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SummaryAn incredibly effective mixture between gripping horror and smooth gameplay
The GoodCondemned: Criminal Origins tells the heart-breaking story of how the FBI is having a tremendous crisis regarding the hotness of their hottest hot-shot agents and they have to resort to some painfully mediocre jackasses to cover those positions. At least that's what one would infer from first 10 minutes of the game. Right off the bat, Ethan Thomas, our man inside the screen, needs to be steered in little baby-steps through a forensic investigation so basic you feel like screaming "Just take the stupid picture of that mutilated face, already, you moron!!!", gets fooled into venturing solo into the gaping mouth of a mad wolf that's an abandoned building crawling with demented junkies, falls into the most stupidly obvious ambush and gets his gun stolen, gets framed for the murder of two police officers (one of them is his boss, no less), and starts taking orders from some deranged-looking character he sort of thinks he vaguely remembers having seen during his childhood.
And then the game starts. Hey, game, is it too late to switch sides? I don't have a good feeling about how my team will make with such a player...
But wait!!! WAIT, WAIT, WAIT!!! don't be so quick to dismiss this game yet! The story can get silly at times, and Ethan sure counts among the dumbest jackasses in gaming history, but there's plenty of good stuff to say. Let's see.
Well, the first point that raises eyebrows everywhere is undoubtedly that thing about the combat being exclusively melee-based. In a first-person perspective game. That can't possibly work, right? I mean, we've actually seen that before, and we know that, in a FPS game, melee combat is something you fall back to when you're just one step above completely lost, and it's always a pain in the ass... However, lo and behold, I found this system to work unexpectedly well and had no problem getting used to it within minutes. And, within some more minutes, I was actually enjoying it.
Here's how the invention goes: With the right mouse button you block incoming attacks for a fraction of a second, and with the left mouse button you attack. A successful block makes your enemy bounce back and leaves him momentarily open for a hit. All of that applies equally for both player and enemies. And that's about it. It's pretty much all about timing those movements correctly: If you fail at successfully blocking or you bounce back at an enemy block, there's a high chance you're gonna get your ass kicked. And Ethan can't take too many hits before going down for good, either.
All that might sound hard, I know it immediately made me think of Prince of Persia, which has a similar feature and it's nearly impossible to time it correctly, but fortunately in Condemned there's a somewhat generous time frame for every action and reaction inside which you can act, so you don't need a strict clockwork-precision. But still, you do need to stay on your toes. And because of that, the very combat system is probably the main atmosphere-building factor. The thing is, this rather constricting system forces you to be on edge at all times and, adding that to the creepy flashlight-lit visuals and the unnerving, Silent Hill-esque soundscape, Condemned ends up being one of the top-3 out-and-out scariest games I've ever played; the other two being Silent Hill 1 and Silent Hill 3, in case you're wondering. Actually, in my eye, this game gives both of them a run for their money because it manages to immerse you in a tense, creepy atmosphere in which you feel overpowered by your foes (only not through the use of a crappy combat interface you'll avoid as much as possible, but rather one that's as challenging as it is enjoyable), and you're not only scared because the visuals or the sound are eerie on their own, but because at all times you know you're in actual danger, up-close and personal. And the first person perspective makes this sensation all the more palpable.
Other than the melee combat, Ethan has a taser gun that can stun -or even kill some- enemies at a distance (although you need to wait for it to recharge in order to take a second shot, so you should use it with caution) and a fairly powerful kick that pushes them back. There are some firearms to be found here and there, but they're scarce and they can't be reloaded. Actually, the "R" key -usually mapped for "reload"- is used to check how much ammo the current gun has left.
The fact that most of the weapons in the game are things like lead pipes, pieces of wood, bent rebars and such, which most of the times you either pick up from piles of garbage or even yank off the very scenery, helps a lot with the general sense of hopelessness that constantly haunts you while you navigate the desolated, derelict locations of the game.
The AI is something to be praised. Sort of. The thing is, if you pay close attention, you'll notice that the enemies have like 5 or 6 different behavior patterns and they just seem to choose them at random. However, not counting the moments when they run away in the middle of a fight and "hide" like 20 feet away in plain sight as if they were expecting to ambush you with that (WTF?), for the most part their behavior patterns complement each other so well that it actually looks like the enemies are being smart at fighting. The main problem is that you can make them fall in all sorts of really dumb traps too easily (including getting them to killing each other), with which the whole illusion falls apart. Still, they do have some neat moments, like this time I *thought* I heard footsteps nearby and I made a quick 180º turn, and I saw this sneaky motherf***er tip-toeing behind me!! --and then, just as we made eye contact and before I could react, he smashed my face with a lead pipe. That was a good one.
The design of the maps is especially commendable, in the sense that it's clever and complex enough as to give enemies plenty of opportunities to try and ambush you; again, helping with the whole stay-on-your-toes thing we've been talking about.
The story is not particularly complex or anything, but it's told in such a way that it comes out somewhat odd and worth of some analyzing. I especially liked how the very foundation of the plot constantly goes back and forth between whether you're just a FBI agent chasing a regular serial killer among a bunch of demented junkies (wich might or might not be associated in some way), or there's actually some supernatural threat underlying the whole thing. Even the ending is abstract enough so you can draw your own conclusions in that regard. While we're at it, it's almost mandatory to uncover as many bonus documents as possible (especially the Propaganda Reports you get by collecting metal plates), as there's information in them that will clear up a lot of things.
Being sort of a psychic, Ethan has frequent visions that give him clues regarding the recent activities of the serial killer (or is it killers? dun-dun-DUN!!!) he's chasing. These visions are represented by scripted scenes in which things turn all kinds of crazy, starting as brief flashbacks, and then escalating throughout the game until you find yourself playing in a warped version of the place you're in (something that reminds the "Reverse Side" of Silent Hill) and you start getting visions of what might or might not be future events. These sequences managed to catch me off-guard about 90% of the time and either made me jump on my seat or made my skin crawl for minutes on end until things returned to "normal" (and it's not like a derelict department store full of mannequins casting eerie shadows is a nice place to be back into, either). To be honest, most of these events, and particularly the special effects used in them, resemble those in F.E.A.R. just a little too much; but, overall, I found Condemned to be way more effective in the creeping-out dept.
There's a little thing I found worth mentioning and it's the, let's say, strange stylistic choices the designers made regarding the characters. To put it bluntly: They're ugly. It might sound trite and even a little stupid, but think about it: When was the last time you played a game in which the main character was a slightly overweighted latino? And how many times was your trusty female sidekick a black woman around her 50's? In a world where everyone seems to be either studs with tight shirts and perfect hairdos that made a career in the military before their mid-20's or hot chicks with gigantic breasts who wear minuscule thongs in sub-zero temperatures, playing a game starred by weary, old, ugly, normal people feels almost revolutionary.
Pretty much every complaint I can make is related to the game's advertising blurb and how it goes from slyly misguiding to flat-out stinking lying. Let's see:
• Next-generation lighting, mapping, and filtering techniques provide for environments of unprecedented detail and visual quality.
OK, I've had it up to here with bumb-mapping. I never found it especially attractive and I certainly can't understand what is it that makes most people love it so much, especially considering the brutal performance toll it takes when applied, but I finally reached a point in which I definitely hate it. Let's take a look at Condemned: At first sight, you might think it looks gorgeous. However, a closer investigation reveals this is yet another game whose nice looking is relying almost exclusively on a lot of bump-mapping over really, really ugly, blurry, little-if-at-all filtered textures. This makes the game tremendously power-hungry, and while for the most part it works fairly well, there are a bunch of cutscenes where some facial close-ups make painfully clear just how crappy the textures really are.
• Engage in furious hand-to-hand combat.
The combat interface, as enjoyable as I think it is, could use some variety--OK. Let's rephrase that bit: The combat interface BEGS for some variety. Badly. You have four different Mortal Kombat-like coup-de-grace moves to finish a stunned enemy, but you get only one regular hitting movement. What the hell is that about? The hitting animation changes depending on the direction you're moving, true, but it's just a cosmetic change. The combat is as basic as they come, and, again, even though I did enjoy it a lot, it's so repetitive most people might find it tedious after a little while. At they very least, Condemned should have taken a clue from the simple yet tremendously effective combos in Chronicles of Riddick.
• Use sophisticated forensic tools to investigate crime scenes and uncover evidence in this intense one-of-a-kind psychological thriller.
Ethan is somewhat of a forensic hot-shot, as I think I mentioned earlier, and as such the puzzles in the game promise a lot of CSI-like evidence gathering and examination. The problem here is that this enticing idea is ruined by the fact that the work is pretty much all done for you: The game practically steers you through the entire process, and it even chooses the right forensic tool in every situation. You have almost no saying in solving the puzzles, other than pointing the tool in the direction the game tells you to, and clicking a button. What could've been a nice, original type of puzzle becomes something that's so simplistic you can't help but feeling they're treating you like a moron.
• A tightly wound story is backed with strong character development and major plot twists.
And speaking of morons, I found it really odd how the story is a rather challenging, at some points almost abstract bizarre where you need to put pieces together on your own and even unlock a number of bonus documents in order to get what the hell was that all about; and on the other hand the main character is astonishingly stupid, and he needs to have every single thing that happens spelled out for him, which most of the times results in characters over-explaining some really simple events, which just feels dumb.
• High-level physics allow players to manipulate background items, which respond realistically when picked up, kicked, or bumped.
The game does feature a nice physics engine, but since the only way to interact with the environment is to hit or kick stuff, this point is pretty much irrelevant. And you don't even break stuff unless it serves a purpose in the game.
• Stay alive using any weapon you can from firearms to lead pipes to whatever you can prey from the fully interactive environment.
Whoa, calm down there, marketing guy!!! OK, so you do improvise your arsenal by picking up stuff from the environment, but "fully interactive" -pardon my french- my f'ing ass: Before you're done through the second level you already know and can easily recognize which particular objects you can use as weapons, and not only they're always the same, there aren't too many of them either.
There are some particular objects such as axes, sledgehammers and crowbars which you not only can use as weapons, but they're also needed to clear up different kinds of obstructions. However, you'll probably want to drop them as soon as you've cleared your path, since they're so slow they're pretty much useless in combat and, while they are noticeably strong, some enemies can inexplicably resist being hit in the middle of the nose with an axe. Speaking of which, I don't know what the hell they were thinking when they included the firearms: Even though the models have localized damage and certain body zones are more vulnerable than others and whatnot, there are a couple of enemies that can take up to 5 shotgun blasts to the face at point blank range. That's impossibly retarded. If you don't want me killing your boss character with one hit, don't leave a shotgun laying around in the vicinity, dumbass.
The Bottom Line
It's been a while since a game doesn't give me the creeps like this one did. Games like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth did have a really effective horror atmosphere, but this one surpassed pretty much everything I've played since the first and third Silent Hill's. I found myself genuinely scared when investigating certain areas. During my first playthrough I even avoided some rooms, the tension I was feeling was so strong. There's a level that takes place in an abandoned department store with a bunch of mannequins scattered here and there that really got to my nerves, especially when some of them start moving... As a fan of horror games, the shockingly effective atmosphere of Condemned alone grants it a honor seat among my all-time favorites.
The combat system is simplistic and repetitive, but it's also responsive and smooth enough as to get me to play the entire thing through all over again once I was done. Still, the ability to perform at least some basic combos would've been greatly appreciated.
The worst part of the game are undoubtedly the puzzles: The enticing promise of crime scene investigating armed with high-tech forensic tools translates into the most stupidly simplistic excuses for puzzles I've seen in quite some time.
All in all, I think Condemned is a great game. In a way, it reminds me of The Suffering, as both are equally effective at delivering a genuinely terrifying atmosphere and enjoyable gameplay, two things we rarely see coming together.