Unique yet flawed
"Condemned: Criminal Origins" is a survival-horror game that was released as a launch title for the Xbox 360. Gamers will take control of federal investigator Ethan Thomas as he simultaneously investigates a new spree of serial killings in the fictional Metro City as well as a mysterious disease that can turn an average Joe into a homicidal psychotic (and even more distressingly, kills all of the birds in the city). Condemned is a very flawed game that is certainly showing its age, but the engrossing and chilling atmosphere that the game creates is more than enough to engage any gamer in the screwed up world of Ethan Thomas.
All of the game's 10 chapters play pretty much the same in terms of gameplay. The game will send you to a variety of dark and decrepit locations that no sane man would ever want to visit. During your stay you will have search the area for clues relevant to Ethan's investigation with the crime scene tools that Ethan carries around, while also dealing with the blood thirsty crazies that inhabit these places. The game will take you everywhere from the subway tunnels deep below Metro City to abandoned apple orchards on the outskirts. Occasionally you will come across traditional weapons such as rifles and pistols, but ammo is so scarce they are almost useless. Instead you will find yourself relying on pipes, sledgehammers, fire axes, conduits, and pretty much anything else you find laying around.
Unfortunately, the gameplay gets pretty repetitive after a while since you are doing the same things in virtually every level. Walk through hallway, kill enemies, rinse and repeat. The level design is also a bit convoluted and at times frustrating. The only thing saving the game from mediocrity is the atmosphere. The whole ambience of the levels, from the flickering lights to the ambient drones that make up the soundtrack, creates a feeling of dread that permeates the entire game. There are several moments in the game that literally made me jump in fright. It may not be the most fun game ever to play, but it sure knows how to scare the hell out of you. The horror element of the game really is what makes it interesting.
Graphically the game is starting to show its age. It almost feels like it was developed for the Playstation 2 or Xbox, and then updated at the last minute for the 360. Character models in particular are fairly awful and really date the game. However, since you will be spending most of the game crawling through extremely dark settings with only a flashlight for illumination, the poor graphics are really only noticeable during the game's cutscenes. Although it may sound awkward to play through levels with only the light of a flashlight to guide you, it never really hampers the gameplay and only serves to increase the high-tension atmosphere of the game. Though since the flashlight is on while your character is using two handed weapons, I get the feeling that the flashlight is really more of an eye beam (thinly veiled Deadly Premonition reference). Since the whole game is in first person, this unfortunately can't be confirmed.
The story of Condemned starts out really engaging, and by the end of the first chapter I was really excited to see how the journey would unfold. Despite this great opener, the game squanders a lot of storytelling opportunities, and just as things begin to get really interesting again, the game ends. There are a lot of unanswered questions by the end of the game that leave the player wanting for more, and some plot elements flat out don't make much sense. Throwaway lines by characters such as "Ethan, heard you're scared of the dark" could have morphed into awesome gameplay sequences, but are never revisited throughout the course of the game. The story is in no ways bad, but it certainly could have been much more fleshed out. I'm glad to see that there is a sequel to this game, because I would like to have some of these unanswered questions revisited.
"Condemned: Criminal Origins" is a flawed game in almost every sense. The gameplay can get repetitive, the level design can be needlessly frustrating, the graphics are poor, and the story answers nowhere near as much as it should. But laying underneath all of these problems is a gripping, frightening, and twisted journey that gives this game a really unique feel that can quite literally scare the living daylights out of you. If you're a fan of survival horror games, or you're just looking for a scary game to play on a rainy weekend, you could do much worse than Condemned.