Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned is a first person survival horror game released in 2005 by Monolith Productions. I have been excited to play this game ever since I found out Monolith was the developers: they have a pretty good track record with horror games, having developed the F.E.A.R. series as well as the criminally underrated 2.5D FPS BLOOD. Needless to say I was wielding a hefty bar of expectations going into this.
You play a member of the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit named Ethan Thomas. Throughout the game it is noted that Ethan has “gifted” investigative abilities and near-superhuman durability. These act mostly as plot convenience to explain why you seem to be much more adept at taking a 2X4 to the face than most people. The game is played in a first person perspective only breaking from that for cut scenes. Condemned opens with you and a few other law enforcement officials arriving in a seedy part of the fictional city of Metro to investigate the crime scene of a notorious serial killer. The games notes early on that violent crime and psychotic behavior have recently been on an increase all over the city for reasons that slowly get revealed over the course of the game. The first 20 minutes or so serve as a tutorial of sorts for the games various mechanics. Movement on PC is typical for a first person game, simple and intuitive WASD to move and mouse to look around. You are shown how to use your flashlight for finding your way through poorly lit areas, which is the entire game. Luckily, your flashlight was not made from cardboard and congealed sadness so it has a charge time of more than three and half minutes(Im looking at you Outlast clones). After fumbling around in an condemned building (get it?) you arrive to find the latest victim of a killer known as “The Matchmaker.” Here you are introduced to one of the central game-play mechanics: investigating stuff.
Ethan comes equipped with a variety of investigative tools that I am sure were the talk of town in 2005. You get to take photographs, scan and collect samples in order to piece together what is happening around you. All of this gets transferred digitally with what looks to be a Nokia flip-phone. Did I mention this game is about twelve years old? Your correspondent who process the clues is a genuinely delightful woman named Rosa. Most of your interactions with her will be over that dinosaur of a cell-phone you carry around until a late-game level where you actually meet up with her for some clue hunting and hobo beating. The investigative parts themselves are never any kind of mind-bending puzzle or a desperate hunt for obscure clues. You get a prompt that something intriguing is nearby, then you pull out an appropriate tool and collect some samples. It makes for a nice breather in between taking a gas pipe to the mouth and crushing un-medicated psychopaths with a sledgehammer. These moments usually serve to forward the plot and character interactions between Ethan and Rosa who begins to feel like your only friend in a world going mad.
I mentioned beating up homeless people and the mentally ill a few times earlier so let me explain that before you begin thinking Condemned is basically Se7en with a lot more murdering of the underclass. I mean, it kind of is in a sense… Early on in the game you get the notion that there is something far bigger, and supernatural, going on behind all the serial killer investigative stuff which is affecting all the crazy people who are trying to beat you to death. While the story itself is not some mind-blowing narrative that will shake you to your very core, the way it is told is admirable at the very least.
As you progress through the game, titillating tid-bits of an otherworldly horror are doled out for you to unravel. Soon after “The Matchmaker” scene, another killer crashes the party, kills your two cops buddies with your gun, then disappears. Ethan is left taking the fall for the murdering of two police officers. This sets up the bulk of the story with Ethan trying to stop this mystery killer and clear his own name with the FBI. The game itself is level based, with Ethan traveling through a variety of run-down and derelict libraries, sewers, farmhouses, warehouses, subway systems and mannequin shops- more on that later. In fact 99% of the game is you just trudging through crumbling, decaying shit-holes. The levels themselves are relatively non-linear while not devolving into abstract labyrinths. Most levels will contain a few special melee weapons like shovels, fire axes, sledgehammers and crowbars. Aside from being powerful ways of defending yourself, they will give you access to areas you could not get to otherwise. It is a pretty novel way of implementing a key system, as a lot of the times these weapons will function as such. The fire axe is especially fun because you hack down doors ala Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (Side note, I said ‘Here’s Johnny!’ out loud EVERY SINGLE TIME I chopped a door down in this game). Other times you will need to investigate a crime scene before you can continue through the level.
There are two types of collectibles to be found throughout the game. Yea, only two. It seems so minimalist compared to today games that can have their playtime padded out by an additional 50 hours or so. Simpler times, I guess. Also, they are actually tied to the plot. The more numerous ones are dead/dying birds. It is stated the birds are also being affected by whatever is driving the people mad. Only instead of becoming violent, their brains simply dissolve into mush and then they die; It’s pretty sad. The other type are these strange metal bars you can find. Not much is said about them, but they will almost be found with drawings of eyes surrounding them so I think they are important.
Now some people have taken offense to the perceived repetitiveness of the levels (See above: crumbling shit-holes) and while that would be a valid argument if this was a different style of game, since similar accusations were thrown at horror games such as Doom 3 or Quake I, it is my humble opinion that Horror is one of the few genres that can actually benefit from a more slow-burning uniform imagery or color palette. As a huge fan of dark ambient music I can say that a tense, atmosphere can be sufficiently achieved when you get the notion that it is unending, droning and oppressive.
The steak and potatoes of Condemned, and one of it’s biggest selling points, is the combat. Condemned is a bit of an oddity in that while it is a first person perspective game and guns do exist in it, it is not an FPS. The few guns you find are far and few between with no extra ammo; what you find in the clip is what you get. Most of the combat will be melee-based and ohh boy is it brutal. Time and technology may have rendered Condemned a bit aged, but the depressive, visceral nature of the combat is still second to none. It is the polar opposite of stylish fast-paced combat seen in games like Devil May Cry or even a Soulsborne game. It is deliberately slow with a white knuckle sense of tension. You can block, kick, or take a swing. On higher difficulties one or two wrong moves will end with you getting a hunk of rebar cracking your skull like a soft walnut. You do get a taser as a trump card to stun enemies and even steal their weapons. The taser has a cooldown so don’t think you can be happy-go-lucky with it. Also, enemies take no shit in this game.
AI in this game is actually pretty impressive. Most enemies in other video games are of two flavors. They will be tactical and hide behind cover taking pot-shots and verbal-vomiting chunks of random military jargon. The other type run in a straight line and beat your head like they have not eaten in three days and someone told them your skull was hiding the last bag of chips. On top of that, you have a stamina bar and no regenerating health. So woe be to those who think they can flake out on a fight and hide behind a dumpster so their plot-armor can mend itself. The enemies in this game are a cut above the rest: they will skulk in the shadows, flank you, and hide in wait for an ambush waiting for your oh so smash-able body to get within range of their gym door locker. Enemies will also block, kick, or even feign attacks to get an opening on you. If you take their weapon they will even retreat and seek out another piece of random debris to pound on you with. Some enemies will have guns; they are a top priority, because they have a gun and odds are you won’t. Another good reason to run into a hail of gunfire is enemies in Condemned do not have magic infinite ammo like most games, so if you kill them quick you could get a fully-loaded gun to wreak havoc with.
Enemies come in all shapes and sizes. Random bearded hobos, relatively clean-shaven hobos, female hobos, but unfortunately no bearded female hobos. You even come across emaciated sewer junkies who crawl around on all fours and generally give you the creeps. Eventually, you come across guys that P90-X professionally and can easily break you in half if you’re not careful. Towards the end of the game I even saw a guy who looked like the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 got really, really, fat. Those guys could throw some serious hands. The single most interesting enemy encounter took place in the mannequin shop I mentioned earlier. Here you come across people wearing the mannequin pieces like armor over their skin and will pose as mannequins in order to catch you off guard. It is exactly as creepy as you would expect. At one point I turned a corner, saw a mannequin in a real aloof pose and leaning on a cane. I looked away, then turned back to see the “mannequin” was staring at me. He then grabbed the cane and started swinging. It was an incredible and unique moment of horror for me. Now I
won’t spoil too much end game content, other than to tell it eventually cranks the supernatural aspect up to a solid 7 and gives a rather fun final boss who looks like kind of like a Cenobite.
The graphics are not cutting edge by any stretch even for that time still, they do get the job done and it does not take away from the story or gameplay. While the character models are a bit blocky, the animations for them are quite varied and fluid. While Condemned may not have reached the iconic status of other horror games from that era, it is still a great game you should not pass up on playing.
It is currently 14.95$ on Steam in case 5 pennies is a deal breaker for you, because I got it on sale so it totally was for me.