Condemned: Criminal Origins

Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Monolith Productions

“Condemned: Criminal Origins” (or as Japan calls it, “Condemned: Psycho Crime”) is a first-person “psychological horror” game released in 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360. It was met with average reviews at the time, but it’s an interesting (if not widely recognized) contribution to the horror genre. As such, I think that it deserves the retrospective treatment!

The game begins with an FBI agent, Ethan Thomas, on a routine murder investigation in a bad part of town for the SCU (Serial Crimes Unit). True to horror fashion, events at the crime scene take a turn for the worse. An unknown assailant overpowers Agent Thomas and kills two police officers with his gun, leaving Ethan accused of their deaths. Aided by a family friend, Malcolm Vanhorn, he takes to the streets to continue his investigation and clear his name. The only other person he can count on is a sympathetic lab-tech named Rosa, who helps Ethan analyze evidence by phone. With only these few resources, he must work his way through a city gone mad, on the trail of a serial killer… <cue dramatic music>

Gameplay

“Condemned” can be considered a first-person shooter, but only in a limited sense. The majority of the combat consists of bludgeoning your opponents to death by any means necessary. Improvised weapons are the tools of the trade here. Everything from sledgehammers to metal pipes can be found in each level. Each of these weapons differs in speed, range, and power, but not enough make them too unbalanced in a fight. Your weapon choice will come down to a combination of preference and availability. You also have the ability to perform a kick that can stun an enemy, possibly causing them to drop their weapon. While it’s more effective as a defensive move, a well-placed kick can take out some weakened enemies.

Special weapons, while not particularly rare, are made available in order to either progress through the level or access an otherwise unreachable area. These weapons — which include the fire axe, sledge hammer, crowbar, and shovel — can either be found or taken from an enemy. Need that wooden door out of your way? Take a fire axe to it. Need a lock off that gate? Hit it with a sledgehammer. Since the player can only carry one weapon at a time, it often forces you to forgo your weapon of choice in order to continue through the level. These “utility” weapons are slow to swing but heavy-hitting. While this style of weapon is perfectly viable in combat, the lack of speed is a liability against most enemies.

If nothing else, “Condemned” manages to make close-quarters combat feel real, brutal, and unforgiving. The combat can feel sluggish at times, but there’s flow to it that can lead to some satisfying moments. The biggest thing that I took away is that your attacks actually have weight. Individual enemies are not to be taken lightly — this is not a hack-n-slash. Each opponent poses a real threat if you don’t keep up with their movements. Even landing a solid hit will result in with a retaliatory swing after they’ve recoiled in pain. They will sometimes turn and run away, forcing you to go on the offensive.

The real trick, however, is learning to time your blocks and attacks. Your opponents will often use fake swings to throw you off. It can be frustrating when you block too early and still get a face full of rebar. Since the block has a bit of a delay (to prevent spamming, I imagine), a failed attempt can essentially leave you defenseless. Each subsequent blow seems to land immediately in between each attempt to block. If there’s one major issue that will frustrate players, it’s how clunky and slow the game seems to handle. You’ll often find yourself blaming the controls for many untimely deaths.

Having to fight multiple enemies further complicates the combat. There’s simply not enough time to block two attacks from different directions without taking some serious damage. There’s a reason that you’re rarely forced to fight more than one thug at a time. However, you can use their homicidal temperament to your advantage by getting them to fight each other. Then it’s just a matter of finishing off the winner, preferably before he remembers that he’s not alone.

Once you’ve caused enough head trauma, enemies will sometimes fall to their knees and allow you to perform a finishing move. Each of the four finishing moves allows Ethan to get in their ugly face and headbutt them, snap their neck, smash their face into the ground, or simply punch them in the face. Sometimes it’s nice to end a particularly annoying opponent with a more hands-on approach.

If you grow weary of cracking heads, there are the occasional firearms to be had. Found both in the hands of enemies and lying around, these guns replace your current melee weapon. Just don’t think that you’ll go guns-blazing with them, because they each come with a very limited amount of ammo, and can’t be reloaded. If you’ve run out or just don’t want to waste ammo, the gun can be used as a melee weapon. But be warned: repeated use as such will cause it to break — leaving you without a weapon, and losing any ammo left in it. Even their intended use of putting bullets into your foes has its limits. For some reason, a deranged hobo can take three shotgun blasts to the chest before dying, essentially making guns a short-lived advantage.