Silent Hill: Downpour Hands-On Preview -- When It Rains, It Pours...EvilBy Stephen Johnson - Posted Jan 04, 2012
There's no question that Silent Hill is among the most influential horror series of all time. The creeped-out atmosphere of the demon-haunted town has burrowed into the consciousness of just about everyone who played any of the games, and the franchise’s languid pace and focus on slow-creep as opposed to quick shocks has influenced many a horror game over the last decade.
The more recent Silent Hill titles have served as reminders of that initial horror, blemishes and all, offering up some new thrills while simultaneously providing horrific nostalgia for fright geeks like myself. In other words: I was grinning manically when asked to preview a portion of Silent Hill; Downpour, hoping that it would bring the terror of Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, and Silent Hill 3 to the “modern” gaming age.
While the vibe and gameplay of the series are out in force here, Downpour introduces some novel ingredients in the Silent Hill stew as well. First, there’s a brand new engine (Unreal 3) with which to render the ghostly fog and frightening ghouls of Silent Hill’s creepy locales. It works well, with the darkness and visual obscuration feeling natural, as opposed to an excuse not to render too many textures (like in the old games.)
The U3 visuals really take the decay of Silent Hill to new levels. The graphic artists behind this game just love decay. The care in which rusting, decaying metal, flaking paint, cracked ceilings and mold is pretty amazing. Silent Hill is a moldy, moldy place. And mold comes from dampness. And dampness comes from water. Water plays a huge role in Downpour—more on this in a bit.
Gameplay wise, Downpour will be familiar to fans. The slow, Silent-Hill-pace is in place, with dread taking the place of action, brain-hurty puzzles providing challenge, and combat still an unpleasant, draining process. The game is all about serving up scares as opposed to reflex-testing set pieces, so, if you keep your head about you, you’ll be able to traverse the puzzle-strewn world without perfect aim and speed, but you’ll find the game impossible without patience and a couple brain cells to rub together.
Which brings us to combat. In keeping with past SH protagonists, the main character here, ex-convict Murphy Pendleton, is not a martial arts expert or otherwise super-trained fighting machine. In horror, you need weakness, so the combat here hearkens back to the original games, in that it seems purposely awkward and unpleasant (at least I hope that's the explanation).
Not that fighting in Downpour is completely old hat. In past games, you’d carry around a pipe and a gun, where here, you rely on what you find around, and objects are breakable. Pendleton is an inventive fellow, picking up objects in his environment and using them to wail on creatures.
Along with breakable weapons, Downpour also adds variable weather. The game is so sub-titled because the rain plays a huge part in players’ experience in the game. In Downpour’s twisted world, a gentle shower doesn’t bring refreshment and May flowers. It brings unholy abominations bent on murdering your face. As it rains harder, the danger grows, so at the first sign of drizzle, players will be running for any available building in which to take cover--god help you if you lack the sense to come in out of the rain. It’s bad out there, with assorted ghouls and other nasties coming from nowhere to kill you, plus, your socks could get totally soaked.
The rain is really effective at adding atmosphere, but it also helps drive Dowpour’s other major innovation: An open-world section. While the beginning of Downpour features the familiar, linear style the series has always focused on, later, after a series of harrowing adventures and encounters with the unknown, Mr. Pendleton’s adventures open out in an explorable, sandbox-style part of the town of Silent Hill.
In order to keep a sense of tension, though, the rain drives the story—it’s really a prod for the game’s exploration. Even the very spooky, decayed city of Silent Hill is going to turn “un-scary” when you can just walk around anywhere with no fear of anything. In the relatively short amount of time I played Downpour, I quickly became conditioned to fear and dread the precipitation, and run into buildings to get out of the rain. The problem comes in the seeming lack of open buildings. It can be pretty frustrating to run around frantically while the rain pours down, and be unable to find an open door. Perhaps more buildings will be open later in the game…or maybe more will be open when the game is actually finished.
While stumbling out of sudden shower, I ran into a horribly decayed tenement building and was confronted by the ghosts of the former residents there, who each wanted me to complete some kind of task to bring them some peace in the afterlife (I presume.) These were simple fetch-quests, and didn’t seem to related to the main quests, but having a goal for exploring the creepy environments of Silent Hill is a definite plus, otherwise, I’d just run away. While it appears you will be able to complete the main game without the side-quests, they each have their own reward, unlocking new areas in the game, special items and bonus content. Silent Hill also features a day and night cycle as well as the Normal and “Otherworld” sections of the game, adding a nice amount of variety to a game that isn’t huge, in terms of sheer square footage.
While it’s hard to judge the main selling-point of a horror game (the horror) without sitting down, turning off the lights and playing it all night in a dark house, Silent Hill: Downpour seems to be coming along well, and I look forward to revisiting the damned place when the final game is released for the PS3 and 360 in March.