You know, people say I’m too cynical. I know, it’s nuts, I don’t believe it either.
Part of this might be due to my adoration for the indie side of gaming. On one hand, you get some of the best games in years, all of which push boundaries in terms of gameplay and clarity. On the other much larger hand, you get a cynical rush of half-arsed titles that wouldn’t resonate with the biggest low-test dimwits who believe Big Brother is cutting-edge post modern work. Enough of that though, let’s talk about Monolith before they bent over backwards for Warner Bros., specifically, the first Condemned.
Yes, before Middle-Earth was suffocated by a sense of pay-to-win, Monolith were focused on creating visceral entertainment that some considered to be just on the cusp of “tasteless trash”. From their debut hit Blood to the first two F.E.A.R’s, Monolith were never afraid of showing no restraint when it came to the gritty reality of ultra-violence, and no game has yet to come through with the hardcore rough-n-tumble grit that is the first Condemned.
You play as SCU agent Ethan Thomas, a human teddy bear if ever I’ve seen one, who’s resides and investigates murders within the city of Metro, where violence has mysteriously increased in recent months, along with a rise in pigeons exploding. The city is also host to an amalgam of exotic serial killers, with some of them turning up dead, with talks of a serial killer-killer rising up as well. With this knowledge, and Ethan being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, you and your tech support buddy Rosa, team up and figure out this infectious madness.
See, Condemned is interesting story-wise, because it never shows the full hand they own and by the end of it, continue to do so. Mainly for a sequel hook, and bastardized sequel aside, Monolith approached the narrative in a way that hides enough and shows enough for you to disregard that potential sequel. It also has actual characters, and development which, for the time, was unheard of in games.
Condemned was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive title, and it’s a dead giveaway now, since the actual game looks like half-battered shit with a sprinkling of pepper. Characters are big and bulky, and their faces look like inflated Play-Doh figures, but 12 years on, part of me reckons it adds to the aesthetic and the tone Monolith were going for. This was cutting-edge at one point, and now it’s a reflection of the dirty and brutal world Ethan and his buddies reside in.
Speaking of his buddies, the characters of Condemned are surprisingly three-dimensional, with all VA’s and writers putting in their darnedest to make sure you like them. Ethan (Voiced by Heroes star Greg Grunberg) reels it in with an irrational, albeit likable quality, with the chemistry between him and Rosa never feeling forced. Rosa herself is also an extremely well-crafted part of the casting, with her subtle jokes to Ethan going over his head, and she even stands up for herself at some point.
My favorite casting of all though, goes to the flip-flopping headcase SKX, a unstoppable magnetic force, if ever I’ve seen one, and his superb voice actor, Peter Jacobs. He shows up briefly every once in a while, but when he’s on the screen, he adds a playful fear to the game, reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker performance in The Dark Knight. A pretty silly comparison, but it’s the only comparison I have when it comes to somebody with this much charisma. In fact, the only complaint I have when it comes to the voice actor is that he did no other work after this.
The characters are a small part of the bigger picture however, with the main focus being the combat. The combat itself is some of the best first-person melee combat ever conceived in a video game, and is a blueprint for games that have followed and failed. Dead Island, Dishonored and Chivalry come to mind, and the only game I know of that tread the same path and succeeded was Mirror’s Edge and the fantastic sequel, Catalyst. Really, the melee combat itself needs a breakdown, so follow my beat… down.
First, Monolith aren’t afraid to confront the player with a test on hand at all times. You’re thrust into back-alley UFC matches with these crazed homeless folk, and they grant you the tools necessary to turn the walls red. What follows is Brute Ballet; a visceral sequence of rebar and pipes used to make these hobos lose the last few teeth they own. It’s punchy, it’s cathartic, and it never loses sight of the design that continues.
There’s also a sense of tactical approach towards most scenarios. For example, somewhere down the line, you’ll be met with much bigger giants of men, that can deal the same damage you do, and are mostly insusceptible to stuns and bullets. What you could do, is use some of the other enemies to weaken the big boys, dupe them so they’re vulnerable to an easy side-swipe… orrrrr just use your taser that one hits enemies. Well, I DID say “some of the best combat”, didn’t I?
Tasering your enemies never fails, and it annoys me that the bloody thing has unlimited ammo, when everything else combat-wise was executed so perfectly. The guns can’t be reloaded, for instance, and they handle like riding a dragon through a subway tunnel, so why couldn’t the taser be approached in the same manner? Maybe an ammo count that can only be replenished between missions? Or just make him lose the bastard thing after a while because, in all honesty, he should have lost it when he was framed.
Actually, now that I consider it, my complaints are merely moot points at this period in time. Like I said, the game came out for the Xbox 360, so trying to think of fixes now, is like attempting to fix Hurricane Katrina with an punch-holed bucket. In the meantime, let me focus on the other many positives Condemned has going for it, one of those being the horror.
Horror games at the time of Condemned’s release were going through a renaissance which was at war with itself. On the one hand, you had titles like Call of Cthulu and The Suffering, radiating their titles with either body horror, or Lovecraftian nightmares. On the other hand, you had titles like Resident Evil 4 and F.E.A.R. which, while they were fantastic shooters, you’d have to be pretty darn stupid to consider them scary in any way.
Condemned attempts the best of both worlds, and mostly gets away with it. Taken from the positive revival, you have the unnerving tone and frankly fucking frightening hallucinations, the kind that feel like fever dreams where you can’t move, but you see the evil approaching and yet, you’re paralyzed with fear. On the F.E.A.R. side? Context-less jump scares an- Actually, that’s all of it. In all fairness, the jump scares only happen twice in a play through, and that’s only if you’re really looking.
The other third of the game is a pseudo-puzzler, with the CSI elements being a background part throughout. Every once in a while, you and Rosa will have to churn up a lead following the mess your prey has left throughout the map, and with that, Ethan will reach into his big bag of goodies and inspect the area for blood, fingerprints and markings that may lead them on the right path.
I’ve heard complaints for this, on the grounds that it’s a bit too simplified than what it actually may be; pixel hunting without the giggling contempt from the developer. Personally, I consider this a gross black-and-white statement from a purely critical standpoint, since there’s at least a few shades of grey in-between, and it’s more than enough to allow this mechanic to pass of as at least well thought out in it’s design.
Another mechanic people groan ’til their last breaths about is the use of specific weapons in order to unlock specific doors. If you come across, say, a locked wooden door, a padlocked gate or an electronically locked fence, you can use a fire axe, sledgehammer, or shovel, respectively, in order to get through to the other side. In all honesty, I can’t really defend this, as it was a bit silly back then and even sillier now. I’m sure Ethan has at least a pair of bloody wire cutters in that bastard duffel bag of his.
At the end of all these homeless renditions of UFC 165 and hallucinations, you see Ethan and Rosa chatting in a diner, and everything is transforming to a metaphorical atom behind them. Sequel-hook dialogue happens and in the end, you leave with a connection to the characters, an unforgettable experience, and a sore arm from the amount of skulls you’ve cracked with a conduit.
Condemned is a great horror game. It’s also one of the best launch titles for a console, ever made. The few bum notes made were brushed aside for a finer focus on the things within. The fear, the tension, the connection, and the reflection. What’s next for these characters? Who knows! It’s all in the future now, and as long as the future doesn’t bring in a sequel that shits the bed, then we’ll be all fine! Haha… I mean, you’d have to be an utter bastard to ruin something like this with a complete tonal shift, haha… -sigh-
Alright, fine, I’ll review Condemned 2: Bloodshot soon.
12 years on, and Condemned is still the grittiest beatdown around.