Home Reviews First Person Games Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned: Criminal Origins PDF Print E-mail
Written by Doc_Brown   
Tuesday, 08 April 2008 19:17
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Developer:
Monolith Productions
Publisher: Sega
Official Site and Demo
ESRB Mature 17+ (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language)
PEGI 18+ (Game contains depictions of violence)

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A Drop of Time
Odd as this may sound but I actually prefer my own explanation for the events of Condemned: Criminal Origins, rather than what Monolith themselves went with in the sequel.  Have I piqued your curiousity?  Well alright then: what if the cause of the outbreak in violent crime in the game isn’t of… terrestrial… origin? Sound far-fetched? Then just what are those things hanging from the rafters of the barn? And why is it that the planned movie adaptation seemed to be going in the same direction?  The game itself is so vague, thankfully, that you're free to think whatever you'd like.

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Vagrants and Vague Rants

Something strange is happening in Metro City. In some areas birds are dying by the thousands, their brains hemorrhaging for no discernable reason. The bad parts of town are getting even worse, with squatters, addicts, and gang members becoming increasingly paranoid and violent. Even the cops called in to deal with these incidents are losing control, both in the field and at home. If that weren’t bad enough, the city is plagued with not one but several serial killers, guys with such lovely names as the Bone Cutter, the Torturer, and the Roadside Carver.

It’s the job of Serial Crimes Unit agent Ethan Thomas to track down this kind of scum using a high-tech array of forensic tools and his own uncanny instincts. At the start of the game he’s called in to sweep the latest crime scene of a serial killer known as the Matchmaker, but after an unfortunate turn of events he finds himself wanted for the murder of two police officers. His pursuit of the real killer encompasses the game’s ten chapters, naturally tying in with the overarching plot about the recent surge in crime. To call it Suspect Zero meets Se7en wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

However, the story isn't perfect. Part of this is because it strives for a gritty realism and then proceeds to make several unbelievable calls. For instance, Ethan is a fugitive—a clichéd, unnecessary addition to the plot—simply because the real killer used his gun. The only thing harder to believe than the law’s immediate assumption of his guilt is that Ethan himself is so quick to accept this turn of events. And this comes right after Ethan is thrown through a window and falls several stories onto a car, waking up back in his apartment unscathed and unquestioning.  It feels more like a waking nightmare than reality... but maybe that's the point.

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CSI for Dummies

Gameplay itself is a mixed bag, but more good than bad. Let me start with the investigation aspect. As Ethan pursues his target across the city, he will occasionally come across hidden clues. Possessing a sort of sixth sense about these things, his view will become slightly over-saturated. The player then whips out the appropriate detection tool—a UV light, gas spectrometer, etc.—that will either show, or lead him to, otherwise invisible evidence. In turn, the player must then use a second tool such as a digital camera to capture the information and send it back to his lab tech, Rosa, for processing.

It’s a great idea in theory, and there’s no denying a certain feeling of satisfaction whenever you do it, but the game holds your hand far too much. You can’t use your tools until the game says you can, and even then the tools you get to use are context sensitive. The fact that the game is incredibly linear doesn’t help either—why follow a trail of blood under a UV light when there’s only one way you can go, anyway? There is one puzzle late in the game where you actually need to follow specific trails through a somewhat non-linear level, but such occurrences are rare.

In a similar vein, the game gives you a flashlight to navigate these dark environs and for once it thankfully never runs out of juice. The thing is, your enemies don’t actually react to the light. It would be one thing if you had to choose between being able to see clearly and giving your opponents advance warning of your presence, but as it is there’s really no reason to ever turn the flashlight off. The entire reason other games have used a limited battery system is to address this issue, so while I applaud that they went in a different direction I don’t necessarily think it was the right one.

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Mean Streets

For the bulk of the game you’ll be fighting off crazy people. Unlike most first-person shooters, though, Condemned isn’t much of a shooter at all. While there are a few firearms, the bulk of combat is melee based. Both you and your opponents can pick up most anything lying around, from exposed 2x4s and rebar to crowbars and fire axes (some of which also function as entry tools, introducing a light puzzle element). While you have a few different attacks at your disposal there are no real combos to speak of, and combat mostly boils down to blocking and countering attacks.

You’ll also have the ability to taser and kick opponents. The taser has a short range (rather than point blank) and temporarily disables opponents, which can be useful if you want to pull a gun out of their hands. The kick is less useful, since it has a slow recovery time, does little damage, and doesn’t even knock your opponent back out of melee range. If nothing else, it would have been nice to be able to kick some of the random objects lying around the game world at enemies, Dark Messiah-style, or deliver a debilitating blow to a junkie’s junk.

The ineffectiveness of the kick isn’t the combat system’s sole failing. You can only hold one firearm at a time and are limited to the ammo it’s already carrying—you can’t even pick up more ammo from another weapon of the same type. Meanwhile, unarmed enemies may sometimes simply throttle you instead of finding a melee weapon, an attack that is not only guaranteed to take a quarter of your health but will also leave you so disoriented they’ll throttle you again before you can get your bearings. Ironically, this means unarmed enemies can be more dangerous than armed ones.

Which isn’t to say armed opponents aren’t dangerous. Since Ethan seems content to mosey his way through this nightmare—he can run for short periods of time, but only on level surfaces—and can neither jump, duck, nor lean, there’s really no way to pop your head out and hop back in order to dupe a gun-toting hobo into wasting some of his limited ammo. Unless you can get close enough to taser them or have a firearm of your own, your only real option is to stand as far back as possible and just hope they can’t effectively hit you at that range—hardly a tactic I’d endorse.

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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

If there’s one thing Condemned nails without fail, though, it’s atmosphere. The dilapidated environments look believably grungy—yet retain a unique identity from level to level—and the sound design is simply fantastic. Although the man seriously needs to spend some time at the gym, Ethan’s slow pace really lets you soak up the ambience. Monolith did an amazing job blending scripted scenes in with the dynamic elements, so much so that you can never be sure whether those footsteps down the hall are just for mood or are actually from someone waiting to bash your head in.

This also extends to the hallucinations that Ethan suffers from (a phenomenon related to his investigative savvy). Sometimes they’re just for show, something to give you a little scare (and believe me, this game is scary) or to advance the plot by showing past events. At other times, though, the enemies you see during these flashes can actually harm you. Since you can never be sure what’s real and what’s not, every single vision becomes a potential nightmare, a sudden and unexpected fight for your life. More often than not you’re swinging at nothing, but a little healthy paranoia never hurt, right?

The NPCs, whether real or imagine, are impressive as well. They very rarely charge right at you, more often running off to find a good hiding place—sometimes even moving to a new one when you draw near to really throw you off. When you first show up they’ll go find the nearest weapon, but they’re willing to abandon it for a better one if the fight isn’t going their way. They also have some of the most believable animations to come down the pipe in quite awhile, really conveying a sense of weight and momentum when they take a swing at you or stumble away after sustaining a blow.

It’s the little touches like this that really sell the experience. There’s no ammo counter on the HUD, for instance, unless you actually check for yourself, which not only shows you a brief visual representation but also causes Ethan himself to inspect the weapon. Pulling an improvised club from the environment doesn’t cause it to just magically disappear, but genuinely affects its surroundings. Rip a piece of conduit out, for instance, and the lights in the area might shut off. Grab a section of pipe and those it was connected to will be torqued out of whack, possibly clouding the area with steam.  It's impressive stuff.

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Conclusion

Understand that when I give an 8 out of 10, it means I think it’s a solid if not spectacular game. If you’re looking to nitpick, you’ll find some things here that might turn you off. With its linearity, simple combat, context-sensitive investigating, and basic fetch quests, the game can give the impression it’s been dumbed down. However, I think most people will readily allow themselves to get sucked into the game's immersive setting, and can overlook some faults to enjoy the frightening experience it has to offer.  As far as I'm concerned, you really can’t go wrong with Condemned: Criminal Origins.

 

Game Rated 8/10
 

 

 

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