Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Condemned: Criminal Origins (360)

Best Dressed 2006 - Murdering Psychopath category.

If you’re the sort of person who finds themselves wondering ‘Why am I not soaked in my own urine often enough?’, then this review may appeal to your senses, and moreover Condemned: CO might just be the sort of game that you’ve been looking for your whole life.

Taking place in a world that apes David Fincher’s Se7en about as much as is possible without a team of friendly solicitors beating down publisher Monolith’s office doors, Condemned succeeds, as a lesser-spotted launch title, in foreshadowing some of the signature moves in the Xbox 360′s repertoire, such as it’s world that eschews bright colours and any remnants of positivity in place of a world that is murkier, more busted, and grittier than that piece of grit that you found in the yellow box by the road. In short, it is gritty. You play the part of Serial Crimes Unit’s Ethan Thomas (voiced by Greg Grunberg of ‘I can hear stuff!’ fame in Heroes) who is wrongly accused of murdering two of his bestest buds in what should have been a routine search of somewhere very murky and gritty, but which unfortunately got a little too murky and gritty for everyone’s liking. Everyone, that is, excepting Alan Rickman’s complete doppelgänger: the antagonist known only as ‘Serial Killer X’.

The gameplay revolves principally around two themes: fighting jacked-up tramps, and CSI-esque forensic crime-solving. These distill into two discrete experiences: creeping around in the dark with your flashlight being so scared that you can hardly remember your own name, and then secondly standing in the dark over dead bodies or piles of blood, listening out for jack-up tramps and generally being so scared that you can hardly remember your own name. Let it be known: Condemned: CO is really bloody scary. I would go out there and say it’s one of the scariest games that I have ever played. Combat in the game is divided between ranged weaponry (pistols, rifles, etc) and visceral blunt objects like the Steam Pipe, or the Crowbar, which become ever-increasingly soaked in your victims’ blood. I won’t lie to you, it is satisfying to see, but equally disturbing.

Which leads us neatly to the topic of the games visuals. One of the things I enjoy most about reviewing games long after most have put them to pasture is that you get a much greater sense of their influence, alongside a comparison of how they hold up to the standards of today. At around 5 years old, Condemned surprisingly does not look bad at all. As previously mentioned, the murky atmospheres have become some the 360′s defining landscapes and so in many ways they seem just as contemporary as your typical Gears of War experience. What’s that? Gears of War is old too? Ahh shaddupayaface. The only minor criticism I found was that Ethan Thomas’ face can, during cutscenes, resemble an over-inflated cartoon balloon, although for some this might help to detract from the sheer terror of being chased by a crazed man with an axe.

The sounds in the game are wonderful. The title uses a lot of ambient music similar to the eerie sounds of Se7en. It might seem lazy to draw that same comparison again, but it is without a doubt that the makers due substantial influence from the movie. And that is not to say that has been casually lifted either, for the game could serve as a beautiful spiritual sequel to Fincher’s 1995 classic. Asides from the ambient noises, most of what you will hear are people screaming at you, cursing at you, or long, tense phonecalls with your forensics department friend and ally, Rosa. The use of sound is sparse, and that is where the real strengths lie in creating such an intimidating atmosphere from start to finish.

For the achievement hunters out there, the game will give you a fair few on your first playthrough, mostly through little effort from yourself. The toughest to get involve collecting dead birds and shards of metal from the games’ ten levels, which can involve much searching, moving of tables, and opening of cabinets. There are awards for completing the game without using guns, which is easier said than done in parts, and then one for using every single weapon in the game at least once. This achievement seems to have its fair share of glitches, and many online have reported problems with it. Suffice it to say that if you really want it, you’re but a weapons checklist and two days away from it. An added bonus, and one which could be put to great use in titles since, is the unlocking of concept art and videos alongside each achievement. These range from repeated drawings of your foes right up to a reasonably long video detailing how Condemned looked in its prototype stages, when it was known as The Dark. I found it to be particularly interesting, and to be honest it was perhaps the most exciting of the lot, simply to see how what looks like a reasonably completed effort can so dramatically change before release.

Lastly, it is also one of the rare few titles on the 360, and perhaps a bad idea for a launch title for this reason, that possesses no multiplayer whatsoever, be it locally-based or on Xbox Live. If anything, this only helps to ramp up the dreadful sense of loneliness that pervades the experience of Condemned: CO. Certainly, when I initially played the game at launch, it made me feel so left out from what was happening with my friends on Live that I stopped playing it, or perhaps that’s just what I told myself to get over the fear..

A quick of my favourite leading online games retailer tells me that you can pick up Condemned: Criminal Origins for under a fiver. That’s roughly the same price as a fast-food lunch, and I can promise you that Condemned: CO will stay with you for far, far longer.

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