MAXIMUM OF FIVE
Condemned is a game that struggled with tone. Here you are playing Ethan Thomas, a clean-cut forensic detective, investigating a string of murders in abandoned, desolate buildings that are invariably full of the sort of vagrant that wants to rip your face off with their teeth – and rather than calling for backup, or perhaps even just washing your hands of the whole endeavour, you push on and defend yourself by stoving in the heads of said vagrants with a variety of different improvised weapons.
The combat system was refreshingly brutal; the first-person viewpoint and dark environments narrowed your field of vision to less than you’d be comfortable with in an ideal world, and blocking relied on timing and weapon choice rather than simply holding down a shoulder button and weathering the storm. The enemies were suitably insane-looking and, no matter how thinly-defined your reasons for being there were, there was no question that they were the sort of guys who would not only kill you but put a lot of time and effort into defiling your corpse once you were dead.
It was scary, in other words. But something made it scarier still, and it wasn’t just the creepy mannequins in the department store or the fact that any gun you picked up came with a maximum of five bullets and was really just a sort of novelty paperweight. It was the finishing moves, tucked away on the d-pad.
I’m not sure how they made it into the game – they have the feel of an earlier build about them, a relic of old stories that’s managed to stick around for the new ones. But when you beat an enemy to within an inch of his life, you can stagger up to them and perform acts of immediate, candid and often fatal violence on them for no good reason. They offer no bonus XP or in-game mechanical benefit; they’re just little cutscenes of violence that you have the option to watch, if you want.
There are four – one for each direction – and they involve the main character headbutting the enemy, snapping the enemy’s neck, slamming the enemy’s head into the floor or just punching them so hard that they pass out. And they’re enormously intimate, too, thanks to that first-person perspective. Swinging a crowbar around to hit an enemy is one thing, but cracking their nose open on your forehead is much more personal.
But it’s the punch that makes it, really, that makes everything uncomfortably visceral. You grab your enemy and mutter “Take this, you fuck” under your breath and you punch them so hard that they don’t get back up again.
THE GOOD FIGHT
Hey! Woah! Hang on a second! I’m a detective! I’m fighting the good fight! I’m defending myself against inexplicably angry men – and this one, though he was attacking me, has since lost so much blood and sustained so many blows to the head that he’s dropped his weapon and fallen to his knees. I’m not supposed to relish in their demise!
But I am, aren’t I, as the player? That’s the kicker, really. I played this game because I like the simulation of feeling alone and under threat in horrendous environments. I enjoy the fizz of my Taser as it stuns a guy who was until seconds ago screaming towards me with a short length of rebar. I like parrying attacks and braining my assailant with a wrench. I like the sensation of headbutting someone unconscious, because I’m beating the rules of the game in the most gut-wrenchingly personal way that I can imagine.
But Ethan can’t enjoy it, surely? Maybe he does. Maybe there’s something so wrong with him that he takes satisfaction in physically doing what you’re just acting out. There’s a dissonance there, the reminder that what you’re playing pretend at is in fact horrendous and if you met the sort of person who did it for fun you’d probably run a mile. What does that make you? Can you portion off the bit that lets you extract relaxation time from caving in a junkie’s head with a plank of wood from the bit that realises killing other human beings is innately wrong?