It all starts to blend together after a while, no thanks to the repetition of textures and lack of any distinguishing reference points in most areas, and no thanks to the thick darkness that permeates most of the game. Unless you chicken out and crank up the brightness on your television above where you'd normally have it, you'll find that many sequences of Condemned are nearly pitch black, save for your weak little flashlight's reassuring glow. All that said, it probably won't be long before you find yourself wishing you had some kind of a map to help guide you through each area, since you don't. It's fairly easy to get lost, disoriented, and then frustrated as you stumble around looking for the one door you're supposed to open or the one little corner concealing the next hallway.
Besides braining crazy freaks, you'll get to sniff out hidden clues using some high-tech gadgets.
Occasionally you get to stop to gather some forensic evidence, which helps break up the action a little, though there's really not much to this process. Your "instincts," which come in the form of an onscreen prompt, will indicate to you when you're supposed to ready one of your handy gadgets instead of that club you've been cracking skulls with. For the most part, you can't use your forensic tools unless a mission-critical objective is nearby. Once you've got your equipment on the ready (you automatically bring out the right item for the job), it's just a matter of slowly walking around until you find what you're looking for. Certainly it's a cool effect, seeing trails of violence materialize under a black light and so forth. These bits also tie in to the plot, so they're more than welcomed, but there's just not much challenge involved since the game does almost all the work. You end up feeling about as actively involved in the investigation as you would be just sitting there soaking up an episode of CSI. Luckily, some of the later evidence-gathering sequences are more interesting since they take place in more-dangerous areas, so you might have to quickly swap that digital camera for a two-by-four if you run into bad company.
The quality of the presentation in Condemned goes a long way toward keeping you riveted, even when the action starts to grow stale. We can't overstate just how good a lot of the hand-to-hand combat looks. There's some meticulous attention to detail that might make you squirm--such as when you rake your crowbar across an enemy's jaw and then watch him spit blood (and what looks like teeth) as he whirls about violently, face red from more than just anger. And while the game doesn't go into too much detail about exactly what's wrong with all the people you're fighting, it doesn't really need to, because just one good look at them is enough to tell you they're far gone. Better yet, the further you go, seemingly the more inhuman and misshapen your foes will become--as though their deteriorating condition represents Agent Thomas' own psyche. To make things more believable, the game does a good job of presenting some of its noninteractive cutscenes from a first-person perspective in the context of the game itself. Ever been thrown down an escalator? You'll get a feel for what that might be like in Condemned.
It's hard to get a good look at what you're up against in Condemned, but you'll see enough to know this is one great-looking game.
The graphics do have a few minor problems, mostly centering around the relatively bland environments. Granted, it's not like filthy rundown buildings are inherently interesting to look at, but the main issue with the environments in Condemned is that there's too little contrast in them. In the very first setting, you'll see the breaking dawn piercing through shuttered windows into dust-filled rooms. It's a beautiful effect, but the game almost never does anything of the kind again, instead pushing you through one lifeless corridor after another. The last sequences of the game look distinctive, and another part that's set in an old, rundown department store stands out, but it's too bad the settings of Condemned aren't as inspired as their fearsome inhabitants. Also, despite how vicious the combat looks, the act of getting killed in this game (which will happen often, since it's pretty tough on normal difficulty) is a little underwhelming. The action just freezes the instant the deathblow connects, all too mercifully preventing you from witnessing Agent Thomas' collapse--and whatever might happen next. For that matter, considering how much care clearly went into the animation, it's sort of unfortunate to see Condemned making liberal use of rag-doll physics. Killed enemies all collapse in what look like the same lifeless heaps found in just about every action game these days, thanks to the ubiquitous rag-doll effect. But this is just nit-picking over what's a graphically amazing game.
As with most any Xbox 360 game, for best results you should view Condemned at the highest possible resolution on a nice big high-definition display. Even when you do, you'll find that the game's frame rate holds quite steady, smoothly rendering some highly detailed scenes. But even when you don't, you'll find that Condemned still looks really impressive running on a standard television (the game is presented in a letterbox even if you don't have a widescreen TV, though). Older video game systems just can't pull off these kinds of good looks.
In addition to an HDTV, you'll want a surround-sound system to get the most out of Condemned's excellent atmospheric audio. There's very little music in the game, apart from some subtle ambient tracks that play here and there, and the sparse voice acting is of good quality. So it's really the sound effects that deserve most of the credit, since they're essential to fulfilling the gut-wrenching intentions of the graphics. Suffice it to say you'll hear every thud, crunch, and spatter in alarming detail. Even relatively mild acts, like breaking the glass on a first-aid kit, might well cause you to flinch from how piercingly loud and clear they are. Some aggravating repetition in the audio drags things down a bit, specifically in how the shrieks from enemies struck by your stun gun always sound exactly the same, ruining some of the suspension of disbelief. But overall, Condemned is by far one of the better-sounding games this year.
Given all the potential on display in Condemned, we can't help but hope for a sequel.
Condemned's success in delivering the best-looking first-person melee combat of any game to date is truly admirable, along with its unusual premise. It's just that the longer you play, the more you'll wish that there were more substance to the experience. Fortunately, the game's main area of focus is executed on incomparably well, and it's thrilling for a good while if not all the way to the bitter end. If you do manage to fight your way through to the conclusion, there's not much reason to keep coming back, unless you want to brave certain arbitrary challenges (such as never using guns) to unlock some modest extras--like concept art galleries and such. But when it comes to showcasing just how shockingly up close and personal the act of fighting for your life can get in a game, Condemned has become one to beat...preferably over and over with a lead pipe.