15 Oct

For the past few years, I’ve made it a habit around October to play through Monolith Production’s brilliant survival horror title, Condemned: Criminal Origins.  Originally released in 2005 on the Xbox 360, it made its way to the PC the following year.  Four years later, and it’s still pants-pissingly terrifying.  Along with Siren (2004), Silent Hill 2 (2001), and the more recent Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I consider it to be one of the best survival horror games ever made.

In the game, you play straight-laced FBI agent Ethan Thomas, on the trail of a criminal named Serial Killer X.  Players make their way from crime scene to crime scene, performing forensic analysis on corpses and blood spatters in what seems to be an endless series of derelict buildings.

But it’s not long before unexplainable things start to happen.  The game strikes an excellent balance by suggesting the paranormal and allowing the player to stew in his fear.  Some things can be attributed to the army of insane hobos out for your blood, but the most horrifying moments occur when you’re alone.  (Or are you?)

It’s borderline impossible to explain exactly how the game is scary.  Try to imagine an abandoned shopping mall filled with mannequins.  Sometimes they seem menacing, but when you shine your light on them, they’re just plastic.  The game, through excellent lighting effects and brilliant sound design, messes with your head in a way that all horror video games should.

Gameplay was divided into the aforementioned forensic segments, puzzles, and combat.  Like any good survival horror game, Condemned is a stickler when it comes to guns and ammo, which allowed for the blossoming of a robust hand-to-hand combat system that felt fluid and effective against the homeless horde.

Combat was visceral and frightening, partly due to the humanity of your enemies.  They weren’t ghoulish monsters or zombies, but just men.  In the brief second before you took a swing with whatever blunt object you happened to be holding, you wonder if they could be reasoned with.  But when they start wailing on you, screaming incoherently, survival instincts set in and you’re forced to fight.

I first played Condemned on my roommate’s laptop in 2007.  After a few hours, I was mentally, physically, and psychologically drained.  My shoulders hurt because I found out I had been tensed the entire time.  When I turned off the game, I realized a pocket of air had been suspended in my chest.  It’s the kind of game that you love to play, but you can’t wait until you reach that next checkpoint or beat a level.

In 2008, a sequel was released called Condemned 2: Bloodshot.  Ethan Thomas, a broken man after the harrowing events of the first game, is on a self-destructive streak when he’s forced to confront his demons once more.  The game is inferior to the original in almost every way, but it’s still an excellent example of the survival horror genre because the atmosphere, gameplay, and overall design were largely unchanged.

There was a much greater emphasis on the paranormal in the sequel, seeing as Ethan Thomas had already gone batshit insane.  A strange tar-like substance has transformed enemies into hideous creatures, and the game swiftly gives you more powerful abilities that make you less vulnerable and, as a result, decrease the horror aspect.

The intensity remains because every fight feels like an actual fight that you could conceivably lose (at least until you get that overpowered attack towards the end), but those who played the original won’t be as frightened.

If you’re in need of an insanely good scare this month, pick up Condemned: Criminal Origins.  If you lack a PC that can play a 4-year-old game or an Xbox 360, then the sequel, also available on the PlayStation 3, should get your heart racing.

3 thoughts on “Condemned Series Review”

  1. Cool game with some great AI scripts and very distressing sound design (that’s saying it in a good way). The genius of the sound design was that every object collision with the player sounded like one of those hobo madmen coming from behind you with a pipe. That worked for STALKER too. Cheating on you and making stuff sound scary, but coherent with what’s happening, seems to have that effect of keeping you on your toes and making you watch where you step and what do you turn your back to.

    I felt really dissapointed when hearing the sequel was, unsurprisingly, console only. Though the core opinion seems to be that hadoukens in a horror game suck and, at least in theory, i tend to agree.

    I wish you guys will give The Void a shot at making a spot on one of these lists. It’s hard to categorize the game as survival horror, or let alone any genre, but Wikipedia lists it as such and i don’t think it’s so far fetched to do so. And the fear it conveys is not of scary monsters (nor super creeps) or the dark or death, but of the helplessness that come from the obscure game mechanics, game mechanics that have a depth you barely grasp. It’s a weird kind of horror, but the survival is definetly there, like primitive men sheltering from rain, trying to give meaning to lighting.

      1. Sweet. I forgot to mention part of The Void’s tension-builder is its time limit. I’ve always hated time limits but, at the same time, am a huge advocate for them, since they pretty much guarantee you quit f*cking around and get down to what’s important. The Void succeeds at this, because there’s a whole lot of idle times where you’re let to wander around and talk to people and just understand those weird barely hinted game rules no one bothers to explain to you.

        So i’m glad you’re giving it a shot. It’s a hard game to love (and a hard game overall), but it’s beautifully crafted and it’s something special and deserves to be played. By the way, Pathologic, Ice-Pick Lodge’s first title, is also a survival horror-esque art game that i can’t vouch for (just didn’t play it yet) and has lousy localization, but might be another worthy addition. I’m thinking of either learning russian or waiting for the translation project to be completed, but knowing how long those things take, i might go for the former.

        Now i’ve done too much praising. That can’t be good. You know which game sucks? Fallout 3.

        There we go.

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