The Xbox 360 launch lineup had almost all of the elements that a good launch should – a few shooters, a few racers, a few sports titles, a delayed RPG, and a delayed fighting title.  This formula has worked for a long time, and Microsoft is not about to upset the apple cart, so they let Sega do it instead.  In an age of me-too titles, the folks at Monolith have brought an absolutely brutal launch title to the table, and you should take notice.

The story of Condemned: Criminal Origins starts off as Agent Ethan Thomas, Serial Crimes Unit officer, steps out of a car to investigate another death in a long series of murders being perpetrated by a psychopath calling himself “The Matchmaker”.  Lately, Agent Thomas has been seeing a lot of the seedier side of his city, but how does it all fit together?  As Agent Thomas tries to take down his suspect, he is taken off guard and framed for the death of two police officers.  Agent Thomas must quickly unravel the mystery of what is destroying the city, and quickly, before his time runs out.

Anyone who has played the PC title F.E.A.R. from Monolith knows that they have a good handle on making an immersive environment in which to tell their story.  This is due in no small part to the cutting edge look of this title.  As seems to be the case with this generation, the screenshots don’t do the game any level of justice.   Seeing this much detail in motion is simply awesome.  The muck of the street is apparent, and the levels can only be described as something out of the movie Saw.  It is absolutely filthy – I loved it. 

The texture work in this game is fantastic.  All of the usual suspects are here – real-time lighting, bump and normal mapping, but you’ll only see this in spurts as this is one dark game.  You are given a flashlight with unlimited juice, but that will only allow you to see a tight band of the immediate area.  The light dances off of any surface it hits, allowing the real-time lighting engine to really shine.  Some areas of the city have halfway burned out lighting that flickers against the cold broken tiling under your feet.  Other areas are more well lit, but with large gaps in between lights, making an otherwise well-lit room into something far more sinister. 

The real joy of this game is the animation system.  The guys in this game swing for the fences.  As you encounter the psychopathic derelicts of the city, you’ll be accosted time and time again with everything ranging from a common street sign, to a steam pipe with a gauge on the side.  While these people are street thugs and addicts, don’t think they will be meandering your way – these people want you dead and they are very hands-on about their wishes.  The hand to hand combat is easily the hook of this game.  Enemies will go about their business until they spot you.  They will then assess their surroundings and try to wrest a weapon from the environment.  If you dropped that pistol to pick up the shotgun, you might find that the rest of the pistol ammunition is headed your direction at high speed.  If there is an electrical conduit accessible on the wall, an enemy may pry it loose and try to use it on the side of your face.  Whomever they got to do the motion capture on the suspects was taking his job very seriously.  The guy who worked on the blood spatter when you connect with these weapons also took his job seriously – the red spray and spatter patterns present on your engaged target are very realistic.

The only hitch on the graphics of Condemned has to be the plastic look of some of the characters.  The normal mapping gives each character unique features, but it is almost like they were laminated to the character models leaving a residual sheen.  There are also some character model clipping issues that wouldn’t otherwise be noticeable if they didn’t happen during close-up cutscenes.  Overall, this is one game you could easily show off the graphic prowess of the 360 launch lineup.

You can’t make a survival horror game without good sound.  Sure, great graphics can immerse you, but if the sound is out of place you’ll routinely be pulled out of that alternate world.  Thankfully, the folks at Monolith are well aware of this, and it shows.  The sound effects in Condemned are awesome.  When you swing a heavy fire axe at an enemy, the impact sound of the axe against the bones of the target sounds just how I might imagine it would.  Dropping a piece of wood on the floor could only have been sampled from the real thing, it is that good.   When you start to get closer to the end of the game, there are a few sounds that will stick with you long after you shut down the game…a sort of chittering and high speed shuffling sound that will have you turning on the lights in your office instead of just a desk lamp. 

The music in the game is on par with what you might hear in a horror movie.  It is low key and rests in the background until it is needed.  Like its big-screen counterpart, it will spring to life, setting the scene’s tone perfectly.  You won’t have to use the 360’s custom soundtrack option here.

One aspect of the sound that was a mixed result was the voice acting.  Some of the people you interact with sound genuine enough, but it is your own voice that sounds out of place.  Agent Thomas just doesn’t look like he’d have this voice.  On the other hand, suspects will issue grunts of pain and stifled screams as they tangle with you.  They will also throw out some very stiff expletives, so be aware of this if you planned on subjecting your children to the ultraviolence – there might be a few naughty words they shouldn’t hear.  

The controls in Condemned are fairly straightforward.  You use the A button as your action button, the B button turns the flashlight on and off.  The X toggles between your weapon and the Forensic tools, and the Y button checks your ammo if you are carrying a firearm.  The left analog handles movement, while the right analog handles the camera.   The right bumper toggles between firearms and melee, and the left bumper fires your stun gun when you get it.  You can depress the left analog to sprint, and you can depress the right analog stick to kick your target.  You can use the controls in the game to change the sensitivity of the analog sticks, as well as remap the controls.  You can even switch to southpaw mode if you happen to be a lefty.  The ability to invert the pitch, turn on subtitles, and turn off vibration may interest some of you as well.

When you eventually get to some of the Forensic elements of the game, you’ll simply use the X button and analog sticks to collect evidence, although it is impossible to screw up.   The controls in this section are a non-factor, but I’ll cover that in the Gameplay section. 

Overall, the combat controls feel fast enough when you are toe to toe, but never fast enough when you have more than 3 enemies engaged.  Once you get the rhythm it isn’t an issue, but until then you can expect to die a few times when facing the incredible ferocity of the suspects in the game. 

Agent Thomas begins to doubt his own sanity as he pushes through the darkest points of the city.  It is in these moments that this game shines brightest.  The incredible visuals that make up the environment set the stage for the perfect pacing of this game.  Thomas can’t run from here to there without running out of stamina – a gentle reminder that you won’t be playing this game at any high rate of speed.  The second you relax and casually open up a door, you just might find that you’ve unleashed a sociopath wielding a sledgehammer, Hell-bent on ending your days in the most brutal fashion possible.  There are several moments that will make even the best horror fans jump out of their seat.  Perfect!

One area that isn’t perfect though is the Forensics.  Condemned is a very linear title – get the sledgehammer to get past this door, this one over here will require the crowbar, and move the rubble to get into the stairwell type things.  To flesh out the idea that you are an investigator, Monolith has introduced a forensics system.  Unfortunately, they hold your hand in such a fashion that makes those scenes almost pointless.  When you are in an evidence area, the screen will visually change.  When you find the evidence, you’ll be advised to take out a forensic tool that will be selected for you.  If you then need to collect that evidence, the collection tool is automatically selected.  If you can line up two arrows, you’ll immediately collect the evidence and beam it to your partner via your cell phone.  It must be the CSI version of the Motorola RAZR phone. 

Back to the combat – you’ll eventually get a police-issue stun gun.  The stun gun can be used once before requiring a short recharge.  This will stun any suspect in the game giving you the opportunity to make an effective strike, or strip the enemy of their weapon.  Once you have the enemy at your mercy, you are occasionally given the opportunity for a little payback action.  You can issue a finishing move on the face of your enemy, either by head bashing them, punching them, shoving them, or snapping their neck.  While it doesn’t seem to affect anything in the game, there is something to be said about permanently silencing your assailant after a particularly brutal fight. 

The variety of weapons in the game obviously came from long sessions of looking around a warehouse and figuring out what could conceptually be used as a weapon.  You can get a 2×4, 2×4 with nails, a bent piece of rebar, a piece of rebar with concrete on the end, a shovel, a double-barrel sawed off shotgun, and many others.  Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses in the areas of damage, speed, blocking power, and reach.  You’ll often be given the difficult choice between a fire axe and that beloved steam pipe with side gauge. Since the damage is location based, you might take the longer stick to get that headshot rather than keep a pistol with only two shots left. You have to respect a game with that sort of choice. 

As you play through, you’ll find that Thomas is beginning to have psychotic breaks.  These breaks usually involve seeing things from our killer’s point of view, which is punctuated by Thomas being attacked.  Since many of these attacks are in your head, you’ll question your sanity as you find that you’ve indeed taken damage.  Another example of a fantastic story-support element.

Overall, the gameplay is fairly uniform throughout.  Chase the story while kicking a whole lot of ass with weapons you can find lying about.  Since you are occasionally given a firearm, you can sometimes get a bit of a break from the constant melee, but with such limited ammo, you might find that you skip a gun pickup to keep your trusty burning 2×4.  Overall, however, this game is about spooking you while you beat down enemies.  The game is roughly 10 hours long, so it doesn’t get boring, but I can’t help but feel like the CSI portions of the game were completely wasted.

As I mentioned in the gameplay section, Condemned is roughly 10 hours long.  When you complete the game, it hints that you might get more information on the ending if you spent more time finding the scattered dead birds and hunks of metal present throughout the levels.  Each level has 6 dead birds to collect, as well as 3 pieces of metal.  You earn Accomplishments as you pick them up, but it won’t be until much later in the game that you’ll begin to understand why. 

There are a few bugs in the game.  An example might be the final boss of the game, whom glitched on me several times and would not allow me to pick up a weapon to fight him.  Obviously kicking him to death isn’t viable, so I was required to back up almost an hour to correct this issue.  In this instance, the third time was a charm and I was able to take the boss out.  It was worth it as the ending is very cool. 

With all of the scary moments fully revealed, it is hard to say that I’ll play through this title again.  While there does appear to be hints that finding everything might yield a different ending, finding the last 3% of the game might require a hint guide so I can just plow through and get my achievements and see the alternate ending. 

Very few games run outside the box.  Condemned: Criminal Origins took a chance at launch and ran far outside the box.  With creepy moments that made me jump out of my chair, this title delivers on almost all of its promises.  Even if survival horror isn’t your thing, you should check this title out – it is well worth it.  I look forward to seeing Condemned 2!