Condemned: Criminal Origins is a psychological/survival horror game for the X360 that set the bar for its genre early in the generation. You play as FBI agent Ethan Thomas, who is framed for the murder of two New York policemen, and you use a variety of forensic tools to track down the true killer.
The story keeps you guessing as to what comes next; as Ethan comes to realize the twisted nature of the criminal underworld while trying to stay one step ahead of the bureau. Along the way, you’re aided by Rosa, your lab assistant who analyzes the evidence Ethan sends in, and Malcolm, a mysterious friend who seems to know much more than he’s telling. The killers you track have interesting personalities, but outside that the characters are fairly static with little development.
There’s an interesting side story developing in the background involving mysterious radio waves that filter through the city and cause the brains of birds to decay. These same signals begin to affect the human mind, leading to a spike in the crime rate. Appropriately, there are collectible birds, TVs, and metal scraps you can find scattered throughout each level to unlock achievements. There isn’t much replay value but what little you have is provided through these collectibles.
The core gameplay focuses mainly on melee combat; in true survival horror fashion, ammo is limited and guns are hard to come by. When I finally did snag a gun it gave me the same feeling I got from getting a mushroom in the original Mario Bros. The weapons seem painfully generic at first glance. You’ll be hacking at junkies with 2x4 boards, metal pipes, and fire axes, at first, but the neat thing is that every weapon has a unique set of stats. It strongly encourages experimenting with each individual weapon to see what works best. The variety of weapons also picks up as the game progresses. Once I found out I could use a subway sign as a weapon I began to realize the developers had put a significant amount of thought into the game’s arsenal.
The true highlight of Condemned is its sense of immersion. Many players have claimed this game is one of the most frightening of its generation. Is it? Well, it’s pretty dark, and things like to jump out at you. If running down a hallway and suddenly being knocked down a flight of stairs causes you to jump, you might get several shocks. The atmosphere is brilliant. Picture creeping through a deserted department store, with a dim flashlight beam shining through rows of mannequins. An eerie silence settles over the murky blackness while juiced up junkies prepare to pounce on you from out of nowhere.
I personally didn’t find the game scary, although I will say that this one of only two games to ever make me legitimately jump. (The other, if you must know, was Silent Hill 1) I won’t tell you what did it for me, but I’ll say that both instances involved lockers.
However, the game isn’t perfect. The controls are a tad too slow. I’ve played my fair share of horror games and the controls are usually like that, but in this game movement feels cumbersome. There are also some issues with the story. Some of the major plot points are never resolved.
Supposedly the sequel, Condemned 2, is meant to tie up those questions but you should be able to get a satisfying ending out of the first game without having to buy the second one. There are also some rather pervasive glitches. I fought through one of the game’s later levels on the hardest difficulty, only to run into a glitch where the elevator you’re supposed to take won’t work. I had to restart the whole level. And I’d worked so hard to get to that point.
Condemned: Criminal Origins is a memorable experience and certainly ranks as one of the better survival/horror games of this gen. The environments and atmosphere are fantastic; the game looks great and sound tends to follow a minimalist philosophy so as not to distract from the overall creepy factor of the game. It's easy to see how future horror games could have borrowed from this, such as Silent Hill: Homecoming, which has a similar atmosphere and battle style. There are some minor tweaks that could have improved the game, namely the glitches, but it’s still a great game and will likely serve as a nice change of pace from whatever you’ve been playing lately.