Some games can teach you things. In the case of Catz and Dogz, it's responsibility and kindness. In Rome: Total War, it's diplomacy and tactics. But the only things you'll learn from Condemned is why it's not always a good idea to be kind to the homeless and how effective a crowbar is should you want to cave someone's head in.
Condemned puts you in the shoes of Ethan Thomas, an FBI officer sent to investigate the latest grisly death perpetrated by a serial killer. Things soon start to go a bit wrong though, and before you know it, the serial killer's not only shot your boss and another police officer, but has also framed you for their murders, putting you as high on the wanted list as himself.
The game revolves around you tracking this strange figure, trying to clear your name and catch the bad guy at a time when the entire city's lowlife population seem to be picking up weapons, starting fights and generally causing some major mischief. Condemned superbly combines a massive dose of unsettling suspense, some brutal melee combat and the occasional bout of forensic investigation as you attempt to unravel the clues left by the serial killer.
Using a variety of weird-looking objects taken straight from the screens of CSI, you have to pinpoint areas of interest and then capture them using another bizarre implement. All evidence is then sent through your mobile to your only real help in the game, Rosa, who explains the situation a little more. Enjoyable as these CSI-style parts are, they're pretty spaced out and don't offer much in terms of gameplay, feeling more tacked-on to make the story work than an integral part of the game.
NOT BANG BANG
Where Condemned really does excel though is the combat. Although guns do feature, they're rarer than rocking-horse poo (and ammo is non-existent), so the main emphasis here is on melee. This is an area that's often overlooked in games, especially in the realms of the FPS (apart from The Chronicles Of Riddick), where it's never really seemed like a decent alternative to an arsenal of guns.
Monolith's done an amazing job with Condemned's combat; it's brutal, visceral and hard-hitting, and for once it doesn't feel at all out of place on the PC. Weapons consist of pretty much anything that you can pick up from your surroundings, from lead pipes to locker doors. You can then use them with a combination of left- and right-clicks to swing and block respectively, and combine with the middle mouse-button to zap your enemies with your tazer.
Thanks to this physical side of combat the fighting's especially harsh, with blood splattering the screen, thugs being twirled around by the force of blows and superb fighting animations. Your opponents are no slouches with weapons either; they block, feint and counter, affording at least one surprise per level. This means that just when you thought you had a fight in the bag, you have ten bells of crap beaten out of you by a goddamn hobo.
They also make good use of the creepy surroundings, from hiding behind pillars to ripping makeshift weapons off the wall. Plus, rest assured that if they manage to find a superior weapon before you, they'll be sure to get their grubby little mitts to it.
The entire title bristles with atmosphere, from the level design (dilapidated buildings to subway stations) to the in-game characters, and the overall feeling of unsettling tension is helped along nicely by some of the best use of sound we've heard. The absence of any real soundtrack in the background amplifies any environmental noises too, so there's no distraction from the muffled sounds of someone coughing round the corner or footsteps on the floor above designed to freak you out. Enemy vocals are also handled superbly, with thugs screaming obscenities and other incomprehensible noises of indignation before they attack.