condemned — to suck!

Thu Mar-13th-2008 // Filed under: Games

I’ve been playing Condemned: Criminal Origins. Not because I want to, particularly, but because I kind of feel obligated to do so; I’ve got a review copy of Condemned 2: Bloodshot here, and I figured I should check out the original first, just to get that sense of continuity. Actually, I have played the original before, but I didn’t get very far into it. I just didn’t have a good time playing it. Now, in the interests of journalistic comprehensiveness, I’ve been playing it a little more.

And I’m still not having a good time. It’s a pretty depressing game, really; it suffers from all kinds of problems, the least of which probably isn’t that it was one of the launch titles for the Xbox 360, so the developers were probably kind of stumbling in the dark — which is, of course, very appropriate, as will soon become apparent.

But before I get into the details here, a little background is in order: back when even the console itself was just a lot of marketing hype and speculation, I actually looked forward to this game quite a bit. There weren’t any Xbox 360 titles around yet, and the idea of playing an FBI agent who who hunts down a serial killer in a game that focuses heavily on atmosphere, rather than all-out action appealed to me a lot. The original official announcement went like this:

Developed by award-winning Monolith Productions, the game allows players to experience an unnatural level of psychological tension as they use their instincts, forensic tools, and melee combat to track serial killers and bring them to justice. Gamers will play as Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent in the Serial Crimes Unit (SCU), whose pursuit of relentless serial killers leads him through detailed urban environments filled with deadly sociopaths who lurk on the periphery of humanity.

I mean, what’s not to like? The screenshots for the game didn’t look great, and admittedly they featured a little too much in the way of shotguns and guys who looked like zombies to really bring home the point of forensic tools and psychological tension, but, y’know, I was reasonably optimistic, mostly because I had the idea of the kind of a dark and nasty crime game I would love to play, and Condemned kinda sorta looked like it could be at least a reasonable approximation of that game, not just another romp where you kill a thousand guys. In other words, I had pretty unreasonable expectations and I knew it, but goddammit, a guy can hope, right?

Sure. Didn’t do much good this time around, though, because Condemned is essentially a linear shoot-’em-up FPS game where you play Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who is accused of murdering two cops because they were shot with his gun, and he needs to track down the real killer. This means that you crawl around various dilapidated buildings, ostensibly hunting the serial killer (and yeah, that’d be the one serial killer, not serial killers as promised) but mostly just fumbling in the dark and running into extremely aggressive zombie-looking motherfuckers who try to smash your head in with various blunt instruments.

And yeah, it’s dark. Apparently the game was originally going to be called The Dark, and that would’ve been really appropriate name, because boy, it’s dark in this game. Real dark. Pitch black, more often than not, and all you’ve got is a ridiculously underpowered flashlight, so much of the challenge comes from trying to figure out where you are and what’s around you.

Allow me to demonstrate with one of the press screenshots they released about the game.



That’s not a bad-looking picture, right? Bad guy with a pipe coming at you, lots of dark corners where all sorts of nasty things could be lurking, all that. It works. But that’s not what the game actually looks like, because despite some very short sequences that do look like the picture above, this (admittedly very crude) Photoshop simulation I just cooked up shows what the game effectively looks like the vast, vast majority of the time:



In other words, you can’t see a thing unless it’s right in the front of your nose. This is because Ethan is armed with the world’s shittiest flashlight, which has a beam that is not only very weak but also very narrow, so you have to spend a lot of time turning around and around. Just figuring out where you can go and can’t go is a pain in the ass. Your flashlight is a joke and you’re left stumbling in the dark, and even the smallest pile of debris forms an impassable obstacle. For some reason, you can also turn the flashlight off, but it serves no purpose at all, because the enemies apparently see in the dark just fine, except then you don’t see them coming at all.

I don’t mind being lost in the dark some of the time, but there’s no contrast here. Compared to games that handle moving in the dark very well, like the Thief or Splinter Cell games, there’s a world of difference. In Condemned, it’s just frustrating and makes you feel like a clumsy idiot. It’s also a shame, because what you can see of the game is actually looking pretty good. The locales are atmospheric, and the palpable sense of urban decay is very well-done. I mean, it’s not on the same level as the more recent games, but it’d be absolutely unreasonable to expect a launch title for a new console to look as good as the games that have been made with more forgiving schedules and a far better understanding of the new platform. There are some pretty nice-looking textures and level design in the game, it’s just that you rarely get to enjoy them.

And, of course, bad guys are crawling out of the woodwork, at times pretty literally, so you spend a lot of time just smacking them around with whatever you happen to have at hand. The combat itself is actually done pretty well; getting hit in the face with a two-by-four really has some oomph to it, and the way the enemies scatter, hide, and ambush you in the dark is handled very well. It keeps you on your toes. I mean, it’s not the kind of gameplay I’m thinking of when I think about a psychological thriller starring a serial killer-hunting FBI agent, but it’s very well done.

Oh, and yeah — being one of the launch titles, Condemned’s idea of handling Achievements is kind of charmingly primitive; you essentially need to hunt down a bunch of hidden items during the game (the navigation in the game being already a huge pain in the ass, the idea of hunting for dead birds or pieces of metal hidden in the shadows holds absolutely no interest to me, but anyway), and of course completing the game’s levels racks up those points. But there are also hidden areas that feature actual Xbox 360 consoles, and when you approach them, a prompt that says “Get Achievement” actually pops up, and if you hit the A button, you get the Achievement. I don’t remember any other game doing it with this such a pronounced lack of enthusiasm.

I don’t really care about Achievements at all in most games, but there are exceptions: for example, Valve’s sublime Orange Box has really good Achievements that actually have an impact on how I play the game. For example, you can get an achievement by playing through the Ravenholm level using nothing but the gravity gun, and that’s a pretty cool way of articulating an interesting challenge to the player — especially for a guy like me, who has already played through the game twice before on the PC, so being challenged to do it a little differently is nice. There are a lot of other things like that in there as well. Compared to that, the way Condemned’s token effort is a textbook example of a new console’s potential not being anywhere near realized. Which really goes for the rest of the game as well, of course.

It’s a kind of a shame, because at times Condemned has a really strong and creepy atmosphere, which I really enjoy, and the sequences where you get to use the forensic tools are pretty cool. Unfortunately, the good bits are offset by how frustrating the entire process of playing the game is. Even the forensics, which I like, manage annoy me simply because I look at them and think of all the cool shit you could do with them if the game design was just a little bit more inspired. Right now, I’m about halfway through the game, and I kind of doubt I’ll get much further in than that. I’m just not having a good time.


2 Comments

  1. Hope you don’t mind a comment on a blog post that’s positively ancient. I picked up Condemned only recently. The game’s effectively just like you described – fumbling, packed with too much combat in the dark and a shallow crime scene investigation procedure tacked on as icing, probably inspired by the dismal CSI series on TV.

    And yet, there was something appealing to the level of desperation involved when fighting multiple enemies in Condemned. Even one enemy could easily beat you if you didn’t hone down your split-second blocking ability. Taking on TWO simultaneous enemies was a right struggle. And no guns. Not many, in any case.

    A lot of games have you mowing down mooks by the hundreds – even without guns – and here you were, struggling to get through two guys with a spanner and a plank of wood. I really appreciated the challenge.

    The worst thing I can think of about Condemned was the way it winded down in the end. Suddenly, you face off against a bunch of space aliens (or whatever) in an uninteresting string of beatdowns without anything else going on. I’m not entirely sure why so many games fall on their posteriors when it comes to endings – it comes with the territory of storytelling, I suppose, when one hasn’t got a real storyteller on board.

    One last bit I want to comment on: Your mention of bland in-game achievements. This was a launch title, so maybe the scavenger hunt items and “beat level x” achievements could be forgiven. But game developers still use these pointless achievements today: Collect 100 hidden items with no in-game bearing whatsoever. Beat the game in hard mode. Kill fifty mooks with THIS gun! It’s a bit disheartening.

    You know, even Remedy did it for Alan Wake’s (and both of the DLC titles’) achievements. Granted, it had a bunch of really good challenge achievements on the side, but… collect thermos bottles?

    Comment by Raimu — January 5, 2011 @ 1294200303

  2. Oh, I don’t mind at all; it’s always nice to get feedback!

    This is stuff I wrote several years ago, of course; re-reading it, I was perhaps a little harsher than I would be if I wrote it now…. but I’ll still stand by it. (I did enjoy the sequel quite a bit, though, except for the science fictiony stuff at very end, and the part where you solve your alcoholism with a fistfight.)

    Oh, and I only played Fight Night 3 after this one, but I think they had even less enthusiasm for their achievements. That was another launch title, of course; there was no precedent for what they should be. Anyway, they had a total of eight achievements, which you got for winning specific fights. That was all there was.

    As for our achievements on Alan Wake, well, it’s a little hard for me to talk about them without sounding defensive, as I’m sure you can appreciate. I worked pretty closely on them, actually, so I can say that it’s a pretty complex topic — certainly more so than I was aware when I wrote this post, incidentally — but suffice to say that different achievements serve different purposes, and many of them appeal to different audiences.

    For example, the ones that you get for reaching certain points in the game give players a sense of accomplishment, but it’s also a way for us to get a decent idea of what percentage of players actually completes the game. It would also indicate if there was a spot where a lot of players just gave up on the game, for example. (There isn’t, I’m glad to say — and our playthrough rate is very good, especially for a game that most people spend 10+ hours on!) That kind of information can be pretty valuable.

    There are also people who just like picking up stuff, the completionists. I’m not one myself — well, not quite to that extent, anyway — but they do exist. These are the people who enjoy finding the pigeons in GTA4 or the flags in the Assassin’s Creed games. (In the case of Condemned, I wasn’t really annoyed by having to pick up stuff for the achievement, but by the fact that the pop-up was literally “press A to get the achievement”.) I do think that the manuscript pages were a far more interesting collectible than the coffee thermoses, of course, but there’s only so much story content you have time to cram into a game, and I think most people would agree that we don’t exactly scrimp on that as it is.

    There are also plenty of technical issues. Counting kills with weapon X is easily implemented, whereas checking for far more complex behavior is a lot harder and requires far more testing and foolproofing to ensure that they don’t break… and as far as coding priorities go, they typically aren’t at the top, for obvious reasons. Publishers typically also have opinions on what kind of achievements they think would be suitable, and they typically have quite a bit of marketing data to back that up.

    That said, we did want to try to include as many fun and challenging achievements as we could in addition to the more, well, “plain” ones — I think we got some pretty good ones into the DLC, in particular — and we certainly learned quite a bit in the process.

    Comment by Mikki — January 5, 2011 @ 1294229074

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