Condemned: Criminal Origins PC
Condemned: Criminal Origins hadn’t even registered with my consciousness until the day I played it – I had assumed it was a 360 only title, so I was surprised when I found out it was on PC too. Hence, I had no expectations, which is always the best way to play a game. As I started to play it, I was amazed. It felt really original, really immersive, and really captivating. However, as the hours went on I began to feel as though there was a common undercurrent to everything in the game. Having beaten it, and seen pretty much all it has to offer I can say fairly conclusively that Condemned feels like it’s been rushed. Badly. The pain I feel at Condemned being rushed is exacerbated by the fact that if it had been kept in development for longer, and polished, and made coherent, I think it would’ve been a real phenomenon, like Half life or Halo.
The basic idea is that you are a crime scene investigator, who has an edge. You get visions from the perspective of the criminals and victims. Armed with that and a handy bevy of CSI type tools (cameras, fluoro lights, etc) the game has a highly original take on the FPS genre. In fact, I think it isn’t really so much a first person shooter as much as a first person adventure (Sega have aptly named it a psychological thriller), leading to an experience that is so much more intriguing than just going from room to room killing a variety of zombies, Nazis, aliens or demons with headshots.
However, that isn’t to say that headshots aren’t part of the game, because they certainly are. On the rare occasions that you do find a gun, because of the incredible, unbelievable scarcity of ammunition in the game, headshots will be a necessity. The rest of the time you will have to negotiate with the zombies using blunt objects. I call them zombies because that’s precisely how they act; they are supposed to be people driven mad by some completely unexplained plot device, but as I say: “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck”.
While at this point I’d like to discuss the absolutely nonsensical plot which starts out brilliantly but over the course of the game devolves into (presumably?) poorly explained madness, I’ll instead keep focussed on the melee combat. It’s really quite crap. The basic idea is that you can rip stuff of walls (like pipes, 2x4s, etc), pick up spades, axes, crowbars, etc and use these things are weapons. Neat idea, but the implementation is terrible. The real problem comes down to how blocking is implemented, and the lack of combos. Whereas other FPS games have good melee combat systems (Oblivion, Riddick, Thief, Breakdown) and let you block indefinitely against smaller attacks, Condemned requires you to precisely time your blocks to match the attacks of your opponents. Easy to say, hard to do, because of the total lack of indication as to what your opponent will do and the miniscule window of opportunity you will have to black it. To make matters worse, your enemies get to perform combos on you with absolutely bloody consequences. You (for some unfathomable reason) don’t get any such luck – no combos for you – instead you just monotonously flail away at your opponents until they crumple.
To even things up, you get a pistol that fires an electrical shock that will temporarily stun your opponent. You can use it an infinite number of times, but it has to recharge for a very long time after each use. The problem with the unrefined melee gameplay is compounded by the fact that Condemned, hands down, provides the most visceral, brutal, bone crunching combat ever. Enemies are amazingly well animated and textured, to the point where it feels quite disturbing to fight the more human of your foes (I’m glad I can think of most of them as zombies). I think that as games become more realistic at simulating reality it is going to become increasingly important to fight fantastic inhuman foes (as in unicorns, aliens, etc). While we are on the subject of fighting and animation, you also have a kick ability. It’s really powerful, and does a truckload of damage, but it seriously looks like a kick grandma would do. If it had an associated “Eww, get away, get away” said in a shrill grandma voice it would be perfect. Or absolutely atrocious. You decide.
Part of being a first person adventure game is the requirement for many puzzles. Normally adventure games require you to solve nonsensical puzzles that have bizarre, unthinkable solutions. Thankfully, Condemned does not fall into that trap. The puzzles in Condemned are all of an environmental nature, and you have to use the tools in your surrounding to solve them. For example, some doors can be broken down by a fire axe, while locks can be smashed off with a sledgehammer. Naturally these puzzle solving tools can also be used to “solve” enemies. The puzzles are all of a reasonable nature, and should provide little frustration to players. The only frustration that you are likely to endure is the annoyance at being able to carry only one tool-weapon at once; lots of backtracking to get a certain tool is required to progress through the game. Once again, this worsened by the incredibly slow run speed you have. Ugh.
Condemned eschews the enlightened and revolutionary “recharging” health system of Halo – a system that was successfully adapted to suit Riddick by smart creative people – in favour of the god forsaken medkit. How could you make the medkit system more painful? Make it so that you cannot carry any medkits and can only gain health from units at specific wall mounted locations. Naturally Condemned does so. The lack of originality here is shocking. And recharging health could’ve totally been worked into the inexplicable plot (which is as much as I can say without any spoilers).
Not all is bad though, Condemned has the honour of being the very first game to provide a flashlight that does not suck. I have never understood games that gave you a flashlight that lasted all of 30 seconds and then magically recharged. Condemned provides you with a powerful, realistic flashlight that stays on as long as you want it to. I hope that more risk adverse game designers will finally click that having a flashlight with at least AAA batteries is safe. Condemned also uses the FEAR engine, and looks great. It in fact looks much better than FEAR did, and runs faster to boot. If your computer if getting a bit old you can turn the graphics to “ugly mode” and you’ll be able to find a decent framerate.
The levels are mostly deserted, which is great since that builds tension and makes the punctuated bloody fights even more shocking. The vast majority of levels have a clearly defined theme to them, which really serves to enhance immersion. I’d like to give you some examples of levels and why they were good, but if I did that I would be spoiling the game for you – part of the atmosphere is generated by the unknown in Condemned. One thing that really adds to the immersion is the large number of in-game ads in the form of posters, etc. I have no idea if they are advertising real world products because they fit so perfectly into the game. However, walking around abandoned buildings does get a little old after a while – FEAR was criticised for providing uninteresting levels, and Condemned does not do enough to distance itself from that criticism. It is a shame more games don’t have excellent levels like those found in Thief 3 or Unreal.
Finally, back to the nonsensical plot. The game starts out in an innocuous fashion. You play Agent Thomson, a CSI-type investigator who works for the FBI tracking down serial killers. Yes, in terms of the plot, that is innocuous. You shortly become framed for murdering two cops by the serial killer you are tracking. At this point the game loses credibility, because the frame is terribly done. Forgiving that though (and it’s easy to forgive because Condemned builds a lot of credit very early in the game), the plot moves on with conspiracy theories abound to the final endgame which sees you fighting a thing that cannot possibly be real. If I was being generous I’d say that the game’s creators were trying to impress upon you that you were going mad, but if that is the case they have done so terribly and could’ve drawn upon Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth as an example of how to convey the main character going insane. In any scenario there is so much of the story left unexplained (like the entire proceedings of the game) that a sequel is implied with the delicacy of a wrench to the face. Seriously though, they’d better not rush the next one.