There's a noise behind you. You turn around to find shadows in the last room with the dense light of your flashlight, which seems to be fading. A soda can rolls across the hallway. You're paralyzed in fear as your flashlight finally spots someone -- no, something -- slithering on the floor. You could rip a length of pipe off the wall and start swinging, but you check your ammo instead -- and by the time you reload, this thing is wrapped around your shoulders! You shake it off with an inch of health remaining and squeeze your last round between its eyes. Too bad you didn't hear the window shatter behind you during the battle -- you're about to get hit with an axe.
By putting you in the shoes of an FBI agent tracking a serial killer through filthy subways and abandoned buildings of urban decay, Condemned captures the unease of Resident Evil 4 and multiplies the tension tenfold. The story borrows from several thrillers (Se7en, Silent Hill -- even CSI gets a nod when you use high-tech forensic tools) but avoids some cliches along the way. As you play hide and seek with the homeless and deranged, recycled rooms make it easy to get lost, but boy, those battered environments look gorgeously disheveled, as are the character models. Call us sadistic, but there's something satisfying about whacking a hoodlum with a shovel. then watching their blood dry on it.
The sound design here justifies a surround setup; there's nothing creepier than hearing footsteps behind you and turning around to find nothing, only to hear the metal cabinet to your left get perforated by a shotgun blast. Little things from birds cawing to kicking a glass bottle across the room not only showcase the interaction of the environments, but also make an already terrifying setting that much scarier. Rarely does a survival horror game frighten you on so many levels.
Condemned is all about confrontation, whether it's trying to survive gang attacks or the gulp you take before facing down a magnum-packing lunatic packing armed only with a length of rebar. The AI really is unpredictable, as crazed maniacs prepare their attacks depending on your actions. If you turn your back, they'll chase you down; approach them, and they may stand back with caution. Then there's the nutcases who just want to pummel your face in with a nail-ridden 2x4, or any other makeshift weapons they might scavenge from the environment. And they don't even come close to the really terrifying enemies, which we'll leave for you to discover all on your own.
Even though the unfulfilling ending leaves a lot of stuff unexplained, exciting exclusives like this one give the Xbox 360 some much-needed respect at launch. If you like getting frightened, you need Condemned -- it's the scariest game of the year.