With a new generation almost upon us, now seems as good a time as any to look back to 2005, when the Xbox 360 first released. As with every console launch, the majority of games to release alongside the 360 were clag; Gun, King Kong: The Official Video Game of the Movie of the Official Video Game of the Movie of the Official Mo-cap of Andy Serkis of the Movie, Perfect Dark Zero, Quake 4--it was a poor selection, although both Call of Duty 2 and Project Gotham Racing 3 were both day one, and they were class-acts. For me, though, my new Xbox was a Condemned machine (and, it quite literally became a ‘condemned machine a few years later when it red-ringed).
Condemned is still something of a novelty. It’s a first-person horror game, and it predominantly asks you to survive with melee attacks instead of firearms. While RPGs like Skyrim (and before that, TES Oblivion) have since normalised first-person pointy-stick-waving, it was a big deal in 2005. The feeling of smashing someone in the mouth with a piece of 2x4--complete with rusty nails--was intense back then. ‘Next-gen’ animations made enemies stumble back in agony, and the sound of wood meeting flesh via 360’s 5.1 surround sound made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Still makes me wince when I think about it.
Monolith upgraded the violence in Condemned 2, introducing all kinds of novelty weapons and harsh finishing moves. For me, that kind of stuff spoilt the purity of the game; made it feel less realistic, and therefore less scary. Sure the bit where the angry (not naughty) bear chases you through the cabin in the woods is a good sequence of scares, but it lacks the dread of the original. Even the creepy doll factory seems like it’s trying too hard to shock.
HD was a big deal in the original Condemned too. I was lucky enough to be one of the first journalists to see game before it was announced, and I simply hadn’t seen HD gaming before. Very, very few had. One of the developers at Monolith walked up to a train map in the subway level, and you could actually read everything that was written on it. Yeah, you’re laughing now, but that was huge in 2005--before then in-game text had been either smudgy and unreadable, or overlaid as subtitles.
While the novelty of seeing a game running in HD has undoubtedly worn off, Condemned stays relatively fresh because of the brutality of its combat and the genuine, ‘ohmygodwhatwasthat’, scare moments that it throws at you. The game makes you feel vulnerable, unsettled. You’re aware that you’re part of something vaguely super-natural, but also very real, and you’re keenly conscious of the fact that you often only have a piece of wood or metal pipe to defend yourself.
The AI is still cunning too. Monolith created the super-smart super-soldiers in F.E.A.R., and transplanted their hunting brains into the thugs and tramps of Condemned. Enemies will run away and hide if they start taking a beating; they’ll wait to jump out and catch you unawares with a savage blow of their own, and will coordinate with each other to attack in groups. They’ll look for the best weapon in a room, and will try everything in their power to grab it before you can.
Ok, so the story is a confusing pile of horror / slasher clichés, and if you glance at the character faces in cut-scenes it looks like they’re all wearing cheap rubber masks. You’ll recoil in horror at the sight of Ethan Thomas’ own distorted face, almost as much as when you see the twisted visages of your enemies. Environments hold up pretty well--we still feel nervous stepping into the basement of the creepy farm-house--but they’re very empty compared to more modern games. Particle effects and clever lighting tricks? Forget it. The investigation sections are fairly basic too, although they do provide a few great opportunities for scares… Anyone remember that guy in the locker?
The dated visuals don’t really matter though, because when you’re treading carefully through a disused department store, waiting for the next life or death struggle against a supernatural psycho, you’re locked in. Your attention is fixed on the improvised melee weapon clutched in your right hand, and the tiny, sinister movement you just saw over by the creepy mannequin. If any game in either the Xbox One or PS4’s launch line-up is half as intense as Condemned, then we’ll greet the next-generation with open arms… and a heavy length of lead piping.
Want slow-mo blood geysers and soul-choking dread? Play F.E.A.R.
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