Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Post-Launch Review
Condemned: Criminal Origins (XBox 360)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Released: November 2005 (XBox 360) / April 2006 (PC)
Played: complete in 7h:22min


FBI agent Ethan Thomas is in pursuit of a serial killer known as the Match Maker when the situation starts to get out of control. A strange force is killing the areas birds and driving people to violent crime, while a new threat hunts the same murderers as Ethan.

At Launch

Condemned received positive reviews, with scores averaging 80%. Reviewers enjoyed the melee combat's brutality and nuance, as well as the environmental design and sound, but some found the story underdeveloped or confusing.

Post Launch

I didn't see evidence of any official patches.

Condemned was never a game that caught my eye - or even one that I'd heard of before a friend lent me his copy. He recommended it to me, but since I hadn't picked the game out on my own, it wasn't one I was excited to play - that is, until I realized it was made by Monolith, who also developed F.E.A.R., a game that had a lot of influence on me.

The visual style is almost identical to F.E.A.R.: mostly dilapidated abandoned areas with harsh, high-contrast lighting. A lot of the tension and horror buildup is also the same: large empty areas with only sound effects and slow, almost monotone background music, seeing things quickly move away from the corner of your eye, and occasional hallucinations or visions. While Condemned is great at building and maintaining tension, the horror and scares don't work as well as they could. The main problem is that most of the enemies are just crazy people or violent criminals that run at you with sticks. Not really that frightening.

Crime scene invesigation is kind of neat, but also underwhelming. You have all these fancy tools to find and scan evidence and upload it to the lab for analysis, which means that an investigation is just finding all the glowy bits and aligning your scanner correctly. No actual puzzle solving or anything.

I had been feeling there was something off about the melee combat, and then one level demanded that I fight like eight guys and it really pissed me off. My problem is that it doesn't feel consistent. The block time is very short, so it's hard to pull it off reliably. Different weapons seem to have different attack patterns, but it's often too dark to tell what weapon the enemy is using. And they'll pull feints to try to bait a block, or retaliate immediately after you hit them with an un-telegraphed swing. You might think this sounds satisfyingly complex, but I had a very hard time reading and reacting to enemy movement so whether I lived or died tended to feel pretty random - especially when I'm stuck with a piece of rebar and there are two tough enemies with shotguns firing at me simultaneously. I ended up deciding that the most effective strategy was to figure out exactly how far my weapon could reach, swing, and then back up, often ignoring the block and kick functions entirely.

I was also a little disappointed by the exploration elements. There are hidden collectibles to find, which is good. There are a lot of doors you can only open with a certain tool, but not enough optional ones. And since the game seems afraid of making you miss anything, the tool to open a door is always nearby, often in plain sight - to the point where you see an axe door and know there's an axe within a few rooms. On the bright side you never have to regret ditching that axe earlier, but it feels kind of contrived and predictable.

An AWFUL lot of plot threads were left hanging. Almost all of them, actually. The two primary ones - the serial killers and the supernatural influence on crime and birds - aren't ever linked directly. The loading screens indicate that they're connected, but otherwise you're just fighting crazy people for no reason. The only thing that wraps up completely is the serial killer. At the end I fought the telekinetic cyborg hate samurai, and apparently he was the cause of the violence and melting bird brains, but then Ethan becomes one for some reason? Maybe it has something to do with the redacted x-rays that were mentioned and never brought up again, or the cult that was established as a thing that exists but with no other information whatsoever. I'm told that there is a sequel but its ending is also extremely unsatisfying.

Overall, Condemned is a game that had a few good things going for it, but doesn't live up to its potential. The story feels disparate and unfinished, with many major and minor plot threads that don't really explain themselves or link up or conclude. I started to finally get the hang of the combat right at the end of the game - like, final boss - but most of the time it felt frustratingly random. On the positive side, atmosphere and effective tension are great.
I'd strongly recommend F.E.A.R. over Condemned. The games are very similar in a lot of ways, but F.E.A.R. is just better. I actually kind of want to replay it now because I haven't actually reviewed it.

Recommendation: don't play it.

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