Review: Condemned: Criminal Origins

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I feel disgusting. I’ve been beating homeless people and torture victims to death with a shovel in the ruins of a special ed school. This is so I can find a man missing an arm and part of his face so he can tell me about who did that to him, so I can find the guy hunting THAT guy. I might go back and do it all again, too, because I only found five of the six rotten bird carcasses hidden in that particular building.

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Welcome to Condemned: Criminal Origins, the most grotesque window into urban decay masquerading as a game I’ve ever experienced (and yes I’ve played Kingpin). You play FBI special agent Ethan Thomas as he tracks down a serial killer known as the Match Maker through the derelict underbelly of what I can only assume is Detroit. Your quest will take you through offices, schools, libraries, and estates, each one in an incredible state of disrepair. These ruins are populated with murderous hobos of all shapes and sizes, representing a mysterious psychosis affecting the city in relation to a plague of dead birds.

If that all sounds insane, you’ve got a good idea of what you’re getting into. The game starts with a clever forensics scene where you get to use a spread of investigative tools to extract clues from the Match Maker’s latest tableaux. Immediately thereafter the game shifts to skulking through dark halls and clubbing people with rebar. You’ll come across plenty more opportunities to use your forensics tools, of course, but those moments are islands in a sea of hobo blood. There are also simple puzzles to solve, often by finding a specific weapon like a crowbar or fire axe to pass a roadblock. Again, you’re going to have to kill a dozen people to find it, though.

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Combat-heavy games are usually light on horror, but Condemned is a remarkable exception to that rule. The vast majority of combat is hand-to-hand, with firearms being rare and brief escapes from bludgeoning foes. You’ll be armed just as your enemies are, with pipes pulled from walls or tools scrounged from garbage piles. Opponents often approach silently, lie in wait behind corners, and attack in groups, putting you at all sorts of disadvantages. But more than that, combat itself can be a tense and horrifying endeavor. Your character is fully modeled, meaning you have feet you can watch that slow you down when you turn or try to navigate stairs. This adds weight and a delay to your actions, along with a palpable sense of vulnerability. Hits also have weight to them, a sickening one at that, and your enemies grow more twisted as the game progresses.

The atmosphere of acute urban decay becomes one of the most effective parts of the horror, when you have gaunt, deranged vagrants crawling out of sewer grates and breaking down rotten walls to crack your skull open. Condemned does a fantastic job of making you feel alone and threatened in a world that SHOULD be benign. A subway station after hours becomes a nest of crawling degenerates, with creepy treks down the darkened tracks and desperate searches just to get past a jammed door or turnstile. The sound design contributes in a big way, filling the air with subtle, ambient dread and holding back stingers until they’re most effective.

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The few problems I do have with Condemned stem from its age. As good as the design is across disciplines, the graphics have aged rather poorly. The major characters are blurry, lumpy figures that resemble reskinned Gears of War characters for how bulky and hunched they are. You’ll also be seeing a lot of the same garbage piles copy-pasted throughout the lengthy levels. And while you’ll get a few chills out of seeing enemies scamper past the next doorway, they literally never stop using that spook and it actually starts to kill tension around the 30th time you see it.

There’s a lot more to recommend about Condemned than to criticize, of course. Both the horror and the combat are top-notch, the investigations are a great change of pace, the sound design is incredible (especially the voice overs, unexpectedly so), and the story helps keep you rolling forward even if it does end in a pretty weird place. It’s far from the prettiest game out there, and some of the design is very clearly from earlier FPSes, but if that won’t bother you there’s six to eight hours of spooks and splatter to enjoy. Condemned did a rare thing for me, which was scare me in a way I wanted more of, and it deserves plenty of praise and attention for that.

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