Monolith's debut title for Xbox 360, Condemned: Criminal Origins, is a tough nut. On the one hand, it's first person shooter of sorts, albeit one that moves as slowly as molasses, with no jumping or crouching or sustained running to be had. On the other, it's an interactive horror tale, with macabre characters and settings, entirely inappropriate for children or the squeamish. Put another way, Condemned isn't for everyone, a universally entertaining title that virtually any Xbox 360 owner will want. Indeed, that might be part of its allure: I actually enjoyed slogging my way through this game, though I'm not sure that I can recommend it to everyone. It's just not easy to categorize this title.

The plot

In Condemned, you play Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent on the run after being falsely accused of murdering two police officers. But Condemned throws in a twist: A bizarre wave of serial killings is terrorizing the city, and mysterious zombie-like opponents block your path repeatedly, offering the game's main form of action as you gather clues and trace the steps of the killer.

The set up to this scenario is well done, easing you into the game play as you walk through a crime scene with the cops that are about to be killed. It turns out the killer is still in the building, and after knocking you around and taking your gun, he kills the policemen and leaves you as the prime suspect. With the police banging on your door to bring you to justice, you're contacted via cell phone by mysterious benefactor and old family friend Malcolm Vanhorn, who vaguely guides you throughout the game, insisting that catching the real killer is the only chance you have to clear your name.

You're also aided by Rosa, an FBI co-investigator, who analyzes evidence you collect electronically and submit to her via cell phone. (Apparently, it's a few years in the future). As you progress through the game, you find clues, collect dead birds and metal scraps (seriously, see below for details), and uncover the truth about the scourge that has overtaken the city as you trail the killer.

Game play

Everything I've just described sounds like Monolith has created a rich future world that combines the best elements of "Dawn of the Dead" and "Silence of the Lambs." The truth, however, is that Condemned is almost painfully simple in execution. The game is woefully linear, a rail game in which you must follow a single path to success, with other areas sealed off from you. At its heart, Condemned is just a hack and slash title with "find the blue key"-type tasks in which you must use a specific tool (like a shovel or crowbar) to enter certain areas. As is always the case with such games, you will often find yourself mindlessly examining every single corner of an area, simply to find the tool (typically a "key" in other games) you need to open (or break through) a door.

Here's how the game play works. Every level includes an objective. To complete this objective, you must accomplish a number of tasks, which are like sub-objectives. These tasks are almost always very simple, like "find the shovel" (which will then be used to break the lock on a door so you can continue). As you wander around, you'll be viciously attacked by a human or sub-human creature, typically wielding a pipe, nail-encrusted 2x4, or other similar blunt instrument, though there are occasionally firearms available as well. To defend yourself, you must grab similar objects from the environment, or from your vanquished foes, and attack those who would do you harm. At various times during game play, you will interact with Rosa or Vanhorn via the phone; Rosa will analyze evidence you find using a lame series of tools, and give you more information to help you in your quest.

Oh, and you collect dead birds and metal scraps for some reason. That is, there are game play related reasons for collecting these items--they provide you with Gamertag Achievement points--but the in-game reason for doing so is pretty thin: Basically, there's some connection between birds spontaneously dying all over the city and people turning into crazed serial killers. I have no idea what the point of the metal scraps is. And in a silly nod to Microsoft, you can collect the occasional Xbox 360 console in the game. That gets you an Achievement too. Woo.

Creepy atmosphere

What's really effective in Condemned is the atmosphere. Condemned is a creepy, legitimately scary game title, one that really drew me in despite its linear game play, slow movement, and repetitive action. The graphics are first rate, providing suitably creepy dark environments where even the unexpected movement of your own shadow along a wall can often trigger an inadvertent shudder. The sound, if anything, is even better, with all the dripping, creaking, echoed goodness you'd want in a horror game. Oftentimes, I'd find myself spinning around at the sound of my own footsteps, sure than an assailant had come after me from the dark. There's no music, per se, though there is a semi-constant droning set of sounds that plays in the background, providing a great atmosphere. While you're going to get the best effect playing Condemned in the dark, I really can't recommend do so, as it's just too scary.

Melee combat

Condemned is extremely and unapologetically violent. Remember, we're talking about serial killers, zombie-like homeless people, and blunt force trauma here. Most of the game, you'll be whacking baddies with pipes, wrenches, fire axes, and similar objects, and they'll be coming at you hard with the same. You also have a Taser, which comes in handy when you need to slow down a particularly tough enemy. The blood flies early and often, and until you've gotten a hang of the relatively slow combat style, you're going to find yourself staring at the "You are dead" screen fairly often. In this way, Codemned does differentiate itself from virtually every other first person shooter on the planet, as most of the combat is melee-based. It also features the occasional "finishing move," where you can twist the neck or knee the head of your latest victim to finish him off. It's a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned family entertainment.

Condemned does include occasional firearms, such as shotguns and pistols, but unlike most first person shooters, they aren't the primary weapon. Each time you do find a firearm, you'll find that it has a very limited amount of ammo, and you won't find any more ammo anywhere, so keep any eye out for a pipe or whatever. What I really can't stand is that you can't hold two items at once. Are you really telling me that I can't stuff a pistol in my pocket so I can wield a pipe for melee combat? But because the game is so dark, your flashlight is permanently on and available throughout the game, even when your climbing ladders and fighting. Geesh.

The artificial intelligence is OK at best. Some of your adversaries hide behind poles or corners, waiting to ambush you, which seems intelligent but is in fact just scripted. On many levels, I noticed that you could lead various bad guys around, causing them to occasionally fight each other. Then, you can mop up once they've injured or killed each other. On other levels, if you move around correctly, the baddies will simply forget you're there, and just follow their preset path without any paying you any mind at all. In such cases, it's possible to simply move on without engaging in combat at all. I suspect that wasn't a tactic the game makers intended to allow.

One effective if occasional tactic the bad guys employ is to grapple you if you attack them and they lose their weapon. You get shaken around quite a bit and the screen blurs; you have to spaz out on the controller to get loose, and then you can attack your defenseless victim.

Gaming silliness

Given my extensive experience with first person shooters, I was really disappointed with Condemn's movement controls. You can't jump over simple obstacles that any human could scale, and can't duck under items. Actually, in some cases you can do both of these things, but only when the game wants you to in order to get you to the proper place. In most cases, you'll find yourself kept on track by simple barriers and locked doors, an artificially limiting premise that wears thin quickly. For example, if you walk up to door and a message appears reading, "Click A to open," then you can open the door. Otherwise, it's locked and off-limits. Stay on that rail, stupid.

The silliest part of Condemned, however, involves those times where your FBI agent actually does a bit of forensic investigating. While I understand the need to advance the plot, these sequences are stupid, because they take you out of the first person action and force you to interact with ridiculous future forensic tools that walk you through the entire process anyway. It would have made more sense for you to walk in a room and automatically find evidence rather than have the game suddenly pop up a message requiring you to start looking for specific types of evidence with specific tools at specific times. It's just pointless. I've spent way too much time trying to zoom a stupid camera into the exact right spot on some evidence. It's just not entertaining.

No online play

Unexpectedly, Condemned offers no online play at all. Instead, you can access a Leaderboard option which displays the Gamertags of people who spent the most time playing the game. It's unclear to my why that's an achievement, but there you go. At the time I wrote this part of the review, I was number 5105. I feel good about that.

Conclusions

Despite my many complaints, I've actually enjoyed playing Condemned: Criminal Origins, but then I'm a huge fan of the whole horror/serial killer genre and was interested to see how the plot developed. The game play is largely repetitive, and the investigation aspects of the game are almost completely pointless, though Condemned does offer some incentives in the form of a whopping 50 ways in which to earn Gamertag Achievement points. Once you do finish Condemned, however, it's unlikely that you're going to want to work your way through the game again. So what we're left with here is a game with little mainstream appeal that is unlikely to see any replay from those inclined to enjoy it in the first place. It's not a horrible game, but it's not going to win many awards either. If you're a dedicated horror fan, like me, consider Comdemned: Criminal Origins for those dark, cold nights. Otherwise, feel free to ignore it.