Member the games you used to play? We member. The basement at the Hardcore Gamer office has a section known as the Crust Room, with an old grey couch and a big old CRT TV. All the classic systems are down there collecting dust, so in an effort to improve the cleanliness of our work space, we dust off these old consoles every so often and put an old game through its paces, just to make sure everything stays in working order. We even have a beige computer with a floppy disk drive.
There are exceptions but typically whenever a new console is launched it takes a couple years for the best titles for the platform to appear. But after spending an unseasonably cold night camped out in front of a now-defunct electronics chain to get an Xbox 360 on launch day, it’s only natural to want new games to test out the new hardware. The selection of launch titles was respectable but still limited. This wasn’t a completely bad scenario as this led to the acquisition of a couple games that might have been overlooked if there were more AAA titles among the choices. Condemned: Criminal Origins was one such game that was intriguing enough to stand out but that might not have been the case if it were released a year later.
Condemned: Criminal Origins has the player taking on the role of Ethan Thomas, an investigator with the FBI’s Special Crimes Unit. Things begin seemingly normal enough with Ethan and colleagues arriving at a crime scene. Condemned wastes no time in establishing itself as one of the creepier games with the initial crime scene consisting of a dead woman sitting opposite a mannequin at a table. Ethan deduces this is the work of a serial killer known as the Match Maker. Cigarette smoke suggests the killer is nearby, so Ethan decides to split up with his partner to investigate. After a mishap from trying to restore power to an electrical box, Ethan soon finds himself unarmed and at the mercy of the suspect, and when his colleague comes to his rescue he is shot dead with Ethan’s gun before the assailant throws Ethan out the window.
This investigation is off to a terrible start and things only get worse from here. Ethan wakes up in an apartment with a friend of his father, Malcolm Vanhorn. Malcolm informs Ethan that he is wanting for the murder of two FBI agents that were killed with his service weapon. This is where we begin to see signs of Ethan’s mental deterioration as his sanity begins slipping away from him. Nevertheless, he believes that he’s innocent of these killings and vows to prove his innocence.
Condemned: Criminal Origins is considered survival horror and given the circumstances Ethan doesn’t benefit from having a cache of high-powered FBI weapons at his disposal. Most of the game takes place in condemned environments where the only other life is psychopaths and other dangerous beings. Firearms are few and far between, and while they’re the strongest weapon at Ethan’s disposal they’re only as good as long as they’re loaded. Stunning an enemy with the taser is a good way to get a hold of a gun, but sometimes there isn’t much ammo to make them useful for long. Most of the combat is done through improvised weapons that are found on the way, such as 2x4s and shovels. These weapons aren’t durable and are rendered useless after a few good hits. The combat is visceral as there are gruesome finishing moves that can be executed. The AI is also advanced for the time, forcing the player to expertly time their blocks, but also be aware that enemies will sometimes try to fake out Ethan. One of the main enemy threats are deranged homeless people, and even though Ethan bludgeons them to death in self defense, it’s an element that would probably stir up more controversy had this game been released today.
Working for the SCU means that combat isn’t the only skill that Ethan needs to advance the story. Crime scene analysis is a major part of his job, probably more so than combat during a normal workday, so it’s only natural he needs to tap into this skill set to advance things. His mobile phone can connect him to the crime lab (this game also predates iPhones and Android smartphones, so he’s enjoying nice government job perks) where he can get forensic data analyzed. Once Ethan detects forensic evidence nearby the player can begin searching for documents, body parts, fluids, fingerprints and myriad other items to piece together what happened. These investigative puzzles can be used to unlock new areas to explore or simply unravel some of the mystery of the story.
Part of what made Condemned: Criminal Origins memorable was how well the atmosphere was constructed. The concept behind it wouldn’t earn any points for originality, but the execution of it did a lot to enhance the overall enjoyment. The title likely refers to current state of Ethan Thomas, but it’s appropriate for the dilapidated urban environments in which he explores. Everything is dimly lit and looks like it was the site of some terrible event. Amidst the broken-down landscapes are numerous crime scenes and a potential ambush around every corner. The fact that this was a launch title for a new console generation gave Condemned the opportunity to show off improved lighting effects and graphical processing power which helped set this apart from previous-gen survival horror titles.
Condemned: Criminal Origins is overall disturbing and the story takes a few unusual twists. As Ethan gets closer to unraveling the mystery the main threat shifts from a copycat vigilante serial killer to a more supernatural entity known as The Hate. The Hate seems like a plot twist out of left field and leads to the game ending in a manner that tends to open up more questions about what actually happened. The epilogue following the twisted end game events reveal that Ethan is still being investigated by the FBI as a suspect. Ethan has another vision after this, showing that he may have become the otherworldly threat he was just recently fighting against. While there’s a canon explanation for these events, it’s presented in a way where the player can interpret whether Ethan has transcended his humanity into something far worse or maybe the events that led to this point have shattered his mind and he now lives in a reality that is different than that of those around him.
Condemned: Criminal Origins may not have gone down in history as one of the best Xbox 360 Games, but it was one of the stronger launch titles. The story did have elements of jumping the shark, but despite it not being the best horror story around it’s still a must play for fans of the genre. The gameplay approach of blending survival horror, brutal combat and crime scene investigations was an interesting mix so during at the slower-paced portions the game never got boring. Creating a disturbing atmosphere is something Condemned excelled at, which was one of the main reasons why it’s still memorable sixteen years later.
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