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Want to murder angry tramps with a spade? Play Condemned

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.

Looking for stuff to play outside of the stuff we already tell you to play on a daily basis? You're in luck! Every Saturday we'll recommend an older game for you to check out, complete with a story on how we found the game and why we recommend you play it.

4 comments

  • julian-watkins - September 2, 2013 9:30 a.m.

    The original Condemned is by far superior of the two titles. The combat in the sequel felt unresponsive and alien compared to the first. And the scares just weren't there. Not only does the original still hold up, an enormous feat in this day and age for a launch title, but it's shear level of dread and unease towers over horror themed games of late. Good call, sir.
  • SDHoneymonster - September 1, 2013 9:59 a.m.

    Love it. I found it intense rather than outright scary, but it can't half be creepy at times. The mannequins in the department store, the opening crime scene, THAT basement... bloody lovely. Made all the scarier as the environments, as I think this site actually pointed out in its scariest games ever feature or something similar, feel like they could well exist; it could be any run-down city in the world, like Detroit for example. Plus I still don't think any game has nailed first person melee combat quite as well since: it just feels so brutal and weighty whilst also being so simple; it's basically just a block, hit and kick system, but it works a dream. Also liked the fact that the guns you find only ever have tiny amounts of ammo in; the relief of finding one is quickly outweighed by panic when the bullets run out, before you finally just resort to smacking some methed up hobo in the face with the butt of it until it breaks. Glorious.
  • GoldenEagle1476 - August 31, 2013 3:02 p.m.

    Condemned is by far my favorite horror game (and this is coming from someone who's not really a fan of the genre). What I love is how it doesn't rely on cheap, bullshit jump-scares--like Dead Space-- and instead is able to keep every level and situation you're put in terrifying. The haunted house, towards the end of the game, is in my opinion a masterpiece of how to design a horror game. Thinking back on it, it probably could've inspired Amnesia.
  • Groocifer - August 31, 2013 2:26 p.m.

    Good grief, Condemned was terrifying. It was so dark and claustrophobic and you were always accidentally kicking a tin can or some such debris and hearing it skitter away, scaring yourself in the process. Even the collectibles were ghastly dead birds! There was a bit where I had to duck under a barrier and as I stood back up there was an angry tramp RIGHT IN MY FACE, and I nearly dropped my controller. I'm not sure whether that was a scripted event or if the dude just happened to be there at the time, but it was the biggest jump for me since the dog crashed through the window in the original Resident Evil!

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