Thursday, August 03, 2006

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.

Publisher: Sega Players: 1

Developer: Monolith Productions

Genre: Psychological thriller

Pros:
Condemned is incredibly immersive due to the physics, graphics, animation, sound, lighting and cutscenes. The focus has shifted from combat, to real world puzzle solving of a limited nature. The melee combat that does occur is visceral and realistically animated. The plot starts out well…
Cons:
The game has been incredibly rushed to ship and as such the gameplay is quite unpolished. The combat is painful, and not in a good way, due to the poorly thought out gameplay mechanics. The story is pretty sketchy and devolves for no apparent reason into complete bluarghugatywrer.
Final verdict:
Condemned is a new subgenre of the first person shooter genre. The focus of the game is on exploration, solving real world puzzles in rational ways and brutal close quarters combat. While the game starts out excellently, the plot makes less and less sense over time, and the levels, while well constructed, start to get a little boring since they are all of the “abandoned place” variety. There are many types of enemies, but since they are all zombies and the combat is melee they are all alike. More variety between them would’ve been good. The melee combat is really poorly implemented and could’ve done with a few more months/weeks of tweaking and playtesting. All in all it provides quite a fresh experience, but since it has been rushed it does not have quite as much quality as you might expect. It is worth picking up if you are in the market for something fairly original and have a wee bit of patience.
70%

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Condemned: Criminal Origins PC demo

SEGA has released a demo of its first-person, survival horror, Condemned: Criminal Origins on the PC.

Pick up brutal weapons to beat the enemy.
Pick up brutal weapons to beat the enemy.

Condemned was received well when released back in December at the launch of the Xbox 360, and now we're only weeks away from the game's release on the PC. The 460mb demo lets players experience a single level of the game, taking the role of agent Ethan Thomas as you attempt to track down a murderer and clear your name. With a disease that affects the dirty underbelly of the city, turning every-day tramps into insane killing machines, things aren't going to be simple.

Condemned: Criminal Origins is released on PC on April 13, and is available now for Xbox 360.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Condemned!

If Condemned featured any cute pink fluffy bunnies, it would show them with their heads off, intestines spilled, and furry tails spread liberally across the room. That's the type of rabid violence Condemned feeds on, and it wouldn't be the same experience without it. While countless people speak out against the graphic violence in video games, Condemned is the giant middle finger pointed straight upward in their faces, showing how and why it's necessary.

Taking bits from popular TV crime dramas, the dank, infested, and drug-addict filled hallways make for gaming's best scare experience. It's unrelenting in its first-person view as you play a FBI agent accused of murder. The only way to clear your name is to traverse areas the police won't even touch anymore to find the true killer.

It's easy to find things wrong with the title. Combat is simplistic, and hardly changes even with a wide variety of weapons (from sub-machine guns to desk drawers). It's a matter of swinging to land a blow, blocking, then launching again. Logic tries to find a way in, but when a sledgehammer can't knock out a wooden door and you're told to find a fire axe buried inside the level to perform that same task, it feels like busy work.

Those minor complaints are outweighed by intensity of the populated halls of a mall, school, and orchard (amongst others). The mall level alone offers countless creepy moments as the drug ravaged people inside mimic the manikins scattered about, lying perfectly still until you make your move. It's an emotional drain to play Condemned, as every corner could result in an attack.

Each scenario is played up for maximum effectiveness. The rarely lit areas constantly have people running about around the player, whether in front, back, or above them. Some of it is pre-planned, and others use the AI to create the situations. With a full 5.1 system, you'll find it hard to not look behind you every time a bottle is kicked over to be sure it's the game.

Immersed in violence, the game steps away at times from its brutality to continue on an investigation. These moments offer little freedom, and it feels restrictive. From a game design standpoint, it makes sense however. The need to fumble around with numerous detection gadgets would needlessly slow down the game, and if this guiding-hand style moves the hard-to-comprehend story along to get to more action, so be it. You won't feel like an FBI agent, and it's not important that you do.

It's also easy to write this off as a Doom 3 copy, rarely offering light beyond a flashlight. While a few brightly lit sections wouldn't have completely hurt the game, this is what joins the levels together. It feels connected inside the variety of locations. What would have greatly helped is a map. Given the lack of lights, it's easy to walk in circles, missing that black ladder on the wall that takes you to the next portion of the stage. A guiding hand of any kind wouldn't have lowered the immersion any more.

The lack of multi-player seems like a striking miss-fire, but this is not a game where it would work. It relies on the solitary confines of its walls for effect, and lessening that with someone else along for the ride would defeat the purpose. At around six hours, it's a short ride. On the plus side, it's one worth replaying, and the numerous Achievements mean you won't do everything on the first time through.

Even if the brutality of it all doesn't prevent you from eating while playing, the scare factor will. This is the essence of what we should expect from a new generation of consoles, and while it still carries some of the basic design flaws we've come to expect from the previous generation, there's little doubt that Condemned doesn't try to do everything to ensure the player has the experience the developers intended.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Condemned Exclusive

Condemned: Criminal Origins, Monolith’s Xbox 360 launch exclusive and one of the most distinctive titles I’ve come across this year. Not since SWAT 4 has a game done urban squalor this well. Where Rare, for instance, used the 360’s power to create the super-shiny surfaces of a future techno wonderland, or the Oz-like scenery of a fantasy world, Monolith has used it to create environments that practically reek of rising damp, pooling vomit, rotting trash and leaking excrement.

In gaming terms, Condemned resembles a first-person Silent Hill, except with a truckload more detail. No matter how repellent the visual content gets, you can’t deny that the lighting, modelling and texturing is beautiful. On a high-definition screen, Condemned is top notch stuff... A fiendishly creepy experience, but only a partially satisfying game.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Condemned - It's Creepy and Dark

When I sat down to get to grips with Sega's Condemned: Criminal Origins on my recently acquired Xbox 360 - don’t hate me everybody, please, I just have a very loving girlfriend who got very lucky in getting hold of one - I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. I had seen a number of other reviews describe it as particularly creepy and chilling in its delivery. The pervasive atmospherics I'd learned of in this dark gaming experience drew me, and the serial killer theme also appealed as it is a subject I know well.

More

Monday, December 12, 2005

More Condemned: Criminal Origins (Walkthrough / Cheat Codes not included)

Why do we seek out entertainment that makes our palms sweat, our hearts race and fills us with feelings of dread and foreboding? Other than blind dates, I mean.

Because being scared is fun, that's why. And Condemned: Criminal Origins, while it has its flaws, is easily one of the creepiest games in years. Maybe I'm a huge wuss, but at one point I almost stopped playing altogether because I couldn't handle the tension.

OK, yeah, I'm a wuss.

Condemned casts you as FBI agent Ethan Thomas, framed for the shooting deaths of two police officers by a serial killer who is hunting down and slaying other serial killers. What ever happened to my enemy's enemy is my friend?

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Review - Condemned: Criminal Origins | Condemned: Criminal Origins Review (Xbox 360)

Se7en; Fight Club; Silence of the Lambs - these must have been watched on more than one occasion by members of Monolith's development team when it came to moulding Condemned: Criminal Origins for Xbox 360. The game, the first to be published for the next-generation console by SEGA, follows the story of FBI Special Agent Ethan Thomas as he attempts to track down a serial killer through the bleak underworld in an undisclosed US city. Heavily driven by the narrative, I'm not going to be the one to unravel the spoilers dished out to players throughout the game, needless to say that it's not as plain sailing as it seems.

This takes the notion of what an FPS title actually is and tries to spin the genre on its head; rather than make the game an out and out blaster mixed with the supernatural (like Monolith's other title, the recently released F.E.A.R.), Condemned takes a more intelligent approach with an emphasis on melee attacks and puzzle solving. Taking advantage of the Xbox 360's requirement of player achievements has meant that along the way of the investigation, players will find themselves collecting the rotting remains of birds and shards of metal, not to mention some of the Xbox 360s dotted around some of the more secluded parts of the gameworld. Speaking about the gameworld, I personally don't think that I've seen more rancid and decaying environments in a videogame; even classic survival horror franchises Silent Hill and Resident Evil have been developed with so much detritus and dilapidation. Each of the areas in Condemned are heavily run-down, with certain ones more than familiar structures to most people such as a high school and library - though not even the most decaying public buildings look like the ones in Criminal Origins.

This is a game with an extraordinary level of atmosphere and tension, and is perhaps more aptly described as a first-person survival horror. Flash lighting, clever use of shadows, an eerily ambient soundtrack, and Thomas' reliance on using his FBI issue torch, all add up to create on occasion real scare moments. One of my enduring memories of the movies growing up was the opening scene in Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters when the three investigators find themselves wandering around the secluded aisles of the New York Public Library Archives. Ever since then walking around the close altitude defying shelves of libraries have brought that memory back, and now so will Condemned thanks to one mission taking place within a burnt out library. Scripted events such as tables thrown down a stairwell towards the player, or being blind sided by a hidden enemy are just two examples of how the developers have used movie-style scare tactics to build the anticipation within the player.

Whilst the perspective is in the first-person, Condemned is largely far from being a traditional first-person shooter; in fact with such a strong emphasis on melee combat throughout the many chapters of the game it very much runs the risk of not actually appealing to the FPS market. Weapons such as fire axes and crowbars, which can be found lying around the environments are also accompanied by piping, crow bars, and even desk tops, as useful tools both defensively and offensively. Quick pulls on the trigger unleash jab-like blows with full pulls executing swinging with little variety beyond that; the quick look comparison tables that appear on screen to provide players with an instant breakdown on the level of damage, speed, reach, and blocking each of the weapons can cause is a neat touch that at least serves to differentiate between the blunt objects.

There are firearms in the game including a rather nifty sub-machine gun, but the ammo is severely limited throughout Condemned, and spare clips aren't dotted around. It's obvious that the developers desired players to use melee attacks and not the more traditional bullet driven weaponry synonymous with FPS titles, with all of the guns feeling a bit light and pathetic; there's a lack of impact in them. One of the key bits of gadgetry held by Thomas throughout a large section of the game is the trusty Taser, capable of disabling opponents before either knocking them senseless, or taking their weapon off them and then knocking them senseless. After a bit of a beating enemies have a habit of falling to the knees, which is the perfect opportunity for the Agent to deliver a heavy punch, slam them to the ground, or just snap their neck.

Like Agent Thomas, the enemies in the game will also scrounge around for bits of piping or axes with which to knock a blood curdling blow to the head; most of the guns that are dotted sparingly through the Condemned can initially be found in the hands of the zombie-like madmen too, so get ready to dodge that bullet. On occasion, the enemy AI pushes them to pick up and throw various objects towards Thomas, including wooden chairs, which all fly through the air with a real sense of weight behind them thanks to the physics programmed into the game.

The various melee objects do have a more practical use than just for beating the enemies over the head; in fact they're Condemned's version of keys. For instance, Sledgehammers are the only way to break through a padlocked door, whilst a fire axe has to be used to bring down a damaged door. Such strictness means that a significant section of gameplay is devoted to the player searching for the right tool for the job, which can be a bit frustrating at times. It also means that the age-old problem of games rears its ugly head: if I can use a fire-axe to break through a pre-determined door, why can't I use said axe to break through any damn door I please? Never mind the HD era, I'd settle for an era where such immersion destroying elements no longer feature. Leaning on such a gameplay dynamic throughout the game, Monolith have left Condemned feeling a tad repetitive in places, in fact there are times when the player's sheer determination to find out exactly what the hell is happening to Agent Thomas is the only thing stopping the boredom factor from reaching critical.

One of the key gameplay elements introduced into Condemned is the use of forensic tools and scanners; which allow Agent Thomas to continue with the investigation. Whilst a number of these puzzles restrict the player to a certain area, for example a room within a building, other forensic puzzles direct the player around certain areas of the map to find trace the evidence. Such journeys can be a bit hazardous since some of the more putrid opponents continue to track the player down, and much like id's Doom3, players can wither wield a forensic tool or a weapon at a time - duel wielding is very much out. Thomas' digital camera has players focusing correctly onto the evidence, whilst others are more passive, a case of locate and pull trigger. More of an interactive narrative tool, the use of the forensic gadgetry could have been further developed (perhaps something that will be done in a Condemned sequel, perhaps?) with more complex puzzles being introduced.

With Condemned one of the launch titles of the next-generation, one of the key questions that many will be asking is how does the game actually look? Well, eerie atmosphere aside, Condemned is a decent looking game, though it only represents a fraction of what the Xbox 360 is actually capable of. Visual effects and techniques go far to create a high level of detail, more noticeably in the environmental textures; certain locations look damp and dank, whilst others allow players to get a good look at some of the extra detail (the texture of the painted canvases in the library just one example of this.) Impacts between enemies and one of Thomas’ bespoke weapons displays some realistic reactions including blood and teeth flying through the air, which only adds to the sheer brutality of the melee combat. Characters models are quite disappointing however with a high frequency of enemies looking exactly the same; they do look good however, and it’s more surprising to see that the main characters are the ones that visually suffer. Cut scenes involving Agent Thomas show some of the niggling aspects including one of the weirdest ear lobes in memory and low quality textures for the jacket logo. Visually it’s more a game with atmosphere rather than overly-impressive characters, which at the very least manage to get the right reaction out of players.

Condemned is a linear affair both in terms of level design and narrative, so once completed there’s very little to go back to (Xbox 360 Achievements aside.) Most players will be able to complete it in less than 10 hours, and with the ending as it is, Condemned may leave some sections of gamers quite disappointed. With the whole narrative pointing towards the hunt for a serial killer of serial killers (the so-called Serial Killer X), to have such a clichéd explanation thrown at the end of the game does seem a bit lazy. Fun for the weekend, but not one to fork fifty quid for.

Condemned: Criminal Origins has a dark, foreboding atmosphere that wouldn't look out of place in one of David Fincher's earlier movies; the melee action means that somehow the violence is more real than true FPS titles and therefore it's not surprising that the game has made onto a list of ultra-violent videogames released this year. Virtually caving people's skulls in with a crowbar or snapping their necks is brutal and the game wholly deserves its 18 certificate from the BBFC. Having said that the gameplay is quite repetitive with seemingly endless searches for the correct blunt instrument does get a bit tiresome - there's an over reliance on the narrative pulling the players through, which also means that once completed, you're unlikely to go back to it again.

GAMEPLAY: 77%
Repetitive level designs and melee sequences (not to mention the continuous find-the-right-tool dynamic) means that some may be put off.

GRAPHICS: 87%
The environments in the game are beautifully degraded and rotting with an atmosphere that's remeniscent of several movies in recent years. The contrast between the shadows and the off spot of light works well, although the character models are slightly disappointing at times.

SOUND: 89%
Deprived of a score, the game relies on a heavily atmospheric ambience, which certainly manages to raise the tension levels.

ORIGINALITY: 79%
A first-person title with an emphasis on melee combat is certainly a neat twist, along with the initial narrative developments. Aside from that, there's ver little new in Condemned to shout about.

LONGEVITY: 70%
The story can be completed quite easily within 10 hours or so, which only leaves the player's desire to collect all of the Xbox 360 achievements as an incentive to return to the world of serial killers and Agent Thomas.


summary...

DIFFICULTY: Medium | LEARNING CURVE: Around 20 minutes

Condemned: Criminal Origins marks a solid if repetitive debut for both Monolith and SEGA on the Xbox 360 though it's far from perfect. Whether this will be the start of a franchise or a one-off title will have to be seen, but I'd settle for an explanation for some of the events that take place in the game.

via TotalVideoGames

Friday, November 18, 2005

Condemned: Criminal Origins Review of Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360)

Raw, savage beatings are the order of the day in Condemned: Criminal Origins, an original first-person action game developed exclusively for the Xbox 360. You play as an investigator tailing a serial killer while struggling to keep your own sanity as you face off against what seems like an army of depraved sociopaths. Condemned's impressive graphics and bone-crushing hand-to-hand combat sequences make for a visceral, highly atmospheric experience that's quite unlike anything you've ever played before. But as great as that may sound, Condemned is also something of a one-trick pony, whose monotonous gameplay doesn't quite live up to the quality of the presentation and underlying concept. Don't you dare let that stop you from making this one of the first Xbox 360 games you play if the concept intrigues you, though. Despite its shortcomings, Condemned offers a compelling sneak peek at some of the incredible potential of the next generation of games.

FBI Agent Ethan Thomas is a sullen man who's part of the Serial Crimes Unit, so it's little wonder he isn't more cheerful. The game begins with Agent Thomas on a routine assignment: Someone's been brutally murdered in a bad part of town, and he's there with the police to figure out what happened and to clean up any remaining mess. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that things don't quite go according to plan. Thomas winds up implicated in some serious crimes, but not before he has a run-in with some sort of a madman who spares his life--just barely. But why? Bent on finding the truth, his assailant, and his missing pistol, Thomas goes off on his own, with nothing but a cell phone, a Taser-style stun gun, and his forensic tools to aid him. The only other person he can depend on, save himself, seems to be a colleague of his who's willing to stay in touch by phone, helping Thomas to analyze evidence so he can slowly connect the dots that lead to some disturbing discoveries. The dark, engrossing story of Condemned starts out strong and has its moments along the way, but unfortunately, it doesn't take center stage during what's mostly just a straight-up action game with an intriguing premise. As Thomas begins to question his own sanity when faced with unbelievable evidence, the narrative purposely takes some incoherent turns, causing you to wonder if there's any hope of a satisfying resolution.

It's too bad the story hadn't been more developed. As it stands, answers to some of the most important questions raised by the game (for example, what the hell is wrong with everybody?) are relegated to loading screens in between chapters rather than to contextual exposition. So instead, what Condemned boils down to is cautiously exploring dark, dilapidated buildings--they're condemned, get it?--while confronting and ruthlessly beating down violent thugs bent on smashing your face in. Except it's not quite as great as that makes it sound, because the dark, dilapidated buildings and, somehow, even the ruthless beatings start to get old some time before the nine or 10 hours it takes to finish the game. And optionally collecting bird carcasses and metal pieces hidden throughout each level (don't ask) doesn't add much intrigue. You'll keep waiting for Condemned to throw you a major curveball, since it feels like that sort of game. And it sure comes close, but it never quite goes beyond a threat, merely teasing you with potential while inundating you with repetition.

Condemned is kind of like a first-person shooter, except instead of shooting, there's mostly just a lot of pure, bloody brawling. For some strange reason, there's no real bare-handed combat, but improvised weapons are everywhere. You've got everything from metal pipes, to nail-covered two-by-fours, to fire axes, to sledgehammers, to signposts. Each weapon is rated differently for speed, range, power, and defense, though the differences can be pretty subtle. So it'll often come down to a subjective choice: How does that metal conduit strike you? How about that nice concrete-crusted rebar over there? Take your pick, and hang on to it, because you can only carry one weapon at a time.

You'll get the impression that the vast majority of effort that went into this game was invested in the interaction between you and your deranged enemies. There's some striking artificial intelligence at work, combined with some amazingly, frighteningly lifelike animations that will make you wince as if in pain or in anticipation of it. Your foes cannot be reasoned with, as they're lunatics with a thirst for blood who'll rush out at you from the shadows, flailing anything they can get their hands on while trying to kill you. They'll scream obscenities and smash things in freakish anger. They'll lie in ambush, and they'll gladly hurt one another--as well as you--just as long as somebody gets hurt. And they won't just stand there and take it as you lash out at them with weapons of your own. As they recoil in pain from your attacks, they'll lurch forward for their next strikes, as if guided by momentum and adrenaline. The best thing to be said about Condemned is that it captures hand-to-hand combat with intense, lifelike brutality like no other game before it. No other first-person-perspective game even comes close, with the notable exception of last year's The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay.

The problem with Condemned is that it can be safely described in generalities, since there aren't enough specific moments that stick out. The nerve-racking, unpredictable behavior of your enemies will have you on your toes, holding your breath for several hours. But eventually, the bad guys just seem to run out of new tricks. Similarly, you have few tricks of your own: The left trigger makes you block, while the right trigger makes you attack. There's no combo system, so Agent Thomas is mostly limited to just some slow, powerful strikes. Meanwhile, enemies' attacks can be very damaging (as well they should be, judging by how painful they look), so you'll find it's foolish to just slug it out with them. Instead, you'll find yourself stepping in for the strike when your opponent leaves himself open, and you'll find yourself stepping back or blocking when he attacks. At least blocking is an active process, meaning you need to time your blocks to deflect the enemy's attack--but watch out, since he'll sometimes throw fake swings at you. That's pretty much what the action boils down to. Sometimes enemies will be staggered to their knees, near death, at which point you may execute some sort of finishing move just by pressing one of four directions on the D pad. These moves look great (especially the head-butt and the knock-out punch), but they're only for show, reinforcing that Condemned's spectacular appearance is rather superficial.

You've got that stun gun, and you can also kick those fools if you like. The stun gun feels pretty overpowered, though it's necessary later on in the game when you're dealing with more than just one or two enemies at a time. It's easy to aim, and it immobilizes the unfortunate target, giving you a free shot as well as a chance to rip his weapon from his grip. After each use, the stun gun automatically recharges its battery for your next shot. And, yes, there are some conventional firearms in Condemned, but the gunplay isn't particularly satisfying, and it's quite scarce. The weapon models for guns don't look nearly as realistic or detailed as the game's much broader assortment of makeshift melee weapons. Any guns you find will never have more than a few rounds of ammunition in them, so you'll need to make these shots count and then throw the weapon away in favor of something a little more solid. Your enemies have no fear of guns (or seemingly anything), and since all the action takes place in very close quarters, the long-range advantage you'd expect from a pistol or rifle is made nearly irrelevant.

Since it's going for chills and creepy atmosphere, Condemned doesn't just stoop to throwing enemies at you around every corner. That's the good news. But the bad news is that this means you'll often walk through long stretches of terribly dark, dreary corridors without much of anything happening. The level design in Condemned is pretty disappointing overall, since it's chock-full of grimy, depressing locales that definitely get the "grimy, depressing" part down pat, but fail to come up with much of interest for you to do or look at. Sometimes you need to find a fire axe or a sledgehammer to bash through a locked door (inexplicably, only the fire axe breaks down wooden doors, as the sledge is only for padlocks). But these types of cases are just too common.

It all starts to blend together after a while, no thanks to the repetition of textures and lack of any distinguishing reference points in most areas, and no thanks to the thick darkness that permeates most of the game. Unless you chicken out and crank up the brightness on your television above where you'd normally have it, you'll find that many sequences of Condemned are nearly pitch black, save for your weak little flashlight's reassuring glow. All that said, it probably won't be long before you find yourself wishing you had some kind of a map to help guide you through each area, since you don't. It's fairly easy to get lost, disoriented, and then frustrated as you stumble around looking for the one door you're supposed to open or the one little corner concealing the next hallway.

Occasionally you get to stop to gather some forensic evidence, which helps break up the action a little, though there's really not much to this process. Your "instincts," which come in the form of an onscreen prompt, will indicate to you when you're supposed to ready one of your handy gadgets instead of that club you've been cracking skulls with. For the most part, you can't use your forensic tools unless a mission-critical objective is nearby. Once you've got your equipment on the ready (you automatically bring out the right item for the job), it's just a matter of slowly walking around until you find what you're looking for. Certainly it's a cool effect, seeing trails of violence materialize under a black light and so forth. These bits also tie in to the plot, so they're more than welcomed, but there's just not much challenge involved since the game does almost all the work. You end up feeling about as actively involved in the investigation as you would be just sitting there soaking up an episode of CSI. Luckily, some of the later evidence-gathering sequences are more interesting since they take place in more-dangerous areas, so you might have to quickly swap that digital camera for a two-by-four if you run into bad company.

The quality of the presentation in Condemned goes a long way toward keeping you riveted, even when the action starts to grow stale. We can't overstate just how good a lot of the hand-to-hand combat looks. There's some meticulous attention to detail that might make you squirm--such as when you rake your crowbar across an enemy's jaw and then watch him spit blood (and what looks like teeth) as he whirls about violently, face red from more than just anger. And while the game doesn't go into too much detail about exactly what's wrong with all the people you're fighting, it doesn't really need to, because just one good look at them is enough to tell you they're far gone. Better yet, the further you go, seemingly the more inhuman and misshapen your foes will become--as though their deteriorating condition represents Agent Thomas' own psyche. To make things more believable, the game does a good job of presenting some of its noninteractive cutscenes from a first-person perspective in the context of the game itself. Ever been thrown down an escalator? You'll get a feel for what that might be like in Condemned.

The graphics do have a few minor problems, mostly centering around the relatively bland environments. Granted, it's not like filthy rundown buildings are inherently interesting to look at, but the main issue with the environments in Condemned is that there's too little contrast in them. In the very first setting, you'll see the breaking dawn piercing through shuttered windows into dust-filled rooms. It's a beautiful effect, but the game almost never does anything of the kind again, instead pushing you through one lifeless corridor after another. The last sequences of the game look distinctive, and another part that's set in an old, rundown department store stands out, but it's too bad the settings of Condemned aren't as inspired as their fearsome inhabitants. Also, despite how vicious the combat looks, the act of getting killed in this game (which will happen often, since it's pretty tough on normal difficulty) is a little underwhelming. The action just freezes the instant the deathblow connects, all too mercifully preventing you from witnessing Agent Thomas' collapse--and whatever might happen next. For that matter, considering how much care clearly went into the animation, it's sort of unfortunate to see Condemned making liberal use of rag-doll physics. Killed enemies all collapse in what look like the same lifeless heaps found in just about every action game these days, thanks to the ubiquitous rag-doll effect. But this is just nit-picking over what's a graphically amazing game.

As with most any Xbox 360 game, for best results you should view Condemned at the highest possible resolution on a nice big high-definition display. Even when you do, you'll find that the game's frame rate holds quite steady, smoothly rendering some highly detailed scenes. But even when you don't, you'll find that Condemned still looks really impressive running on a standard television (the game is presented in a letterbox even if you don't have a widescreen TV, though). Older video game systems just can't pull off these kinds of good looks.

In addition to an HDTV, you'll want a surround-sound system to get the most out of Condemned's excellent atmospheric audio. There's very little music in the game, apart from some subtle ambient tracks that play here and there, and the sparse voice acting is of good quality. So it's really the sound effects that deserve most of the credit, since they're essential to fulfilling the gut-wrenching intentions of the graphics. Suffice it to say you'll hear every thud, crunch, and spatter in alarming detail. Even relatively mild acts, like breaking the glass on a first-aid kit, might well cause you to flinch from how piercingly loud and clear they are. Some aggravating repetition in the audio drags things down a bit, specifically in how the shrieks from enemies struck by your stun gun always sound exactly the same, ruining some of the suspension of disbelief. But overall, Condemned is by far one of the better-sounding games this year.

Condemned's success in delivering the best-looking first-person melee combat of any game to date is truly admirable, along with its unusual premise. It's just that the longer you play, the more you'll wish that there were more substance to the experience. Fortunately, the game's main area of focus is executed on incomparably well, and it's thrilling for a good while if not all the way to the bitter end. If you do manage to fight your way through to the conclusion, there's not much reason to keep coming back, unless you want to brave certain arbitrary challenges (such as never using guns) to unlock some modest extras--like concept art galleries and such. But when it comes to showcasing just how shockingly up close and personal the act of fighting for your life can get in a game, Condemned has become one to beat...preferably over and over with a lead pipe.

Via Gamespot

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Condemned: Criminal Origins - Hands on Review (Xbox 360)

When I first played Condemned I was less than excited about the concept. It was hard for me to imagine what could eventually rope me into playing a game that was seemingly filled with melee combat with crazed vagrants. However, after going in-depth with the title the game has revealed itself to be a legitimately terrifying take on survival horror. The best part of this being that Monolith has done away with the most annoying survival aspects and has pushed horror to a new level.

Before we discuss the darker details of Condemned I should first say a word about the atmosphere in which the game is best experienced. Our previous hands-on impressions have all been from the noisy floor of an exhibition. E3 and X05 were great venues for quick impressions but not for titles that rely on a steady build-up of tension. Our time at Sega displayed the game in a more fitting environment: a dark room on a big screen and an excellent sound system. This way when footsteps pattered behind us across the dusty floor of a dark basement it was sure to send shivers up our spine.

The game opens as FBI agent Thomas is escorted by the local police force to the scene of a grisly murder. While there are cut-scenes that switch to third person view to better tell the story the majority of the game is seen through the eyes of Thomas, giving players a deeper connection to the character. As we pulled up to a rundown building, a cop slammed on the car window to get our attention. It was the type of quick scare tactic that is commonly used to keep the audience engaged in horror films and it was just as effective here.

Thomas tracks a number of demented killers throughout the course of the game but the first scene players come across is the grisly work of a suspected serial killer known as the matchmaker. As police lead players to the crime scene a quick tutorial gave us the particulars on ducking below obstacles, moving and bringing out a weapon. The murder scene consisted of a corpse staged to have a sort of a tea party with a mannequin.

Thomas' first task is to collect forensic evidence from the area. For these sections of the game he is equipped with a host of forensic tools including a camera, a gas spectrometer, and a black light. All of these are linked to a video PDA that keeps players linked to the Bureau. It also allows Thomas to stream data back and forth from the lab for instant information about the clues found in his surroundings. About half of the game is spent using these real life instruments to track down your demented suspects and the puzzles I participated in were intuitive and logical. Thankfully the game avoids nonsensical fetch quests commonly associated with horror games like Resident Evil. The item searching I experienced involved looking for an axe to break down a boarded up door.

After searching the scene for clues the smell of cigarette smoke tips the cops off to the fact that someone is observing their investigation. In an unfortunate series of events Thomas is separated from the group and framed as a suspect. The storyline has the agent unraveling a deeper plot that involves some older acquaintances of his family and a drug that is turning users into psychotic killers. Thomas is gifted (or cursed) with premonitions of horrible events making him especially suited to track down the game's horrifying cast of psychotics. An interesting storyline is a huge asset for a game of this genre and I'm already interested in the story development after watching the prequel story on the Condemned web site.

Sega labels this title as a psychological thriller because outside of the flashes of the future the subject matter is more solidly based in reality than most horror games. The style has more than a passing resemblance to the movie Se7en and a few other classic works of horror cinema. This makes the scares more realistic and lasting. Personally, I've become numb to zombies so a game based on psychotic humans is a more enticing hook.

But How Does it Play?
Thomas starts the game with a standard issue pistol, but it isn't long before he's left with only the tools in the environment to defend himself against hoards of deadly nut cases. Most of the blunt and sharp objects found in the environment can be ripped from their fixtures and used as melee weapons. The right trigger swings while the left trigger throws up a block that must be timed perfectly with an enemy's attack. The weapons include pipes, sledge hammers, a crow bar, a plank of wood, and even the arm of a mannequin. Each one has a different rating for damage, speed, block, and reach adding a bit more depth than wildly swinging whatever is handy at the moment.

Correctly blocking an incoming attack will cause enemies to become disoriented for a brief moment allowing players to move in for an extra whack. There are also a limited number of projectile weapons including a pistol, shotgun, a high powered machine gun, and a taser that Agent Thomas always keeps handy. Blasting enemies is fun, but the game shines when combat gets up close and personal. Enemies can be disarmed after they are hit with a shock tazer but if they come to their sense while players are too near they'll jump on Thomas. This initiates a mini-game where players must shake the analogue sticks to break free. My attempt ended with a swift head butt to the face which blurred my screen and blurred my vision. While I was stunned, the attacker dove back into the shadows and prepared another assault.

Condemned also has a set of finishing moves that are by far the most violent aspect of the game. When an enemy is near death, they fall to their knees and Thomas can hit the d-pad to initiate one of four disturbing finishers. These include a kick to the face, a neck snap, and face squishing head ram, and life-ending punch. Every hit that connects in Condemned looks and feels solid and painful but these moves take brutality to a whole new level.

The behavior of the enemies is far more intelligent than the mindless drones presented in zombie oriented games. The maniacs will duck behind cover, wait around corners, and run away when they know they've been bested. Some of the mindless addicts will even turn on each other at which point it's a good idea to let them duke it out.

The developers at Monolith have had plenty of experience working on the PC so they were well prepared for creating a hi-end experience for the 360. So far Condemned looks like it is going to be successful at presenting an ultra realistic trek through some very dark and disturbing areas. Players spend the game exploring abandoned buildings, condemned department stores, and vacant subways, and everything has an extremely high level of detail. Although the settings feel similar in general every wall is unique and players won't find repetitive textures and rooms. Even more key than the realistic visuals is the excellent use of sound. Many of the areas in the game are dimly lit, so listening for footsteps or an object falling off of a shelf can tip players off to danger lurking just around the corner.

Condemned has revealed itself to be more interesting than we previously suspected and its one title that I'll definitely be keeping my eyes on as we approach the system launch. We'll have more information on Condemned coming soon.

Condemned: Criminal Origins Goes Gold for the Microsoft Xbox 360 game console


SEGA of America, Inc. announced today that its upcoming first-person psychological thriller Condemned: Criminal Origins has gone gold for the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system from Microsoft. SEGA confirms the game will ship throughout North America on November 22 to coincide with the launch of Xbox 360.

Condemned: Criminal Origins allows players to experience a heightened level of psychological tension as they use their instincts, forensic tools, and melee combat to track serial killers and bring them to justice. Presented in a first-person view for maximum visceral effect, this atmospheric thriller highlights the power of next-generation hardware with photo-realistic backdrops, life-like physics, and highly sophisticated artificial intelligence.

The hunt for a serial killer has never been so realistic, as players experience 360-degrees of terror.

Condemned: Criminal Origins - Preview (Xbox 360)

Washington-based developer Monolith’s foray into the next-generation of gaming begins with the psychological thriller, Condemned: Criminal Origins. It was one of the first Xbox 360 games announced, and while our time with the game at E3 was encouraging, where Monolith has come since then is what’s truly impressive. At X05 and earlier this week, we were able to explore multiple missions to get a real feel for what you’ll be able to expect come mid-November.

For those of you unfamiliar with Condemned, the game is a first-person psychological thriller that puts you in the shoes of Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who is framed for murder while on the trail of a serial killer. It has that whole, Seven meets Silence of the Lambs thing goin’ on that makes your skin crawl. After playing through these missions, it’s evident that Monolith has absolutely nailed the atmosphere, and this could be the most immersive thriller to date.

The tutorial level begins as Ethan is called to a fresh murder scene; so fresh in fact that the cigarette smoke of the killer still fills the air. The so called “Matchmaker” killer is known for using mall mannequins as props for his victims. As if a dingy, lightless, dilapidated building wasn’t scary enough, investigating a strangulation with a tuxedo-wearing mannequin sitting at the table is just plain creepy.

Moving about is simple enough, just like any first-person style game. Being that Ethan is part of the Serial Crimes Unit (SCU), he relies on a combination of forensic tools and instinct to solve crimes. It’s obvious that Monolith is trying to make Condemned easy enough for the mainstream consumer in the hopes to draw in more than just the hardcore crowd. The controls are very simple to master and rather than having to fish through a bunch of forensic tools, the game essentially tells you which item to use in a particular situation. It’s still up to the gamer to explore the scene and collect the evidence, which can take some time, depending on how quickly you pick up on things. It is obvious that playing a game like Condemned on an HDTV will actually improve the gameplay as you’ll be able to better distinguish clues. Ok, that’s our shameless HDTV plug.

When it is apparent that the killer is still within the building, the detective that called Ethan onto the scene goes to investigate along with another officer. Just like in any good thriller, you can see where this is going. The two cops bite the big one and while pursuing the killer, Ethan is knocked unconscious while trying to fix a fuse box. Enter, the Matchmaker as he takes Ethan’s pistol and exits, stage left. Handguns and other firearms are to be found, but in a very limited supply. Much of the combat is of the melee style; either with fists or with various objects strewn about the environment. While bats and a fire ax are obvious weapons, you’ll be able to actually rip certain objects from a building; a water pipe or wooden brace for example. Each melee weapon has specific attributes that you’ll need to be wary of. A pipe hold up better over the long haul, but it doesn’t inflict as much damage as a nails protruding 2x4. Some items, have dual uses; the crow bar, for example, can be used to pry open a safe or a locked door, or you can use an axe for a “Here’s Johnny” entrance.

What really grabbed our attention was the perfect transition between in-game real world sequences, and Ethan’s hallucinations and “mind’s eye” moments. The change to a grainy, black and white effect, along with the disturbing images, will have you calling for Mommy. Hey, if it makes us jump in the middle of broad daylight with hundreds of people around us, it’s scary.

This is a game where always being on the offensive isn’t the best strategy. The crackhead-like foes, despite their appearance, are quite competent in battle. Therefore, taking a block and counter approach works wonders. Melee attacks can also stun the enemy long enough for you to grab a shotgun, or other beneficial piece, out of their possession. The impact, both on enemies and on Ethan, is spot on. It’s almost like you wince in pain when getting smashed up side the head with a pipe. Once you knock out a crackie (our name for them), they do wilt in an over-the-top, rag doll fashion, but it’s all in good fun.

Statistics are tallied in each mission, including your favorite type of weapon, number of enemies killed, the hit ratio for both melee and firearm attacks, and so on. Condemned will also entice gamers to find a number of hidden items throughout each level; dead birds and metal pieces to be exact. The birds will contribute to unlockable items as well as your achievements shown on Xbox Live. The metal pieces appear to have a bit more value, as we’re told they will affect the ending of the story, depending on the number found.

Condemned: Criminal Origins - Features


Developed by award-winning Monolith Productions for Xbox® 360™ Condemned: Criminal Origins™ allows players to experience a heightened level of psychological tension as they use their instincts, forensic tools, and melee combat to track serial killers and bring them to justice. As Agent Thomas, an investigator in the FBI’s Serial Crimes Unit (SCU), you will pursue relentless serial killers through urban environments filled with sociopaths lurking on the periphery of humanity. Weapons and ammunition are scarce, leaving the you vulnerable to a gallery of mentally deranged criminals. Careful detective work and precision reflexes are your primary means of survival.

Realistic first-person view: Gives players the maximum visceral effect.
Next-generation lighting, mapping, and filtering: New graphics techniques provide for environments of unprecedented detail and visual quality.
Intelligent enemies: Bad guys respond strategically to your offensive and defensive maneuvers.
High-level physics: Allows players to manipulate background items, which respond realistically when picked up, kicked, or bumped.
Fresh characters and plot: A tightly wound story is backed with strong character development and major plot twists.
Surround Sound: Meticulously crafted surround sound will cue players to the location of off-screen enemies.

Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360)

Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360)