The original Silent Hill followed in the footsteps of John Carpenter's The Fog and Stephen King's The Mist, drawing inspiration from the idea that a small town beset by a thick fog is a pretty scary place to be. The game followed the basic Resident Evil formula, with one major difference. While the Resident Evil games rely on the age-old tradition of startles and jumps, Silent Hill managed to be creepy and atmospheric--you never knew what was lurking out in the haze. Unfortunately, the original was never released for the PC. But the sequel is coming soon, and the PC port will include some great aesthetic improvements on its console counterparts.
The sequel is once again set in Silent Hill, but it features an all-new cast of characters. You play James Sunderland, a seemingly average guy who has recently received a letter from his wife, Mary. She has requested that he meet her in the town, where they vacationed many years before. The fact that his wife died three years earlier causes him some understandable concern. As James, you'll try to unravel the mystery of your wife's posthumous post and explore the strange (and always getting stranger) town. Along the way you'll meet some strange characters, all with their own mysterious reasons for being in town.
Though the PlayStation 2 version of Silent Hill 2 was generally regarded as inferior to the original, it earned critical praise for its atmosphere, distinguishing itself from other so-called "survival horror" games with its distinct creeps and creatures. While Resident Evil and its sequels took their inspiration from the zombie films of George Romero, Silent Hill 2 instead looks to Jacob's Ladder, Clive Barker's Hellraiser, and Nine Inch Nails videos. The monsters aren't zombies. In fact, it's hard to tell what they are. One common creature is pretty clearly a nurse, albeit a very disturbed nurse dragging an axe. Another is a terrifying assemblage of mannequin parts (primarily legs), while another looks like someone tried who's had an ugly painting broken over his back. One of the more intimidating creatures has a bloody apron and a large metal basin on its head, and it looks like some hellish hybrid of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Gypsy from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The sound adds to the general sense of foreboding. There's very little music, but when it becomes noticeable it's pretty effective. One recurring theme is reminiscent of someone banging trash can lids together, and it's an alarming cue that something unpleasant is nearby. Strange sounds abound, and James' transistor radio emits loud bursts of static whenever a creature is in the vicinity, adding an ambient sonic counterpart to the general industrial design of the music in the game.
Other than the differences in atmosphere, Silent Hill 2 closely follows the Resident Evil formula. The controls are similar, and the mix of action and puzzle solving is just about the same. Even killing monsters is similar, requiring you to stamp out monsters like a discarded cigarette once they've been taken down with firepower. You will be able to choose between three difficulty settings for both the action and the puzzles, allowing you to make either area easier or more challenging, depending on your preferences. The difficulty options make some significant changes to the game, and almost anybody will be able to finish it with both areas set to easy, while hard is recommended only for those who want a significant challenge.
Some good control changes are being made for the PC version. First, you'll have the ability to map the controls to any keys or controller you choose. And the developers have added hotkeys that allow you to quickly access your inventory and map or cycle through weapons. You can reload or change weapons with a single keystroke. It's a nice change from the typical console port, where a control scheme meant for a console gamepad is just transposed to the keyboard without any additional options.
There are other significant changes being made for the PC version. You'll be able to save anywhere, and the game will include quicksave and quickload functions, but the original save points are still included for those who want the challenge of limited saves. The most notable improvement is in the graphics, which have been significantly enhanced. You'll be able to bump the game up to higher resolutions, and the build we were sent played well at 1600x1200 with a 64MB GeForce4 Ti 2200. The game should run fine on older video cards as well--Konami claims that it's rewritten many of the graphics routines to support lower-end cards. The higher resolutions are great, making the dense fog and darkness less of an issue than in the PS2 version, where the constant atmospheric effects were sometimes criticized for being too limiting.
The improved graphics should help make the game even creepier. As any player of the original will remember, visibility, or a lack thereof, is one of the trademarks of the Silent Hill series. It's very hard to see anything beyond your limited field of view. When you aren't surrounded by fog, you are shrouded in complete darkness. A little pocket flashlight is often the only illumination, and it casts light around in real time, creating real-time shadows. You'll explore some dilapidated environments, including an abandoned apartment complex, an old prison, and a sinister hospital. Seeing the rusted metal and broken tile in these places with only a weak beam of light makes things even more frightening.
But while the flashlight is your only weapon against the darkness, you'll have a more varied arsenal to fight the creatures you encounter. James has access to your standard firearms, including a handgun, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle. He also will get a wooden plank full of nails, a chainsaw, and a huge, crude-looking sword. The combat is straightforward--simply point yourself at the monster and hit the action button.
The PC version of Silent Hill 2 will also include the "Born from a Wish" scenario, a short adventure featuring one of the supporting characters from the main game that was previously available only in the Xbox version. And, like in the PS2 version, you'll have to play through the main game several times to uncover all its many endings.
Silent Hill 2 drew some criticism on the PS2, but no one could fault the game's atmosphere. The improvements being made for the PC version should add to that praiseworthy atmosphere and address some of the visual criticisms leveled at the console versions. The build we previewed was solid and stable, so PC gamers should be able to explore Silent Hill by this Halloween.