Condemned: Criminal Origins Feature Preview

Sega and Monolith give us an exclusive look at their eerie Xbox 360 game that puts you on the trail of some deranged killers.

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The life of a forensic expert surely looks like a fun and exciting job, if the plethora of television shows currently airing is any indication. However, we're pretty sure there hasn't been a story arc where someone was framed for murder, forced to scour the city to clear his name, faced psychotic thugs, and had to call his own sanity into question as the world around him spirals into seeming madness. If there was such a tale to tell, Sega and Seattle-based Monolith would likely nail it as their upcoming Xbox 360 game, Condemned: Criminal Origins. We've seen this unique game on and off since it was announced earlier this year, and we've seen it take shape as development has come together. We recently had the chance to get an exclusive look at a near-final version of it, which showcased a new level of polish and finally answered some lingering questions, namely, can such an experience be pulled off on a console? Though the game is still being wrapped up, we have to say that we think it just might be able to pull it off based on this latest version.

For those unfamiliar with Condemned: Criminal Origin's story, the game casts you in the role of Ethan Thomas, a forensics agent who's having one hell of a bad day. For starters, he's assisting in an investigation of a series of grisly murders, which means he's clocking in more time than the average person would at seedy crime scenes that are heavy on the dead people and unsettling biological evidence. Though this isn't too bad considering it's part of what he does, it's when he's framed for murder that things go downhill, as they often do. In order to clear Ethan's name you're going to have to continue his investigation, which will lead you down a dark path as you discover just why there's been a sharp rise in the population of crazy people as of late. Is it simple insanity that's driving folk off the deep end, or is it something else? Something more sinister and supernatural? You'll find out as you play the game, although the answers you find may not be quite what you expect.

The game's rich story, which is full of all manner of twists, turns, and creepy imagery, is the product of the twisted minds at Monolith that have worked on its premise for some time now, beginning with a concept that first began out of a collaboration with former COO Jason Hall. The lengthy cooking time has allowed the Monolith crew to serve up an unsettling helping of creep that leans heavily on the psychological terror, but mixes in some good old-fashioned mindless violence to keep things from getting too cerebral.

Nothing like losing all the flesh on your face to ruin your day.
Nothing like losing all the flesh on your face to ruin your day.

We don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, some neat stuff goes on that's engaging and interesting enough to keep you going. The tale will play out via a mix of cutscenes and in-game conversations that will slowly paint you a pretty disturbing picture of what's going on, including Ethan's involvement in it all. You'll have to discover for yourself if Ethan is crazy, or maybe even psychic, since he's prone to episodes of seeing through the killer's eyes.

Though the story gets to be a little out there as you progress in the game, you'll be kept reasonably grounded by Condemned's gameplay, which makes use of a fairly straightforward first-person mechanic with some satisfying twists. You'll move with the left analog stick; clicking it in while moving will let you sprint, and the right stick will let you look and turn. The top right trigger is an all-purpose action button that lets you shoot firearms, perform melee attacks, and collect forensic evidence when you're in collection mode. The lower right shoulder button lets you toggle between melee and firearm combat when you have a gun. The top left trigger lets you block during melee combat.

The bottom left shoulder button fires off your trusty Taser, which is an invaluable aid as you face off against your deranged foes. The A button serves as another type of action button, allowing you to grab weapons, open doors, climb ladders, and perform other context-sensitive actions like ducking under obstacles. The B button turns your flashlight on and off. The X button lets you switch between your standard melee combat and forensic investigation modes. And Y lets you check ammo in your firearm (when you have one). While this all may sound complicated, the setup handles quite nicely once you get going.

You'll have to hunt for clues as much as you'll bash freaks of nature with a pipe. Who said forensic science was easy?
You'll have to hunt for clues as much as you'll bash freaks of nature with a pipe. Who said forensic science was easy?

As far as the game's structure goes, Condemned isn't out to reinvent the wheel. It uses a pretty standard objective-based flow that has a nice, organic feel. The levels daisy-chain together as you begin to unravel the mystery of the killings and what's going on. That flow, plus Ethan's unsettling flashbacks, adds up to a very atmospheric experience. The one catch to the game, which may turn some off, is that this all makes for a rather methodically paced experience. To some degree, the experience is what you personally make of it, as the faster you find the clues that you need to carry on, the faster you can scan them with your forensics tools and send them back to the office for additional information. But before you think Condemned is all about hunting for stains and prints that you can use your tools on, don't forget the little issue of the insane people running around. You'll find that quiet contemplation time is often in short supply as you go about your business, as there is no shortage of crazy folk eager to murder you.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Dealing with crazy folks will certainly eat up some of your time, and you'll be required to improve in combat once you lose your gun, which happens far sooner than you'd probably like. As a result, a good chunk of your time will be spent making use of whatever's handy to beat the living crap out of fools rushing you. As you explore, you'll notice the items that you can use as weapons. Better still, if you're already holding something handy, like say a sledgehammer, you'll be able to see the "stats" of potential new weapons and weigh the pros and cons of swapping. If you're a fan of guns, then you should know that you can still pick some up as you go along. But ammo is often in short supply, so guns are not something you should rely on too much.

Who's up for a quick game of horse? I see one hand...
Who's up for a quick game of horse? I see one hand...

As you've no doubt seen from previous coverage of the game, you're going to be duking it out with an unsettling assortment of lunatics from all walks of life. As we just mentioned, you probably won't want to rely too heavily on guns, which means you'll be getting your hands dirty and engaging in a hefty amount of melee combat. The control system of attacking and blocking works well, thankfully, and ensures that the repetition won't drive you mad. The system is visceral and unsettling, but when you're winning, it's incredibly satisfying. Better still, you'll find a number of different options during a fight, such as the ability to end your foe with a painful and deadly finishing move.

What makes combat of any kind challenging in the game is the artificial intelligence for the enemies you'll face, as they are painfully smart. You'll notice pretty quickly that for crazy people in a murderous rage, they're a surprisingly thoughtful bunch. As a result, your enemies will size you up before engaging, and if you have a better weapon than them, they'll try to find one that's even better or they'll attack en masse to overpower you. The AI's penchant for self-preservation ensures that you will rarely be able to button-mash your way through a battle, as the battles will never be quite the same. In the instances that you do take damage, you'll be able to heal yourself with medical kits that you'll find scattered throughout the environment.

Condemned's graphics do an outstanding job of complementing the moody story. The game makes very dramatic use of light and shadow that effectively sets a creepy tone for the adventure. Though you'll explore a number of different locales that are firmly entrenched in the steamy underbelly of society and are tailor-made to unsettle you, others, such as a department store and a library, get the most mileage out of the light-and-shadow motif and come across as even more sinister. The first-person perspective is especially impressive as you engage in melee combat with the disturbed individuals, and it adds a gritty, visceral feel that's outstanding. The assorted filters used to obscure your vision when you're being assaulted are also really sharp.

Even the walking dead are no match for a trusty Taser.
Even the walking dead are no match for a trusty Taser.

What really gives you a kick, though, is the way the visuals are used to foster some old-fashioned psychological terror. The light and shadow, coupled with bits of motion in your peripheral vision, help foster a little paranoia as you wade through some of the cold, dank environments. At the moment, the department store environment is easily one of the creepiest places we've been to yet. Sure, half-demolished buildings and dark libraries are all good and creepy, but a department store where some of your foes are dressed as mannequins may send you reaching for the diapers once you've been accosted enough.

The graphic content is lent an extra punch thanks to the 360's stunning clarity at 720p. Mangled bodies look pretty nasty, even on current-gen consoles, but the stuff you'll see in Condemned will gross people out in new and exciting ways. Obviously, as a launch title, Condemned will have to endure much scrutiny, which from the looks of things so far, the game is up for. Character models and environments are nicely done and look stellar in 720p. Though the visuals lose edge on a normal TV, you should still notice a nice bump up in visual quality. From a performance standpoint, the game runs smoothly, and even in its unfinished stated, it rarely experiences any frame rate inconsistencies.

Now as cool as the visuals in Condemned are, the audio is arguably just as good, if not better. The game has a very deliberate pacing and tone admirably kept with the music and effects you'll hear, which will manipulate you like a good audio package does. The music in the game is used sparingly and for effect. But more importantly, the game makes judicious use of silence, which ups the freak-out potential by order of magnitude as you play. The effects, especially those used for melee, are top-notch and painful in their clarity, like when you hear pipes collide with flesh and bone. The loons you'll be pummeling alternate between being vocal and eerily quiet, usually as they lay in wait for you, which highlights the well-done voice. The voice cast, for the mostly sane people you'll encounter, is solid and really goes a long way in selling the story. While the ideal setting is to play the game with the full-on 5.1 setup, those who can't use this setup should use headphones, as nothing will suck you into the game faster.

The grim visuals should make Condemned one of the most atmospheric games on the Xbox 360.
The grim visuals should make Condemned one of the most atmospheric games on the Xbox 360.

Based on what we played so far, Condemned: Criminal Origins is coming together to offer a unique experience that's worth a look. The game won't be for everyone, and above and beyond the subject matter, the pacing will take some getting used to. Plus, we're fairly certain the inability to skip the cinematics may turn off some people. However, the game's deliberate pacing and gameplay all tie into its story, which is its biggest strength next to its technical merits. Anyone looking for a unique launch title for the Xbox 360 that's packing strong, albeit unsettling, visuals and an engaging story will want to keep an eye out for the game when it ships this November.

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