If the thought of whacking homicidal hobos with two-by-fours appeals to you in the least, you must play this game.

User Rating: 8.5 | Condemned: Criminal Origins X360
In this era when games are largely becoming bigger, longer, and more complicated, there's something refreshing about a title that focuses on doing one thing, doing it extremely well, and ending before it overstays its welcome. Condemned: Criminal Origins does just that, providing a short but extremely visceral and atmospheric first-person melee combat experience.

The plot of Condemned is so bad, it's scary. This is all the more disappointing because it starts out with a rather promising premise. You play as FBI agent Ethan Thomas, who, as the game begins, is hot on the trail of a serial killer with an unusual agenda. Things quickly take a turn for the worse, though, and before you know it Ethan's been framed for murder on the flimsiest evidence in history, yet for some reason the Bureau seems convinced he's guilty. He goes on the run to prove his innocence and catch the true killer, setting up the rest of the game. You'll need to suspend major amounts of disbelief to swallow any of this; not only is Ethan's set-up totally flimsy, but for someone who's supposed to be one of the most brilliant investigators in the Bureau, he seems pretty clueless. It's totally apparent, for instance, that someone who shows up early on to help him isn't exactly what he appears to be, but Ethan readily accepts his assistance anyway. Before all is said and done, the plot takes a few more outrageous and pointless turns, as well. Thankfully the experience of playing the game is more than exciting enough to make putting these concerns about the story aside easy, but considering the amount of emphasis the game places on atmosphere, a more satisfying narrative certainly would have helped make it all the more immersive.

The game quickly and skillfully introduces you to the different gameplay mechanics you'll be using throughout, starting things off easy with a sequence in which you use some forensic tools to examine a crime scene. Each level has a few sections that require you to bust out some of these devices, but since you can't fail with them, these moments only serve to provide moments of relief from the otherwise constant violence. Speaking of which, the game quickly tosses you into combat, and before you know it you're wandering the halls of a condemned building, picking up two-by-fours or tearing pipes off the walls to fend off all the homicidal maniacs that come after you.

In practice, combat is relatively simple. There's one button to swing or fire your weapon, one button to block, and one button to use your taser. The taser is, perhaps, a little too useful, letting you shock enemies as they approach and then disarm them before they can wallop you. Still, despite the simplicity and the relative ease of it all once you get the hang of it, the top-notch presentation keeps things involving. There's a real sense of impact to the combat, and the enemies do a great job of hiding behind pillars or furniture and leaping out at you or getting the drop on you and whacking you in the head from behind, which continues to be scary and effective throughout the game's brief duration.

Almost the entire game takes place in, as the title suggests, condemned buildings. Each one creates the illusion of an environment to explore, but in fact they're all entirely linear. Sometimes the level design is a bit clumsy in terms of how it keeps you on a direct path from point A to point B. For instance, sometimes you'll approach a barrier that, with a press of a button, you'll duck under or climb over, or some sort of obstacle you'll be able to shove aside. At other times, though, you'll encounter barriers that appear every bit as easily surmountable as these others, but you won't be able to get past them, simply because the game doesn't want you going that way. It's just one more thing that, like the story, interrupts the sense of immersion in what is otherwise an extremely engaging experience.

Visually, the game strives to create a sense of pervasive gloom not unlike what we've seen in films like Seven, and it's incredibly successful. All the environments, from the condemned apartment building to the condemned department store to the condemned high school, are richly detailed and very creepy. You'll encounter a few too many enemies of the same type, but they're all quite fearsome and they all animate nicely. The way your head gets knocked around from the force of an enemy's impact really helps pull you into the experience, as well. Occasionally you'll see a bit of graphical weirdness, like an enemy's face popping through some piece of furniture they're hiding behind, but these moments are rare, and on the whole the game is extremely impressive to behold.

The sound is mostly excellent, as well. The sounds of wood and metal colliding with skulls all sound genuine and very painful. Particularly effective are the guttural, indistinct mutterings of the psychos you constantly encounter. And in the old department store, you'll hear off-key Christmas music still being piped over the sound system after all these years. Seriously, is there anything creepier than off-key Christmas music? A few of the cast members ham it up a bit too much, but Ethan himself is voiced by Greg Grunberg, now seen on TV's Heroes, who manages to deliver a decent performance in spite of the horrible material he's given to work with.

Condemned is a short game, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It provides a memorable experience that's ideal for plowing through in a weekend rental and ends before its simple but effective gameplay becomes tiresome. Achievement hunters may want to go through the game a few times to unlock all the points, but other than that, there really isn't any replay value to be had here.

Condemned: Criminal Origins may have a lousy story, but it's quite brilliant at creating a mood and at providing some of the most hard-hitting first-person combat delivered by any game yet. If the thought of whacking homicidal hobos with two-by-fours appeals to you in the least, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with this brief but very memorable game.