Condemned: Criminal Origins

With apologies to Thomas Harris.

"You would think that such a demo would tremble to begin..."

Ethan Thomas's flashlight cut through the entranceway to the crumbling necropolis of putrid filth that made up his E3 demo level, barren quarters rented from the arse end of Silent Hill in the interest of economy.

The condemned, enemies under the grip of some unseen malevolence, waited in the shadows, their battered forms split between hooded types in front and dreadlocked behind, spanners and other blunt instruments idling amongst their fingers in the cavernous dark.

Thomas hoisted his thumbs to the analogue sticks, testing their sensitivity by drifting past and over a cluster of indistinct shelved metal objects, and clicking in the left stick jogged awkwardly forward into a locker room, a shadowy tomb of dirty red-and-brown rectangles with parcels of crap housed inside.

Through the open doorway beyond, a few men saw Thomas coming and lurched forward. Thomas was tender in his fumbling gaming infancy and moved slowly under the weight of unknown controls, the beam of his optional forensic tools probing for ghastly fluorescent sights - clues - as he started.

"Rarruuurrgghh," the first of the condemned announced himself.

FBI Agent Ethan Thomas spotted his charge.

"That's just not cri- I didn't seem him until I'd got my probe out," he blurted into the blackness. "He must've been hiding in the corner. Hey, blokey, put down that tool."

The condemned gave him a fast high-five. Toward the head. With a wrench.

Thomas held up his torch to deflect the scruffy vagrant's swing at the top of its arc, and the light was sent rolling over intricate textures that swallowed it whole, before turning back to the unpleasant tall blundering fool.

Ethan Thomas, a veteran of unseen men, ducked under the eyeline of the misanthrope and took a swing as close as possible to the back of the two-hundred-pound block of dirty grease that served as entry-level condemned, at a point when they had to lurk with just the engine's spawning timeline to disguise them.

The bold man had the monkey-house look of beer and sweat that never scrubs out. He had borne many labels in his short time on the screen. The dirtiest and least fading of which was "cheating sod", thirty seconds old. The flashlight butt bore holes with repetition that left him floored and cold.

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The sight of him was a once-grey terror, appropriately tarnished, sprawled on the floor. Thomas could whack the big black plot of man wallowing on the ground as much as he liked and watch his body lurch. He hoped he wouldn't spend hours beating down men in the dark.

The other condemned lurched over to him whenever his face was turned to the rest of the game window.

FBI Agent Ethan Thomas, Serial Crimes Unit, would always look for killers in places like these, and he would always find those terrible ageing places beyond him looked good, even if they were fatigued next to those outside his world.

He retrieved himself from another horde, starting to get a grip on a hand-to-hand combat system that rode in on Riddick's passenger seat.

"How come we always copy this crap, Thomas?" someone asked, smiling dryly.

"Because you keep asking for it," he might have said.

"For this we need more. I see you wanting to serve warrants on jump-out serial killers on your own for Christ's sake. I hate to say it, but somebody outside has seen it all before, I think. I know when people will jump out on me. These are my guys," he gestured, "Riddick and Thomas Harris. You know them, and you want to work like they do, but you don't seem to be."

A composite raided dream of the Chronicles of Riddick, Thomas Harris, and the Silent Hill administration on Xbox 360, this E3 demo felt like the force-fit product of budget constraints in a time when even the America's Army was closing games for lack of funding.

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Ethan Thomas looked like an agent. The condemned looked like bailiffs. They were about forty each, overweight and greasy.

The developer of Condemned, anxious to appear gritty and thuggish with conviction, insisted that the game shared tenets with every major serial killer story in living memory. Hence, Thomas Harris.

Doing little more than going through the gritty, grainy, hand-to-hand clobbering and clue-scouring motions, the Condemned E3 demo moved darkly from beginning to end, inexplicable violence peppered throughout.

Condemned could be a survival horror tour de force for all we know.

But in the end it was hard to get a full picture. And the evidence on our desk - screenshots, videos, all the usual - didn't reconcile much with the demo in front of us.

On the speakers not so far away, an unidentifiable pop-noise pounded, and strobe lights went off and off and off until another appointment dragged the man behind the analogue sticks away.

Condemned is due out on Xbox 360 later this year. For a full, or indeed any, picture of the game as a whole, we suggest checking out this earlier preview.

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