Spike’s Underrated Games of the XBox 360:Part 3
The Criteria: Condemned: Criminal Origins would be one of the better games released during the 360’s launch. However its unassuming marketing campaign and lack of media attention would make it something of a forgotten property. That the games inferior sequel would receive far more attention is indicative of how underappreciated Condemned is.
The Game: You pick a doubled barrelled shotgun up off of the floor and click open the barrel, two shells lodged in place, straight away you hear that all too familiar gibbering. You draw the gun up and level the sights at the frenzied mass of a man charging you down, the first shot just annoys him, the second puts him down. His body crumples at your feet as his friend forces you to use the depleted gun as a club. You lash out at your attacker until the gunstock splinters over his head, the shattered remains doused in blood and viscera. You stand above your fallen foe and without hesitation snap his neck before picking up the piece of piping he was wielding and bracing yourself for the next assault. Such is the nature of Condemned’s combat.
There is an uncommon brutality to the action in Condemned, the squalid locales and brutish combat helping to create a particularly unique tone. On a conceptual level Condemned is deceptively simple, the central thrust of the game being to guide your character around a city and beat up crazed attackers. What Condemned does is layer on the atmosphere from the off and in doing so it creates one a world that is lucid and palpable. From the Se7en inspired opening credits to your opening chatter with a beat cop Condemned is more concerned with setting and maintaining mood than anything else.
You are Ethan Thomas a man cursed with two first names and a sixth sense for solving murders. Rather than spend his time spoiling crime films, which I totally would do with those powers, Ethan is working for the FBI as a crime scene investigator. All is fine and dandy until a crime scene investigation goes awry and Ethan is suspected of shooting two police officers. You see Ethan has found himself a nemesis that makes up for his lack of psychic powers with sheer insanity. This killer is targeting other Serial killers, offing them in the way they murdered their victims, and is the person responsible for Ethan’s current predicament. So Ethan finds himself isolated from the FBI and wandering through the nastier sections of Metro city in a bid to prove his innocence. Unfortunately Metro City’s transient population have gone and got themselves crazified and are thus making a nuisance of themselves.
The nuts and bolts of the game are thus, you enter dingy environment, walk around dingy environment and beat down anything that gets in your path. At the end of dingy environment you will find a corpse to investigate dutifully you get out your CSI kit and get a clue to the next location in the game. What makes the game great is how alive and real everything feels, it is all due to sound effects really. The sound of laughing enemies in the distance, the creak of floorboards above, the distorted screeches of Ethan’s visions, the dull thud of a metal pipe bouncing off of a skull. They all conspire with the constant gloom to make a game that just gets under the skin.
Part of the visceral charm of the game is the lack of any video gaming signifiers. If you want to see how much ammo your gun has you have to check the magazine, your screen is largely free of clutter two bars in the top left corner being the only obvious distractions from the world. It is a brave choice and it closes the gap between players and the game, refusing to allow detachment from what is happening on screen. Again this is a major part of Condemned as it is a game which seeks to draw horror not only from the environment but from your own actions in game.
Guns are scarce in the game and the few times they do appear they are generally being wielded by a psychopath. Disarming them before they eviscerate you is a challenge in itself and every shot they get off is a shot you won’t be able to use when you finally obtain the gun. Seeing the gloom of an abandoned railway station pierced by the muzzle flare of a shotgun is a terror almost unique to Condemned and it sets up guns as being dually dangerous. When enemies use them they are a natural threat, but also wielding guns forces you to ditch the melee weapon you are currently using and once you’ve used up your clip you are effectively defenceless.
As such players find themselves gravitating towards the metal pipes, signs, fire axes and sledgehammers dotted around the levels. But without the detachment of firearms and the HUD the combat becomes almost horrifying in its brutality. There is a base primality to all of the action scenes in Condemned, combat is never cool or well orchestrated it is just plodding and vicious. The chunk of metal and bone and screams of pain and whimpers of mercy are legitimately disturbing and the fact you become almost inured is one of the cleverer elements in a game that is often a little lunk headed. The thematics of the finale are all about the lure and destructive power of violence, but before this is made overt the player is already becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the violence presented in the game.
There are several neat touches to the game, the aforementioned investigation sections are a novelty but they are used infrequently enough to never outstay their welcome. In fact they make a nice change of pace from the constant blunt force trauma. The game also does away with artificial locks, requiring players to find fire axes, shovels, crow bars and sledgehammers instead of keys. Whilst there are some logistical problems, apparently a sledgehammer that can pulverise a metal door can’t damage the fire axe only wooden doors, it gives yet more reality to the game. Despite the inherent dinginess the level design in the game is also fantastic, a welcome change from Monolith’s previous bland work on FEAR. Taking us from derelict buildings to train stations to deserted apartment stores to besieged libraries and finally the home of our nemesis the game never fails to create lucid, believable and thrilling levels.
Where the game falters is in its last sections where the plot takes a turn for the supernatural introducing elements which just don’t work in a story. The beginning of Condemned is far scarier than the end simply because of how little we know about the situation. People are going crazy for no reason, the city is slowly decaying around you, and birds are dropping dead from the sky for no reason. To have the plots be tied up with Dan Brown style mythic cults is a little neat and concise but it is not enough to dent the horrifying viscera of its opening chapters.
In fact the last section abandons the tone of the rest of the game, with combat becoming less and less fierce and pitting players in a final battle where ultra violence is prevalent. Certainly ripping the final bosses jaw out of his skull is in stark contrast to the rest of the game, especially in regards to how much the game suddenly revels in the destruction. The sequel would take this further, abandoning the grit of the first half of the game and instead focusing on over the top ultra violence and escalating insane plot twists.
This entry was posted on April 21, 2008 at 7:47 pm and is filed under Button Bashin', Review with tags Condemned. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.