Platforms: Xbox360, PC
Release Date: 2005-11-16
Regions: USA Europe
Chris’s Rating: ★★★★
Condemned is in many ways a classic horror game dressed up as a first person next-gen launch title. A gem!

Condemned was one of the first titles released for Microsoft’s Xbox360 platform. As a launch title, I expected that it would be pretty poor. The demo I saw the of game at E3 in 2005 seemed to confirm my suspicions; Condemned looked like a first-person brawler in which you beat homeless people to death with a steel pipe–not exactly my idea of a good time. So even when I found the game for $20 new, the only reason I picked it up is that some of the readers of this site had given it glowing endorsements. I’m delighted to say that my initial impressions were completely wrong and my readers were absolutely right–Condemned is a great horror game, and it is very scary.

The main character in Condemned is FBI agent Ethan Thomas, a specialist in tracking down serial killers. With the city’s crime rate skyrocketing and drug use at an all-time high, there are a lot of serial killers out there for him to find, and each has his own twisted M.O. While investigating the scene of a murder by a killer called The Match Maker (so named because he leaves his victims posed with mannequins in macabre death scenes), Thomas is framed for the deaths of two police officers. He realizes that the only way to prove his innocence is to track down the real killer, which requires him to crawl through the underbelly of modern society, through one abandoned and dilapidated building after another, into areas of the city that even the police avoid. Along the way he is constantly assaulted by drug addicts and psychopaths, and eventually things that are even more sinister.

Despite its “next generation” trappings and first-person perspective, Condemned is at its core it is a dyed-in-the-wool survival horror game. The developers at Monolith have expertly lifted fundamental elements of the best horror games and transplanted them into this first person adventure. As I played through it I marveled at how many of the mechanics and ideas from Silent Hill and Resident Evil had survived the translation from third person to first; though the level structure, combat mechanics, and story line are very different from the third person horror state of the art, Condemned makes use of key elements of other horror games extremely well.

For example, one of the key elements of progression in Silent Hill 2 is descent. Condemned picks up on this theme are uses it effectively: the player is constantly delving deeper and deeper into the areas he visits, and each subsequent basement increases the level of tension another notch. As in Silent Hill 2, Condemned also asks the player to make one-way descents, by jumping though holes or otherwise moving downward along a path that will obviously not allow a return. The combat system is another axis for horror: like the Silent Hill games, almost all combat is with melee weapons and some weapons can degrade and break over time. Condemned’s combat is actually fairly unique (it uses a first-person attack and parry system, the kind you might expect in a sword fighting game), the context within which it operates is well trodden ground. In fact, a lot about Condemned reminds me of Silent Hill: the character has a flashlight, film grain is used to make the world seem more gritty, and the story keeps you on your toes about which events might be reality and which might be illusion.

That said, Condemned isn’t derivative at all, and it was designed with remarkable acumen. One element I really like about the design is that while combat itself is very hard, the game doesn’t allow that difficulty to compound across the entire level. Health kits are easy to find and plentiful, so if you can survive a particular encounter with a lunatic wielding a fire hatchet, you will probably be able to heal before the next attack. This means that combat itself is hectic, difficult, and highly stressful, but that the progression from one fight to the next doesn’t become exponentially difficult. It’s enough for you to be able to best a particular enemy or set of enemies; the game designers don’t mind refilling your health before the next fight, which keeps the frustration level low even though difficult sections. There are many such design decisions throughout Condemned, and they really improve the overall experience.

I’ve not yet discussed the most fundamental element of Condemned’s design: claustrophobia through level design. Fear in Condemned is not a function of the enemies populating the world but rather the world itself. The game takes place in a series of extremely dilapidated locales, and each is claustrophobic and oppressive. It’s constantly dark, often pitch-black, and as you stumble through the ruins of some old department store or out-of-service railway, the tight, flicking beam of your flashlight is just enough to keep you oriented. The level design and art in Condemned absolutely makes the game; very few games that I have played have been able to invoke this level of tension with setting alone (Silent Hill 2’s underground prison, however, is still the king of this particular contest).

Speaking of the level art, I should mention that the graphics and art in Condemned are very good. I was particularly impressed with the lighting used throughout the game–there are a few scenes where I had to stop and look around just to enjoy the competency with which the lighting was composed. There were things about the art style that I didn’t like (more on that in a moment), but the level art is fantastic. I don’t really believe that better graphics make better games, but Condemned is an example of a game that gets a lot of benefit from the convincingness of its visuals.

Not everything about Condemned is perfect, but I don’t have a lot to complain about. The game does get a little repetitive after the first eight or nine hours; the basic formula is good and the levels keep changing but sometimes there’s a little hint of monotony. The very last level takes place outdoors and consequently the game loses a lot of its power over the player. The CSI elements, where high-tech gadgets are used to find evidence and progress the story, are great but underused. The main character seems to be the worst-looking character in the game; he’s bulky and unconvincing when you see him in cut scenes. The story, while not exactly predictable, ended up being slightly more straight-forward than I would have liked; the details are underdeveloped and parts of the plot can only be accessed by completing achievements, which is kind of dumb. The game didn’t do a good enough job of teaching me how to play early on, and I played almost the entire game without realizing that I had access to certain moves. The game is so dark that I had to play it at night time (the best time anyway, but still) as any glare completely obscured the view. I have a couple of little gripes about the AI, and the way damage is communicated to the player, and stuff like that. But really, all of these complaints are minor; they don’t really damage the overall experience enough to warrant expounding on.

Condemned is a scary game, and while it looks and behaves a little differently than other games in the genre, it is a game that knows its roots. It’s also an excellent example of how mechanics from fundamentally different types of games can be repurposed to create something new and exciting; it is much more than the sum of its parts, even though not all of those parts are original.