Condemned: Criminal Origins so scary you may want to sleep with the lights on
Why do we seek out entertainment that makes our palms sweat, our hearts race and fills us with feelings of dread and foreboding? Other than blind dates, I mean.
Because being scared is fun, that’s why. And Condemned: Criminal Origins, while it has its flaws, is easily one of the creepiest games in years. Maybe I’m a huge wuss, but at one point I almost stopped playing altogether because I couldn’t handle the tension.
OK, yeah, I’m a wuss.
Condemned casts you as FBI agent Ethan Thomas, framed for the shooting deaths of two police officers by a serial killer who is hunting down and slaying other serial killers. What ever happened to my enemy’s enemy is my friend?
The plot quickly takes a turn for the weird, as you use CSI-style forensic tools and brute force to trail the killer through a decaying and perpetually gloomy city, fighting psychotic squatters, junkies and other barely human foes who are hellbent on doing you in.
The game’s meticulously detailed locales are its biggest selling point, taking you through every form of dark and scary urban blight.
Particularly creepy is the abandoned shopping mall with warped Christmas music playing over the P.A. system (not to mention the mannequins, some of which aren’t as lifeless as they appear) and the game’s final chapter, where you have to navigate an enemy-infested orchard at night with only a burning board as both your light source and weapon. And oh, will you be missing your flashlight then.
The scares in Condemned tend to be more of a low-level creeping dread variety than Doom 3’s cheap monsters-jumping-out-of-closets nonsense. Even when you know something’s up, like when your partner asks you to take a second photo of a corpse, this time zooming right in on its face, the resulting BOO! could involuntarily loosen a couple sphincters.
The sound design is also fantastic, especially if you have a surround-sound setup.
It’s guaranteed you’ll jump out of your skin more than once when you accidentally bump into a shelf and knock a bottle to the floor, or when you hear the shuffling of a homicidal homeless guy creeping up behind you to clock you upside the head with a steel pipe.
And the visuals – holy cow. Although the main characters appear to be carved out of plastic, the environments are so detailed and realistic that you can almost smell the rotting garbage.
If this is what a first-generation Xbox 360 game looks like, I can’t wait to see what later games will hold.
Condemned’s major shortcoming is its story, which is odd considering the dialogue and voice acting are so solid. But as you progress through the plot and are faced with bizarre premonitions, freaky hallucinations and, at one point, a villain who apparently has some wicked telekinetic powers, you naturally assume it will all be explained in the end.
But it isn’t. Other than the novelty of being able to choose whether to end the game on a vengeful or compassionate note, the resolution is a real letdown, never explaining what exactly it was you were pursuing, how it was affecting everyone else in the city and what your own connection to it might be.
But the ending is not too terrible a price to pay for some genuine thrills and chills, down there in the dark subway tunnels, library basements and farmhouse cellars. Where things scurry and whisper and lunge at you with murder in their eyes.
You might even want to play with the lights on. Wuss.