When it comes to scary games, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a mixed bag of good work and faded glory. Released almost a decade ago at the time of this writing, time has not treated this first-person beat-action-horror title as kindly as Monolith Productions' other, more memorable title, F.E.A.R., and it shows. To be fair, the game was originally released for the Xbox 360, and PC ports often suffer far more issues than games that are designed initially for multi-platform releases, but you'd think the developer would've bothered with some post-release polishing or patches over time. Unfortunately, they haven't, and so Criminal Origins fate rings true with its title, left to rot. Indeed, the entire series has since been abandoned after Condemned 2: Bloodshot received poor sales that discouraged Monolith from pursuing a PC version. Criminal Origins is available for $14.95 on Steam, though I'd recommend waiting for a sale rather than paying the whole price.
I feel that on some level the reliance on melee was part of a decision to slow down the pace of the game. Fights are relatively few and far between, with ambiance and atmosphere getting the maximum chance to sink in. However, while I recognize the design choice, I do think it could've been handled better. It's hard to put a finger on just what makes the game so frustrating and exhausting but there are numerous small things. The inability to skip cutscenes; being trapped in rooms by invisible walls while phone conversations provide exposition; the small spaces provided by the environment for combat that often lead to being trapped and swarmed by enemies; the long, boring back-tracking sessions. All of these piled on top of a plodding movement speed that should help engender caution, but somehow just feels like the players are wearing lead overshoes, not to mention a sprint bar that feels painfully small and slow to recharge during basic exploration. I feel if the developers had made players just a tiny bit faster, or given them some means of improving the sprint mechanic, things would've been less of a chore.
The game also does not feature a jumping or crouching mechanic, which might be passed off as a restriction of the game's design, were it not for the fact that the lack of such abilities is a huge damper on immersion, which is what the goal of slower pacing should be. If I can't hop over a table, it just makes it feel even more like I'm in a video game and less like a cop wading through a city full of psychos like the game aims to portray. Really, the whole movement system was a huge downer in regards to my enjoyment, and combined with all the other little grains of salt I had to put up with, it quite spoiled the whole game, to the point where I sometimes quit out of frustration or boredom rather than fear, which is a shame, because Condemned has the capacity to be a very frightening game.
One part of the gameplay I did enjoy above all was the integration of a detective-style mini-game, which pops up at various intervals to help progress the plot in a very immersive manner. The player is equipped with a suite of somewhat futuristic evidence-gathering tools, including a UV projector for locating organic materials, a laser-light that marks trace elements and a pocket gas-spectrometer that can help located corpses. Now and then, the player will run across a crime scene and need to work out the details to progress. Really, it's not that complex a system and the size of the equipment often makes you wonder if carrying all this stuff is what's slowing you down, but I found it highly enjoyable and immersive, though sadly not enough to make up for the game's other flaws.
The story of Condemned is…weird, to put it bluntly. You play as Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent stationed in Interchangeable American City #12948-B, a.k.a. 'Metro'. Metro is suffering from a massive crime wave, and the game starts with Thomas and his very unmemorable partner being called in by a street cop to look at a murder which bears the marks of a serial killer the Bureau has been tracking called 'the Match Maker'. Shortly after arriving on the scene, a whiff of cigarette smoke alerts the trio of police to the fact that they are not alone. After pursuing the suspect through the building and experiencing some inexplicable hallucinations, Thomas loses his gun, which is then used to kill his partner and the officer helping them.
Cut to the next day, with some odd continuity errors sprinkled on top. Thomas wakes from a nightmare about a freaky guy with dental problems to find that he's being watched by a man who introduces himself as Malcolm van Horn. van Horn tells Ethan that because the killer used his gun, the police will mark him as the culprit and arrest him. Ignoring the logical fallacies and unanswered questions (such as how van Horn got into the apartment, and why Ethan isn't more worried about a stranger watching him sleep), Ethan takes his advice and flees just as the police arrive. From there, things get progressively weirder. Honestly, it's really down to a question of whether or not you view it as an effort to enhance the surrealistic nightmarish nature of the whole game, or the writers just being bad at plugging plot holes. The characters come across as rather flat upon closer examination, which is fine for a shooter, but not a horror game. The voice acting is also pretty two-dimensional. except possibly for the enemies, which is always good.
All told, the universe of Condemned has a lot of potential, but so much of it seems delivered in the most confusing manner possible. The game left me with a mountain of questions and too few answers. Why are there so many psychotic homeless people scattered through the game? What's causing these strange hallucinations Thomas seems prone to? Where do the emaciated, nameless freaks with a body modification fetish fit in? What's the villain's motivation? Where does Ethan put all those dead birds he picks up? The world may never know…at least unless they play the second game. This just seems like sloppy storytelling to me. I was left disappointed in the ending, which resolved little and revealed less. They could've simply finished with revealing Ethan was suffering schizophrenia the whole time and I would've been less embittered, especially considering how exhausting the game is.
Sound & Design
The saddest part of Criminal Origins may be the fact that on the surface, it looks and feels really scary. The game's focus on decaying and dilapidated environments is a big plus to its spook-factor, as is its choice of venues. The chapter set in the abandoned department store was particularly unsettling, and a very original choice. The difficulty is also a plus in this area, as I found myself dreading combat wherever it was threatened. Thomas feels fragile and human in the face of his enemies. My only gripe is that he sometimes feels feeble too. I didn't need him to smack down enemies in one hit, but perhaps if he could run for longer than a few seconds at a time, I wouldn't be so infuriated. It would've also helped with the game's pacing, which is another element that burned me out incredibly quickly. The game's ten chapters might not actually be all that long, but even playing for thirty minutes at a time left me feeling like I had run a marathon with my wrists and wits, and achieved little. The game's replayability is also quite low. It has no multiplayer, and the collectibles and achievements are often hidden a little too well. Frankly, the game doesn't feel like it rewards you enough for exploration, given how many dark corners it has. Too often some areas felt like wasted space in terms of level design, running up against dead-ends with nothing in them being a theme of my play-through.
I'd also like to note that there is never a clear in-game introduction to the fact that certain objects can be moved to reveal hidden items, something I never suspected until much later. There's very little indication that this is possible given how static most of the environment is. That's another problem: the physics system sucks. You can smack a computer monitor with a crowbar and not budge it an inch. Too much of the world feels nailed down and inanimate; a constant reminder that none of this is real. It's confusing too since the game clearly has a physics engine. It just appears the developers didn't put the effort into extending it to most of the environment.
The sound design, alas suffers from major issues. When it does work, it's okay, although it's obvious to most well-traveled gamers that a lot of the sounds used are recycled or public domain assets. I picked out noises and background ambiance that seemed to have been ripped straight from id Software's Doom 3, somewhat spoiling the effect. It was scary, but not enough that the fear caused me as much concern as my temper and tiredness. When the sound doesn't work, you'll notice quickly. One of the worst instances is a bug that no one has fixed in the third chapter where you find yourself clinging to the back of a subway train in motion and yet find it's not making any noise. It makes the whole sequence feel broken and laughable rather than terrifying and hectic.
Condemned is a game with so much promise, but falls flat on its dirty, bandage wrapped face. It makes a good presentation, yet is held back by its numerous flaws. Again, I'd like to stress this game was originally made for the Xbox 360, and that console-to-PC ports have a history of being bad. That still doesn't excuse the quality of what I saw. All I can really say is I feel so disappointed and tired. by what should've been an electrifying and heart-pounding experience. Personally, I'm torn between buyer's remorse and what little enjoyment I got from what the game did right. I'm a cautiously optimistic person, and I always try to look at things in the best light, but alas, Criminal Origins is just so smudged in filth and grime that it's hard even for a thriller-lover like me to love. If you really want to play it, I recommend doing it in twenty-minute bursts. That's how long I could stomach it before having to throw up my hands and find something with a bit more energy and polish to play. I only wish Monolith had cared more. Maybe then Condemned wouldn't feel so much like the rotting apartment buildings it puts you in.
|+ Spooky and original choices for settings||– Console port with numerous bugs|
|+ Innovative melee combat||– Slow and sloppy pacing that breeds exhaustion|
|– Confusing story with poor narrative structure|