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Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360)
MSRP: $59.99
Number of Players: 1
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: Sega

Rating:
****1/2
out of
*****

When was the last time a videogame scared you? Before playing Condemned: Criminal Origins, I had to think back to playing Resident Evil 2 on the PSOne and that, I tried to convice myself, was just a matter of being unprepared. While playing Condemned, I vowed it wouldn't scare me. I had all the lights on, the volume wasn't turned up too high, and the fact that I was playing a game was going to keep me from being scared. It didn't work. Even though the game did creep me out initially, several moments caused me to jump out of my seat and shout a few choice obscenities.

Condemned tells the story of Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who, while investigating a serial killer, is framed for the murder of two police officers. Sounds pretty conventional, right? Well, the game injects a stylish creepshow element into the mix by layering a mind-altering, madness-inducing subplot that creates ultraviolent crazies who wander around each of the game's levels. These crazies want to murder you for no apparent reason. You've got to navigate through each of the game's 10 levels to clear your name and solve the mystery of what's causing the madness to sweep through the city.

Condemned blends elements of not only first-person shooters like Doom and Quake but also the survival horror genre as well. It would be just another first person game if it weren't for the investigative portions of the game that require you to look for clues and evidence to solve the mystery. Although the game isn't as free with the investigating as it could be -- the tools you need are only available when you need them, chosen automatically -- it does provide a nice break from the violent gameplay.

The world of Condemned is made up of one creepy level after another. From an abandoned department store to a dilapidated school, you'll be searching for clues and trying to avoid being murdered in some of the darkest levels in game history. Armed with only a flashlight, a melee weapon of some kind (usually a board or a pipe) and the occasional gun, you'll have to find your way through the builidings' multilevel structures. The level designs are unique and the game doesn't force you to backtrack through any of them for any reason. The game's many crazed enemies are pretty adept fighters and since the game does not offer up too many guns with which to fight them off, you're forced to become skilled at melee fighting.

The fighting element of Condemned may make or break the game for most players. The combat is a unique combination of knowing when to attack and when to block. Using the item in your hands, you can block an attack made by an enemy, which will temporarily give you the opportunity to get a quick swing in. If you're able to time your attacks and blocks properly, you will succeed in most battles without too much problem. The trick is knowing how to determine the timing. The small, skinny zombie-like crawlers can usually be killed in one swing but their speed enables them to seemingly pop out of nowhere to get a hit or two on you before you know they're there. Larger brawny fighters will withstand more punishment while dealing out more damage with any hit they make. Each enemy swings their weapons differently, which makes the block and attack tactics different for each type of enemy you face. And, like you, occasionally the enemies will find firearms to deal out damage as well. Nothing makes for a "holy crap" moment like turning a corner to face a crazed madman carrying a shotgun while you're armed with only a board with a nail in it.

While Condemned is a little on the short side, it does provide a number of the ever-popular Xbox Live Acheivements to boost your Gamer Score. Some of them are relatively easy -- finding one of the six dead or dying birds on each level, for example. Other achievements take a bit more tenacity, like making it through a level using only melee weapons or finding all of the evidence in the game. For the Acheivement Point obssessed gamer, multiple playthroughs will be a rewarding experience. It is possible, once the game is completed, to select individual levels to play through simply for the purpose of finding the various acheivement-based items.

The graphics do an incredible job of portraying the decaying world in which the game takes place. Although I wouldn't say there's anything here that the original Xbox wouldn't be able to handle, it certainly isn't a game that looks sub-par on the Xbox 360. If you've got a standard definition television, the game goes into a letterbox mode to preserve the widescreen presentation that you'd see on a high definition set. You will certainly want to go into the game's video options and turn up the brightness a few notches, otherwise you may miss a few of the game's details. That's not to say the game is unplayable at the default brightness setting, but it does mean it's a little harder to appreciate the work that's gone into the detail of each level when it's completely shrouded in darkness.

Speaking of the darkness, since you can't see too much at once, Condemned does a great job of letting you hear what you can't see. Using a surround-sound system while playing the game will creep you out just as much as the game's visuals. Breaking glass, the squawking of birds and the incoherent screams of the game's maddened enemies add yet another level of craziness to the overall atmosphere of the the game.

Although Condemned is Xbox Live Aware, it does not feature any multiplayer modes. It would have been interesting to run around the multi-floored levels of the library or the school building in a deathmatch or playing capture the flag, but their omission isn't catastrophic. This single-player game is more atmospheric and engrossing than any other first-person game since the original Half-Life and that's a high compliment. It's just too bad it doesn't last just a bit longer. I managed to finish the game in just over seven hours.

Overall, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a fine example of a horror game that's actually scary when it needs to be and smart when it needs to be. The play mechanics are simple and the game never seems unfair in either the tasks it gives you or the way it gives them to you. You're allowed to be engrossed by the storyline's twists and turns without feeling the need to chuck your controller into the TV. Just don't play it with the lights out.

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