Silent Hill: Homecoming Hands-on Preview

After a long presentation, a fair amount of hands-on time and a chat with lead designer Jason Allen, I still don't know what to make of Silent Hill 5--now known as Silent Hill Homecoming.

As the first American studio to handle a project in the long-running horror franchise, the team once called The Collective but now referred to as Double Helix seems to have done their homework.

There are zombie nurses, and foggy streets, and rusted walls. Doors are locked, and an unnecessary line of text tells us so in a way that only a Silent Hill game could. Hallways are dark, flashlights turned on. It all looks just as I would imagine a Silent Hill game to look on upgraded hardware.

But that's just it. It looks pretty much how I expected it would.

The developers are very honest about their approach: keep the horror series' renowned atmosphere and mystery intact, but update the graphics and combat systems. The second half of tasks have largely been achieved, mostly for the better--the combat is more robust, and the graphics are more complex. That being said, living up to the standard of story and ambiance that has been set in a game like Silent Hill 2 is nowhere near an easy task.

Some of the footage shown set up a little of the team's attempt. Recently discharged from the military due to a bout of disturbing dreams, protagonist Alex returns home, only to find his mother sitting by a window with a gun in her lap. The woman eerily moans for Alex's brother, who has apparently gone missing, his father in hot pursuit. That clip ended with Alex asking his mother why her dress was wet, her creepy response indicating that something has gone wrong in the family basement.

Another video showed Alex arriving at the ever-foggy Silent Hill, dropped off by a trucker. As he faces the abandoned town, the trucker adds a few foreboding words: "Good luck, soldier." Yet another clip showed Alex wandering the streets, then seeing his brother dash across the road, disappearing between a few fog-consumed buildings. Series regulars will recognize this as a "Cheryl?!" moment.

My hands-on demonstration began where another video left off: Alex has been wheeled into a hospital against his will, shackled to a gurney as it rolls down a hallway. Things only get darker from there, with other patients briefly seen out of the corner of his eye--one is getting a few teeth extracted against his will, another simply being brought under a rather large knife. As Alex is placed under the white light of an operating room, the game smashes to a white-out.

After getting a controller in my hands, I was faced with freeing the newly-awakened, seemingly-intact Alex of his restraints. That being done with a quick smashing of the "X" button, it was time to explore the hospital, flashlight illuminating my path. The environment is very much a Silent Hill hospital, with all sorts of devious machinery and locked doors. At least the open doors now open faster--Alex lays into them, blasting through with his shoulder down.

While maps, health drinks, and grain filters could pass for Silent Hill 2 at a glance, much of the game's basic mechanics could not. Gone are the slow, tank-like turns of old, replaced with a typical camera dependent system. You now strafe with left or right, and turn the camera with the second analog while moving forward to make a rounded corner. As a result, Alex's movement is speedier than in past games, and more agile in other areas. He can jump over short gaps in walls, and generally feels less encumbered than in the past. It was difficult to say whether this speed sacrifices anything in the way of tension, though the developers did note that they were still balancing these changes to make sure that they do not.

I had only played a few seconds into the level when I came upon Josh, Alex's brother--behind bars, just out of reach, scribbling on some paper with a crayon, unresponsive. The door was locked, but a handy electronic keypad was nearby. After searching through a series of rooms, I found one piece of an X-Ray, which had to be combined with another found in a different room to form a whole chart. The keypad combination was of course scrawled across both pieces in red writing.

Just as you enter the combination, triumphant in your mastery of X-Ray piecing and memorization, your kid--standing five feet away--runs out another door. Series regulars will recognize this as another "Cheryl?!" moment. Alex seemed to be so stunned, he didn't move an inch to chase the kid down, only yelling after him in futility.

As if to echo his frustration, things turned evil from there on out, the paint peeling, the walls turning that familiar color of rust. I didn't see a lot of gore after the hellish transformation, or anything disturbing for that matter, though I did run into a few meat-blocked crevices. These living doorways needed to be split open with a mashing of a button, Alex tearing them down the center and revealing their inner teeth, allowing him to pass through the jaws and into the next room.

The standard nurse enemies were soon staggering toward me, bursting from bathroom stalls and darkened corners. Close combat is the focus of Homecoming's battle system, and has been totally changed from previous titles. Alex can lock on to his demonic enemies, the direction of his flashlight serving to denote the current target. There are strong and weak attacks, and combos based on a variance of the two. If the player dodges an enemy attack in a well-timed fashion, he can counter-attack for massive damage. Finisher moves provide some gross-out moments, including perverse decapitations and sickening impalement.

And they all looked just about how I'd imagine.

That's not to say it looked bad. What really worries me about the game is not that the developers don't care. In fact, I worry they've cared too much--that they have focused so much on recreating Silent Hill-style moments and environments that it held them back from offering their own, original take.

For example, Silent Hill 2 bad dude Pyramid Head is back in Silent Hill Homecoming, along with all the beetles and peeling wall effects from the Silent Hill film. To use him now as a recurring character, like some kind of standard villain, seems a little disappointing, a little tired. Where is the mystery in such a blatant retread?

The developers profess that they have analyzed the original titles and have a handle on what makes them tick. They say they have created a new, compelling story. They drop influences like Alien, and seem to have heads on their shoulders. They claim that it's not about dead bodies dropping from ceilings, or any other cheap scare tactics. I want to believe that this is going to be a worthy, evolutionary step in the series, and with less than 30 minutes of time with the game, I can't yet say otherwise.

But as much as I wanted to be wowed by my hands-on time, while exploring the disheveled hospital, I didn't feel like I was seeing something new, something that hadn't been done before in the series. While the combat was a welcome improvement, as the developers themselves say, Silent Hill isn't about combat--it's about tension, mystery, story.

Even the cutscenes were largely reminiscent of the classic Team Silent efforts. Piecing together a puzzle, to use a keypad, to find your run-away child, did indeed feel like a homecoming of sorts--though not a particularly mysterious one.

But of course, while on the way to save another scary little child, just as I was about to give it the benefit of the doubt, a dead body fell from the ceiling.


Silent Hill: Homecoming is slated to arrive on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this September. Check back with us next week for an interview with lead designer Jason Allen.

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