Games consoles have had difficult births almost without exception, it usually takes them a good year or two to build up a solid roster of high quality titles, the Xbox 360 was no exception. Although the list of launch titles was perhaps not quite as dismal as the PS3’s, it wasn’t up to much.
You had all the standard updates to sports franchises, a lackluster Western shooter (GUN), some weird fantasy platformer thing (Kameo: Elements of Power) that was supposed to shake the world but really didn’t and a rehash of the beloved N64 shooter Perfect Dark that made people weep tears of blood. One title however did manage to rise above the offal and although it was overlooked at the time, it has gained cult recognition as one of the strongest horror games ever made, Condemned.
Made by Monolith, the team behind the F.E.A.R. series, Condemned had you playing as a detective in some awful nameless urban scab as you attempted to track down the answer to a series of grizzly murders amidst a sprawl of frenzied vagrants who would attack you on sight. It’s categorized as an FPS but really the ‘S’ doesn’t apply since 90% of your arsenal consists of everyday objects recycled as clubs/bludgeoners/face-smashers. You could remove a door from a locker, find yourself a fire-axe, relieve a chair of one of its legs or tear a rebar pole out of a concrete wall. The latter is particularly enticing because a large chunk of concrete would come away with it and gradually crumble with each impact, making it look as if you were beating people with a lethal cloud of hardened candyfloss.
Guns would turn up from time to time but they always had a finite supply of ammo that couldn’t be replenished, once they went empty they were dead weight, you could club a few enemies with them but once they broke they had to be tossed. That was the beauty of it, you couldn’t hold on to one weapon for too long, each one was rated in terms of speed, impact and durability and once they broke that was it.
It was this brand of combat that made Condemned so much more frightening than any other first-person game at that time, guns provided distance, cover, safety, this game actually forced you to get right up close to the demented transients that meant to do you harm. What’s more they were clever, they hid around corners, found ways to get behind you and pretended to beg for mercy just long enough to lull you into a false sense of security, then they’d pounce on you like a jumping spider and try and gnaw your face off. A lot of the time they were so occupied fighting each other that they wouldn’t even notice you, which made the game even creepier, since you felt like you were just an insignificant part of a big, disturbing whole. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the combat though was just how satisfying it was, despite the fact you were pitted against literal homeless people, it was difficult not to feel a primal pang of viscera every time you sent one spinning to the ground after caving in the side of their head with a fire extinguisher. Of course if you didn’t do that they’d just tear you apart but there was still a very distinct sense of moral conflict, particularly when executing the decidedly nasty finishing moves.
As the game progressed elements of the supernatural became involved, although it’s never made clear whether they’re real on in the character’s mind, towards the end they would flare up with no warning and completely offset any sense of comfort you might have mustered up. The freakiest moment in the whole game comes during the level set in an abandoned shopping mall, as if it wasn’t creepy enough contending with foes disguising themselves as festively decorated mannequins while a heavily distorted rendition of ‘Deck the Halls’ wailed through a terminally-ill PA system, at the end of the level the actual mannequins start fucking following you, edging closer every time you look away, Weeping Angel style. From the point of view of someone who finds mannequins so terrifying in real life that I feel the need to drink heavily before I ever set foot in a BHS, it haunted my nightmares for days after.
A second Condemned was released a few years later and despite competently revisiting the gameplay style and introducing some lovely new moments of sheer terror (the ‘trapped in a house with a serial killer’ level in the first game is utterly one-upped by a stretch that has you in a remote log cabin with only a grizzly bear for company) it felt overcooked and the ridiculous plot removed almost all of the mystery and intrigue.
You can pick Condemned up very cheaply indeed now and although the once cutting-edge graphics now make all the characters look like they’re carved out of polystyrene, it’s lost none of its tension or compulsion. One of the most atmospheric, menacing games ever made.