You play Ethan Thomas, an agent for the SCU: an organization bearing uncanny similarities to the forensic department from CSI. Ethan is involved investigating the grisly trail of a number of serial killers, when things go badly wrong and he finds himself trying to prove his innocence as well as simply survive.
In classic survival horror traditions the city around him is far from perfect and the population are descending into mindless violence, seemingly without explanation. The game predominantly takes place in the dark and claustrophobic underbelly of the city, with Thomas being forced to navigate filthy tenements and disused subway stations to progress. These unpleasant locales are filled with a selection of tramps, drug addicts and psychopaths all desperate to send you to an early grave courtesy of a spade to the face.
Areas are all superbly well rendered and the graphics are very impressive. The textures are very detailed, although a number of them are reused a little too frequently. Abandoned buildings, grimy alleyways and empty hallways all look realistic and have a sinister familiarity which helps to amplify the horror and give it a recognisable context.
Be warned that the game is very dark and you may need to alter your settings in order to get the most from it. The lighting effects cast as your torch searches through the rooms is also very good and there were a number of times when I jumped at my own shadow.
Perhaps the most important technical element of a survival horror game is the sound, which is very easy to get wrong. The game features little music, which may seem like an odd decision but it's rarely noticeable. The silence creates a truly disconcerting environment as you creep cautiously through areas with small noises helping to unsettle you. In one memorable moment you enter a basement where you hear heavy footsteps on the floorboards above, yet upon investigation the house is deserted...
The core element to the game though is the combat, which is refreshingly different. Most survival horror games tend to be third person, so the first person perspective adds a new dimension. As you move through areas, enemies suddenly flit past the edges of your vision which is a terrifying experience.
Encounters are often built up beforehand with brief glimpses of figures, strange shouts and moving shadows which help to ramp up the tension before a hobo with a shovel jumps out to try and cave your head in.
The combat is especially brutal with a truly vicious selection of weaponry ranging from fire axes to sledgehammers which have some wince inducing moves. However when it comes down to it, the fighting mechanic only consists of a block button, a kick button and a batter-to-death button. When you factor in a taser which disables enemies and allows you to disarm and batter them, combat can become quite simple.
The enemies themselves are also a little disappointing. Whilst they are all a selection of motley vagrants armed with various implements, there are relatively few character models which means that you often end up fighting a group of almost identical enemies; undoing the horror of the situation.
Whilst there is a healthy selection of weaponry there is little variation in the effect of them, the only real differences being the speed and power of the hit. The firearms are also frustrating as no extra ammunition can be collected and if they are used as a melee weapon they break after a few hits. It seems unlikely that Thomas doesn't have a free pocket for a few extra shells or the knowledge to remove bullets from other guns and place them in his current weapon.
The puzzles themselves are also disappointing as forensic investigation simply involves pressing a button or preparing a sample and there are rarely puzzles which utilize the system effectively, making it feel underused when it should form a core element of the gameplay. However I must admit that I liked the puzzles involving doors to progress. Instead of the usual key finding, you instead must track down a weapon capable of clearing the path ahead. For example a fire axe can cut down wooden doors, a sledgehammer can smash padlocks and the crowbar can pry open electric doors. This was a pleasing change and felt logical and appropriate.
Condemned has some very good ideas and some memorable moments. A level set in a derelict department store is well executed and contains some outstanding scares and an atmosphere that is psychological rather than all out horror. I particularly like how Condemned rations out the combat and knows exactly how to push the player's buttons to get them worked up before hitting them with a scripted shock, yet never overuses these tricks.
The story is mature and competently handled and has good development and a small but well acted cast. As with all the best horror, large amounts aren't explained immediately and slowly small hints are picked up as the story progresses which helps to immerse and entice you into continuing.
As the game is available at a discount price now it is worth tracking down, especially for survival horror fans. Turn up the sound, turn out the lights and be prepared to change your underwear next time a tramp pops out asking you for change. A further warning: if you use lockers on a regular basis then Condemned: Criminal Origins could well put you off for some time.
Condemned: Criminal Origins (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
I was first introduced to the Condemned series after playing the recently released sequel and decided to find the original, which many claim is a superior title. Condemned: Criminal Origins is now surprisingly old and was amongst the Xbox 360 launch games but largely manages to avoid the curse of becoming a forgotten curiosity.