Oh… My… God… It’s not very often I’m shocked or stunned by what I see - or hear. But the day I played Condemned, I realised I could still be brought both of these things, and not by something “real” either, but by a videogame…?
Having been a huge fan of horror films since I was a youngster, I’ve always wanted to be scared witless by them. But on very few occasions has this actually happened. In recent memory, it’s probably only the original Japanese Ringu that has come close, but I feel I’m partially desensitised to it from all the films I’ve watched. And this is why Condemned really has grabbed me by the proverbial throat!
You are Ethan Thomas, a very good investigator, an investigator that specialises in serial killers and who has managed to capture quite a few in his years on the force. Once again you’re called to the discovery of the body of a young lady, and one that fits the current “style” of killings, reportedly the work of a murderer the media are calling “The Match Maker”, due to his (or her) obsession with setting up the crime scene like a “dinner for two” - and weirdest of all, the male of the couple is always a disfigured mannequin with his left index finger missing…
All of this is played out from a first person viewpoint. You’re asked to follow one of the officers who found the body through what can only be described as a “filthy” looking dilapidated building. And while examining the crime scene you’ll literally feel the grime and putridity of the property.
The graphics are lovely (in an odd sense). I don’t feel the X360’s graphical powers are being hugely pushed here, but the visuals are great, and very much in the region of high-end PC quality. On very few occasions there is just the slightest touch of slowdown, but it’s hardly noticeable and certainly doesn’t spoil or hinder the gameplay. The visual style has been heavily influenced by many of the popular serial killer movies of recent times, like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Loads of filthy (there’s that word again!), slimy, minging textures and rotten, dilapidated, crumbling buildings and areas. To look at, the game has a horrid feeling of grimness that mirrors part of the sub-story, namely that many areas of the city have become run down slums, full of gangs and drug addicts.
And it’s these lowlifes that are going to give you a lot of sleepless nights. The mainstay of the game is its combat. Instead of your usual “all guns blazing” approach to most FPS’ these days, Monolith have gone down a relatively unique path of the majority of weapons being of the melee type rather than just a selection of firearms. Guns are quite rare in the game and ammo even more so. The guns you find have only the ammo left in them - you won’t find any more in conveniently placed cabinets either. If one of the gang-scum finds the weapon before you and uses up the clip first – tough luck! Due to the nature of the environments and settings, many everyday items can be found and used as weapons. You see that mass of water pipes over there? Well run over, pull one off the wall and slap it around your pursuing villain’s head. Fire axes, sledge-hammers, fire extinguishers and many other items can be found and used, some of which have multiple uses; the fire axe for instance can be used to chop down wooden doors, “Here’s Johnny”-style.
All the weapons have different characteristics, so a small lead pipe is fast to swing and block with, but won't do as much damage as say the fire axe or a locker door, whereas that will be slow and cumbersome to swing. The combat works very well for the most part, and it’s all about timing. You’re not going to get far by simply button bashing, you need to watch the animations of the attacks to know when to block and then counter. This is made slightly easier by the “kick” manoeuvre which unsteadies the enemy allowing for a quick hit, but like the other “special” move, your handy Tazer, it has a small recharge period so you can’t keep doing it. The tazer is also very useful for stunning opponents and stealing their weapons – there’s something incredibly satisfying about tazing some attacking thug, snatching his shotgun and blowing his head off with it!... Oh yes, and there are also finishing moves that can be performed on a downed (but not dead) enemy; each of the four directions of the D-pad dishes out a suitably violent end to the scum!
The character models are not the best in the world, and don’t really live up to the quality of the environments, but they are very well animated using motion capture technology. They react in a way that’s very believable, and attack you with violent enthusiasm. And trust me, this is where it gets nasty. If you’re “weak of stomach” or easily offended, please don’t read the next bit! To watch an enemy get hit in the face by the crowbar I swung at him, and to see his teeth come flying out of his mouth, and for the poor sod to roll around on the floor screaming in pain – that, as I mentioned in my introduction, is why the game shocked me. Now you’ll be surprised to hear that I’ve never done that in real life, and so can only imagine how real it looks! The game is violent with a capital “V”, and comes with a big BBFC rating of 18 that’s well justified for once, so take heed.
You can read again now! The game has a massive sense of dread attached to it. It difficult to describe, but the feeling of foreboding terror that follows you around is amazingly atmospheric, if at times quite oppressive. Never in a game before have I not wanted to enter a new area, just because I don’t know what’s in there! And it’s all down to one thing. The sound.
This really does need to be experienced on a lovely 5.1 surround system. You’ll be able to hear things long before you see anything, and it all adds up. The tension can quite easily reach a fever pitch as you’re stalking around, wondering what and where every moan, groan, yell and scream came from. Enemies banging from the other side of walls and running around on floors above you are other creepy moments. Simply, the sound is stunningly well done. The creepy music and incidental sound effects just add so much to the game, it really is its strongest asset, without trying to sell any other features short.
But there is always a downside. It’s a short game, around 10 hours on first play through, that can be stretched out a bit if on higher difficulty settings, and it is also quite linear. A few of the levels have multiple routes around them, but not enough, and there’s some typical survival-horror game to-ing and fro-ing collecting items vital to progress. Having said that, for me, it didn’t spoil the game, or give the sense of “enclosure”, but helped add to the tension and move the story along. There is some replayability here though, as all of the levels have at least 3 hidden pieces of metal, and usually 6 bird carcasses (There is some mention of dead birds everywhere, although why you would want to collect them (and where you put them!) escapes me as does the relevance of the metal pieces). There are plenty of other unlockable “Achievements hidden away as well, in the form of (what else?) Xbox 360s...
Condemned is my surprise hit from the launch titles for Xbox360, I loved it. And if you like a good scare, and have no doubt – this is THE scariest game you will probably play – you can’t afford to miss this.