When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005 the vast majority of early adopters chose to support titles such as Call of Duty 2 or Burnout Revenge, titles that were well known quantities. Early adopters seemed unwilling to take a chance on new unique titles. One such title that was criminally overlooked is Monolith’s Condemned: Criminal Origins. Published by Sega, Condemned is a dark detective horror title that has you chasing serial killers through the dark demented streets of a city gone mad in the USA.
You play as an FBI Agent named Ethan Thomas who is investigating a gruesome murder in a dark abandoned warehouse in a bad part of town. Unfortunately just as the police arrive at the crime scene a mass riot breaks out across the city, with legions of the city’s homeless going on a rampage. While searching the building for clues to the killer’s identity, and attempting to restore the power, Ethan is knocked unconscious. When he comes to he learns that two police officers have been murdered with his weapon, and that he is the prime suspect.
The rest of the narrative is a fairly convoluted mess revolving around conspiracies, masonic groups, latent psychic powers, and a serial killer that targets other serial killers, but the real selling point is the fantastic atmosphere. Condemned has some really strong sound design in the form of a tense ambient soundtrack and the frenzied ramblings of your deranged enemies. The high quality sound design, when coupled with the low level lighting, creates a genuinely frightening gameplay experience. There really is nothing quite as terrifying as slowly walking through a dimly lit warehouse, only to hear a mentally damaged hobo swearing to himself somewhere in the darkness.
The feelings of terror that the game creates are enhanced by the game’s combat mechanic. Firearms are quite rare in the game, and when you do find them they often only have a few bullets, so you’ll need to use them wisely. The key to surviving is to make use of the objects in the environment, such as metal pipes, slabs of concrete, and fire axes. While you can wildly swing your weapons about and hope for the best, the key to winning fights is blocking at the right time, causing foes to stagger, and then going in for the kill.
The combat system itself is simple, and has a real sense of weight behind it, which is further enhanced by the fact that all weapons can be damaged and eventually break. If you hit an enemy too hard too frequently you run the risk of breaking your weapon and leaving yourself exposed. This creates some gloriously tense brawls in which your weapon shatters over a hobo’s skull, forcing you to scramble about in the darkness as you try to find a new weapon.
During the course of the game you are tasked with investigating the numerous crime scenes you come across as you pursue your target. Ethan is fortunate enough to have an all in one evidence scanning tool that can take photographs, scan for bodily fluids, and trace smells, as well as upload all of the information he finds to the central database where a friend in the department can analyse your findings.
As you progress through the game you are able to unlock new abilities and tools, such as a taser. This can be used to stun enemies, allowing you to steal their weapon or, once it is fully upgraded, kill enemies in a single hit. The taser can only be used a set number of times on each level, so carefully picking your targets is vital, especially towards the end of the game when large hulking enemies attack you with blazing planks of wood.
To aid replayability there are a number of hidden objects in each level. These range from detective badges, static TVs, and dead birds; collecting these unlocks documents that fill out the game’s narrative further, offering some information on why so many people have started losing their minds.
A sequel was released in 2008 on Xbox 360 and PS3, taking place about a year after the events of the first game. Ethan Thomas, now an insane drunk suffering from paranoid delusions, is brought back to investigate another violent murder, and the increasing insanity in the city. This time there was a greater focus on gunplay, with an amusing mechanic revolving around drinking copious amounts of whiskey in order to steady your aim, and more psychic powers.
Boasting improved and more varied detective gameplay (investigations now revolved around analysing the crime scene yourself and answering questions about the crime), as well as substantial multiplayer modes, Condemned 2 was also criminally overlooked. While the game’s narrative became more over the top and bloody, descending even further down the supernatural path, it too was a genuinely tense experience.
In a world in which every other game released is a modern era military shooter it is a shame that more original expressive titles such as the Condemned games are not getting the support they deserve. If you are a gamer that is tired of playing Call of Battlefield of Honour type games year after year then you could do much worse than trying out either Condemned: Criminal Origins or Condemned 2. Just don’t play it in the dark with surround sound…
- Luke Mears