It's not too often these days that you see a PC game endorsed by SEGA themselves, let alone an FPS, but then again, it isn't often you see an FPS like Condemned: Criminal Origins. While the typical new releases in the FPS genre get prettier with better guns and increased enemy counts, Condemned takes a step back and takes a far more minimal approach - very few guns, not a whole lot of unique enemies, but a storyline and environment that will immerse you. With Monolith Productions behind the development - known for titles such as FEAR and NOLF - the expertise and experience is certainly there to deliver a unique title in Condemned: Criminal Origins, but does it succeed?
With no multiplayer mode in sight, Condemned relies solely on its single player story mode. It is here you will meet the main/human controlled character, Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent. During a routine murder investigation, Ethan's day takes a turn for the worst when two policemen are gunned down by a mysterious serial killer with Ethan's gun, leading the FBI and Police to suspect Ethan, ultimately making him a fugitive. However, as it would happen, Ethan still has remote access to FBI information via his PDA and a sympathetic agent who specializes in analyzing data extracted from crime scenes. Together, along with another mysterious figure trying to help, they set about proving Ethan's innocence, but stumble upon something much more sinister. All in all, a pretty generic storyline, but stimulating nonetheless, particularly when the twists and turns start coming into the picture.
However, unfortunately for Condemned, "stimulating" would have been a great way to describe the execution of the storyline, but alas, "incoherent" is the far better word of choice. At times it really feels as if some elements to the storyline were last minute patch work jobs. For example, to progress the storyline, sometimes you need to open a gate or door using a particular weapon, like a sledgehammer for a bolted gate, or a crowbar for a locked sliding door, and you have to go find this weapon by backtracking your steps and searching. While you usually don't have to go back too far, this doesn't make for a great storyline element, it is tedious and down right annoying at best, not to mention very unrealistic - you're meaning to tell me a sledgehammer won't barge through a flimsy wooden door, but only a fire axe will? It gets worse, though. Another example of rushed storyline can be found in the transition from gameplay to cutscene - don't be surprised to see your character, Ethan, pull out a pistol during a cut scene immediately after the gun-less level you just completed - surely you could have found use for that gun in the middle of the 3 on 1 fight you just barely scrapped through, eh Ethan?
Actually, on the topic of fighting enemies and storyline, throughout your mission to prove your innocence, you will stumble across countless enemies in the form of drugged out psycho freaks, but the game doesn't really explain why it is, exactly, you're fighting these nutcases. They don't seem relevant to the storyline at all - at least, not from what the game tells you initially. Up until the last parts of the game, these enemies are explained as little more than random aggressors, and even at the end it isn't crystal clear what relation they serve to the storyline. As it stands, for the most part in the game, you're trying to prove your innocence by finding who really killed the two coppers, and on the way, these psycho freaks who are bent on the thrills of hand to hand combat keep getting in your way. I don't think I saw one normal stranger in the entire game, despite the fact you frequent an active train station amongst other public locations. It seems to me Condemned has the storyline of a combat free puzzle/investigation game, and the gameplay of an all out brawling FPS, and neither seem to make any meaningful connection whatsoever.
However, while it is apt to describe the gameplay as mindless and primarily irrelevant given the above paragraph, technically speaking Condemned's gameplay is very solid, and differs from what you might expect from the genre. Unlike most FPS titles these days which pack you full of ammo and have you tear down enemy upon enemy in a barrage of bullets, flicking a few switches and levers on the way, Condemned's combat is more along the lines of "any means necessary". While there are guns in the game, most of the time you will be without a gun and will be forced to fight in hand to hand combat with weapons like a nail spiked 2x4, crowbars, axes and sledgehammers to name a few. As well as the emphasis on hand to hand combat, you can only hold one weapon at a time, so the only way to switch weapons is to pick up a new one and drop the old one. These aspects of the game make for some very intense moments. In fact, Condemned is probably going to offer you the most intense and brutal gaming you've had for a long time - you will be cautiously creeping around the dark corridors, you will be looking over your shoulder regularly, and you will be on the edge of your seat during a lot of the game's more heart pounding moments. On top of this, even when you have a gun, you rarely have sufficient ammo to waste a single bullet, which makes ammo management a very integral part to the gameplay, further adding to the game's intensity, particularly when your ammo supply is outnumbered by the approaching baddies.
These aspects of Condemned's gameplay make for a pretty unique twist on the FPS genre. While other games in the past have centered around limiting what weaponry you have, often such games fail to really convince you that these measures are little more than synthetic ways to enhance the game's difficulty. You don't really get this impression while playing Condemned, as the storyline revolves heavily around your lack of arsenal, so the game doesn't simply leave you out to dry and give you nothing but a lead pipe for no particular reason. When you're playing Condemned, you really feel as if you're in a desperate, dire situation that calls for "any means necessary" type of combat. The enemy AI reinforces this as well, because they're just as desperate and brutal as you are, which makes for some very challenging fights, even if, as mentioned above, you're not really sure why it is you're fighting in the first place.
Unfortunately though, while Condemned offers some unique twists on the FPS genre, its gameplay suffers from the same issue found in many - repetition. While at first the environments and combat on offer are great, after a while, running around the areas that all look the same killing enemies the same way every time starts to lose its edge. You see, while Condemned promotes raw and vicious hand to hand combat, in a way the game 'wusses' out by giving you access to a long distance tazer (and later on, a "super tazer"). This allows you to stun enemies from a distance, and attack them while they're stunned. While there are times in the game where the tazer won't help you much, most of the time it is maybe a little too powerful. What it does is it creates a set routine for most kills you make - stun with the tazer, attack, stun with the tazer, attack, over and over again. Sure, you could choose not to use the tazer, but given that in hand to hand combat you're almost always guaranteed to lose at least a little health, it is the smartest way to approach enemies, but at the same time it creates a formula of attack that becomes repetitive after a while to say the least. Even if you choose not to use the tazer, your ability to block attacks will also be tied down to a routine after you've figured out the timing, so it is very hard to escape the game's formulated feel, effectively taking the edge right off what started out as great combat gameplay.
What makes matters worse is the only time a break from the formulated gameplay occurs is during "investigative" moments, where you are required to study a scene for evidence that will continue the game's storyline. You will be able to use some very nifty tools, such as UV and Laser lights, a 3D scanner, and a digital camera to name a few, however using these are nowhere near as exciting and interesting as they sound. Usually what happens is your screen will become slightly distorted when you are in an area that hosts evidence, which the game explains is due to your character's 6th sense abilities. All you then need to do is press "T" to bring up your required tool (which the game picks automatically for you) and once you've found what you're looking for - a liquid stain, finger prints etc - you press "T" again, which brings up the camera or analyzer, allowing you to send the data back to base for instant analysis. It doesn't get much easier than that. Sure, these moments add to the storyline, but they don't add much to the gameplay.
And just when you thought the combat and environments along with the scene investigations were enough to make Condemned repetitive, you have what is perhaps one of the most linear FPS games out for a while. There is only one path to follow in Condemned (until the very end of the game anyway, but I wont spoil it here....not because I'm a decent guy, but because even trying to spoil it would take way too long to explain), so much so that you don't really ever need to know what your objective actually is, all you need to do is follow the game's set path - which it defines by barriers and locked doors. The game will throw the occasional curve ball at you, like having to successfully investigate a crime scene to progress the storyline, but as mentioned above, these are not challenging at all and are nothing more than distractions.
The graphics in Condemned are not spectacular per se - some textures don't look terribly high resolution and character models are about on par with the norm in PC gaming these days - but the immersive value of the environments are off the chart. First of all, the game features a very subtle static image filter throughout most of the game, similar to Manhunt, which gives an unsettling 'busy' impression as you lurk around the dark and gritty areas you'll find yourself in. On top of this, these dark and gritty areas are rendered nicely and do a great job setting the tone for the game, which tasks you with investigating some pretty brutal crime scenes. Although this theme is very dominant throughout the game, which as already outlined above, does become quite repetitive after a while. All in all though, since Condemned is based on the technology found in FEAR, you can expect a pretty nice game visually.
It has its faults, but Condemned is still a game that will surprise a few people, even if it's only because of its differences to most FPS games. While it is effectively "yet another FPS", it manages to separate itself from the norm with its approach. This isn't a run-n-gun type of FPS, it is an FPS that will have you creeping around quietly and cautiously, while you nervously check your anemic ammo supply around every corner, looking swiftly behind you to see if that rolling tin trash can was the result of an oversized rat, or a stalking drugged out psycho planning an attack, even if you as the gamer has no idea why it is everyone wants to kill you. Unfortunately, what makes Condemned unique is also its downfall at times - the immersive environments are great at first and the down to earth approach to combat offers an initial unique challenge, but after a while, running around the same rooms and hallways killing random baddies the same way each time has its limited appeal, and the investigative aspects of the game are hardly going to offer much of a challenge to anyone. With that said, Condemned is probably best enjoyed in short stints of gameplay at a time, even if it is an odd mix of stimulating storyline, boring investigations and almost completely irrelevant mindless combat.