thai_jedi's Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360) review

Scary but fun

You are just about asleep... and then you hear something. You think that maybe someone is in your house. Perhaps in your kitchen. Your heart pounds. Ever so slowly, you pull back your sheets, trying to make almost no noise, as your heightened sense of hearing continues to search for any sound that is out of place. You creep ever so slowly to your door. The floor creaks fainlty under your feet, and you catch your breath, hoping you have not alerted the intruder to your prescense. You reach for something, anything you can use as a weapon. You creep up the hallway. You look in the kitchen. Nothing. You creep around to the lounge room. Nothing. You are sure you heard something. You go back to bed. Perhaps an hour or more later, you finally get to sleep.

If you have ever experienced anything like the above, then you know what to expect from Condemned. Things start well enough. You are Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who tracks down serial killers. Before long, your weapon is taken from you by an assailant, and the FBI suspects you of murder committed with your weapon. While you are wanted by the FBI, another agent is willing to help you out in an attempt to find the real culprit, and clear your name. But something is going in the city. Violence is on the rise. As your trail of clues take you through mostly derelict buildings in various locations, psychotic hobos who look like they have lost their humanity will attack you without provocation.

Primarily, Condemned is a first person brawler. While firearms are in the game, they are rare, limited to the ammo in them when you pick them up, and liable to break if you use them as melee weapons. Most of your time will be spent with melee weapons, which you will find scattered about the environments, or can be picked up from enemies. This ranges from pieces of 2 x 4, lead pipes, and fire axes. Each weapon has different attributes, being speed, damage, reach and block. As such they all handle a little differently, so you will need to test them all and see which ones suit you. You also have a taser, which you can use to stun enemies from afar, and follow up with a free hit if you are close enough. This does take a while to recharge after each use, so you will need to use it wisely, and you will be unable to rely on it to deal with all of your foes.

The enemies, and combat in general, are brutal. If an enemy does not have a weapon when you encounter him, or you knock it from their hand, they will pick it up, or search the environment for another. If you can effectively block an incoming attack, it usually stuns the enemy for long enough to get a hit in. However, opponents can block too, and will likely counterattack when they do. If you aren't used to the weapon in your hand, you can quickly succumb when surprised by an enemy after a few mistimed blocks or attacks. The sickening thuds and rumble of the controller give every blow substantial weight. While the enemies start out as hobos, you will come across hefty firemen who have been driven crazy, huge disfigured men who have no business moving as fast as they do, and more. Sometimes more than one crazy will be out for your blood at a time, but in their wild swinging, they can sometimes hit each other, and will then fight each other. It's always best to use this to your advantage, as being attacked from multiple angles is likely to get you killed quick smart.

As most of the game takes place at night and in unhabited areas (crazies notwithstanding), the environments are very dark. Light sources may be littered about, though these are usually very faint. Ethan, however, does have his torch. Luckily there is no contrivance here of running out of batteries every 30 seconds, which is great, because you are going to need that torch. This really forces you to look around to find your exits, and clues. Due to the darkness, it is possible to become disoriented or miss exits, but this feels like more fuel to the paranoia than frustration. Ethan has something of a sixth sense, and when it seems apparent there is evidence nearby, you can put away your weapon and switch to your evidence collecting kit. While there are a few different items, such as a camera and a UV light, Ethan will always pull out the right tool for the job. This process is very simple, and the evidence is then sent to your helper, who analyses it and assists you in deciphering the clues. While searching for clues, you will always be on your toes, as enemies can still attack you during your search. The levels are mostly linear, and sometimes you will need a particular weapon to progress. For example, some doors are jammed and require a fire axe to chop through.

As a launch title, the graphics hold up well. While there are the occasional jagged edges or muddy textures, everything looks suitably creepy. Enemies are disfigured or otherwise lacking humanity, environments are suitably gritty and detailed, and the lighting effects are excellent. On some occasions, Ethan will have an in-engine flashback, where the graphics are filtered, such as colours drained, or made grainy, and these are effective at heightening the tension. The sound is really the star of the show. When someone brushes past a bucket or can, it makes the appropriate noise... whether by you or an enemy. The same goes for walking over broken glass or through littered paper. Given the darkness, when you hear these sounds, you will frantically be looking about to determine whether the sound was made by you, or whether it was up ahead of you. You will hear noises of people treading on floors above you, or a pane of glass shattering just outside of your vision. A wail by an unseen enemy will have you stop in your tracks, while you pray they are up ahead and have not blindsided you.

It's not enough to simply talk about mechanics in this game; what is really important is how you feel when playing. Everything combines smoothly to have you freaking out throughout the game. While there are many scripted events, they all serve to further your paranoia. Whether it be a shadow slinking out of sight as you round a corner, seeing large objects being moved in front of you by unseen enemies, or going back to a room to find its contents moved, you will always be wary that there is someone waiting for you just beyond your torchlight. There is no regenerating health; you will have to rely on the good old health kit method. This makes every hit you receive count, especially in areas where those health kits are spread far apart. What's going on with these flashbacks? Is Ethan being affected by whatever is turning everyone else violent? Is something supernatural going on? Or is he just losing his mind? What starts out as a seemingly simple investigation soon turns into something else.

It would be inadequate to call Condemned a first person action game. While there certainly is plenty of action, first person thriller or horror is probably a better description. If you don't like scary movies, you will probably not like this game. If you are looking for a thrill ride that is sure to elevate your heart rate, this might be just the ticket.

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