IM ALWAYS A bit worried when I boldly proclaim that a game is frightening - I hate trotting out the old 'Play it in the dark! On your own!' adage. A large proportion of gamers seem to whip through games without registering an ounce of emotion simply because they objectively want to moan about how they weren't scared one little bit - and the games journalist usually ends up getting bit in the bum and shown up as a pussy.
Well, guilty as charged obviously. But even the strongest of wills can be broken by Condemned - its entire slow-paced setup emits waves of terror in a far more slow-burn fashion than its development bedfellow F.E.A.R., and the sheer brutality of its hand-to-hand combat gives everything a remarkably personal edge. You may be standing in a deserted Metro station jumping at the sound of a falling tin can clattering onto the floor, or you may be trying to work out exactly where in your environs a chattering madman is hiding - but you'll always be sitting somewhere in the vicinity of the edge of your seat.
And when said madman leaps out of his hidey-hole and you're frantically timing blocks with your right mouse button and swipes with your left, and your hammer finally connects with a remarkable thud/ crunch and a puff of blood - well, the feeling is indescribable. Don't tell the Daily Mail, but in Condemned beating thugs to death with blunt instruments feels really, really good.
This sudden surge of violence among the down-and-outs and your unfortunate solitude in a series of run-down locations, is all tied to a serial killer called The MatchMaker. While F.E.A.R. chose Asian horror as its jump-point, Condemned has opted for the lingering horror of US offerings such as Se7en or The Silence Of The Lambs. You play FBI Agent Ethan Thomas, hot on the trail of the aforementioned mentalist and his bloody modus operandi of setting up murder victims in gruesome tableaux, with shopfloor mannequins and their faces scratched off. Quite why the homeless are going nuts is explained later on, as is the game's fascination with dead birds, but suffice to say two levels into the game Thomas has been accused of a 'crime that he did not commit' and is very much on his lonesome, bar the help of a mysterious stranger 'who may or may not be what he seems'.
TURN IT ON THEN
As an FBI agent you also have a few gadgets up your sleeve - not least a handy torch (that never runs out of batteries!) and a tazer that can be used every 30 seconds or so on the screaming tramps chasing you. When you discover crime scenes, meanwhile, you get a cool laser camera, nifty sample taker and a Basic Instinct-type, homicide-spunk-torch (although to be honest I haven't come across any of that yet - mainly fingerprints and chemicals). With these in hand, you can send off evidence at heavily prompted moments to a friendly scientific lady, who fills you in on what horrors you're witnessing - while F.E.A.R.-style paranormal visions are also present to fill in plot points.
In fact, Condemned seems to have far more stylish ways of telling its tale than F.E.A.R.'s somewhat clunky answerphone messages - which is more than helped by its more tangibly grungy atmosphere.
Whether or not the appeal of the fierce hand-to-hand combat lasts the whole game will be discovered come review - but there's no doubt that the limited availability of bullets and firearms brings a remarkable amount of intensity to the game. Its slow pace too, makes you notice the minutiae of the game far more than you would in pacier games like F.E.A.R. or Quake 4. Even something as simple as seeing three bullet holes in a reinforced window and three corresponding holes in the wall opposite with a splash of blood seems quite special.