Videogames definitely aren't just for kids any more. If that wasn't obvious after the barrage of 18-rated releases over the last few years, Condemned takes a gas pipe and beats you around the head until it's all too painfully obvious. Imagine the crazed villagers from Resident Evil 4 but more demented, visceral melee combat with the most brutal weapons ever seen in a videogame, dark and gloomy environments that could have been ripped from the most grim of horror movies and a heavy dose of the surreal, and then experience it all from an immersive first-person perspective. Condemned is unlike any other game on the Xbox 360.
As agent Ethan Thomas you're called to investigate a strange murder scene where the victim has been set up with a mannequin to create a dinner scene. After collecting evidence, noises are heard in the apartment above you, and a short fight later two cops have been shot dead with your gun, the killer has escaped and you're the prime suspect. Back at your apartment you start to see things and a mysterious man appears with stories about your special powers. With the cops on your back and the mysterious Vanhorn advising you to flee through your window, you set out to find the killer and clear your name.
The game then uses the premise of brutally beating up violent mind-altered tramps, drug addicts and other members of society that the world has left behind, and sticks with it for its duration. You don't get much explanation for this, other than information on a disease that's killing birds and seems to be infecting humans too (albeit only those living on the streets). The actual core storyline revolving around the murders moves along nicely as you fight enraged tramps through a tube station, a shop, a school and more. It's all pretty grim stuff and over the ten or so hours it'll take you to get through it, you'll predominantly be smashing enemies in the face with blunt weapons and occasionally getting hold of a gun of some sort.
It's certainly not going to win any awards for its depth of gameplay, but when this basic concept is so entertaining, it's easy to see why Monolith (the studio behind last year's F.E.A.R.) didn't try to add any more complexity. One button swings your weapon or fires your gun, another raises your weapon to block an enemy attack, and you have access to a taser (momentarily halting an enemy) that comes in very handy, particularly against enemies carrying guns. You can kick enemies if you're brave enough and brutally kill them with one of four finishing moves if you move in close after knocking one down, but these moves aren't essential to your progression.
The only diversion from the relentless beating is the odd bit of crime scene investigation. This is handled very well, but it's more or less given to you on plate, with the game prompting you whenever you can whip out some high-tech gadgets. Responding to the on-screen cue will make Ethan take out the tool he needs and then it's simply a matter of looking for something that shows up under the light, following the smell of rotting flesh using your detector, taking a sample or something similar. Your findings will be instantly sent over to Rosa, your friend in forensics, and she'll give you her findings with calls to your cell phone, giving you little titbits of info on the killer you're tracking. Given that the focus of Condemned is clearly the frenzied combat, the simple nature of the actual detective work is understandable, but some more depth would have added an extra dimension to the gameplay.
There's not much light in Condemned, but the little there is, is used incredibly well. In trademark survival horror fashion every environment is dimly lit, with each object casting a menacing shadow. When you do see some brightness it's often blinding, offering little comfort over your previous adventuring in the dark. Fabulous lighting aside, Condemned does all it can to unsettle you: the psychotic enemies all look a little worse for wear and move with striking realism, blood and human remains litters the environment, everything looks trashed and a creepy black and white picture effect crops up from time to time, if only to mess with your head some more.
You could dissect the game's presentation and pick out some frame rate problems and the odd dodgy texture, but when you're playing you really don't care. When a tramp smashes through a wall and charges at you holding a nail ridden plank of wood, the last thing on your mind is how next-gen it all looks. It's all made more unnerving by some truly deranged sound effects and horrible, meaty sounding combat. Round this off with some impressive voice acting from the main characters, and you've got one of the most impressive technical packages available for the Xbox 360 launch.
The Xbox 360's launch line-up has been criticised for offering little more than ports or sequels to existing franchises, but Condemned delivers an experience worlds apart from what else is on offer. At its core it's about as simple as a game could be, but it's presented in such a deranged and immersive way that it's hard not to get caught up in it all. Smacking someone around the face with a spade and watching blood spray from their mouth is a sight that will give many people the wrong view of videogames in general, but if you're old enough to play it and can stomach it, there's plenty of perverted pleasure to be had from Sega's debut 360 title.