The only time I’ve ever put down a loaded shotgun was in Condemned: Criminal Origins. In this game it’s more satisfying to bust someone’s head open with a pipe.
There aren’t too many first-person melee combat survival horror games out there, but it’s an itch you didn’t know needed scratching. Criminal Origins is the lesser known Monolith Studios game created way back in 2005. The other game? F.E.A.R. What a year it was for Monolith.
You play as an FBI agent framed by a serial killer for offing two cops. Your only recourse is to track down said serial killer, since, you know, the FBI thinks you’re a murderer.
You’re forced underground, often literally (e.g. subway stations and the basements of derelict buildings), where you’re inexplicably attacked by hordes of homeless people wielding locker doors and sledgehammers. You quickly learn that the lingua franca down there is blunt force trauma.
At first I wondered why the homeless were attacking me unprovoked, but I didn’t have much time to ponder their inscrutable actions. It was either get with the program or get my face caved in.
Criminal Origins shines not only in its gameplay, which is visceral and unsentimental, and its atmosphere, which is gritty and frowzy, but in the intermarriage of the two. The weapons you use are part of these environments. You literally rip pipes off the wall, which makes you feel like an extension of your surroundings. If you don’t pick up that fire axe, one of your adversaries will.
The combat, like these environments, is simple and direct. There are no complicated combos, just attack and block. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Getting the timing right is tricky. Opponents will sometimes feint to draw out a premature block, leaving you exposed to attack. A successful block increases the speed with which you can retaliate, but a combatant will sometimes swing wildly at you after getting hit. The distance they can cover with these haymakers is unrealistic, but, as with all of the combat in this game, timing is everything.
The character models in Criminal Origins have aged badly, but the textures and lighting still look pretty good. The environments feel authentic. You get the sense that you’re in a place that’s been ignored, a place you’re not supposed to be. Sickly overhead lights flicker, and dank subway tiles gleam.
The soundscape is also straightforward and effective. You hear the unhinged homeless people conspiring against you. You hear their grunts and their whispers. You hear creaking floorboards. You hear footsteps above you, or behind you. You hear metal clanging on concrete. You hear sparks. All of which combines with the lighting and game mechanics to create an intimate, ragged experience.
There’s a forensic component to the gameplay, although it’s more of a gimmick really. Still, it does contribute to the mood and intrigue. I kind of wish they would’ve spent more time on this aspect of the game instead of favoring supernatural elements later on.
Toward the end, I found myself outside of a barn in the middle of nowhere wielding a flaming two-by-four. I was attacked by a bunch of Sloth clone burn victims. Why? I don’t know. I also don’t really know why I was using batons to fight a monster with orthodontic headgear, just like I didn’t know why homeless people were so keen on seeing my gray matter. The resolution didn’t make a ton of sense either, but you know what? I don’t care. I was immersed in the combat and the environments. The convoluted storyline wasn’t enough to detract from the experience.
If you’re looking for a hardcore horror game, this ain’t it. Criminal Origins boasts tense combat and creepy atmosphere. It contains some horror elements, sure, especially toward the end, but it’s really more of a thriller. That’s not a knock. I’m just setting expectations.
Usually, melee combat is a last resort for me, but Criminal Origins had me seeking it out. At the beginning of the game, whenever I came across a firearm, I checked the ammo and performed an automatic calculation. Was it worth keeping? Five bullets? Yes. Two? Probably not. Later in the game, I skipped the calculations altogether, not because forgoing the shotgun was the smartest move, but because it was the most fun.