Horror means different things to different people. To some, it means a thrill ride with edge-of-your seat scenes and over-the-top chills. To others, it means a very specific mood and feeling that accompanies the scariness. I think I fall more into the latter category, but I still enjoy a good thrill ride as much as the next handsomer-than-Ed-Sheeran red head. It’s why the 2006 title Condemned: Criminal Origins has stuck with me ever since I first played it back in high school. This now-retro horror title blends jump scares and visceral thrills with real, slow burning atmosphere, and the result is a horror game that stands the test of time.
Players control Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who is framed for the murder of his colleagues when a serial killer he’s on the trail of murders them. This man, known only as Serial Killer X, kills other killers with their own methods. He’s a vigilante of the darkest sort, and he kills Ethan’s coworkers with his own service pistol. From there, Ethan sets out on a dark, dimly lit quest to clear his name by hopefully catching the vicious SKX and proving his own innocence.
One of the ways the game embodies slow burn horror, though, is the lengths that Ethan goes to clear his name. See, despite taking place in the first person, Condemned: Criminal Origins is less of a shooter and more of a beat ‘em up in terms of pure gameplay mechanics. Firearms are scarce, meaning that Ethan must make the most of whatever he can find in his environment in order to fight off the waves of insane people he comes across. See, not only is the SKX loose and causing mayhem, but homeless people are being driven insane by an unknown force, and they comprise the majority of enemies you face.
Right from the get go, everything about the game feels grimy. You chase the SKX through a dingy, run down building in an unnamed city, and things only get more disgusting from there. The majority of the environments you run through are derelict, more than living up to the game’s title. At the time, the newly released next-gen technology allowed for an impressive amount of detail when it came to the game’s environments and lighting, and even though they’re certainly dated by modern standards, the disgusting aesthetic still goes a long way to making the player feel uncomfortable even today.
That feeling perfectly complements the game’s combat, which is about as brutal as combat comes. As mentioned above, fire arms are extremely scarce, and only carry very limited ammo when you do find one, meaning you find whatever you can to beat enemies back. Sledgehammers, fire axes, wall pipes, 2 by 4s, and more all comprise the game’s arsenal, and each one feels blunt and brutal. And unlike other first person games, where melee weapons often feel a little weak, the deliberate animations and long wind up times go a long way to giving the combat real heft. It’s all about timing in Condemned, almost feeling like a first person prototype to the combat From Software would use in their Soulsborne games.
The first half or so of the game is a long trek through the unnamed city’s underground, and there are plenty of weird hallucinations and visions that haunt Ethan, but it isn’t until the second half that the game really bares its vicious teeth as a low key terrifying experience. A memorable trek through a mall sees Ethan in danger of enemies dressed as mannequins, which is a stand out sequence that puts the game’s incredible lighting engine to terrific use. Ethan’s flashlight has an extremely limited cone of light, and the heavy shadows mean you might catch a flicker of movement in the corner of your eye. It really makes the player paranoid, and it only continues as the game reaches its climax.
Horror is usually at its best when it shows restraint (something the sequel failed in, which we’ll get to), and instead of the finale being an action packed bloodbath, the penultimate level of the game sees players tracking the SKX to a rural farmhouse in the outskirts of the city. Despite being such a small location, this is where the game fully embraces its survival horror roots, with the whole level playing out as one giant puzzle box you must solve. Of course, there are twisted monstrosities waiting to pounce on Ethan whenever they get the chance, including in a particularly memorable sequence where you must follow a blood trail through the house’s basement while unable to see just about anything. Enemies come from seemingly all sides. It’s claustrophobic and intense, once again making the player feel as paranoid as Ethan is at that point.
This being the first entry in the series, there are of course some flaws in its execution. You could argue the first half is a bit too much of a slow burn, with you traversing samey subway tunnels and run down offices. The CSI mechanics don’t allow for much in the way of player input, with them instead automatically equipping the player with whatever they need to gather evidence (although there’s a great fake out in a late-game crime scene that stands tall as one of gaming’s best jump scares). The overall story is frustratingly cryptic, with a final boss that’s left almost entirely unexplained and it leaves players with the sense that information was left out of the final product. Although depending on who you are, this could be a good thing. And lastly, there’s an overreliance on “get the right weapon” locked door puzzles, where you need a specific item to open a specific locked door (IE, you need to find a fire axe to chop through a wooden barrier).
The game did get a sequel in the form of Condemned 2: Bloodshot, which is a fascinating game to talk about in its own right. Mechanically, it’s an improvement in almost every way, with developer Monolith doubling down on the brutal melee combat and refining it into something that still stands out today. They took the story in an interesting direction, too, with Ethan having fallen on hard times due to the events of the first game. He’s basically homeless now, and is roped back in to the madness plaguing the city when he’s contacted by one of his colleagues about a bizarre murder. For a while, it keeps the same strong atmosphere the original did.
The problem is it goes too far. Remember earlier when I said that the original game showed an impressive amount of restraint in its settings and action? Condemned 2 eventually becomes a full-on action game, and enemies are now far more over-the-top than before (at one point you fight a Harley Quinn knockoff in a factory filled with exploding dolls). A lot of the back half sees Ethan going up against fully armed soldiers, and even though it’s excessively gory, it’s not scary in the slightest. And lastly, the story over-explains the events of the first game to the point that it almost ruins all the mystique and mystery left by the original game’s ending.
Sadly, the second game didn’t sell well enough to warrant a sequel. Monolith instead would go on to make the ill-fated Gotham City Impostors, as well as the Middle Earth: Shadow of games. You can only find the original game on Steam these days, and if you want to play the second legally, you’ll have to track down a working Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 and a copy of the game, as it has yet to be rereleased in any capacity. It’s a real shame that a series with so many great parts has become a thing of the past, as horror gaming is bigger now than it ever has been. I think that if—at the very least—the first game received some kind of official rerelease, people would welcome it with open arms. As it stands right now, though, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a hard-to-find, forgotten classic that more people need to check out.