Now, this combat is actually surprisingly violent – in fact, it can be on the edge of stomach churning – but the close-up and personal approach certainly makes for a scarier game. And this is where Condemned really scores: atmosphere. Like Silent Hill, it manages that trick of making the banal really creepy, with superb locations – abandoned buildings, closed metro stations, collapsing department stores, city libraries – made hostile through great, moody lighting and those ever-present touches of decay. When the game sucks you in, it’s a genuinely nerve-wrecking experience, with you trudging through the department store, playing your torch across the surfaces, straining for every sound or sight of movement. The ambient music and spot sound effects are constantly unsettling, and while your attackers aren’t fiendishly intelligent, they all have their individual strategies and ways to catch you off guard. This isn’t a game of simple Doom 3 shock moments, but one of mounting dread and moments of uncontrolled panic. When it works, it’s a ruthless fear machine.
The only problem is that it doesn’t always work. No matter how good the atmosphere, it can’t hide the fact that the game underneath is frequently simplistic or just plain nonsensical. The biggest let down is the detection side of things. All that gadgetry might impress the CSI-buffs, but you’re stupidly limited in where you can use it and what you can do. It’s not that we want realistic forensic investigations – who wants to cover every metre of every room? It’s just that Condemned leads you too much by the nose. Use the laser here. Scan this. Photograph that. Do what you’re bloody well told. You’re not even left to guess at plot developments or build up theories to explain them. Instead, you’re force-fed everything by your less than glamorous assistant, Rosa. Where Monolith could have put more emphasis on creative puzzle-solving or ingenious detection, it has instead created a game that’s mostly about battering tramps around the head with pipework. It’s scary and those psychotic tramps deserve it, but you can’t help thinking that the foundations were laid for something better.