I enjoyed Condemned. I loved the melee combat, I found the forensic tools educational and intelligent even though they were restrictive. I was often frustrated with the restrictive movements and the one weapon limit however I persevered and have been able to beat Condemned multiple times.
Condemned: Criminal Origins puts you in the role of FBI’s Serial Crime Unit (SCU) investigator Ethan Thomas as he trails a serial killer to a desolate part of Metro city; where he is ambushed by the killer, who then murders a couple of men in blue with his weapon effectively framing Thomas for murder. Now you must hunt the serial killer as you are being hunted by the police. Your journey leads you into a quarantined city where crime and violence has taken over due to a psychotic form of mass hysteria gripping the denizens.
Are you spooked yet?
The deeper you go into the city, the more you will be forced to question your sanity as bloody crows will from the sky, demonic visions will plague your consciousness, and the hunt for one serial killer will force you to face hordes of deranged predators. Has something supernatural taken over Metro or are you losing your sanity?
Fortunately, being a forensic investigator helps you stay focused and not let you succumb to the hysteria that has gripped the town.
Where did this come from?
If the synopsis of Condemned sounds different from a typical game one would associate with SEGA it is because it was produced during the time Simon Jeffery was made president of Sega of America and his mission was to produce games that would be focused more towards western audiences. I can confidently say that Condemned is one of the very few examples of things Jeffery did right at the company and the only reason this game came out well produced was because it was co-published by Warner Brothers and developed by Warner owned Monolith Productions. Basically SEGA just distributed the game while Warner did everything else.
A killer recipe
Like any effective horror game, the mood has to be set with the appropriate graphics, gameplay and sound effects. Monolith worked hard on the presentation, and despite the fact that the game was released almost a decade ago in November 2005 as a launch title for the Xbox 360; it still holds up. The developers strove to capture photo realistic levels of details with the character models and environments which were accentuated with very effective lighting and shading effects that work really well to capture the not so solitary feeling of dread as you constantly feel someone or something may be lurking in the shadows.
The environments are also diverse as Thomas goes from abandoned office buildings, subway stations, and even a farm house on the outskirts of the city each location also harbors it’s own unique brand of sociopaths, I was terrified of the agile and bendy foes in the subway.
An effective horror game needs to be set in the dark that is almost a pre-requisite and the developers have managed to extend the darkness through shadows and lighting effects during the day time sequences as well. It certainly helps create an atmosphere but I am a blue skies and sun shine type of guy so I found that a little frustrating that the game was so dark and gloomy even in the day light sequences. The natural laws of light dispersion do not apply to Metro.
Feel the Horror
Back when the game was released the first person genre was merely restricted to shooters, though the game is not really about shooting. When you start the game Thomas doesn’t even use fire arms instead he has to use forensic tools like a digital camera to take pictures of the serial killer victims, and then use UV Light scanner to identify cause of death.
Forensic tools are instrumental to the Condemned experience and the fact that you are consistently relying on a very tangible scientific method to find clues track the killer helps Thomas stay focused on the hunt and not succumb to the supernatural delusions. Maybe, it is just my background in psychology that made me think that Thomas was suffering from a trauma triggered episode of paranoid schizophrenia where as others I have discussed the game with were convinced that something supernatural was definitely at play.
Off course, the emphasis on finding clues does not mean the game doesn’t have action. Infact, the game is heavy on hand to hand combat as Metro is infested with hostiles and it is a kill or be killed situation. As mentioned your fire arm is taken off you, and you are forced to fend for yourself utilizing items from the environment such as a fire axe. This makes the game an FPM instead of an FPS. A First Person Melee action game emphasizing brutal close quarter combat over long range shooting action.
I don’t particularly excels with FPS games as I don’t really enjoy the whole point and shoot enemies game play. Thus, I immensely enjoyed using the melee weapons. Admittedly, It took sometime for me to get used to the sparsity of firearms and I did initially rely on Thomas’s secondary weapon a taser that can be used to stun enemies from a distance but with time I warmed up to the closed quarter combat and went toe to toe with enemies.
After all, shooting enemies from a distance is no where near as satisfying as bashing their skulls in with a steel pipe that you ripped off a wall. The game features over a dozen Melee weapons, the general principle is that if it isn’t nailed down you should be able to turn it into a weapon. I was particularly surprised when an enemy ripped out a subway sign off the wall and started swinging it around as a weapon. Even fire arms can be flipped into meelee weapons once you run out of bullets. All the weapons in the game are also dynamic as they take damage and wear and tear as you use them; they also get drenched in blood when you bash skulls with them.
I also have to applaud how realistically the weapons are used, not only do you feel the weight of each weapon you can also use them as tools, for example, the fire axe can be used to break old wooden doors, a crow bar can be used to pry lockers open, and and a sledge hammer can be used to break a padlock off a door.
There are a number of problems with the gameplay though, Ethan always keeps his weapons drawn which is a norm in FPS but it is really distracting in FPM’s as holding large objects like a shovel close to your face will obscure your vision. Also Ethan can only hold on to one weapon at a time, maybe his forensic kit and taser are taking up all the space but the game would have greatly benefited if Thomas could find a way to carry more weapons.
One more gripe is that the number of attacks and combos are limited, especially the finishing moves which are only four and they get boring really fast. Lastly, the whole idea of using forensic tools to investigate environments isn’t particularly interactive as Thomas automatically decided what tool he needs. Automated interactions as a whole is a big problem with the game as Thomas lacks the basic ability to jump or crouch as well unless you are automatically instructed to do so. Therefore exploration in the game can be frustrating due to rigid restrictions.
I have to compliment the enemy A.I., they are really smart. If you are not good at blocking their attacks, not only will you get a beat down they will snatch your weapon and use it against you. If you start getting the advantage on them, they will flee away to find a better weapon to fight against you. In the abandoned shopping mall level they also pretend to be mannequin’s, watching them suddenly move towards you is always a shock.
My favorite part was that when fighting multiple enemies, it was often best to just get out of their way because they start fighting each other next.
Another source of contention was the absence of an on screen map, this is a design choice and not a fault in the game as in real life you won’t have a dynamic map available to you (Google Maps on Smart Phones didn’t exist back in 2005), you will have to grow familiar with your environments to move forward. I have played games where I have really enjoyed getting to know the environments, though they were not dark, dimly lit, shadowy environments with grimly low visibility. I wound up going in circles or getting lost altogether in the process of trying to complete a side quest like finding dead birds.
I have beaten the game multiple times and is quite literally impossible to explore the environments thoroughly enough to find all 6 dead birds in a chapter.
Die hard obsessive game fans would have no choice but to look up strategy guides to effectively explore the entire level.
Sounds of Silence
Condemned relies on a minimalistic score composed by Nathan Grigg that emphasizes disturbing and unpleasant environmental sound effects over a composed score. The enemies make subtle and not so subtle sounds and noises when they are stalking or attacking you. An impressive voice cast is featured in the game with established Hollywood talent voicing characters; most notably Greg Grunberg lends his voice to Ethan Thomas.
+ Awesome melee and parrying based combat system
+ Outstanding visuals that will withstand the test of time
+ Unique crime scene investigation tools
+ A deep storyline that lends to multiple interpretations
– Combat system would have benefitted with the ability to carry more than one weapon
– Visibility issues, would have benefited from a little luminosity
– Navigating the environments is difficult and you often wind up going in circles
– Beyond combat Gameplay is restrictive and limited to a fault
I enjoyed Condemned. I loved the melee combat, I found the forensic tools educational and intelligent even though they were restrictive. I was often frustrated with the restrictive movements and the one weapon limit however I persevered and have been able to beat Condemned multiple times. I have written this review almost from memory so the game has clearly made quite an impression on me.
That said, I did share this game back in the day with my brother, and he found the slow pace of the game and restrictive gameplay unbearable and he attempted to play the game twice but never beat it. On the other hand, my cousin was able to beat the game at warp speed; he finished it in three sessions cumulatively just over 10 hours, while it took me a whole lot longer to beat it the first or second time.