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Condemned: Criminal Origins

The Xbox 360 launch was a little disappointing to say the least. That’s not to imply that there weren’t a solid selection of decent games to play, but the fact that nearly every game on launch day was either a port, franchise, or licensed property was just a little bit disturbing. Outside of Kameo, Condemned: Criminal Origins (from my favorite developer, Monolith), was the only truly “original” release. Games like Perfect Dark Zero and Ridge Racer 6 are certainly entertaining titles, but they just can’t compare to games that feel unique and original.

I’m going to say this from a start: this is not a first-person shooter. It’s in first-person and you do use weapons, but this is primarily a survival horror/adventure game. It’s combat is more like Morrowind than Doom, though Condemned: Criminal Origins is nearly as vast and open-ended as the former title. Condemned: Criminal Origins tells the story of an FBI agent named Ethan Thomas wrongly accused of killing his partners after a series of strange events have turned the city into chaos. Random homeless people are running around attacking people in the shadows and these events have caused his fellow agents to assume that he too has gone crazy.

He’s considered guilty until proven innocent, and no one is going to make any effort to prove that he isn’t a murderer. Instead of allowing himself to be arrested, naturally our hero flees from the scene of the crime and begins a quest to clear his name and maybe figure out what the hell is going wrong with the world. Our hero doesn’t have any visions of grandeur and isn’t setting out to fix the world, unlike so many lame, giant-sword wielding RPG characters. He’s a simple man, just like you and I, just he has a career that is a little more interesting than your day-to-day job probably is.

As a simple man, Thomas never picks up giant machine guns or rocket launchers. His typical arsenal consists of whatever he can find around him, which usually include pipes, tools, and other blunt objects (in a department store for instance, you can wield a mannequin arm). He’s not highly trained in combat either, so his swinging is naturally awkward and his ability to block is pretty weak. This may sound like it might hinder the game, but in general it works really well for it. Thomas’ combat skills (or should I say lack of combat skills) help create an image of a character that is in a situation beyond his control, a situation that he had never imagined possible.

The storyline progresses rather slowly in the opening phases of the game, but really picks up towards the middle levels. This game only took me about eight hours to get through its ten chapters. Most of the game takes place in dilapidated buildings that are vast and expansive. There are lots of doors to go through, and while you will find several locked doors as you progress through each level, nearly everyone of them eventually opens, unlike in other survival horror games like Silent Hill. Much like Monolith’s previous efforts, nearly every room serves some sort of purpose, which is refreshing in this day in age of random empty rooms that only slow you down.

Monolith has always been great at developing realistic settings for their games and I’m very happy to report that everything seems very believable. One particular setting, a cavernous subway system, was particularly believable. Dirty tile and scattered garbage dotted a poorly-lit cave-like subway system that reminded me of my own real-life travels. The levels, like this subway, seem much more true to life than previous efforts made by nearly every other game, so wandering through sewers feels a lot more real than in other games so it isn’t as painfully boring. I mean, seriously, level design has gotten to the point where every single game on the market includes a sewer, factory, and subway level. At least Condemned: Criminal Origins includes them well.

As I previously mentioned, the gameplay is pretty slow-paced. Battles are reasonably rare, but the combat system makes them all tough and fairly memorable. Enemies will run away from you, constantly search their environment for stronger weapons, and they will block a lot of your attacks. This makes the battles pretty challenging, and I died a lot before I figured out the timing of blocking. The combat feels stiff, but I can’t really fault Condemned: Criminal Origins for it because, again, the game doesn’t feel combat oriented. It’s a story-driven adventure game, driven by searching for clues to move the plot forward. Clue searching can be slightly painful at times. You’re often asked to search for handprints on bodies using special lights and cameras, but finding them can be tricky. One of the last ones I had to search for took twenty minutes before I figured it out. This might have been because I’m stupid though. I’m not sure.

Condemned: Criminal Origins is probably one of the best looking Xbox 360 games I’ve played so far. The dark, gritty atmosphere is captured perfectly. I can’t get over how great texturing looks on the Xbox 360. Tile looks dirty. Graffiti on walls looks genuine. The texturing effects in this game are beyond awesome. The lighting is also incredibly detailed. The use of blacks and shadows really help support the theme of the game. The only thing I can think of that really stands out as a flaw graphically is the complete lack of environmental damage. It’s actually terrible. Hitting a wall will cause plaster to crumble out. Hitting a metal door will cause plaster to crumble out. That doesn’t make sense, at all. Neither object will show any sign of being violated. This is actually pretty depressing. It really hurts the realistic feel the game was going for. As far as audio goes, nothing really particular stands out as being flawed, but nothing was very memorable.

Even still, I’m pretty pleased that I purchased Condemned: Criminal Origins. Once I bought it, I couldn’t put it down. The game is pretty different than a lot of the other ones that I’ve played, and it was a refreshing change of pace from the more typical first-person games that I play. The storyline is really good, especially during the concluding portions of the game. Monolith has once again delivered a memorable experience that challenges a lot of expectations and norms and proves that they’re probably one of the best in the biz. There are some problems, and this is probably a one-time journey for most of you, but Condemned: Criminal Origins does deliver an excellent experience if you’re willing to give it the time.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

Gentle persuasion

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