Condemned: Criminal Origins Review

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I don’t know why I play horror games. I usually never like them nor do I ever get the urge to replay any. Of course there are exceptions but for the most part I just stay away from the horror genre in general. They’re dark, dreary, depressing, and they’re just not for me. However, I’m not blind to good gameplay and I think the only reason I ever get interested in specific horror games is for the gameplay. That’s exactly why I played Condemned: Criminal Origins. I was intrigued by its focus on melee combat and thought to myself “what the hell, I’ll give it a shot”. I want to be clear that just because it’s a horror game doesn’t mean I automatically hate it. The game may not be for me but if the gameplay is up to par, I would still recommend it to others. Condemned: Criminal Origins was developed by Monolith Productions, the same developer that brought us Blood and even F.E.A.R. It was published by Sega and released for the Xbox 360 in November, 2005, and the PC in April, 2006. For this review, I played the PC version.

Condemned: Criminal Origins takes place in the fictional Metro City, at least that’s what I think it’s called. You play as FBI agent Ethan Thomas who is part of the Serial Crimes Unit, abbreviated SCU. The story opens with Ethan arriving at a crime scene in some run-down building where a woman has been murdered. Ethan believes the murderer to be a serial killer known as the Match Maker. Equipped with a flashlight, taser, and handgun, Ethan and the two police officers accompanying him start chasing down a suspect only for Ethan to accidentally drop his gun while trying to restore power to get the lights back on. The suspect uses his gun to kill the two officers, framing Ethan for murder. The rest of the story is about Ethan hunting down the real murderer and clear his name. I guess you could say the story is kind of in the mystery horror genre or maybe even psychological horror. Without spoiling anything the ending is really just… not good. It’s a shame because the story kept me intrigued all the way to the end only to be let down by some real nonsense. The voice acting of the main characters and during cut scenes is kind of hit or miss. I mean it’s not horrible by any means but it’s not phenomenal either.

The game has a focus on this crime scene investigation stuff where you can use forensic tools to gather evidence, find fingerprints, shit like that. Apparently Ethan has some form of special ability where he’ll occasionally see flashes of what transpired at a crime scene which I believe is just a storytelling device to make finding evidence easier. Whenever Ethan is near evidence like blood or prints or whatever, the game will let you know and that’s usually when these flashes occur. The forensic tool stuff is a neat mechanic the first time you do it but does get old after a while. You’ll have to whip out your forensic tools frequently and it’s all a matter of pressing one or two buttons to do everything so it’s not like it’s complex or even requires a ton of brain power. If you think you’re going to feel like Columbo or a Law & Order detective, think again. The game just guides you through every step of the crime scene investigation stuff. After gathering the evidence it’s immediately sent over to the crime lab where a woman named Rosa analyzes it and will call Ethan on his cell phone to inform him of the findings, among other things. The whole crime scene thing is a cool idea but I don’t think it was implemented all that well. It just feels like a gimmick more than anything.

After being framed and thrown out of a window, Ethan is saved by a friend of his fathers who brings Ethan back to his own apartment and after waking up he immediately goes on the run. Not only is Ethan after a dangerous serial killer but apparently he lives in the shittiest part of town. Some kind of crazy shit is going on so all of the homeless people, junkies, lowlifes, and scumbags have become extremely violent due to some supernatural forces. Apparently nobody is sane anymore in this city and everywhere Ethan goes are lunatics that are ready to kill him and each other. You’ll traverse through all sorts of mostly urban environments like the subway, back alleys, and a department store, and the one thing Condemned does well is nail the creepy atmosphere. Every location looks run-down and nasty, making it feel believable that homeless lunatics would live in these types of places. You’ll always be seeing shit that may catch you off guard like people running around, something moving in the corner, people just vanishing, and if you’ve played the original F.E.A.R., this won’t be anything new. The sound effects are also really well done. The sounds of shit moving around, screams, groans, coughs, people yelling, and even basic shit like foot steps, are exceptional and I would say the sound effects really carry the game all the way through.

I don’t know if I would call Condemned a first-person shooter. There are several guns to use but melee weapons are the real focus of the combat in this game and that’s also the reason I wanted to play this in the first place. You’ll be bashing lunatics in the head with almost anything you can find in the environment like pipes, wood planks, conduits, signs, rebar, and all kinds of other shit. Weapons will break after a while so don’t expect to get attached to any one weapon. Melee weapons are never hard to come by and they each have different stats that include damage, speed, block, and reach. Blocking is all about timing and you need to get good at it to survive in this game. Just holding the block button won’t help you and if you’re up against numerous enemies at once, knowing when to block can be the difference between life and death. The reach of some of the weapons in this game is questionable. I mean I could be standing in a spot that’s clearly far enough away but somehow enemies managed to land a hit. That’s the only part of the combat that gets annoying.

Overall, the melee combat can be quite fun, especially when you master the blocking. Smacking enemies and watching them spin around from the impact is pretty cool. They can block your swings as well as lean back to dodge they’ll even run away or hide behind walls waiting for you to approach. Enemies will sometimes drop their current weapons and grab another from somewhere nearby. If there’s multiple enemies you can sometimes just hang back and wait for them to kill each other off. They will attack each other and I always found it in my best interest to just wait it out and then kill off the remaining enemies. The enemies will vary in appearance but they don’t seem that much different in combat. The bigger and tougher enemies will take more hits to bring down but that’s about it. If they manage to grab you you’ll need to slide the mouse left and right so they let go but once you’ve fought one enemy, you’ve pretty much fought them all. There are some cool execution moves you can perform. If you manage to get an enemy to drop to their knees, you can ram, punch, slam, or snap their neck.

There are several guns in this game but the gunplay is really not that exciting. In fact, it just feels generic. There’s never ammo lying around so you’re limited to whatever ammo is in the gun when you pick it up. Guns will kill enemies quicker but I never felt like I was in any situation where I absolutely needed a gun. It’s obvious the developers didn’t want you running around guns blazing because that would definitely make the game too easy. There are several sections where you can use guns but it always felt more fun to use the melee weapons and because the gunplay is so generic, Condemned would make a terrible shooter anyway. Ethan is equipped with a taser and that’s probably the most useful weapon in his arsenal. After using the taser on an enemy you can grab the weapon from their hands while their incapacitated and use it against them. It’s a really helpful mechanic when up against enemies with guns.

Each chapter normally requires you to get from point A to B. Certain weapons are required to open specific doors, like fire axes and shovels for example, so this can add some minor backtracking when you need to find those specific weapons. It’s nothing compared to the Metroid games but every now and then I would get lost and considering Ethan moves like a fucking snail, navigation can become tedious. I think that’s my biggest problem with this game. Ethan moves as slow as shit. Movement is very limited. You can walk and sprint but you can only crouch and jump when you approach areas that require you to do so. Sprinting drains your stamina so you’ll have to wait for the stamina meter to refill and he just walks so damn slow. There’s no actual stealth mechanics so if you see an enemy then they see you so I don’t know why he has to move so slow. Maybe it’s to add a sense of tension but quite frankly I just think Ethan needs to move his ass. In fact, being able to move a little quicker during combat could be beneficial, especially if you need get away quickly.

Condemned is a linear game but there are some secrets to find. It came out in 2006 for PC and that’s also around the time achievement whores were born and the PC version does includes in-game achievements. There are birds and pieces of metal to find in each chapter as well as television sets. Other than finding health kits, these are the only reasons to explore. I believe the birds you collect are dead so why Ethan would even touch them is nasty but I think the dead birds have something to do with why everybody is going insane. That’s what I gathered from the internal reports you can read in between chapters, anyway. Unlocking achievements enables you to view concept art and other behind the scenes stuff but if you’re not interested in any of that then you may not even care.

I’m happy to say I had no serious technical problems with Condemned. I ran it on Windows 10 without any crashes or any serious visual glitches. This game came out back when when game developers didn’t know how to implement bloom lighting properly so some things are overly bright but I expected as much. Condemned also has this soft filter or something where everything looks like it kind of glows. I’m not sure of the correct terminology but I think Oblivion has this effect as well, which also came out in 2006, so if you’ve played that you should know what I’m talking about. I think some sound effects were either not playing or they’re just not in the game. There’s one sequence where Ethan is riding on the back of a subway car and there’s no sound effects for the car or the track or anything. Every now and then you’ll see pipes blowing out steam and again, no sound effects. I don’t know if this is normal but I’m guessing not.

I went into this game with the hope that there would be excellent melee combat and for the most part there is. Dare I say it’s even better than Oblivion and Skyrim’s combat. However, the game really starts off slow and when things do get going, it never feels like enough. There’s a lot of walking, stopping to gather evidence, and talking to Rosa. The first time you play, the tension may keep you on edge but that’s the problem with a game like this. Once you’ve beaten it you’ll know how things turn out so when you go back to replay it you’ll know what to expect. I could see this game being really boring the second or third time around. There’s just not enough melee combat, at least for me, and none of the fights were really memorable or anything. Condemned is a genuinely creepy game that’s all about atmosphere, mystery, and even story and I think it may appeal to horror fans. So for those who can get into dark and creepy atmospheric games, or even mystery games, I would say give it a shot. This is not a fast-paced or even action packed game. I would say it’s a story-driven first-person brawler with a forensic tool gimmick.

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