An enjoyable and tense experience, but not without flaws
Condemned: Criminal Origins is horror, pure and simple. You play as an FBI agent called Ethan Thomas, and he's got problems, big problems. There is an intriguing story here, but it doesn't quite get enough attention to make it game's main selling point. The game is not quality throughout. The first level of the game is one of the scariest video game experiences I've ever had, with the expert use of lightning and enemy behavior that will make your heart thump out of your chest. However, the rest of the game didn't seem to live up to the amazing standard of the first level, which is odd indeed. The ninth level (out of ten) manages to capture that insane tension again, but everything inbetween just seems to fall somewhat flat, although the game manages to be enjoyable throughout.
The reason I felt the first level of the game was so damn good, was because of the setting. You find yourself at a murder scene in a building under construction, and light flashes that show ever so slight glimpses of enemy
And combat is the main focus of Condemned. Ethan is an FBI agent, but the game is not focused on firearms at all. You come across some shotguns, sub-machine guns and handguns, but they don't feel comfortable to use at all, and will run out of ammo quickly, leaving you only a very weak butt of a rifle to knock your opponents on the head with.
Rather than firearms, the combat is about finding hard objects and them smashing them as hard into crazy people's skulls as humanly possible. You can find all manner of tools for slaughter, including a paper cutter (my personal favorite weapon), a steel pipe and a desktop. While this sounds awesome in concept, and sometimes is, the combat engine is nothing to write home about. You have an attack button, a block button that actually requires pretty accurate timing and a button to kick enemies. When you've downed enemies, you can finish them off by snapping their necks or doing other unpleasant things. Combat becomes really easy when you start to effectively use the taser. You stun enemies and then you finish them off. That's all there is to it. The combat is pretty unchallenging because of this for the most part, although the final level in the game takes away your taser, which makes the combat quite difficult. While combat can be satisfying, it grows somewhat stale towards the end of the game. There is only so much enjoyment and mileage you can get out of hitting a drunk and insane homeless guy with a sledgehammer. There are plenty of healthpacks around too, which further adds to the game's unchallenging nature.
The other side of the gameplay is exploring the extremely atmospheric crime scenes. As an agent of the Federal Bureau charged with homocide cases, you must frequently use hightech gear to send samples of evidence to a lab to uncover clues that should lead you to the serial killers you hunt. These sequences are actually pretty good, although finding evidence is extremely easy at some times, but very, very difficult at others. Once you've located the glowing evidence, you must capture it on film or with a DNA extractor. You will get arrows that actually point out where to aim your device to make this experience painless and quick, which is definitely good. The lab works unbelievably quickly in this game, although that's obviously for the gameplay's sake. They definitely hit the mark with these crime scene investigations sequences.
Condemned is a 360 launch title (and it shows a bit in the achievements), but it still looks pretty good, and the game boasts excellent sound. The game's production values are quite high, which is essential in games like these. The story starts out pretty interesting, but rapidly takes a turn for the supernatural, and there it becomes a bit weaker. Still, the game has some very interesting moments. It really does rely on some very cheap scares in most levels, which is too bad, because it could have been a real quality game if it hadn't.
Overall, Condemned is a game that has some pretty entertaining and fun elements, but it doesn't quite seem to come together. The game is very short, but there definitely is enjoyment to be found here, and as such I highly recommend it as a rental.