There is a school of thought that suggests that if a work of art is able to affect someone, whatever that effect may be, then that art is successful. So it's possible that the mere fact that Condemned: Criminal Origins made me feel like a significantly worse person for playing it is proof of its effectiveness.
When it's not eating away at the soul of the person playing it, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a first-person swinger, which is like a shooter, but with a greater emphasis on swinging makeshift clubs. It's set in the dystopian present (seems to be a lot of that dystopism going around these days) where serial killers run rampant and hordes of homeless people have begun protecting their turf through the use of the aforementioned makeshift weaponry. The plot concerns the hunt for a super serial killer that preys on regular serial killers. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was the plot of the film Suspect Zero, the novel A Philosophical Investigation, and the "Pre-Filer" episode of The Inside. I'm sure that there's others as well, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.
At least the gameplay is on the innovative side. Apart from the focus on hand-to-hand combat, Condemned is a startling achievement in creating an overall tone. Right from the beginning, Condemned throws players into a decaying, claustrophobic landscape, then uses a combination of lighting tricks and sound design to keep players on the edge of their seats for the whole six or seven hours the game lasts. Monolith's last attempt at action horror, F.E.A.R. , wasn't nearly as successful—that game had an oddly schizophrenic structure: it would spend five minutes building tension, then follow it up with fifteen minutes of gunfighting with generic stormtroopers. Both parts worked, but they didn't work together. Clearly the developers learned from their mistakes—every bit of the game, every texture, every music clip, every piece of animation, is all designed to severely unsettle the player—or damage them emotionally, depending on how desensitized they are to human suffering. To the game's credit, there isn't a bad level or out-of-place moment. There are plenty of high points, such as an unbelievably creepy sequence set in an abandoned department store, and no low points to speak of. Also worth mention is the game's one simple puzzle mechanic—using UV lights and digital cameras to collect evidence and find clues throughout levels. It provides a nice change from the key-fetching that makes up the puzzle content of nearly every other FPS.
The game isn't designed to make people afraid, though, it's designed to disgust them. Nearly every surface in the game has blood or other substances splattered all over it. In addition to beating people with lead pipes, rebars, and sledgehammers, the player has access to a number of different 'finishing moves', which allow them to brutally murder stunned opponents. Finishing moves and executions are nothing new to games, of course, but they tend towards to be so elaborate and over the top, involving beheadings and bisections, that they can't possibly be taken seriously, or as anything but escapist entertainment. Condemned's executions tend more towards the realistic—smashing heads against walls, snapping necks, and in one truly awful sequence, gradually pulling someone's jaw off. I'm not normally one to get squeamish over a little bit of hyper-brutality, but there's something about doing all of this in a first-person context—seeing hands reach forward out of the screen and do awful things to people feels much more real than they grainy security video atrocities of Manhunt.
While the game is very good at grossing people out and making them vaguely sickened by the state of mass media in North America, it does have one pretty major flaw—the combat engine. For a game that's only about beating hoboes to death with a lead pipe, the 'beating hoboes to death with a lead pipe' action really isn't all that good. Now, first-person fighting isn't the easiest thing to do well—the entire game Breakdown is a perfect example of this fact—and while Condemned makes a valiant attempt, there are too many problems with the fighting to overlook. The first problem is one of perspective and dimension. It's natural to assume, in a first-person perspective game, that the camera represents the character's head. And that something would have to come in contact with the camera to strike the player. Not so in Condemned. Here the character's body extends forward about two virtual feet forward from the camera, meaning that it's almost impossible to judge whether an enemy's attack is going to connect or not. This problem, combined with how frustratingly difficult it is to block attacks, means that almost all of the game's fights play out exactly the same way: The player stays way back from a hobo as the hobo swings a few times, then, as the hobo's combo ends, the player lunges forward and swings his weapon (just once, because the player doesn't have access to combos of any sort), then repeat until the enemy is dead. This gets old very, very quickly. It isn't helped by the fact that while there are twenty separate melee weapons available: each one is used the exact same way, with the exact same three possible attacks that have the same effect on every single opponent. Not that I'm campaigning for the game to even more brutal, but shouldn't swinging an axe at someone's head have a very different effect than hitting them with a steam pipe?
Actually, all of this drearily awkward fighting managed to make me really appreciate the few guns that appear in the game. There's no ammo, reloading, or holding more than one weapon at once, but every now and then the player will come across a handgun or shotgun that allows them to gun down the hoboes quickly and efficiently. There isn't that much of it in the game, but all of the gunplay is a refreshing change from the constant brutality. The game even provides the player with a taser that can stun firearm-wielding enemies at long range so that they can be clubbed to death before getting a chance to gun the hero down. This taser isn't just for hoboes with guns, though—it can be used at any time to stun an enemy, giving the player an opportunity for a free hit. A mid-game upgrade to the taser actually knocks down anyone it strikes, which gives the player the opportunity to finish them off while they lie on the ground, stunned. Effectively, this means that the player doesn't have to fight anyone but the bosses for the second half of the game. While I appreciated being able to skip a lot of the fighting, the very fact that I wanted to avoid it suggests that the fighting system really was fundamentally broken.
The story isn't much better. It's serviceable for what it sets out to do, but is missing a few major elements that could have helped make the game something special. An explanation for all of the craziness, for example. Or an ending. Condemned suffers from an all-too-common problem in video game storytelling—it saves the good stuff for the sequel. Condemned is clearly meant to be the first game in a series. It sets up a large number of bizarre phenomena, then doesn't pay any of them off, or offer anything but the barest hint at the cause. I know they want to give players a reason to come back for the next game, but by refusing to give them any kind of a satisfactory resolution they leave players without any reason to finish this one. Now, this isn't a Still Life by any means, but based on the scope of the implied plot, this game's story basically amounts to little more than a TV pilot—albeit one that costs 60 dollars to view.
Condemned provides players with some of the creepiest imagery ever to appear in a video game, along with some truly tedious combat and enough concentrated human misery to darken even the most radiant heart. While by no means a terrible game, and not even a bad one, this is a game designed to increase the overall amount of sadness in the world, and for that reason alone, and despite its many high points, I can't recommend that anyone play it. Ever.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.