Condemned's blemishes are thwarted by it's sustained atmosphere, stunning presentation and robust, visceral combat.
Condemned is a cat-and-mouse thriller at heart. You play as Ethan Thomas, a private investigator within the FBI's Serial Crime Unit, who is set up for murder by a mysterious killer who calls himself the Match Maker. Thomas is then tasked with clearing his name and finding out who the hell this guy is, with no one at hand to help other than his partner Rosa, a forensics investigator who is based at the SCU headquarters. Though some people may question it's originality, its a really interesting story that had me engaged from start to finish. This is thanks to the quality of the cut-scenes. They are monochrome flashbacks of events, and they are stylistic and immersive. One of the strongest aspects of the game is with its atmosphere. You've likely never played a game quite like Condemned. The game will take you through derelict buildings, an eerie department store, a house and even an abandoned school, which is home to one of the most memorable and chilling scares in recent memory. Amazingly, the atmosphere never falters and remains tense from start to finish.
The characters aren't that engaging, though. Ethan Thomas never grows into anything other than "just a detective". The game's antagonist is initially intriguing but the resulting revelation isn't thrilling. It would have been nice to see the killer thrust Thomas into some kind of web of intrigue, which a subsequent character study would have benefited from. I acknowledge the game's themes, but the characters could have been developed in a more interesting way than presented here.
As an action horror title, Condemned's gameplay is sure to interest gamers, who may be wondering how it actually plays. Well, I can tell you that it plays very well. The game uses a visceral combat system that is better than anything that has come before. The control scheme may take a little getting used to, but you'll be sucked in by the game's gritty, realistic gameplay qualities. The left and right triggers are for blocking and striking, respectively, and there are options for using a flashlight, checking ammo in guns and kicking, too. Guns are rare in Condemned and aren't recommended, as using melee weapons is the bread and butter of this title. Nearly every object in Condemned can be used as a weapon, you name it – metal pipes, baseball bats, wooden 2x4s, sledgehammers, fire axes, graters and shovels – among many more. These are all fun to use and bring about the game's variety. The enemies you'll face are creepy and realistic. This is because of the incredible animations. The AI is amazingly dynamic, and their movement, flinching and reactions are uncanny at times, which makes the combat more fun. When you strike them, they will stumble and hold their face, before launching back at you. They will move backwards and look around the environments, looking to get their hands on anything. They'll even throw things at you and hide. It's amazing. This interplay in combat is thrilling, and the resulting blows to the head are weighty and impactful. When you hit an enemy more than once, they will fall to their knees. Here, you have one of four finishers available – ram (a brutal headbutt), snap (a brutal neck break), slam (thrust their head into the ground) and kick. Though it's sometimes easier just to finish them by hitting them with a weapon, they are brutal and will make you wince on more than one occasion. You can also taser enemies, and then move in for a lethal blow. It's satisfying to see a guy shaking from a taser shock before a sledgehammer to the face.
The environments are relatively open and allow for some exploration, and there are some areas that require certain weapons. For example, one lounge area may have a door that requires a fire axe to open. You must then find a fire axe, while fighting some enemies along the way, in order to open it. Fire axes and sledgehammers are great weapons, but they are slow, but also powerful. There is a stat box that appears when you approach and compare weapons, which gives you good and bad views on each attribute, such as damage, speed, block and reach. You'll have to compensate for bad reach in order to bring an enemy down quicker, of wield a hammer for devastating damage amidst poor speed. It's a good case of experimentation and management, and it makes the gameplay a little more interesting. Another great thing about the AI, if there are two or more attackers, and one is hit by the other, they will fight each other. It makes the AI even more fascinating, but once one is down, the enemy will come back for you, so be careful.
The first-person perspective bodes well with the level design. Interactive moments like moving objects, climbing through areas and combat are all immersive qualities to the game and sell the perspective. The environments are well designed and interesting to navigate, with unpredictable encounters and moments at every turn. The visuals themselves are gorgeous. The art style is one of depression and reminiscent of a bleak, broken American society where drugged denizens roam and streets and nowhere is safe. It brings memories of Seven and Silence of the Lambs in its environments, atmosphere and constant dread and it looks great. The levels are gritty and detailed, with stained walls, fantastic textures and superb lighting. Seriously, this game looks great in motion, and particle effects and dank environments really sell the themes of the game.
The sound design is even better. While the voice acting is a little underwhelming, the actual sound effects and hugely effective and genuinely eerie. The bone-crunching blows of melee weapons, the messed-up mumbling of enemies and the smashes of glass, fallen objects and footsteps are all portrayed magnificently. The game also has an ambience in its music, which is very minimal and effective. Wandering a sewer with water dripping, pipes steaming and the clanking of train tracks is understandably immersive, and its moments like these that make Condemned such an exhilarating rush.
If there's an aspect of the game I'm not crazy about, its the crime investigating itself. The game has you use forensic tools to examine bodies of a particular crime scene, but the tools are pre-determined and automatically equipped upon close proximity. All you do is zoom in and take a picture of press a button to process the tool's function. It's even more disappointing when you can't choose what tool to use. There is just one particular tool for a particular crime scene and it's underwhelming to say the least. The actual scenes are moody, but these segments of Condemned fail to elevate the gameplay mechanically or variably. The combat can get slightly repetitive towards the second half of the game, so having this half-baked concept makes the repetition all the more irritating.
At the end of each level you complete, you'll get a stats menu. This informs you of certain things you did, like the hit rate, kills, collectibles and time. You'll be awarded medals based on your performance, but this does little to incentivize. It would have been nice to strive for an improvement, but there is no reward for doing so, making the stats seem meaningless because of this. There are collectible metal plates and birds, but they aren't an exciting find. Still, you'll likely get 6-8 hours out of the story, which is a solid playthrough.
All in all, I had such a great time playing through Condemned that any faults I found with the game were minor in comparison. Though the forensics side of the gameplay is bland and the replay value is at zilch, the game's visceral combat, profound audio-visual spectacle and engaging narrative kept me rooted from beginning to end. Those faults aren't enough to mar the experience of Condemned. They drag the quality down, but not by much. It's a scary, tense and unforgettable experience that you'll likely enjoy just as much as I did.
Presentation 9.0 – A relatively engaging story with a phenomenal atmosphere and great cut-scenes.
Graphics 8.5 – Fantastic lighting, gritty torn environments and amazing animations really sell the look and feel of Condemned's world.
Audio 9.0 – The voice acting is forgettable, but the tense, immersive sound effects and chilling ambience are not.
Gameplay 8.5 – The game establishes a smart, sharp and responsive combat system that is weighty and brutally satisfying. The investigation part of the game is dull, and the game can get repetitive later on.
Replayability 4.0 – Little incentive to play again, apart from boring collectibles and meaningless stats.
Overall – 8.5/10