First Impressions: It puts the lotion in the basket?
Have I mentioned how excited I am for the next generation to kick-off? Of course I have. Actually, I really can't think of anything else. The thought of playing visually and mechanically superior games in 720p 16:9 widescreen on my 50 inch plasma is almost too much to bear, and when I see something like Condemned: Criminal Origins, the new atmospheric creep-fest from Sega for the Xbox 360, I seriously gaze in wide-eyed wonder at where the art of the game is taking us?
Condemned places you into the role of one Ethan Thomas, a member of the Serial Crimes Unit (or S.C.U.) - a man who hunts the monsters we call serial killers. Francis Dolarhyde and his ?becoming?, or Hannibal Lecter with his taste for fine organ meats ? those soulless things that take pleasure in slowly tearing you apart - prepare to face them as you enter Ethan's world of darkness and fear. As the game begins, you're a highly respected agent, a top ace at your job. Soon enough however, events conspire to turn you out as a rogue searching for the truth beneath a mountain of twisted evidence, and the opportunity to clear your name.
Billed by the developers at Monolith as a ?psychological thriller?, the game looks to be a very cool combination of melee combat, ranged weapons play and forensic sleuthing using a variety of really neat gadgets. For instance ? You'll have access to a scanner that lets you see fingerprints, stains and other physical evidence that's otherwise invisible to the naked eye. This style of play impacts the game mechanics and involves the player on a whole other level. Instead of using artificial devices to move the narrative along, it's all seamlessly integrated into the gameplay. Perhaps you'll follow a chemical trail or bloody handprints on the wall in order to track an adversary, or use the gas spectrometer to pick up any olfactory clues such as contaminants in the air. All of your evidence can be collected and fed into a miniature 3D scanner for transmission back to the crime lab, where your partner will analyze it for you and report back with vital information.
As Ethan, you'll track the killers through various appropriate environments such as a burned out library, subway station, and an abandoned department store. It's in the latter locale that you'll face particularly creepy drones (that ultimately serve the serial killers you're after) that cover themselves with mannequin parts as they assault you with pipes and broken hunks of wood. Melee combat is vicious and guttural, as realistic character animations and more advanced physics made possible by the immense power of the 360 immerse you completely in the action at hand. As well the enemy AI is finely-tuned, and your attackers will use subterfuge and other devious tactics to outflank and surprise you. They'll also have the ability to judge the situation and if you're carrying a more powerful weapon, they will retreat to find an appropriate foil. You'll find firearms scattered about the locations, but don't get too comfortable ? they all have limited amounts of ammo, and once they run out, that's it ? no refills, you'll have to find another weapon. The good news is that you can use the handle as a melee tool once it's out of lead. Shotguns, handguns, as well as a very handy taser will be available once the game gets rolling, not to mention a more extensive weapons set that has yet to be revealed.
Visually, Condemned looks amazing. The textures are near photo-realistic, and the character models and special effects look outstanding as well. Everything is layered in specular, normal, and color maps, which gives depth and realism to the world far beyond anything we've seen so far. Characters are bundled in texture maps as well, and built using 7-8 million polygons each. The volumetric lighting adds the finishing touch to the game world, and the realistic interplay of light and shadow will amaze players as they explore the dark and dangerous world of Condemned. The Havok 3.0 physics engine is in full effect here, and every object in the game reacts realistically to your movements. This also insures that the actions of the lunatics you'll face are eerily realistic, something that brings life to the game and deepens the interactive experience considerably. The sound seems to be shaping up nicely as well, with positional audio and appropriately chilling effects adding the proper tone to the atmosphere.
Throughout the adventure you'll be tasked with tracking down several ?major? serial killers, but the demented freaks you'll face as you hunt for them will make up the bulk of the action. Described as lost souls under the influence of the master killers, they'll do everything they can to insure that your investigation fails ? generally by attempting to make you as dead as possible. Moving cautiously throughout the incredibly detailed environments, you'll catch a quick glimpse of something that may - or may not - have been just a shadow. Soon enough you'll come face to face with some seriously scary looking creeps, and it's in these moments of vicious combat that you'll truly feel like you're fighting for your life ? thanks to the unprecedented visuals and sound on tap for the new generation.