A squatter’s paradise.
Developers wondering how to make their games more emotional need look no further than the survival-horror genre. Gamers are used to control and power, so if you want to shake us up, give us a rusty screwdriver and foes with God-like powers, then make us flee for our virtual lives. Our fight instinct is strong, but our flight instinct is stronger. We are, after all, connoisseurs of escapist fantasy.
While Capcom may have been the first to really capitalize on this cellar door to the gamer psyche, the developers at Monolith just snatched the key with the gory and insane Condemned: Criminal Origins. A rancid and depraved survival horror masterpiece, Condemned blends creepy atmospheric effects, claustrophobic and agoraphobic environments, vicious melee combat and a first-person perspective for the most disquieting and paranoid body of work we’ve ever autopsied.
Still, for all its macabre glory, this exquisite corpse isn’t without some gas. The only mode is beatable in about eight hours, the gameplay is absurdly limited and a couple of the areas are conspicuously linear. Some more time at the mortician’s would have gone a long way towards making this a more appealing and longer lasting demise.
The story puts you in the gumshoes of a detective charged with rounding up society’s vilest criminals: serial killers. You seem almost unnaturally good at your job until the villains you stalk start turning up brutally murdered, and two cops are killed with your gun. Now a wanted man, you must find and stop Serial Killer X and clear your name while investigating a sort of zombie plague that’s turning the city’s denizens into insane, murderous ghouls.
The plot eventually gets a little outlandish, but never makes the mistake of explaining its phantasmagoria. You know something sinister is going on and you come face to face with its agents, but for all the revelations and plot twists, you’re left in the dark up until the end, when the game hints at a sequel.
The story is related through your discussions with a lab-tech who analyzes data you retrieve at the scenes of various heinous murders. At first, these sequences are boring, especially when juxtaposed with the tense action and spooky anticipation of the action. But slowly, the game wraps you up, clue by clue, in an interesting mystery. And like any good yarn, this one is worth experiencing twice so you can apply the knowledge you’ve gained at the end to the clues and details you encounter at the beginning.
It should be noted, though, that the actual process of gathering clues is not so much a gameplay process as much a means of relating the plot or heightening the considerable tension. You have several forensic tools at your disposal, but are only allowed to use them when the game tells you to, and then it’s usually just a matter of pushing a button and focusing a lens.
The catch is that you’re usually focusing on something really, really unnerving, like a pair of severed lips resting on a chalkboard or the scarred face of a mannequin sitting in a grotesque tableau with a slain girl. The tools are put to their best and most fiendish use when the game has you use them to follow an otherwise invisible trail ‘ usually blood, but sometimes worse. In these instances you put your weapons away and follow the portentous path, ears straining to detect lurking maniacs or whatever creature created the trail.
This terrible sense of impending doom is what Condemned does best. The developers start with a scary environment, like a run-down boarding school, then cover it with trash, entrails, and dead birds (which you collect for bonuses). They turn the lights low, forcing you to turn on your flashlight (tunnel vision is a terrible thing when you’re paranoid), throw in dissonant but low background music, sprinkle the aural landscape with random crashes, footsteps and whispers, add tons of well-scripted and freakout worthy events, a Romero movie’s worth of cursing, dangerous lunatics and then they give you’a two-by-four with nails in it.
Instead of the plasma rifles, grenade launchers and chain guns that keep you feeling safe when zombies attack, Condemned litters its environments with pipes, rebar, electrical conduits, sledgehammers, crowbars, paper-cutter blades, locker doors, and several other gruesome but not at all reassuring instruments of violence. There are guns, but they’re almost as rare as bullets.
Your movement options are extremely simple: you walk with the L-stick, look with the R-stick and sprint with L3 if you have stamina. All other movement is contextually governed by the A button. Optimistically, this is a very streamlined approach; realistically, it’s ridiculous. Your progress through levels is routinely stopped by such imposing obstacles as turn-styles, low railings, and even a single chain cordoning off an area as ‘Out of bounds.’ The environments are some of Condemned‘s greatest assets, but navigating them can be pretty irritating, especially when such wimpy obstacles obviously try to corral you through linear gauntlets.
Aside from walking and looking, you can kick, shock foes with your taser, strike with whatever weapon you’re holding, and parry. This may seem like a simple approach to melee combat, but it’s surprisingly satisfying. Normal enemies are easily dispatched by quick doses of taser, followed by a sharp crack to the skull with whatever weapon you’re carrying. Tough enemies, on the other hand, will brawl with you. As you parry each others’ blows, throw in the odd taser zap and get suckered into ill-timed blocks, you get the sensation of being in a really violent, ugly tennis match. Service!
While the melee combat is fun and the weapons are different enough to keep things interesting, it’s not a deep system. You’ll hardly notice, though, due to the unbelievably good enemy A.I. These guys keep up their half of any given fight with aplomb and teeth, biting you if disarmed, spitting out molars if smacked, and fleeing if they don’t like the look of your axe. This leads to terrifying games of cat-and-mouse, as your enemies will flee and hide around corners, hoping to ambush you instead of running into your hammer head-on. These guys are smart.
Apparently, they’re even smarter than you, since you can’t figure out how to hold more than one weapon at a time. If you’re carrying a pistol, for example, and need to pry open a door with a crowbar, you have to drop your pistol, pick up the bar and proceed. You’re a detective, right? Shouldn’t you at least have a holster? Or a pocket? You can’t even take bullets out of one gun and put them in another.
We assume the developer wanted to force you to put down guns as much as possible, and that pisses us off, because the developer is Monolith and they do guns really, really well. Just not in this game. With any given gun you can shoot, check your ammo, or switch to melee mode. You can’t aim down the sights, crouch, lean or melee attack while in shooting mode. You also can’t score headshots ‘ enemies always seem to take bullets in the chest, even if you’re pointing the gun at their eyeball. Hopefully they’ll flesh out the gunplay and the melee combat for the sequel.
But please keep the overall production values exactly the same. Condemned has some of the best graphics we’ve ever seen on any system, plus great art direction. The lighting is spooky, the characters look photorealistic, the framerate never dips, the enemy animations are menacing, the textures seem tactile, and the whole thing is underscored by great, foreboding music and the most terrifying sound effects ever heard. This game is absolutely immersive and unfailingly freaky.
Tons of unlockable art, opened by collecting bird carcasses, and an online leaderboard (Go Zombiebot!) round out this blood-soaked package for a great Xbox 360 start from Sega and Monolith. Some shallow gameplay mechanics and weird environmental limits keep this corpse from the most elite graveyards, but that shouldn’t scare you away from grabbing this awesome, and awful, thriller. It’s one of the few Xbox 360 launch titles we have no trouble recommending, blood, guts and all.