Monolith’s dark, creepy & disturbingly grisly first person horror/action title is now available for the PC. by Vaughn Smith
April 12, 2006 – Condemned: Criminal Origins is an acquired taste. However you won’t know that until halfway through the game. By that point you’ll either be in the for the long haul, determined to see how the story unfolds or ready to turn it off and check out MySpace. Monolith did an admirable job porting their X360 launch title to the PC and nothing is missing in the translation. The control mechanics have been replaced with keyboard/mouse input, but since the original game featured a healthy targetting radius, you won’t find the speed of the mouse nor its accuracy provides any real advantage over the X360 version.
What scares you? Things that go bump in the night? Confined spaces? Dead bodies? A pipe wielding disgruntled department store mannequin with a score to settle? Correction. Make that extremely disgruntled. I guess standing in one spot for extended periods of time without moving can really drive you insane. Whatever your particular psychosis, Condemned: Criminal Origins will do its best to exploit it and turn you into a quivering pile of man-blubber in the privacy of your home…all in the name of entertainment courtesy of developers Monolith.
You could say Agent Ethan Thomas is having a really bad day. Up until the events that kick off CCO, Thomas had been a topnotch FBA investigator on the Serial Crimes Unit with a flawless record of solved cases under his belt. When two police officers are murdered during an investigation of yet another serial murder and the murder weapon just happens to be Thomas’ gun, things go from good to bad to really bad to worse for our mysterious protagonist. He has to clear his name while tracking down the Match Maker, a serial killer who just happens to be making quite the name for himself. That’s a feat in itself considering there is a lot of killing going on around town. Even the killers are being killed. CCO’s story unfolds with as little interruption from cutscenes as possible and manages to keep you interested from start to finish.
Armed only with his forensic tools to investigate crime scenes, his trusty taser gun and his unflappable partner Rosa whom runs analysis on all of the evidence he unearths, Thomas literally has to rely on whatever is lying around to take down the numerous drug addicts and other beings inhabiting this nightmarish landscape of despair. That doesn’t mean Thomas is defenseless; quite the contrary. For the first time in a survival horror game, I think ever, no one leaves ammo lying around which means when you’re out of ammo, you’re OUT of ammo. Surely some players will hate that mechanic but I think it’s absolutely brilliant as it creates real tension. And you’ll know your gun is empty as Thomas will automatically flip it around to use the butt of the gun as a melee weapon. But it gets better. Every melee weapon in the game has a limited lifespan and will eventually become useless against even the weakest foes. This forces you to use literally whatever you can get your hands on at the moment. Throughout the game you’ll use 2 x 4’s, metal conduits, desk drawers, shovels, signs, axes, sledgehammers, crowbars, mannequin arms, paper cutters, coat racks, rebar and of course a selection of handguns and rifles. For the first half of the game I completely forgot that Thomas had a taser gun which slowly recharges itself (that’s because I’m one of those ‘never read the manual type players’ and I must have ignored that info when the game explained it). Once I used it though, I came to rely on it quite heavily as it will slow down even the toughest foe, even killing some of the weakest. A tasered foe will be stunned momentarily allowing you to either get close and steal their weapon (great for firearm toting maniacs) or to apply a few bashes to the noggin. If you come to rely on the taser you’ll be pleased to know it receives an upgrade later in the game.
Each weapon is rated in terms of the following four categories – Damage, Speed, Block, Reach – and you’ll have to decide if it’s going to cut the mustard for the challenges that lie ahead. Some weapons deliver great damage to your foes, but provide little protection in the way of blocking. Some are fast and weak, some are slow and strong and some are just right. Certain weapons such as the fire axe, sledgehammer, crowbar and shovel are required for busting or prying open doors or locked cabinets that you’ll need to pass to continue on your merry way, but you can still use them upside the head of someone crazy enough to get into your face. And let me remind you that they will do that…. I don’t know if it’s just me but I can’t help but think “Here’s Johnny” ala Jack Nicholson in The Shining when I’m smashing down a door with an axe. Is that wrong?
Thomas can only carry one weapon at time and can only drop weapons when he picks up another. Throughout the game you may have to purposely drop a weapon in order to pick up a weapon of another type. There is a catch though; the weapon you discard may be picked up by an enemy and used against you. Such is life in the big city. Using the taser or a quick kick will keep enemies at bay allowing you to take down opponents without wasting valuable ammo or risk wrecking your melee weapon. One constant is Thomas’ flashlight which in Silent Hill fashion casts a small sphere of light, which gives way to the fear inducing madness of the atmosphere. What lies beyond the light in the dark areas is the big question. If your eyes can’t see it, your ears definitely will hear it, but more on the wonderful audio momentarily.
As you’re traversing these incredibly dangerous environments, you’ll often come across locations which require more brains than braun. When you are in an area that requires investigation a pop up screen will invite you to turn on and use a context sensitive forensic tool. I wasn’t exactly crazy about the “hand holding” that Monolith had to do to get you to choose the right tool – which they explain as your incredible instincts – as it seems a little forced, but looking at it realistically there really wasn’t any possible way around it. Remember dear readers, they have to pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to determining the level of intelligence of their audience and like most good developers they realize that game reviewers will be playing so they have to make it easy, otherwise we’d never get through it. The various forensic tools aren’t difficult to use and to call their interactions mini-games is too much of a stretch. You’ll have a UV Light for locating traces of blood invisible to the naked eye. Laser Light which shines a greenish hue onto fingerprints, shoeprints, fibers etc. and a Gas Spectrometer which detects decaying matter. Once you’ve used those tools to locate the evidence you’ll have to rely on a few more gadgets to collect evidence which Rosa will then analyze for you back at the lab.
Monolith’s cleverly designed mazes disguised as levels are the star of the show. Throughout the games 10 chapters you will smash, bash, kick, taser and shoot your way through an apartment building, subway station, library, dilapidated department store and a school to name a few. The detailed environments are downright anal retentive – how many games feature mud and tape already sanded on the drywall for goodness sake? Everywhere you look you’ll discover little touches of reality which only seek to immerse you further in this photorealistic nightmare. The levels are kept tight and confining to magnify the feeling of claustrophobia as you wander narrow passage ways and navigate hundreds of dark corners in the anticipation of something or someone already aware of your presence just waiting for you….It’s classic horror movie ‘Don’t go in there!!’ kind of stuff, but of course you have no choice; you have to go in there if you want to complete the level. You’ll probably rely on the tried and true, keep your back to the wall methodology, but you’ll feel positively naked when you enter a room that opens up to both directions. The only rule is that you must play CCO in the dark with the sound cranked. Anything less than that and you’re a big baby. If you just can’t bring yourself to play it that way, check your birth certificate. Are you sure you’re old enough to be playing this M rated game?
Thomas moves around the level at a decent click but he can sprint if he needs to. Thomas can block , kick, attack as well as shoot a Taser to temporarily stun enemies. Without any ammo pickups in the game, once you’re out of bullets, you’re done with that weapon. The Taser can definitely buy you some time. Use of forensic tools for data collection are also required but take note that you can, and will be attacked while using them, so be careful. Control is extremely pick up and play and while many might not care for the FPS perspective in a game that relies so heavily on melee fighting, it simply manages to put you face first into this freaking horror show. I love it. It works like magic.
Monolith’s previously released and equally as disturbing F.E.A.R. for the PC was one of this years hottest (and scariest) looking games. I’m frankly amazed that they were able to create two of the most compelling gaming experiences of 2005 and have them released so close together. Visually Condemned in high def is nothing short of jawdropping. I would often catch myself just reading the signage or investigating the little details, simply because there was so much to see. Everything from the ornate design of the train station, the decaying plaster walls with peeling paint, the cliched kitty cat ‘Hang In There Baby’ office posters, the discolored ceiling titles, taped boxes, the cardboard Santa Clauses decorating Bart’s department store, the shrinkwrapped books waiting for distribution in the library…the environments in COO are painstakingly detailed.
The character models are all disturbing in their own way whether they are human or not and I give Monolith credit for creating characters who weren’t digital representations of Hollywood wannabes. Thomas is a middle-aged, heavy set FBA agent with a pugnose which is in direct opposition to the pretty boy cops on the lam ala Max Payne / Jack Slate (Dead To Rights). Rosa, his partner is equally homely which I thought was absolutely wonderful. I was expecting the usual hot female partner but I was pleasantly surprised that the hardnosed reality of the game trickled down to the characters themselves as it’s the only subject matter that keeps this bizarre story grounded. The various thugs and creatures you’ll encounter are equally as impressive. You’ll find more variety in the human thugs than some of the cookie cutter monsters, but that doesn’t make them any less startling when they appear out of nowhere to attack you. My personal favorite was ‘Lunch Lady Doris’.
CCO also uses ambient sound effects to sustain the tension of the game at Red Alert. Those with Dolby 5.1 or at least with good speakers will get the most out of Condemned’s abuse of your auditory faculties. Footsteps, screams and whispers will keep you on the edge of your seat because aside from the demented ‘Deck The Halls’ in Bart’s Department store, you won’t be treated to any ingame music soundtrack. Unfortunately the voice acting is extremely hit and miss. The script isn’t bad at all, but the emotionless delivery contradicts the onscreen tension. Let me just say that in regards to earlier Sega games like House Of The Dead and Capcom’s original Resident Evil, CCO’s voice acting comes off like an Academy Award winner, but I’ve definitely heard better.
Negatively speaking there really isn’t much I can complain about, although I’m sure some gamers would find the pace a little repetitive. The game does lose some points for it’s linear nature because you know you’re being lead down the garden path to the end of the level while Thomas’ “instincts” manage to take the fun out of deciding when to use your forensic tools. I also found it odd that nobody wants to bring our poor hero a gun. Everytime he has a clandestine meeting with some major figure in the game, he walks away empty handed and starts the level with zippo. The glitches in the X360 version seem to have been eradicated which is definitely a good thing. Someone around here was whining that the game was entirely too repetitive and consisted only of the following:
- Find a weapon
- Open a door
- Beat up bad guys
- Open another door
- Repeat above to taste
- Find the end of the level
It should be noted however that all games can easily be stripped down to their basic elements, but it’s how the game plays out inbetween these factors which determines the entertainment value.
CCO has all of the gameplay, story, visuals and atmosphere that you could possibly want in a mystery game and I think does them all to a proverbial “t”. It’s not the longest game you’ll have ever played the first time through (10 hours or so), but since it offers a selection of difficulty modes, the robust roster of collectibles which unlock movies that shed more light on just the hell is going on and rewards you for meeting various objectives, there is a decent dose of replay value. Monolith is definitely onto something and I can see Condemned: Criminal Origins becoming a franchise along the lines of Silent Hill featuring changing protagonists. If you’ve already played CCO on the X360, there is absolutely no reason to return again. But if you’re a thrillseeker who isn’t afraid of things that scream in the darkness, you just found your next challenge.
- First-person view gives maximum visceral effect.
- Next-generation lighting, mapping, and filtering techniques provide for environments of unprecedented detail and visual quality.
- Intelligent enemies respond strategically to your offensive and defensive maneuvers.
- High-level physics allow players to manipulate background items, which respond realistically when picked up, kicked, or bumped.
- A tightly wound story is backed with strong character development and major plot twists.
- Meticulously crafted 5.1 surround sound will cue players to the location of off-screen enemies.
By Vaughn Smith
CCC Site Director