Condemned: Criminal Origins – PC
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher(s): Sega, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date (NA): April 11, 2006
Genre: First-Person Shooter (Brawler)
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
The idea of a “realistic” first-person shooter isn’t an easy subject to tackle. After all, lots of people feel cheated having to leave behind guns that they have entire boxes of ammo for, just because they can only carry two at a time. What if you gave every gun a few shots and instead populated your levels with improvised melee weapons that both player and enemy could pick up and use against one another? You would have Condemned: Criminal Origins, a game that plays more like a brawler than a shooter, telling a tale of criminal intrigue and horror as the game mechanics put a little life and originality back into an otherwise tired genre. Close to a decade later, has its relevance faded too much, or is it still worth a swing of the sledgehammer? If you want to know the answer, pick up that lead pipe and follow me into the darkness of the criminal mind…
Condemned: Criminal Origins was released first for the Xbox 360 on November 16, 2005, and then released for the PC in April of the following year. It was developed by Monolith Productions, the same company responsible for First Encounter Assault Recon (F.E.A.R.) at about the same time in both years. Inspired by movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, the story follows Ethan Thomas, a federal agent whose latest investigation takes a startling turn when he’s framed for murder. Escaping into the city’s seedy underbelly, a world teeming with crazed addicts and psychopaths, Ethan has to track the real killer through an urban nightmare to clear his name. However, as he proceeds, he finds his own sanity slipping away as he experiences horrific visions — will the investigation’s end leave him the same person as when it began? The premise is admittedly not as developed as it could be, and I’ve summed up the story in those last couple of sentences, but it does have a few standout moments here and there. Sure, the whole game could stand out, but beggars can’t be choosers…
…or CAN they? As it happens, beggars and bums have a wide variety of weapon options available to them in Condemned: Criminal Origins, and you’ll need to get used to using everything at hand if you want to survive. These can include pipes of varying sizes, planks of wood with nails in it, concrete rebar, fire axes, sledgehammers, the works. They all have different advantages, with larger weapons having better reach and stronger damage, and smaller weapons being quicker and easier to block with, and there’s even a few weapons marked as “entry tools”, letting you use them to break open doors so you can progress through the game. Depending on your playstyle, you may find yourself favoring certain kinds of melee weapons, but there are a few handguns and shotguns available if you’re quick enough to steal them from the enemy. Unlike most shooters, a single shot from any gun is usually enough to drop just about any crazed hobo, though your ammo is limited to however many shots were in the gun when you found it, meaning you’ll want to steal that pistol from the addict as quickly as possible before he wastes it all on you.
There are a few more elements to this visceral combat engine that need to be explained: Condemned: Criminal Origins encourages a combat style similar to fencing, blocking your enemy’s attack and then swinging while you have the opening for a counter-attack. You can do this with your own weapon, or on occasion, you can use your taser to stun them and either steal their weapon away from them or hit them while they’re dazed, though it can’t be abused due to the recharge taking half a minute. You can also do a quick kick to disorient your opponent or simply compliment your melee attacks. And when your select hobo is nearly down for the count, sometimes they’ll fall to their knees and you can choose to do an execution-style move to finish them off, such as headbutting the crap out of them or snapping their neck…wait, aren’t you supposed to be the good guy here? No other elements of the game are quite as developed as the combat system, but it’s nice to see that they knew what people would buy the game for and concentrated their focus on that, cause it’s pretty fun.
Of course, there’s also the crime scene elements and the collectibles to consider. Condemned: Criminal Origins makes solving the crime scene puzzles pretty easy, since Ethan’s intuition means he’ll always pull out the right tool for the job and you just have to find out where to use it from there. It’s similar to the Detective Mode from Batman: Arkham City, except you can only use it in certain places and it’s merely there to advance the plot. The collectibles in this game are metal pieces and dead birds (odd choices, but okay), and taking the time and effort to find them all unlocks the game’s special content, as does completing certain conditions, like playing through the game without firing a gun or using every weapon in the game in a single playthrough. So sure, as a player, collecting metal pieces and dead birds may seem a big deal, but for Ethan, it just makes him look that bit closer to crazy, which the developers were probably going for. It is called “Criminal Origins” for a reason, and I wouldn’t put it past criminals to be fascinated by dead birds…I can name at least one who was, actually.
The environments of Condemned: Criminal Origins are pretty solid, given that the game is taking place in the abandoned and run-down sectors of the city, with levels ranging from an abandoned subway station to a shuttered department store, and from a library undergoing renovations to a dead high school. These areas are often littered with garbage and the lack of maintenance and care makes them look legitimately creepy. Many of these places are plagued by bad lighting, as you can’t have a horror game without dark shadows happening everywhere. Thankfully, it doesn’t overuse the darkness like Doom 3 tends to — there are many light sources in appropriate places that keep it from being a strain to see and help add a bit of dramatic lighting. That isn’t to say that the game wants you to be walking in the light: most of the time your levels take place at night, and the daytime ones usually happen when you’re indoors or in an outdoor area that you’re trying to move through as quickly as possible so that the police don’t spot you and start shooting. Clearly, you’re not the kind of guy who’s comfortable in society’s bright glow anymore.
Unfortunately, this is one of those games where the music takes a back seat. It’s not like Hotline Miami, where the music is just as much of an element of the bloodshed as the weapons and style you exact upon each level, it’s more that Condemned: Criminal Origins is meant to be realistic, and sadly, real life doesn’t typically feature people who chase down fights so that they can play the appropriate combat themes. The most you’ll get as far as music are things like the title theme, which you’re obviously going to appreciate only in the main menu and in between levels, with other tracks mostly residing in the game’s cutscenes, with few exceptions. The sound itself is done pretty well, which does mean more for a horror game, since the ambient value of every little bit of background making its own sound when you bump into it adds a lot to the atmosphere. Every backhand you give with your weapon and every groan from the psycho whose face you’re smashing in feels like they belong, there’s no show-stopping dissonance in quality that could break the mood. Games like this need to have a good audio foundation or it all falls apart, and thankfully this game wasn’t made by people who cheap out on the sound effects.
In summation, while it’s not the best game out there of its blanket genre, Condemned: Criminal Origins is the best at what it’s trying to be, a first-person brawler that really gets you into the desperation and danger close-up. The emphasis on melee fighting really helps this game stand out and be different from all of the other games out there that try to tell the same story over and over with different settings and weapons. I would recommend that you give it at least one full playthrough; it’s a nice departure from the norm, and a pretty respectable suspense title, even if its horror value doesn’t have the same weight as it might have when it was first released. And if you do end up liking this game, I also recommend that you do yourself a favor and pretend that this is the only game of its kind. Sure, I could recommend Condemned 2: Bloodshot to you, but if you liked the tight detective atmosphere and the subtle psychological horror, you won’t be getting the same kind of game as this one. They replace all of that with black-and-white evil mystical cults and give you the ability to scream at people until their heads explode.
So yeah, if you’re looking for a fun game with novel game mechanics, realistic plot elements, and a coherent story, this one is definitely the lesser of two evils.
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