I just tried out the other Monolith first-person-horror game, Condemned: Criminal Origins, and I found out that it is actually better than F.E.A.R. That was a surprise.
The story is pretty simple – you’re Agent Thomas from the FBI, with a very good track record when it comes to catching criminals (you realize a bit into the game that this guy’s abilities might be supernatural…). While investigating a crime scene, the serial killer responsible manages to take your pistol from you and uses it to kill the two officers investigating with you, so you get framed for murder. Now you have to run from the police and track down the killer to clear your name. Not exactly original, but it serves its purpose.
The first great thing about this game is the mood and atmosphere. Like F.E.A.R., this is another one of those games where you never see the light of day – most of the game, you will have your flashlight on at all times (luckily, it’s one of those Silent Hill models that’s attached to the clothes and not handheld). The sounds, in particular, are exceptional. The music is generic suspense themes, but the game shines when it’s completely devoid of that. Creaks, footsteps, gases from vents, fans, it all makes you look around constantly for danger. It also tends to mask and muffle footsteps, so when you actually hear them, you get quite the jolt.
Aside from the presentation – Silent Hill level stuff here – the AI is well-done in general. The enemies are wildly unpredictable; sometimes they just sorta stand there and mumble to themselves, sometimes they’re running around, screaming, knocking over everything. Sometimes they charge up to you then run away. Sometimes they fight each other. It keeps you on your toes whenever there are enemies nearby, because you never really know what they’ll do.
The gameplay is divided thus: 90% is survival-horror, 10% is puzzle-solving (and I use the term loosely). The 10% is basically looking for clues and evidence about your serial killer, as well as the usual mundane objectives like “turn this valve” or “look for an exit”. The “investigation” parts of the game are good in theory, but bad in execution. Basically, since your guy has nigh-supernatural abilities to detect suspicious objects, the game will automatically prompt you to take out your investigation tools, and you can only take them out when the game lets you. The game also automatically takes out the correct one for you. This aspect could’ve been one of the highlights of the game, letting you search for evidence based on your intuition alone, but instead, this little gimmick just shows you some fancy CSI-like equipment, and gives you bits of info about the story. It’s disappointing, to say the least.
The other 90% is the real highlight of the game – the combat. Since Thomas is on the run, he doesn’t have any guns or such, so through most of the game, you will engaging in vicious, deadly melee combat with whatever you have on hand. This means pipes, crowbars, 2×4’s, fireaxes, hammers, or whatever you can rip from the environment. You also have a few melee moves (punches, kicks, weapon-stealing, etc.), a very handy taser, and very rarely, firearms. You can block with any weapon, and you’ll need to time your blocks well – unlike Oblivion, where you are allowed to hold up your shield/whatever for as long as you want, Condemned uses something more like a ‘counter’ system, where you only basically throw off your opponents’ attacks, and counter-attack immediately.
The cramped, confined quarters of the game make for some intense melee brawls. The sound contributes to this, as enemies yell, swear, and generally make a lot of noises. Every weapon swing sounds right, and with every impact, you can almost hear the blood flying and the bone being crushed. Most of the fighting in the game is very sadistic, as you, hobos, drug addicts, and the scum of society all rip each other apart mercilessly with various blunt and sharp objects.
The game also has quite a bit of replayability, as you can collect various hidden items (bird corpses, marked metal plates, etc.), most of which unlock material and give you a bit more info on the story. There are also Achievement Awards for doing certain things, like using every melee weapon at least once, using every firearms in the game, beating the game with only melee weapons, etc.
Unlike F.E.A.R., which is more action than horror, Condemned is more balanced between the two. In F.E.A.R., you’re a military spec-ops type of guy, with inhuman endurance and proficiency with all weapons. Condemned, however, puts you in the shoes of a more normal human being. One thing I have to point out is that, during the game, I developed a habit of hitting dead bodies (just to make sure) and muttering profanity into the monitor. As I said, this is quite the sadistic game, and while the game is great, do realize that you are forced to bludgeon random people to death – anything goes for survival.