Review: Now with 40% more hobos?
I'm a huge fan of horror ? in many different mediums ? literature, movies, and in the age of compelling and cinematic interactive entertainment, games as well. I remember watching all the classic fright flicks when I was a very young lad ? Frankenstein, Dracula (all of them, including the Hammer films with Christopher Lee) the Wolfman?you get the idea. Back then Atari hadn't even made the scene yet, so horror games were not something that was available to me. Instead I read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and built models of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mad Scientist's Lab and the Chamber of Horrors complete with hanging iron cage ? yes, I was a disturbed little guy but what are you gonna do, right? Fast forward some years and books like Red Dragon
and The Silence of the Lambs
captured my attention, as serial killers became the new breed of monster ? made all the more terrifying by the fact that they actually exist.
Condemned: Criminal Origins takes the formula made popular by Thomas Harris and films like Seven
and cranks it up to insane (no pun intended ? I swear) proportions. As disgraced FBI agent Ethan Thomas, you'll begin the adventure tracking the serial killer known as The Match Maker and trying to clear your name after an opening sequence that culminates with the murder of two police officers ? killed with your gun. Simply put, everything goes wrong for Agent Thomas. Eventually, you'll realize you're tracking something else altogether through filthy subway tunnels, a creepy abandoned department store, and a school building from hell?.not to mention a few other choice serial killer locales - why do these guys always hole up in an abandoned farmhouse?
Right off the bat the atmosphere of the game is through the roof creepy. The areas you'll visit display incredible details and completely reactive physics made possible by the power of the new hardware. Looking super-sharp at 720p, the graphics are cutting edge and almost photo-real, while the physics engine creates moment after moment of convincing sound and visual cues that really draw you into the action. It really can't be stressed enough just how well this title uses positional audio and its incredible good looks to really sell the experience. The character models of the crazies you'll come up against look fantastic, with great attention to detail, realistic facial expressions and animations that have to be seen to be believed. The amazing textures and bump mapping really bring all of the locations to life, and the shadows and lighting are simply breathtaking. You'll be constantly looking behind you as you make your way through a filthy, deserted department store filled with mannequins or the dank basement of a derelict middle school. The game is peppered with intense moments of fear as your character is prone to visions ? you'll see things that will make you question your sanity in grainy, nightmarish detail. The killer, slowly walking towards you and then suddenly dissolving into a pack of rats that rush at you, or entering a hallway blocked with old desks and chairs, only to see the whole pile suddenly propel itself forward to the end of the hall with supernatural speed (think Samara from The Ring
). Bizarre stuff, and very frightening.
As you move through the dark environments you have only a small flashlight to illuminate the blackness and whatever you can scrounge from the immediate area for defense. Pipes, 2 x 4s, axes, crowbars, locker doors, a paper cutter arm?the list goes on, but you get the idea. You'll also stumble across the occasional firearm with limited ammo (and once it's gone you can upend the stock to whack fools with) including shotguns, pistols and even a machine gun. It's a nice feeling of security when you have a ranged weapon, but since those moments are fairly few and far between the game arms you with a taser gun (which gets upgraded somewhere around the middle of the story) that you can use in conjunction with your melee attacks to inflict considerable damage on your foes. Zapping the violent and aggressive street people and other assorted creeps who are under the influence of a mysterious, mentally crippling disease is endlessly satisfying, and the enemy AI is outstanding. At one point I faced three psychotic killers in a creepy, dark subway. Going straight up against all three toe to toe with a pipe proved too much for poor Agent Thomas, so I stepped back and let them fight it out amongst themselves. Two of them bludgeoned the third one to death, then I just kept hitting them with my taser - I retreated to let it recharge and went in for the kill. It only took one pipe hit after all the shocks to kill the first one, and then the other one kept rushing me with a wooden sign trying to smack me. I just kept letting him have it with the taser, when finally he drops the sign and (I couldn't believe it) proceeds to pull out a .45 and tries to shoot me - so I nail him one last time with the taser and he goes down for good, at which point I take the gun which has eight rounds left. That's just one example. Enemies will sneak up on you, flank you, run away when they see that you have a superior weapon and basically do everything in their power to kill you, and be smart about how they do it. The fighting is brutal and visceral, and your heart will literally be pounding after some of these encounters.
Throughout the game you'll search for clues using your forensic tools. Basically, when you enter an area that has evidence, you'll be prompted to use various devices such as a UV light (one scene towards the end of the game has you following otherwise invisible writing that covers the walls of a creepy old estate) and a gas spectrometer. Once you locate the material ? things like fingerprints, particles and chemical residue ? you'll need to use one of your collection tools (a 3D scanner, sampler and digital camera) to send the stuff back to the lab for evaluation. Fortunately, you've got one friend left at the bureau, a lab technician by the name of Rosa. She'll check the evidence and report back to you, driving the story forward as the two of you put the puzzle pieces in place together. At one point in the game Rosa actually joins you in the field as you explore a fire-ravaged, abandoned library and it's a good example of the improved AI made possible by the 360 hardware. Rosa's character model is intricately detailed, and the sound of her voice gets louder or softer depending on which direction you're facing. She reacts realistically to events and to your actions, and overall I felt a good sense of immersion when playing this section. I actually had real empathy towards her, and it's this kind of emotional connection that more realistic NPCs are able to foster in the player which drives the genre forward into more cinematic territory. Real affecting weight and feelings that resonate ? in this case I felt something like gratitude towards her since she's basically your only guiding light in an otherwise completely dreary and terrifying world. Good stuff to be sure and a nice indication of where new hardware can take us besides the standard visual improvements.
The audio in Condemned is top-notch, and listening to something skittering around behind you in the dark is seriously disturbing. The sound effects are perfect, from the weighty thud of a piece of rebar finding its mark to the cacophony of breaking glass and the strange, guttural grunts of the deranged, Condemned delivers. The sparse music is dissonant, eerie and suitably appropriate for the subject matter, giving everything a sense of urgency and tension that goes a long way towards keeping the fear factor high.
As you play through the game you'll be able to unlock achievements (now mandatory and built into every 360 title in one way or another) by collecting dead birds or pieces of metal. As well, there are hidden secrets to find and rewards for chapter completion. All of this is recorded on your gamer card and at the Xbox.com website, so you can compare achievements with friends or just check out the stuff you've accomplished. Pretty cool, and it shows how well MS has integrated the 360 gaming community, with extensive stat tracking for virtually every title.
The story is great, if somewhat derivative. In fact, one scenario plays out almost verbatim from the movie Seven
. I won't say what it is, but fans of the film should recognize it immediately. That said, the narrative is compelling and well acted. You'll definitely want to keep going to see the next twist, as well as the eerie locations that you continue to find yourself in. There's no map, but that's to be expected. Something like that would kill the atmosphere and urgency you feel looking for the next path or an exit from the dark, winding hallways. Besides, the graphics are so well done that it's not difficult to take your cues from environmental markers you've passed. Areas are distinctive and the levels are nicely designed. As long as you're a fairly observant gamer you shouldn't get lost. At around 10 hours, it's not a particularly long game, but I can guarantee you that those 10 hours are packed to the brim with excellent gameplay and a fantastic story. The game auto-saves for you pretty liberally throughout each chapter, and you'll be able to replenish your health with medical kits found scattered about the levels.