
- Replay: 7.8
- It’s got bonus items and unlockable achievements, but how much do you want to venture into that scary place in your soul?
- Overall: 8.5
- It’s scary, different and great at what it does, with only a few missteps and a story that needs some more fleshing out. Bring on the sequel!