Condemned: Criminal Origins Review

Steve Klinger

Condemned: Criminal Origins marks a return to more serious and dark subject matter for developer Monolith Productions after the much more light-hearted No One Lives Forever and 'NOLF2' games for PC. Monolith, a predominantly PC-only developer, has built a name for themselves as a solid house for original and creative first-person shooter games, and while not a shooter in the strictest sense, Condemned continues that trend as the sleeper hit of the Xbox 360 launch that is one part CSI, one part FPS, and about a billion parts creepy.

A face only a mother could love...

You play as FBI Agent Ethan Thomas, assigned to an investigative unit focusing on increasingly frequent serial murders in the area. You start the game at the latest crime scene of a serial murderer dubbed the 'Match Maker', named so for the way he poses his victims with eerily disfigured mannequins. During the course of the investigation, it becomes clear that someone other than just the cops is still at the crime scene. You and the other officers pursue the suspect and Ethan soon becomes separated from the rest of the group and is ambushed. While escaping without a mark on him, Ethan is striped of his gun by the psycho and during a second interlude between Ethan and the mystery man, two officers, including Ethan's friend and partner, are left dead with Ethan the prime suspect as the steaming lead in the two cops came from his gun. Now on the run and on the wrong side of the law, labeled as a cop killer, Ethan sets to clear his name with the help of chief lab technician Lt. Rosa who is there to analyze what he finds in hopes figuring out who framed him and why. By the end of the game you will have tracked the mystery man through the sites of his criminal origins and in the process stumbled across something bigger.

Condemned is played from the first-person perspective and while there are guns in the game, it can't truly be described as a first-person shooter, as much of the mood and general sense of fear in the game is based on the Ethan's lack of overwhelming firepower at any point in the game. Instead, Condemned takes things in the complete opposite direction and is more stingy with guns and ammo than Ebenezer Scrooge pre-ethereal intervention. It fact, it makes the Resident Evil series seem almost overly generous with ammo, and anyone that has played the first Resident Evil knows that is saying something. Instead, you'll rely mostly on melee weapons found throughout the various environments. Got some crazy people coming at you in a dilapidated department store? Rip that mannequin arm off and start swinging! While some might find constantly swinging bats, boards, pipes and locker doors monotonous, the game does a good job of keeping it interesting. For one, you are not invincible nor for that matter, are your weapons. Far from it. To make up for it, the game offers a blocking system that is surprisingly difficult to master.

He shouldn't have been standing there!

When blocking in Condemned, timing is everything as blocks are not instantaneous. Rather, after you hit the block button, there is a good 1-2 seconds before you actually do block. Block too early or too late and you could end up with an axe in your face. To make things more interesting, any and all melee weapons, including a gun sans ammo, will break meaning you will constantly find yourself searching for new weapons. Each weapon is rated by four different categories including speed, damage, block, and reach, and each weapon has it's pros and cons. A hulking sledgehammer will pretty much quell any foe in one hit, but takes twice as long to wind-up as the decidedly less lethal re-bar. The game also arms you with a stun-gun that hits foes with a satisfying zap and a effective, if poorly animated, kick. There is even an oddly realistic version of a 'finishing move' in Condemned. Bring an enemy to their knees and and you'll be presented with 4 options of how to put them out of their misery ranging from an cracking head-butt to a neck snapping maneuver that will send shivers down your spine. For a game that focuses so much on melee attacks, there really isn't much depth to the fighting in Condemned but what little there is, is surprisingly satisfying.

But Condemned isn't just about hand-to-hand combat with the unwashed masses. It also has a brain to go with all that brawn. As you search the dark and dreary locales of Condemned, you'll come across crime scenes and other areas of general interest where you'll need to gather forensic evidence to further the story. The game handles this well by giving you a visual cue that there is something of interest nearby without beating you over the head about it. Which device you'll use is context sensitive, but you'll automatically whip out the correct device for the occasion. While it does tend to streamline the experience for the game to pick the right device for the occasion for you, it does tend to take some of the fun out of the experience. Rather than the game holding your hand and picking the correct device for you, it would have been nice if you could use your choice of device, and based on which device you select, different information is revealed. The idea of picking which forensics device to use and giving you more choices of what evidence to gather and more freedom in how you do it would have made the forensics aspect of the game a lot more interesting.

A Bumfights game seemed like a no-brainer

For a Xbox 360 launch title, Condemned looks good. Well, let me rephrase that. It looks dirty, gritty and downright filthy at times, but it's some of the most beautiful filth ever rendered by a GPU. While it's lacking some of the now-obligatory next-gen visual effects like high-dynamic range lighting and oodles of particle effects, it certainly is no slouch in the graphics department. The game uses the Jupiter EX engine co-designed by Monolith/LithTech and Microsoft and is the same engine used by another 'thriller-shooter', F.E.A.R., also from Monolith Productions. The textures of the environment are crisp and detailed and the lighting (or lack thereof) in Condemned looks fabulous. Shadows look rich and add to the sense of atmosphere created by the game. Each location in the game is incredibly unique considering the subject matter doesn't lend itself to much variety. You'll find yourself searching through run-down subway stations, underground tunnels, abandoned schools and a dilapidated shopping mall that is decorated with the most creepy Christmas decor ever. Hell, they even managed to make an apple farm scary. The game is an urban explorer's dream (or maybe nightmare) come true. The only thing that looks out of place is the curious sheen on most of the characters skin. It's not too noticeable during gameplay, but becomes egregiously evident during the in-game cut-scenes.

The sound job might just be the most impressive thing about Condemned, but I mean that in a good way. The game puts the 5.1 mix to good use with lots of directional noises that could be a rat rustling through some garbage or some dirt-covered whack-job rushing you with the sole intent of rearranging your face with a 2x4. No detail is too small when it comes to sound in Condemned, and you'll hear everything from the shutters banging open and close outside a farm house to the shrill sound of nails running down a chalkboard in one of the game's more creepy scenes, and it all sounds fabulous. The music in the game is rather muted but adds perfectly to the mood of the game and keeps you twisting and turning in your seat. The only real bring-down is the voice acting. While serviceable, it is a little flat at times.

That better not be what I think it is...

The achievements in Condemned: Criminal Origins are well thought out and original compared to other launch titles. There are achievements for completing each of the games 10 chapters, as well as achievements for finding items throughout each area. There are also three different types of items to look for while playing, namely birds that are scattered throughout each chapter, some metal pieces, and some hidden TV sets. The metal pieces will unlock four documents called 'Propaganda Reports' that give a little extra incite into things happening in the game. The TVs hidden can be found throughout the game and each one unlocks an achievement. There are seven in all and some of them are very well hidden, so be on the look out. The stand-out achievements for Condemned though are the 'Melee Mayhem' and 'Melee Master' awards. The former is awarded for picking up every single melee weapon in the game. The latter achievement is a two-parter. One for completing one chapter using only melee weapons and one for completing the whole game using only melee weapons. While none of these three achievements are very difficult, they do encourage you to play the game in different ways and do help add to the replay value of the game. All should be achievable in a single play through if you save at the right moment and have your eyes open.

Condemned: Criminal Origins has solidified it's reputation as one of the sleeper hits of the 360 as more and more people discover this diamond in the rough. Easily one of the most original and different games on the 360, maybe now that a sequel, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, has been announced, the original will get even more recognition from people that missed it initially, or even just people that want the crap scared out of them. Given the quality of the game, it definitely deserves it and no gamer should hesitate to give Condemned at least a rental.

The ambient sound effects in Condemned are top notch and the game makes great use of the directional audio to scare the crap out of you and will leave you wondering what lurks in the shadows. The music is moody and fits the game well, but the voice acting could have used a little extra work.

Textures look crisp, shadows and lighting look great despite the lack of HDR lighting, but characters faces look plastic-y.

The control scheme of Condemned feels very natural and serves the game well. The hand-to-hand combat system looks simple but provides a surprising level of satisfaction and the forensic tools offer something fresh, although it would have been nice to pick which device to use yourself.

A highly absorbing game with a well-thought out game world and original and interesting plot will leave you thoroughly immersed in the experience. And maybe a little more damp than you were before playing.

Most are standard fare, but a couple unique and original achievements and a couple that encourage exploration make the game's achievements stand out from the crowd.

A short single player game and a non-existent multiplayer means you could potentially knock this game out in a weekend, if not a single day. Clever achievements provide some incentive to revisit the game but a completely linear story means there is little or no reason to replay the campaign rather than to get both endings, though the Propaganda Reports do add slightly to the experience.

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