Monday, 3 October 2016

October Nightmares II #3: Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005) - Givin' it The Bum's Rush

In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Hell is other people.” This is a maxim people who live in cities can certainly appreciate. Endless queues, pollution, crime, people with fucking prams; it’s difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of your fellow man when you live in a city. Consequently, urban settings are a nearly limitless source of horror. Since most city-folk exist in a near constant state of belligerence, it’s easy to combine realistic expectations of city life with common fears and create something that’s universal and primal. On the average commute to work, one imagines killing every gormless individual who insists on getting in the way. By the end of the working week, those imagined-murders have turned into imagined-genocides.

Monolith Productions’ survival horror game, Condemned: Criminal Origins, is arguably the logical conclusion of the urban horror sub-genre. Set somewhere in the American Rust Belt, Condemned is an exposé on the ruinous effect of decades of unhindered neoliberal politics; highlighting the destruction of working class communities Bernie Sanders is always banging on about. I jest of course, but Condemned’s city in decay is well realised; feeling like a city once pristine and functional but which has subsequently fallen to social rot. Which is why, as a survival horror game, Condemned is particularly effective. It plays on the same fears as Silent Hill: the idea of normal, safe society being overwhelmed by the fringe elements of dilapidation and corruption present in most cities.

The Condemned games are known for their incomprehensible storytelling, with a plot that’s somewhere between Seven and Dark City. You fill the shoes of forensic investigator Ethan Thomas hot on the trail of prolific serial-killer killer Serial Killer X. Bloody hell, it’s like that linguistic oddity about Buffalo. After an encounter with the killer, Ethan is framed for murder in a scene which is basically equivalent to the ‘plant the gun on the beaten black suspect’ trope from cop movies. At the same time, some form of space-magic-boogaloo has turned the city’s vulnerable (the homeless, junkies, etc) into murderous psychotics. Ethan proceeds to prove his innocence by going on the run and beating the destitute to death. I suppose he could always use the whole Don King ‘self-defence’ argument. As ideas go, it’s up there with a teenage couple deciding to fuck at a campsite in a Friday the 13th movie.

Ethan being on the run serves the purpose of forcing the story to explore the seedier aspects of Generic City #881. As I stated previously, world building is Condemned’s strength. The ruined locations you visit - subways, former department stores, schools – feel lived in, familiar even. Which makes their new role as a dosshouse for the sort of people you get on Jeremy Kyle all the more harrowing. Because we never see any other side to the game’s world there is a certain ambiguity which makes Condemned even creepier. It could be set precisely anywhere, at any given time in modern history. The subway and public library levels are even shown to still be in use by the ordinary public, which puts a bleak perspective on the game’s setting. Condemned’s enemies are the ignored helpless who exist under the shiny veneer of civilisation.

Condemned maintains a tense atmosphere throughout, largely due to its first person perspective and tightly focused melee combat. The level design utilises the dilapidated setting fully; being minimally illuminated, pocketed by maze-like tunnels created by years of neglect, and dead-ends resulting from the debris. All of which fits in well with Condemned’s first person perspective; lending the game a certain haunted-house attraction quality in that you can’t see for shit and you’re waiting for some ghoul to pop-out from the shadowy hide-aways. When the thugs inevitably appear, combat is a savagely choreographed affair. Each swing of your makeshift weapon feels impactful, and each attempt at blocking equally desperate. The considered approach to combat, in which every move in every encounter equates to life or death, puts Condemned on the same platform as Dark Souls.

There are more than a few questionable design choices in Condemned, mind. For example, certain doors can only be opened with utility weapons (of which there are three types, such as axes, and you can only have one at a time); even if you have the Epic Tier Staff of Open Sesame + 1. The story also gets a bit silly towards the end when you go from fighting against the destitute to fighting demons that look like members of a Bathory tribute band. But Condemned defends itself by having one of the most nerve-shredding levels in the history of gaming. The penultimate level, which takes place in a farmhouse, is a tense game of cat and mouse between you, a serial killer known as The Torturer, and the aforementioned primary antagonist – Serial Killer (Malcolm) X. Add to that the usual horde of rapists and murderers (by this point hideously degraded) and the level is as terrifying as a school trip to the BBC studios during the Seventies.    

The Butcher: As mad as he is fat