Having worked in emergency services in the past, I find it endlessly amusing how the media portrays forensics. While I’m sure employees in actual forensics labs in major metropolitan areas have access to better resources & technology than a 911 dispatcher in a medium-sized county, I can tell you that nothing is as instantaneous as what’s shown in movies, TV shows & games. I’ve run & entered plenty of articles in NCIC (the federal government’s National Crime Information Center) & even simple searches like pulling up warrants on a person can take a while to go through. I can’t even imagine how long it would take for a computer to run an analysis on something as complex as DNA or fingerprints & sort through all the records on file. So it cracks me up when games like Condemned: Criminal Origins have futuristic gadgets that can take high-res photos of fingerprints & measure the chemical composition of blood without so much as a sample. UV light does not work that way.
In Condemned: Criminal Origins, we take the role of FBI detective Ethan Thomas, who specializes in tracking down serial killers in a city run rampant with crime. After responding to a call from an officer on duty to investigate a grisly crime scene, Ethan quickly finds himself on the wrong end of the bureau after an unknown assailant murders two officers with his gun. Aided by his lab tech Rosa & a mysterious old man who seems to know more than he lets of, Ethan begins to hunt the killer down to clear his name. However, while pursuing this “Serial Killer X”, he slowly begins to uncover that there’s more going on in the city, & these random acts of violence might not be so random.
Condemned is a first-person survival horror/action game, with equal emphasis on both features. While traversing cramped & creepy locals, you’ll find plenty of weapons to arm yourself with to fight off the legions of crazed miscreants, ranging from rifles to 2×4’s. The combat emphasizes blocking & dodging while waiting for an opportunity to knock your opponents out. You’ll also come across portions where Ethan will have to use his forensics tools to help point him in the right direction. The game will prompt players when this is necessary, & the tools can’t be used without a prompt.
Narrative: I can’t help but have mixed feelings for the game’s narrative. On the one hand, the story is nicely self-contained, with a resolution to Ethan’s main goal while also leaving enough questions open for a sequel (which I’ll be starting soon). But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that there’s not a lot of progression during the story. It feels like a lot of nothing happens. Okay, we’re chasing this mysterious killer, & there’s a clear reason why we go to each level. But we don’t really learn much about what’s going on until the last few levels. So I guess it’s a problem with pacing. What’s presented is interesting, when it’s there, but it mostly felt like the developers came up with the creepy levels first then thought of a reason for Ethan to go there.
The characters are average. Ethan doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but I felt he reacted like a normal person would to the stuff going on around him. The other characters don’t leave a lasting impact, though they serve their purposes well enough. I did find myself intrigued about SKX, especially when the game reveals the motives behind his crimes, which is good for aiding the mystery of the game. But as I stated before, they didn’t utilize it well. When we actually meet him, he seems so interesting, but that’s the only time he talks to us. This is one of the few times I think notes or audio logs would’ve been useful. The game does show what he’s been doing, but it would’ve bolstered the story if we caught little snippets from his mind as we went. And it may come up in the sequel, but it never answers why he’s chosen to do what he does. He just went crazy & it’s related to the demon-things, & somehow Ethan’s part of it but didn’t know but the government did.
So overall, the mysteries presented are intriguing & have real potential, but I felt the strengths were underutilized. The narrative is serviceable enough to push you forward, but not what it could be.Score: 3
Mechanics: There are primarily three main components to the gameplay: combat, forensics & atmosphere. The combat in Condemned is often described as visceral, & I feel that’s very accurate. Although you can come across guns in the game, ammo is extremely limited, so most often you’ll be resorting to melee weapons. I loved the variety of weapons & how each had their own stats. Weapons like the fire axe or sledgehammer are slow, but have long range & great stopping power, while something like a small pipe is faster & better at blocking. My favorite weapons were the paper cutter & clothes rack. Ethan also has a taser to stun enemies temporarily, allowing you to get in close to disarm enemies. The first-person camera makes every encounter up close & personal, & you can feel every impact. It’s jarring, & can be disorienting, but that just adds to the realism in my eyes. My main complaints in this area are that Ethan moves so sluggishly. If you taze an enemy, it takes forever to run up to them, & they might not be stunned by the time you get there. I know it’s standard in a lot of games, but I’m not a fan of pushing down on the left analogue stick to sprint. It feels awkward to me. He’s also sluggish about switching from attacking to blocking, even with fast weapons, or switching from using the taser.
I felt that the forensics portions were laughable & poorly utilized, & not for the reasons in my intro. The game always prompts you when to use the tools, & you can’t use them any other time. They try to explain this by saying Ethan has a sixth sense for when evidence is nearby, which I’m fine with, but it doesn’t make for engaging gameplay. It doesn’t help that the game automatically selects the right tool & tells you exactly where to use it at. And then it tells you what the clues mean, almost treating me like an idiot. Gee, all these faces are crossed out with black x’s, & they just happen to all be killers. I wonder what that could mean?
The atmosphere is easily Condemned’s strongest aspect. My god, can this game make me tense! Even when there’s nothing going on, I’m just waiting for something to happen. It’s one of those games that makes you paranoid. You know something’s coming, & the longer it takes for something to happen, the more worried you get. For me, the best moments were in Bert’s Department Store & in the library’s burnt archives. In the department store, I made it my goal to kick every mannequin because I knew some were enemies. But after clearing the floor, to hear a male voice whisper, “You’re gonna die,” right behind me, just to turn around & find nothing… There was also a moment I accidentally discovered after falling down a hole in the library, breaking my flashlight & waiting for Rosa to get down there. With my back to the gate, watching the dark shelves, I paused to get a drink, expecting combat, when I saw my objective had changed to, “embrace… the.. truth.. join… us…”. Then, after the game made me think something was going to happen but didn’t, I turn around to see the gate gone & Rosa standing behind me, but then she hits me! Then everything goes back to normal like nothing happened. I love when games mess with me, & it’s moments like that that make Condemned a great example of horror.
So overall, while the forensics were disappointing & I had some problems with the combat, the atmosphere & sheer visceral impact of the melee more than makes up for it. Score: 4
Aesthetics: Hit & miss. Obviously this is an older game, so not all of the graphics have held up well. The character models suffer the most, being big & blocky, both in shape & in texture. Although you can only really tell when the camera’s close up. The environments look nice, in a suitably run-down kind of way, & there’s a nice variety of locals. I also liked that the enemies have very different designs, & their designs reflect their condition in the world.
The sound design is also nice in some areas but bad in others. The ambient noises are spot on. The music adds to the creepy atmosphere, & more than once my own footsteps through debris scared the crap out of me. I liked that you can usually hear enemies before you see them, both adding to the atmosphere & letting you know to get ready to fight. Some of the acting is okay. Greg Grunberg does a decent job as Ethan’s voice, & for the most part sounds believable. Peter Jacobs did a good crazy person’s voice as SKX (interestingly, he did several voices for the game that all sound different). But Rosa’s voice, Kimberli Colbourne, always sounded flat. Funnily, in the closing scene when she writes to Ethan that she’d wired by says he can trust her, her “acting” doesn’t sound different from her usual voice.
Overall, great atmospheric composition, but average presentation everywhere else. Score: 3
Replay Value: Average. Although nothing changes in a second playing, aside from maybe changing Ethan’s choice of what to do with SKX in the very end (which doesn’t alter the ending), I can see people replaying this just to enjoy the experience again. Some of the scares lose their impact, but the atmosphere remains just as tense. Score: 3
Final Score: 3
Final Word: Condemned: Criminal Origins has some excellent horror elements, but its age, meandering story, & poorly utilized forensics hold it back. However, the nail-biting atmosphere & visceral combat make it a worthwhile experience for anyone who enjoys a good scare.
Title: Condemned: Criminal Origins
Consoles: PC & 360
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publishers: Sega & Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Release Date: November 16, 2005