Friday, November 21, 2008

Condemned: Criminal Origins

This is survival horror done right.

Earlier this year I played the nauseatingly tepid Silent Hill: Origins, a game that grabbed the wheel of that well-respected series, steered it up a giant ramp of cliche, and launched it into a flying leap over a long parade of sharks.

That was clearly a bad game, in the Egon Spengler sense of the word, but it also made me worry that I'd just gotten tired of survival horror as a genre. Condemned makes me realise that no, it was just Origins.

As I see it, there are two sorts of people in the world: those who like murdering hoboes, and those who are terrorists. Assuming that you're not a terrorist, then Condemned is right up your alley. The game opens with some murdered hoboes, and then proceeds to throw more hoboes at you every few minutes until you're standing on a pile of murdered hoboes so high that you can begin sniping at hoboes in other cities.

I may be exaggerating.

You play Detective Ethan Thomas. He's voiced by Greg "Matt Parkman from Heroes" Grunberg, who does such an excellent job of being Matt Parkman from Heroes that you won't be the least bit surprised when Detective Thomas turns out to be a psychic supercop. That last sentence was a spoiler, by the way, and you shouldn't read it if you haven't played the game yet.

Thomas is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Matchmaker when he finds himself framed for the murder of two fellow police officers. His "friends" back at the station leap to some half-assed conclusions and soon Thomas is dodging cops while trying to catch up on his case backlog.

Unfortunately most everyone that Thomas runs into has gone bat-shit crazy. The city is crawling with criminals, addicts and, yes, hoboes, and there's not a man-jack of them who doesn't want to cave your skull in with a lead pipe. Turned into little more than animals by whatever fell forces are at work, these gutter-crawlers will come at you from every angle with a startling and frankly scary ferocity.

I'm not joking - these guys want to kill you. It's very rare for a videogame to so effectively convey malice in enemies. Most of the time they'll charge at you while screaming and swinging a blunt object but they're also cunning enough to lie in wait for you around corners. If you've fought the villains of Bioshock you've got an idea what I'm on about but the claustrophobic environments of Condemned do it better and the foes here exude a kind of physicality that Bioshock never managed.

You can find guns, but not ammo, so if you're lucky enough to snag a pistol you've got maybe a half dozen shots before it turns into an expensive paperweight. The real meat of the combat is in melee, in which you get to whack hoboes in the head with a fire axe. Or a sledghammer. Or sometimes a crowbar or shovel. Landing blows is incredibly satisfying, as your target will scream and stagger away from you, sometimes getting spun all the way around. It's massively visceral and really contributes to the sense of rage and madness that flows through the game. Blocking isn't quite as fun, but luckily you're not called on to do it often.

Occasionally you need to collect forensic evidence for analysis. It feels like this was originally intended to be a bigger part of the game, but in the final cut the game basically tells you whenever you need to do this, and it's rarely trickier than pressing a single button to get out your evidence tool and pressing again to collect the evidence. There's not a lot of depth to it but it's used to fantastic effect, particularly in the late game, to control the game pacing and set up some very creepy sequences.

Speaking of pacing, it's superb. There's just the right mix of action and suspense, and the two are integrated together excellently. The game does make the mistake of erring on the side of combat over suspense in its final level, but otherwise gets it just right. (Developer Monolith didn't do so well in its later title F.E.A.R which fell short in this very area.)

Condemned dodges a lot of survival horror cliches. Hoboes make a nice change from demons, soldiers or zombies, and the fact that you can usually see their faces brings a lot of realism and immediacy to the proceedings. These are monsters you could actually meet in real life. The locations show some genuine creativity and include a department store, a library and a farmhouse. Even the well-trod staples of a school and an abandoned tenement are treated with a freshness that keeps them vital.

The music is unexceptional but appropriate. The sound design is excellent. It's worth noting the game doesn't use the "musical fake scare" of having music build to a crescendo when nothing happens. That's a cheap trick which has been overused, and Condemned has the confidence to rely on actual events to keep you on edge.

It's also excellent in its visual design, and I don't mean the art or character design, although those are great. What I mean is that it's very good at leading your eye. Condemned knows that players of first-person games rarely look upwards, and it also knows how unsettling it can be as a player to be reminded of this. Condemned keeps the vertical in play visually from beginning to end, even though height is rarely important to gameplay. Enemies are regularly seen climbing into roof ducts, dropping from the ceiling, or throwing things at you from higher ledges. The simple act of a paint can rolling down from a scaffolding can bring an apparently empty corridor to life.

Another simple-but-clever innovation is the game's use of corners. The largest determinant of player speed through a level in a survival horror title is how many corners there are. Each one could hide enemies, so the player has to slow down to look around each corner. Condemned appears to deliberately use this to keep the player moving at the right speed, and one brilliant use of it in a toilet block towards the end of the game is one of the cleverest attempts at building suspense using only level geometry that I've ever seen.

It's probably clear by this point that I really liked Condemned, so I guess it's time for the bad points. First of all, as I mentioned, blocking in melee is lame, and you have to do a lot of it in the last level. Also, if for some reason you don't enjoy hitting hoboes with fire axes this probably isn't your game, as there's rather a lot of that. The plot's poorly explained and the ending's a little unsatisfying.

The standard of realism is so high overall that when your immersion is broken it's particularly jarring. Some unrealistic shadow behaviour lets down the graphical side of the equation, and in terms of gameplay you'll be sceptical about the game's locked door system, where some locks can be smashed off with a sledgehammer while others will only yield to a crowbar or a shovel.

The game's achievements and bonus content systems send you looking for dead birds and pieces of metal in the levels. Not only is hunt-and-find gameplay not a great fit for a survival horror, but you're not given any reason why dead birds are something your character would want to collect. Revelations late in the game suggest that not knowing why you're doing it may be the point of the exercise, which in other circumstances could have been clever, but here it just falls flat.

Speaking of achievements, one achievement rewards you for completing the game without using firearms. Playing that way actually makes the game spookier, which is great, but unfortunately the tutorial level all but orders you to shoot a gun, so by the time you realise this achivement exists you've probably already blown your shot at it.

All told, Condemned is an excellent game and one of the best survival horror titles I've ever played. It's highly recommendable as one of the stand-out titles on the XBox 360 (plus it's also available on PC) and it's been out long enough you can probably find it at bargain prices in budget bins and second-hand stores. Go get it now.


SPLastic said...

Interesting - I never played the original, but I did play the sequel.

Not a lot changes until about halfway through the game, when the supernatural crap grabs hold again and all of a sudden melee combat loses it's effectiveness.

Good review Greg. Bummer about you buying Left 4 Dead on the 360 - would gladly play with you on PC.

Greg Tannahill said...

I just don't trust my PC to run games without choking up or crashing.

There's a video on the Condemend disc of an early build of the game where you had, basically, Jedi powers, most notably some telekinesis. It looks like it was a deliberate decision to stick to real-world combat, which makes it all the more baffling that they apparently ditch that in the second one.