In this week’s Breaking Down The Backlog: I beat homeless people, drug addicts and mentally disabled people to death with a variety of rusty implements.
I don’t usually play horror games. Hilariously, I find them just too scary to play thanks, in part to player agency. You have to be the one who turns the corner or open the door. It makes horror games so much scarier then the rather more passive experience of horror films. Condemned: Criminal Origins is a profoundly scary game. Yet, I loved it. The mêlée combat, although not deep, felt visceral and the atmosphere the game creates is unremittingly grim. Plus, there were very few jump scares. It was the level and sound design that made the game scary. Which I feel is the best way to scare someone as jump scares are cheap ways of making people jump. But in Condemned I was sweating buckets just walking around levels because of the feeling that something horrible was going to happen.
That horrible thing was usually some psychopath (or two!) coming to kill me. Luckily, the first person combat is sublime. It is up there along with Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Dishonoured as an example of how to make swinging a weapon in first person feel and look good. Whenever you mess up mad homeless people with various implements, none of which are your typical “melee weapon” weapon, you feel powerful in a way. It is a combination of a slight wind-up to all the weapons, the reaction of recipient of said messing up and the sound that makes when the hit connects made the combat feel very satisfying. There is some depth to the combat, not a great deal mind, you have to time your hits and blocks so you take as little damage as possible. Health can be difficult to come by so it is useful to play conservatively. You can’t just let loose on every psycho you meet and expect to live long.
Beyond just beating people to death, the game has little else. However, something that I liked was the risk you had to take using heavy weapons in order to find secret places and sometimes advance through the story. Each weapon has its own statistics and heavy weapons are incredibly slow to block and attack, but do tons of damage. If you have a sledgehammer, you can kill people in a couple of swings but it leaves yourself open to more damage as a result. Guns are similar. They pack a lot of punch but the limited ammo makes them risky to use. If you run out you are left with the butt of a gun that is pretty terrible. This challenge is offset slightly by the tazer that can stun people long enough to steal their weapon or kill them with a swing of your weapon. But it has a long cool-down so you can’t spam it. It is hardly Bayonnetta with its technicality, but I welcome any extra layers to combat in games.
The game-play is clearly the highlight of Condemned. The story is so-so. It has Lots of intrigue and it takes you to some interesting places, my personal favourite being the school. Also, as a plus it gets super weird at the end, especially with the ending itself. The entire game has this undercurrent of weirdness to it that finally comes to a head and bursts like a horrible zit at the end. I was left with a good “WTF” face, in a good way. The graphics, too, aren’t anything to write home about. Like I mentioned earlier, there is lots of atmosphere but the actual quality the graphics isn’t great. But a major highlight is the A.I. Much like F.E.A.R., another game Monolith made, the people you fight against behave in interesting ways. They hide, grab weapons from walls if they are disarmed, smash stuff up in anger and even attack one another if they accidentally hit another crazy homeless/drug addict. They may be insane, but they are great to fight against. And except for some very rudimentary detective work – which requires you to point your camera at the thing that glows and little else – there isn’t much else to say. You can totally tell that this game was a launch title for the Xbox 360 with its stripped back, in a sense, gameplay and level design.
Condemned: Criminal Origins was a really enjoyable game. It is brutal and frequently horrible but loads of fun to play. Also, the port was surprisingly good. There isn’t much content, but what is there is of a very high standard for the time – most notably the hand-to-hand combat. You should totally play it if you want to try a horror game with a twist.
Next up on Breaking Down the Backlog: Jet Set Radio Future