Condemned: Criminal Origins

Foreword

The following is a review of the PC version of the game, which I wrote on the (most excellent) Idle Thumbs’ forums last year. Seeing as the sequel has just been announced – and I didn’t have a blog at the time – I figured it would be prudent to republish it here (including a few tweaks).

Review

The game’s premise is simple; murders are happening throughout a near-future city. You are a divisional agent trying to piece together what’s going on, as the urban landscape – and populace – sinks further into maddening decay around you. The game’s narrative is driven via your forays into this world, and, upon discovering a fresh crime scene, through the use of a forensics system straight out of an arcade game. Yes, SEGA’s production-accredited influence is all over this game like a rash, seeping from every broken pipe and cracked plasterboard wall. And, in this particular instance, that’s a very good thing.

Combat is firmly rooted in arcade mechanics, although weapon selection is deceptively linear. Unlike virtually any other first-person game you care to mention, Condemned only ever lets you carry one weapon at a time. Furthermore, you never have any more ammunition, other than what’s left in the gun you just picked up. This forces you to make tactical considerations where you’d not normally expect to in a game of this kind. Do you stick with the electrical conduit, with its high speed, decent damage and reasonable blocking ability? Or do you risk snatching up that sawn-off shotgun instead, in the vain hope that at least one of its two chambers actually has a shell in it? You also have to consider that, once the ammunition is spent, firearms are next to useless against assailants, with the more cumbersome weapons – such as the sawn-off – being surprising brittle. Arguably, it’s best to resort to physical contact over munitions in the majority of cases, as melee weapons always pack a mean punch. But when called for the guns in the game really deliver, if only for a brief period of time.

As already alluded to, the procurement of weaponry is often a case of just ripping the nearest pipe or 2-by-4 off the wall, as your assailant barrels toward you. The brawling in Condemned is as brutal as is it is brief, with individual encounters usually requiring no more than a couple of well-timed swings to smash the life out of your opponent. And when a swing of your sledgehammer does connect with an attacker’s face, it’s reassuringly pronounced through brilliant motion capture and liberal sound effects.

It’s worth clarifying at this point that, whilst production values are extremely high in Condemned, the polish never interferes with the gritty realism the game strives for. Filthy, rain soaked partition walls are swollen and discoloured with unnerving realism, and the character artwork is consistently striking throughout. Certain models can look a little boxy at times, but this happens so rarely it won’t detract from your complete immersion in the rich and varied environments.

The story, too, is equally well crafted. Pure pulp it may be, but then that’s the idea. It’s worth highlighting the voice acting also, which is surprisingly convincing and well delivered; this definitely ain’t no Prey. The central plot twists and writhes as you crawl through sewers, an abandoned subway train yard, and later derelict rural farmsteads set amidst rotting fruit orchards. Each level is well paced and believably constructed, and the over-arching themes of murder and human degeneration saturate every corner of the environment, creating a virtually unique atmosphere that really needs to be experienced to be believed.

Ultimately, Condemned leaves you with a few loose strands of unfinished sub-plots, but the game’s core narrative reaches a fulfilling climax and, mercifully, doesn’t leave you hanging in wait for the sequel.

There are a couple things which might prevent Condemned being a ‘must-have’ title for some people though. Perhaps foremost, it’s relatively short. Playing at a leisurely pace, I finished the game in approximately 12 hours. For me this isn’t a problem (in fact it’s pretty much perfect), but some gamers may expect more game for their money. I would argue, however, that it’s difficult to hold this against any game when it’s as polished and well directed as Condemned. It just might be a little shorter than you were hoping.

Secondly, the game suffers from what many early Xbox 360 titles were afflicted with; poorly conceived achievements. These commonly take the form of collecting a certain number of dead or dying birds, scattered seemingly at random throughout each level. The mass death of these birds happening in key areas of the early game is one of the sub-plots which weaves its way throughout, and discovering the skeletons – or writhing corpses – of crows as you pick your way through the debris adds a layer of sombreness and pity to the experience. However, after picking up the first few, it becomes more of a chore than anything else to retread cleared sections trying to find the last couple of elusive pickups. Additionally, there are several fragments of metal to collect during each stage, but, unlike the dead birds, it’s not entirely clear what purpose these have in the game’s narrative. Bronze, silver and gold ratings are available for each respective level’s achievements, which in turn unlock more content—usually nothing more than concept art (though it is, admittedly, stunning). The sheer number of achievements spread throughout the game is quite daunting, but the biggest stop-gap to actually collecting them all is the game’s settings and story; after one complete play-through, I can’t see many people feeling the urge to retread this game’s rotting floorboards. At least not in the short-term.

Taking everything into account, this game is full to bursting with menace and foreboding. What it might lack in overall duration, it more than makes up for this with the shear visceral nature of the experience. Condemned should be held up as a triumph of tightly implemented design, considered mechanics, and mature themes successfully – not to mention convincingly – executed in a video game.

If you liked the film Se7en then you’ll be completely engrossed in Condemned: Criminal Origins. Thoroughly recommended.

Overall: 4/5

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