Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Condemned: Criminal Origins is not for the faint of heart. This launch title for the Xbox 360 didn't get much press, and has thankfully been spared the firestorm of controversy more high-profile targets are subject to. It's a grim tale of an FBI agent on the run as he tries to clear his name and hunt down serial killers in the midst of an epidemic of disease and madness ... Super Mario it's not. Though survival horror has been a huge genre for some time now, this represents a new blend of the genre with the more traditional first-person shooter (and just a dash of puzzle-solving), and it's all wrapped in a layer of grit and grime and blood that makes this play like Se7en: The Videogame.

When I talked about Call Of Duty 2, I discussed gaming as the ultimate extension of reader response theory: the reader/player is an active participant in creating the artistic experience, separate from authorial intent. This is really brought to the fore in Condemned, where the experience of the game will change wildly depending on your interaction with it. At it's most base level, this is a run-n-shoot like Doom or HALO, with very few enemies. Those who are skilled at the genre could easily rely on their reflexes to race through the game, dispatching enemies with ease.

For those lacking teh mad skillz (or those who simply wish to meet the game halfway) there's a wonderfully creepy, horrific time to be had. More than I few times, I sat in my darkened basement office, wondering why the hell I was putting my blood pressure through this. Attackers come from nowhere, and weapons are a tricky lot: though guns and ammunition are in short supply, you can pick up just about anything (from 2x4s to fireaxes to locker doors) and smack folks in the head with it. The game expertly plays with suspense as empty corridors become as fun as pitched battles. The developers understand that waiting for the next attack is half the fun, and the chaotic urban interiors (every site is seemingly under construction or destruction) provide plenty of opportunity for half-seen shadows and echoed footsteps in the distance.

Since your character is an investigator, the game adds a wrinkle to the genre by giving you various investigative tools to analyze fingerprints, bloodstains, and more. It's all very CSI-like, and promised to add a bit of depth to the game. Promises aren't results, though, as it falls apart on execution. It's still a welcome change from the suspense, and allows you to pore over the grisly crime scenes sprinkled liberally through the game ... but it's so limited and filled with so much hand-holding that it fails as a gameplay mechanic. For all intents and purposes, the investigation segments could be cutscenes and they'd be no less interactive.

The problems with the CSI segments are minor, and at least represent an attempt at breaking new ground. The disappointment in Condemned comes at the end, when hours of inventive, thrilling, genre-blending gameplay are thrown away for a long iteration of the gaming-standard Big Ending Fight. Wave after wave of minions? Check. Fight final boss multiple times? Check. Limited strategies? Check. In the final frames of the game, it betrays the principles that made it great, and I couldn't help but be thoroughly disappointed. Fighting strategies that have been developed are artificially crippled, and there's no way through but a slugfest with checkpoints spread few and far between. It's as if the final minutes of Se7en were replaced with the closing sequence to Jean Claude Van Damme's Double Impact.

I didn't finish the game, in fact. Minutes away from the conclusion, I simply gave up - betrayed by both my reflexes and the development team. I wish I knew what happened there, why the game so suddenly shifts tone and technique, but whatever the reason it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Condemned is 95% of a truly great and unique game, and I hope the rumored sequel will stay true to itself.


zilla said...

dude i can't wait until i can actually find someone somewhere willing to sell me an xbox 360 (for MSRP)!

Mark Fossen said...

Should be soon, bro.

Bones said...

Condemned was my favorite launch title. I loved every minute of it, up until the end. I'm thinking maybe the development team was under the wire to get it done by launch because not only does the magnificent tone of the game change dramatically but the ending itself made absolutely no sense. I was left with more questions than I had at the beginning. Very disappointing but I'd love to play a sequel.