As my free time over summer starts to come to an end this year, I’ve played through another game.
So I woke up in a bad mood last Friday morning, and decided that a good, short game was what I needed to do with my time. Perusing a couple of google searches for “good, short 360 games” to see what came up that I also had, Condemned (and its sequel) seemed to make many of those lists, which reminded me that I had this game, tucked away in a shelf. Choice made, then!
Condemned: Criminal Origins, is a game that I had bought shortly after purchasing my XBox 360 back in 2007(?) It had garnered good reviews, but as so often happens with these things – both miniatures and videogames – it’s often easier to buy something with the best of intentions to get around to using them – and then taking years (or worse) to actually do so.
I dimly remember buying the game, one of the games I purchased in my initial frenzy of enthusiasm when I got my 360 back in the day. Even back then it was already in the XBox 360 “Classics” selection. While this meant that the game had sold well, over whatever the minimum was at the time, more importantly the game had garnered positive reviews across the board. At the time I’d done that thing where you put the game on, look at it for 45 seconds/play for 3 minutes and think “Yeah, this looks cool. I’ll get back to it soon!” So now – a decade on from release and 8 years from buying it – I’ve finally actually played it! Does this count as a retro-review?
Condemned was developed by Monolith Productions, who were also the people behind titles I’d enjoyed such as No One Lives Forever (NOLF), NOLF 2, Alien vs Predator 2, Contract J.A.C.K. (essentially NOLF3), F.E.A.R., F.E.A.R. 2 and much more recently – Shadow of Mordor. That’s a pretty good selection of hits over a good selection of years. So far so good!
So how does it look in 2016?
The game is dark and grainy – appropriate for a survival-horror kind of game. The graphics aren’t beautiful 1080p with ultra-detailed models, but I’m not a complete graphics whore, and the game’s setting still looks good enough to me and works well enough to be fit for purpose. Enemies and your weapons are a fair bit less attractive, looking a bit blocky at best. Your character on the other hand, along with those in cutscenes looks pretty bad. I can’t fairly recall what FPS graphics looked like back 10 years ago without rose coloured glasses, but to be blunt, the character and many of the weapon models look like arse today.
Audio fares better. A nice touch are your own heavy footsteps – there are any times you’re not sure if a sound was you, or someone else, stalking you. The audio design overall isn’t bad and is one of the stronger points of the game, even today. The exception to which is the voice acting.
I should mention the story: – only the slightest of spoilers here – You’re a federal agent. Framed for a murder you didn’t commit, you set out on a quest to prove your innocence by wandering through an endless series of dark tunnels, rooms and abandoned buildings, murdering everyone in your path.
Occasionally with firearms, but typically with improvised clubs, shovels, axes and sledgehammers. Does all that sound like a fair enough way to prove your innocence from murder?
Anyhow, there’s some serial killer stuff and the story is pretty bad, even for a video game. I’m usually happy enough to gloss over video game stories if the gameplay is good, and oftentimes for games, less is more. This game attempts to have depth and layers in the story, and while it’s not quite the nonsensical mess as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance was, it’s still pretty bad. The plot and script is like a police/serial killer story – as written by a teenager whose only knowledge of police procedure, serial killers or the way that human people actually interact with one another has come from bad TV shows in those genres.
I state this because it’s terribly written and voice acted. There’s a “twist” at the end, but I’d liken its surprise and impact to looking at the bus timetable, then walking around the corner at the allotted time and watching the bus slowly meander its way down the street towards your bus stop.
Mechanically, I found early on that a few things we take for granted in modern times are a fair bit different in Condemned. There’s no mini-map. Indeed, there is no map of any kind. Nor is there any “guide” through the levels other than the fairly linear nature of the levels. I’m not horrified at the loss of the modern stalwart “Follow”, but when the environment starts to look very much the same where ever you wander in a level…
The game’s pacing is extremely slow as well. I found the controls to be unresponsive and sluggish, right down to it feeling like I needed to press down twice as hard as in other games on the stick to sprint – which is also limited by a stamina bar.
Amazingly (for a videogame), your flashlight seems to (mostly) work like an actual flashlight and the batteries don’t die after a few seconds. Which is handy, since – as mentioned – for the entirety of the game you’re navigating an endless series of (linear) dark hallways and rooms. Credit where credit is due there, though whether you have the flashlight on or off doesn’t seem to make any actual difference in terms of conflict, as enemies spring into existence and are aware of you as soon as you come near, so stealth doesn’t seem to be a thing at all in this game.
You can’t carry two weapons, even when it makes sense – such as a holstered firearm and a melee weapon in hand. Oh, you also have a taser, which gets upgraded partway through the game into pretty much a man-killer. Maybe that’s considered your offhander and therefore the reason you’re unable to carry a pistol in your empty cop-holster?
Similarly, despite the bag that you apparently carry your gear in or you bulky jacket, you can’t carry health packs at all. But that’s okay, since you can use them right off the wall. Yes, 2005-era design, so there’s no regenerating health or any of that guff. Just lots of medical cabinets conveniently located in all manner of decrepit and long-abandoned locales. Seems like a good choice to gulp down some of whatever you find in a pill bottle in places like that, amirite?
The building you start in seems to be an odd combination of old and condemned while also being a construction site. But abandoned and filled with psychotic junkies armed with 2x4s with nails in them, or bits of conduit or pipe. You lose your service pistol pretty early on, though – after having shot a guy or two to death.
Naturally, after killing a man and then having your gun stolen you do what any (videogame) cop would do. Instead of pulling out, calling for backup, or for a coroner’s meat wagon you just keep on going further in, only now armed with a makeshift club you picked up off the floor, gleefully beating perps to death as you go. Even the other cops with you at the time merely throw you a Fire Axe and tell you to pretty much keep going. Because videogame cop logic.
The game is very melee heavy, with firearms making only sporadic appearances throughout the game. As you’d expect, they’re more often seen in the latter stages, but even then still don’t make up the majority of enemies or encounters. There’s a simple block and counterstrike mechanism in place for melee combat, but it seems to be a combination of unresponsively slow while requiring pretty exact timing to effectively parry.
You have choices of various improvised melee weapons that you can rip off walls (conduit, pipe, rebar), furniture (2x4s) and so forth with sightly different stats: damage, speed, block and reach. Looking at a different weapon to the one in your hand will display either + or – with regard to each of the stats – but without numerical values. This lets you make your choices at a glance but in doing so without any way to really know the depth of the various trade-offs. There are also a few tools like the aforementioned fire axe that can be used as melee weapons as well as to open specific doors. Apparently using makeshift weapons scavenged from the nearest wall was supposed to feel visceral. It just feels like nothing.
In terms of movement through the game, there’s no duck, no jump and no climb outside of when the game very specifically tells you that you can climb through a window or up a ladder or jump down a hole. By pressing A. Now. I bumped over a chair and couldn’t get out of a room for 30 seconds. That old videogame trope of impassable chest-high walls is used to the extent of impassable knee-high junk on the floor here.
The game has collectables because of course it does. At the end of the first level, I was informed by the stats page that I’d found/collected 1 of 6 dead birds, and 0 of 3 “metal pieces”. These appear to have no purpose whatsoever aside from achievement hunting and unlocking secret out-of-game dossiers that neither you nor I care about. And frankly – walking around, barely able to see while searching for them (or even doing so with the aid of a walkthrough) seems like a complete waste of time. A few points of gamerscore and a few pretty pointless X-Box achievements that are neither fun to get nor affect gameplay in the slightest really aren’t a worthwhile use of my (or presumably, your) time.
Even more tedious – when I happened to restart the second level to go back and check out an areas I’d missed, I found that the birds you collect in one “playthrough” don’t stay collected – as they often do in other games. So you’ve got to grab all of these collectables in a discrete run of each level. Nice.
Also – head bob. I know this game is a decade old now, but someone really needs to tell the makers of FPS games that HUMAN EYES DON’T WORK THAT WAY GUYS. Seriously. Go walk to the kitchen and tell me if your vision is smooth or bounces around like a yo-yo. We have millions of years of evolution that have taken care of that. You know what does bounce around and give a jerky sense to your vision? Cameras. So unless we’re controlling drone-style robots by remote control or playing Blair Witch: The Game, there’s no need for goddamn head bob in games. This includes you too, Gears of War. At the very least give us the option to turn it off.
Every so often there’s a navigation “puzzle” in the game. This usually equates to you needing to wander around a series of areas where everything looks the same with your flashlight until you find the Fire Axe/Sledgehammer/Crowbar/Shovel (yes, really – shovel) so that you can open a specific door. They each have their own specific doors that they can open, and don’t work on different door types – just like real life, a fire axe or a crowbar is useless when confronted by a padlock because you need a fucking sledgehammer for that shit.
Similarly, sledgehammers are only useful for padlocks and can’t smash their way through doors or wooden barriers. Because that’s what fire axes (and only fire axes) do. Ahem. Anyway, once you’ve found the CORRECT door-opening implement, you then wander around with your torch until you find the macguffin (switch, valve, etc) then you’re done and can move on – which may or may not involve more backtracking. This is invariably about as interesting, fun and exciting as I’ve made it sound here.
So yes, these different types of weapon are essentially a form of “you need the BLUE key” game design, grandfathered in from Quake with a light coat of paint on it.
There’s some “investigation” throughout the game. This investigation is performed when the game pretty much tells you “INVESTIGATE NOW” and you press a button for the appropriate one of your investigative tools to come out. You’d need a decent sized bag to lug these things around, actually. I’d usually let that go as videogames tend to all give their characters a bag of holding, but it feels a little more odd here in a game that pretty much has you running around with nothing but a flashlight and a 2×4 or piece of electrical conduit as a makeshift weapon for much of the game. So yes, it’s as interesting and “intuitive” as finding the correct “key” for the correct door type.
For those rare-ish times when you do manage to acquire a firearm, you can check the remaining number of rounds in the magazine, but once they’re empty they merely become sub-par makeshift weapons that quickly break. There’s no ammo or reloading in this game. At one point this led to the amusing(?) situation where I had 3 rounds left in my .45, and killed an enemy armed with an identical .45. His pistol also had 3 rounds left, but the game did not allow me in any way to combine those 6 rounds into the one weapon, so I had to leave one on the floor with bullets in it – because one weapon, no carrying. Needless to say – “horror” game or not – this felt very artificial.
Naturally, this led to that classic immersive videogame trope of backtracking for a 3-minute round trip to pick up the gun that was left on the floor once I’d emptied the one I was carrying.
Combat in general can be summed up in one word: Bad. If you’d like some more words, take: Sluggish, Unresponsive, Slow, Unsatisfying, Unfun.
That last one is a pretty good descriptor of the whole game, actually. Unlike something as frustrating and actively annoying as Metal Gear: Revengeance, this game is merely tedious and boring – so I was actually able to finish it. I’m not sure which is worse actually, a bad game that is so bad that you put it down after an hour or so or one that’s bad but not so bad that you can’t make yourself finish it.
You might ask why, if the game is so tedious and boring, did I continue to play it? A fair question. The answer is a combination of my own bloody-mindedness and the fact that it’s listed as a short game – average of 7-10 hours, so doable in a couple of days of play at my own speed. In practice, I played through 2 levels in one day, and the other 7 in a rather bloody-minded waste of a day split over several sessions of 2-3 levels each time.
While at first the game feels like you’re on a murder-rampage through the oddly-agressive homeless of “Metro City” (yes, really), after awhile it starts to feel more like a zombie game, right down to having several “types” of “zombie” with different attack patterns, etc. Rarely, you’ll come across a bunch of zombies that fight one another. If you hang back in these encounters, you can simply mop up the survivor(s) instead of wade in and take a bunch of damage for no real reason.
Mostly you chase “the suspect” deeper and deeper down into the bowels of the city’s subway system and through a collection of discrete buildings that each level is composed of. Occasionally you’ll stop to “gather evidence” as noted earlier – which you transmit to Rosa, a friendly researcher back at base via your simply adorable 2005-era mobile telephone who is then able to look up DNA results, check databases and create full 3-D models from photos of shoeprints – all in seconds. Remember, this is before modern smartphones, so it’s got buttons and a little screen on top, yet it seems somehow more capable than the latest of 2016’s phones and has no problem whatsoever with a signal about a kilometer underground under a maze of concrete, brickwork and heavy industrial machinery.
There’s a complete and utter dearth of interesting weapons in the game – and while fans of the game might argue that it’s somehow realistic, or that the game’s strength is in it’s story or investigation, the fact is that the majority of gameplay is walking in dark rooms with a flashlight, and the next most common part of gameplay is beating the homeless/criminals/zombies to death with clubs and axes.
There’s far more of that than story or investigation.
This game was an interesting experience in one way. I started out impressed and enjoying myself, and you could clearly see the shared DNA between this game and F.E.A.R. in the environments and atmosphere, but the horrible, sluggish controls, tedious gameplay and godawful story led me to go from impressed, to bemused, to bored, to really very unimpressed. As I’ve noted, the game got overall excellent reviews for gameplay and even story back when it was released. I guess time has simply moved on and unlike a bottle of fine wine, this game hasn’t aged well, and in the decade since release has become corked instead.