Sunday, March 4, 2012

Graphics Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

Hey game playing horrorheads, rejoice, for this month I review a double dose of SILENT HILL goodness. Well it could be considered a triple dose, as one of them is a two for one special. And really, it should have been a quadruple dose as publisher Konami was all set to drop anther SILENT HILL game this month (BOOK OF MEMORIES for the new PlayStation Vita) but postponed it at the last second. Now why they would bring out so much SILENT HILL at one time is beyond me, but it does make for a good month for horror gamers. Or at least, it should. I mean not every SILENT HILL game has been exactly golden now have they?

Silent Hill: Downpour , by Vatra Games and Konami, Rated M, for PC, PS3, Xbox 360

The SILENT HILL series of games are some of the best horror video games ever made. They know what it takes to make a truly well written, adult, and terrifying game. Something a lot of so called “survival horror” games never got right, even when they overdosed on jump scares. SILENT HILL are the crème de la crème of creepy interactive entertainment. Or at least, they used to be. While the first three SH games are all various shades of awesome, and even those that followed soon after had more than a few good things to offer, the last couple of SILENT HILL games have certainly been going downhill. So it was a mix of trepidation and anticipation that filled fans of these seminal fright games when it was announced that a new one was in the works. Would this latest visit to the haunted town be a fond trip down memory lane, or would it further take the series down the path towards Sucksville? Well grab your flashlight, because it sure is dark out there, and let’s go back to the fog shrouded streets that horror fans the world over love so much.

The game starts off strong. You play a man in prison and a crooked guard lets you into a shower room so you can get at a prisoner who is in protective custody. Now if you’re familiar with prison flicks or fiction then you won’t need three guess as to why that disgusting looking man is segregated from all the other inmates. Not to mention why you so dearly want to make his acquaintance. Before you can say “break out the shivs” you all but slaughter the guy. And when I say slaughter, I mean it, because he does not die easy. In fact, it was one of the more visceral acts of violence I’ve seen in any game. Not overly gory, as some games just love to do, just very hardcore.

After that bit of nastiness, you find yourself being transferred by bus from one prison to another. When the bus enters the sleepy town of Silent Hill you know what’s coming next. That’s right, the bus has an accident and you are soon on your own, looking for a way out of the strangest town ever. That’s when the game really begins. Now at first, DOWNPOUR doesn’t seem much like a SILENT HILL game at all, as you don’t start out in the titular town, but in the woods outside it. After going through a spooky mine, you arrive in “Da Hill” and the familiar sensation of wandering the deserted, fog shrouded city streets comes flooding back.

DOWNPOUR does a lot of things right, but also a few things wrong. Since I try to be a positive kind of guy, let’s start with the good. First of all, the story is well written with a believable character in escaped prisoner, Murphy. It is also surprisingly adult, and no, not in an X-Rated way. Since I am an adult, I like games that treat me like an adult, so I liked this very much.

While the game basically only has four large set piece locations that you have to go through in order to beat it, it gives you the town of Silent Hill as an open world, allowing you to go all over and run into a number of optional side quests. Admittedly some of these diversions are pretty lame, like the one in a bank that is just about surviving five waves of enemies. Yawn. Oh sorry, almost nodded off there. However, some of the side quests are really good, such as the one where you enter a movie, or the one where you control the flow of time and see a husband do really bad things to his family. These little slices of horror worked far more often than not and really give you a good reason to explore the whole town, instead of just rushing through it.

Another check in the good column is the atmosphere. This game does it well, with many clever and spooky nods. From creepy sounds, to things appearing in the mirrors differently than in the room around you, to well-done camera tricks, SH:D brings the eerie to life. One of my favorites involves a tire swing, which turns into a hanging man when you turn away, only to run back to a harmless swing when you look back. I love little stuff like that. Keep your eyes open for stuff like that when playing this game, for some of the creepy moments are really subtle and could be missed by those rushing through the game.

Lastly, some of the puzzles were not only clever but fun. No, not the somewhat lame ones like “turn the dials on a safe in a specific way to open it”. But there were several where you had to actually think to solve them and not just win by trial and error. Wow, actually puzzling puzzles, what a concept! Oh and puzzles aren’t your thing fear not, for in the options you can set their difficulty from challenging to downright simple.

Now for the stuff that this game didn’t do all that well. First and foremost, DOWNPOUR doesn’t know if it wants to be a combat heavy game, like the last SH game (HOME COMING) or a return to the days where combat should be avoided at all costs. They kind of lean towards the latter with limiting the number of weapons you can carry (two) and having your weapons break very easily. But then they give you achievements and trophies for killing X number of this enemy, and X number of that enemy, and so on. There is also a bit too many firearms and more ammo than you would expect in a SH game. Worse yet, the enemies are like freaking ninjas. Good luck trying to get away from them in the traditional “run like hell” SILENT HILL way. They are always faster than you and have cheesy abilities to stun you so that they can catch up should you try to avoid combat. In addition to their speed, they fight like MMA champs. They jump in, get off multiple attacks, and jump back before you can swing your shovel, pipe, or whatever at them. Should you actually hit them once, they cover up and block like heavyweight boxers until you stop swinging, or have cheesy (yes, a lot about the enemies in this game is cheesy) instant attack they can unleash right out of blocking that always hits you. Now these enemies aren’t really that tough in and of themselves. They’re on par with what you might find in an average fighting game, but SILENT HILL should NOT be a fighting game.

DOWNPOUR also wanders one too many times into repetition land. DOWNPOUR also wanders one too many times into repetition land. DOWNPOUR also wanders one too many times…ok, I’m sure you get it now. Too bad the makes of this game didn’t. There is a part in this game where a black hole chases you around a maze. At first it was kind of cool and fun, as you had to out run it and hurry up to turn valves to open doors to get away from it and so on. If the game only did this once or maybe twice, it would have been a winner. But no, they do it five or six times, which honestly felt more like over a dozen times. Man, did that black hole bit get tiresome fast. Then there are a number of other tropes they use far too much. There’s the always lame balancing beam bit, that has never been fun in any game ever, and the bridges that conveniently break to drop your none essential items into a hole or something. None of these were game breakers, they were just tired from about word go.

In addition to bad game design choices, DOWNPOUR has a few horrible technical issues. First and foremost is the all but chugging in slow motion frame rate problems that pop up and slows your game to an aggravating crawl way too often. This stuttering crawl was easily my biggest gripe with this game and installing it to the hard drive did little to nothing to stop it. Dear lord it was bad. Now couple that with far too long and frequent load times and the inability to skip cut scenes, even if you’ve already sat through them once, and at times this game seems like a rushed, technically inept throwback. Come on guys, its 2012, games should be mechanically much better than this by far.

All in all, I liked my time with SILENT HILL: DOWNPOUR. It had some sad technical issues and should have either fully embraced the combat or not, but not try to ride the fence and have it both ways. Old school fans may bemoan it and say that it’s not as good as SH 1, 2, or 3, and it’s not, but it’s still a very enjoyable horror game that actually tries to be, and often succeeds at being frightening at times. Well written, moody and at times very atmospheric, DOWNPOUR is more of a return to form than the last couple of SH games.

Oh and I almost forgot: no Pyramid Head or creepy, sexy nurse monsters. Those critters have been done to death (ha ha) by every SILENT HILL game since Part Two. Their long needed absence here alone should give this game high marks. Ok, they’re not completely gone, but you have to try really hard to see them, but that’s all I’m going to say about that. So for that, and all the other good reasons I’ve previous mentioned, I give SILENT HILL: DOWNPOUR a score of 4 out of 5.

Silent Hill: HD Collection, by Konami, Rated M, for PS3, Xbox 360

Now this is really damn cool. It’s the full games of SILENT HILL 2 and SILENT HILL 3 together, brushed up to HD levels, and playable on today’s consoles. Now I’m not going to explain the plot of SH 2 & 3 for a couple of reasons. First, they’re both great games and you should have played them already. Second, if you haven’t played them yet, then I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Third, come on, the newest of the two games is almost ten years old now. So really, why haven’t you played them yet? I mean, we are talking about SILENT HILL 2 here. It’s easily the best horror game ever made. What, think I’m joking when I say that? Well we’re on the internet, so go type “best horror video games list” into Google and see what happens. Yeah, I bet SH2 was #1 on the majority of those lists, and if not, then it was #2 or #3 at least. Oh and anyone that didn’t have it at #1 is just plain wrong. Sorry, but that’s a scientific fact and you just can’t argue with science. Then there’s SH3, which while not perfect, is still a damn good game. And here you get both of those creepy classics all new and shiny, what could be better?

As it turns out, not much. Now before I played this game, I heard nothing but bitching about it. People were complaining that Silent Hill’s trademark, and very atmospheric, fog was for some reason removed. And this drove the fanboys and fangirls nuts. Even Masahiro Ito, the art director behind SH2 & 3 went on record to say that the HD release is “terrible so much”. Well I don’t know what game he was looking at, but the one I played looked as dark, foggy, and spooky as ever. So if you hear someone saying “oh the HD version just looks terrible” don’t believe the hype.

In addition to complaining about how these games may look, rabid fans were having crying fits over how these games might sound when Konami announced that they had new actors record a new audio track for the game. I can understand that fans of the original games may have attachments to the old voice actors, as clunky, stiff, and unconvincing as some of them may be. And yes, sorry to say it, but some of the voice actors in those original games were pretty damn bad. Like dubbed GODZILLA movies from the 70s bad. No, not all of them were that bad, but enough were to be cringe worthy. So is the new audio acting any better? Yes, yes it is, much better. The emotion, inflections, and delivery all just sound more natural and realistic. Again, if someone says otherwise, don’t be too quick to believe them unless you give it a listen for yourself. Oh and here’s the real kicker, you can still have the old voice acting if you want. Yes, both the new and the old voice cast are available here. So what was everyone yelling and screaming about?

Well maybe one thing. Now I played this game on the Xbox 360 and it worked great. However I have heard a lot of complaints from my PS3 brethren about a list of complaints on how the game plays on that machine. So while I can’t comment on that for myself, I thought I’d bring that to your attention. Consider yourself warned if you rock a PS3 at home.

The SILENT HILL HD COLLECTION brings two great, classic, horror games out for fans that want to re-experience them again, and for a new generation of horrorheads who have only heard how awesome SH2 & 3 were, but never played them before. The games look great, sound great, play great (albeit the mechanics do feel a bit dated these days) and are still creepy and eerie as all hell. If you’re a horror game fan then SILENT HILL 2 is a must play, with Part 3 coming in at a close second. So now you can get both games, looking better than ever, for one very low price (as of this writing, brand new it’s only $39.99, twenty bucks less than most single new games). What’s not to love? I give the SILENT HILL HD COLLECTION a mandatory must have score of 5 out of 5.

--Brian Sammons