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Saturday, 5 July 2014

Condemned: Criminal Origins

I hope everyone enjoyed that certain day yesterday.

I do, of course, mean Rwandan Liberation Day and the Feast Day of St. Uodalric.

Condemned: Criminal Origins.

[Spoilers for Condemned: Criminal Origins and Condemned II.]

Okay, here's a confession: Me and a mate originally bought the sequel to this game for three quid from a bargain bin of used games that nobody wanted, on the assumption that it'd be ridiculous and awful.

To be fair, we weren't wrong. The sequel, Condemned II, contains among other things a cult of sound-empowered cyborgs, a prophecy, and a boss battle against alcoholism. But it also had a really interesting, gritty-run-down-urban-apocalypse aesthetic, some great if occasionally awkward gameplay including some excellently done deductive sections, and an interesting main character who we both genuinely liked despite the fact that he looked like he had escaped from the worst mosh pit in the world.

We never actually finished that game – the doll factory section defeated us – but it made an impression. 

This is not the time to listen to music, dude.

So when we saw its predecessor, also in a bargain bin of used games, we decided to pick it up. We played most of it in a single night, and then game fatigue set in and we left the final level and a half for several months afterwards before finishing it off.

Condemned: Criminal Origins puts you in the shoes of Ethan Thomas, a crime scene investigation agent in the fictional city of Metro. Unfortunately, Metro is apocalyptically awful, and the world is literally dying a slow, torturous death around Ethan, and every time he investigates a crime scene – a task made more difficult by his being framed – he must first fight his way through the drug-addicted, mutated lunatics that seem to comprise an impressive part of the city's population.

Add to this that Ethan might not be of sound mind and body either, as he suffers from sporadic but vivid hallucinations, and keeps finding files on himself that suggest something entirely abnormal about his body.

(Luckily, he has the help of his lab assistant Rosa, who seems to be more competent at crime scene investigating than he is by a factor of about twenty million. Also, Rosa is never a damsel in distress. You never have to rescue her.) 

Also, she looks like she should
be running a starship in Star Trek.

The gameplay is more or less the standard form for survival horror games – it's never been a genre that has thrived on its gameplay, after all. When people talk about Silent Hill and Eternal Darkness, which are arguably the most prominent examples of the genre unless you're counting Resident Evil (and I'm not certain I do), the first thing they say isn't 'the gameplay is great – it's varied, and frenetic, and it's just so exciting' because the gameplay of both of these games is 'clumsily and inexpertly attempt to hack, shoot and burn your way through monsters', and tends to be awkward, off-kilter, and uneven.

(The gameplay of Condemned is rather smoother than either of those, but it's a near thing at times, especially when facing multiple enemies.)

What they say instead is 'these games are atmospheric. They make you frightened. They mess with your mind and build tension until it feels like something awful is going to happen' and Condemned does do that. It does it better than its sequel, which often felt less like a survival horror and more like a clumsy FPS-M (the 'm' here standing for melee) with a few horror elements thrown in for flavour. 

Get a haircut, you hippy.

In Condemned 2 you are sometimes – often, even – fighting waves of monsters that are nearly unending, intercut with periods of relative quiet where they'll come at you one or two at a time, with those periods growing less and less frequent as time goes on. In Condemned, you can go long periods of time without seeing a monster. You can spend large swathes of levels wandering around the abandoned locales, hearing scratches and scrapes, seeing the lights flicker, and being constantly aware that a monster could appear at any moment, and has just chosen not to, because it's waiting for the opportune moment to leap out and terrify you.

It's a slow building fear that doesn't overstate itself, whereas Condemned 2 is dropping dozens of monsters on top of you and screaming 'BE AFRAID NOW, DUDE. DUDE. BE AFRAID, DUDE. DUUUUDE.' Condemned, meanwhile, just quietly drops hints that maybe you should think about being afraid, and lets your imagination do the rest of the work.

(There's a lovely moment in Condemned where, as you're wandering through a department store, the lights start blinking, and every time they go out the mannequins move after you, as if they're chasing you down. It's not the most unique concept – evil shop mannequins and inanimate objects that move when you're not looking are staples of television where that kind of visual horror works well, but it's effective. 

Also, evil mouths.

Its effectiveness, in a way, shows that the main advantage that survival horror video games have is that they are video games. Video games need to put in less work at creating an atmosphere of dread than film or television, because you are the one in control of the victim. You, on some level, relate to them because you're the one controlling them – that's why if you talk to any gamer about playing a video game, they will inevitably at some point slip into saying 'I' - , and because events aren't inevitable: You might be able to avoid the horrible thing that's coming. If you make the right choices, this character might survive. You are responsible for what happens to this character.)

The different approaches show in their plots. In Condemned, everything is obliquely hinted at: There's some kind of madness affecting the city, but god knows where it comes from. Something is horribly wrong with Ethan's sternum, but god knows what it is. Ethan is hallucinating and the line between reality and delusion is getting increasingly thin, but god knows why. Even the main plot thread, about hunting down a serial killer, remains shrouded in mystery until his identity is revealed at the very end – and almost as soon as his identity is revealed, the game throws a curveball by revealing an actual monster. Not supernaturally maddened drug addicts: A monster in the tradition of Silent Hill. What is this monster? Not explained, save that Ethan may be something similar. 

What a charming lad.

(For those wondering, the sequel reveals that Ethan is a chosen one with a 'true voice' who can fire sonic blasts like an X-Man once he has defeated Alcoholism in a melee boss battle. So that's – that's good. I guess. That's a – were the designers on drugs when making the sequel to this game?)

Graphics are good for the time, music is fine – the game is very short, though. Triple A games seem to be getting shorter and shorter of late without dropping in price, but this came out by and large before that trend started, but it's still only about nine hours long. That's not us rushing through it either: The game is linear, there's only so much rushing you can do. Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing – some of the best games are shorter ones, because when you're dealing with a shorter period of time, you're not outstaying your welcome and padding out your gameplay.

Condemned could maybe have done with a bit of padding. A bit more crime scene investigation here and there, maybe one or two short sections where you're dealing with a lot of enemies, maybe even one or two short stealth sections, although I'm not a fan of stealth sections as a rule. Just a little something to mix up the gameplay a little and to stretch it out for another hour or two. 

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