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The Hills Are Alive

The hills are alive... with the sound of fog, evil creatures, and whatever the heck else is waiting for you in Silent Hill: Homecoming.

Konami showed off a fair amount of Silent Hill: Homecoming (or as I like to call it, SHH!) at its press event last night, and as a bit of a Silent Hill outsider, the differences between SHH and past entries weren't immediately apparent to me. Running on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware will certainly make for improved visuals, but the game still seems to evoke that same Silent Hill feel, with pallid, bloodshot characters trudging through desolate, foggy streets and grimy, poorly lit corridors, wrestling with their own sanity, and having occasional run-ins with skinless dogs. For fans, this is all probably very reassuring news.

SHH will revolve around Alex Shepherd--a character whose appearance I'm convinced is based on <em>Angel</em>'s David Boreanaz--an ex-soldier who, after some disturbing dreams, returns to his hometown of Shepherd's Glen to search for his younger brother Josh, whom Alex senses is in trouble. We were shown a cutscene from early in the game where Alex finds his mother sitting at home with a gigantic handgun in her lap, and while she was there, it was pretty apparent that she wasn't actually <em>there</em>. For as little that actually happens in the scene, I was honestly impressed by how effective it was in building a sense of unease, something that carried through a handful of other cutscenes that were shown.

As a total aside, the press release for Silent Hill: Homecoming states that you will "Enter the next chapter of Silent Hill as you delve deeper in the tormented history of the town and learn of the evil that surrounds "Toluca Lake," which is either a hilarious typo, or a hilarious design decision.

While the atmosphere of dread the series is known for seems fully intact in SHH, Konami is making some significant changes to the way the game handles, particularly the combat, which promises more fluidity and less frustration. When it's time to fight skinless dogs, sexily disfigured nurses, dudes with pyramids for heads, and other oozing, disturbing monstrosities, you can go into “stalk mode”, which changes the default third-person camera into an over-the-shoulder, Gears-of-War-style perspective, presumably giving you a better view of the action. You'll have light and heavy attacks that can be strung together into combos, and your attacks can be charged up as well. What I've seen of the combat so far has been strictly melee, with Alex swinging axes and lead pipes. You'll be able to dodge incoming attacks, with dodges coming in perfect and imperfect varieties. It seems that your timing will determine the type of dodge you perform, and a poorly timed dodge will result in you still taking some amount of damage. 

I got some hands-on time with SHH following the presentation, and while I didn't get to experience any of the combat, there was still plenty of unpleasantness. The sequence I played opened with Alex strapped to a gurney being rolled through a nightmare vision of a hospital by a blood-spattered orderly, eventually ending up in an operating room equipped with some very rusty, very nasty-looking instruments--the kind you could pick up TB or Hep C off of. Before anything too painful could happen to Alex, the creepy guy in scrubs gets run through with a gigantic blade and dragged away, leaving me to jam on the X button to break loose from the binding leather straps. 

Equipped with the Silent-Hill-standard pocket flashlight, I roamed the hospital, eventually finding Alex's kid brother Josh, who didn't seem at all freaked out by the fact that he was locked in a jail cell in this haunted house of a hospital, instead acting a bit standoffish towards Alex. As I scoured rooms littered with body-bagged corpses and bloody, disused medical equipment for clues to opening the cell, I found the ambient nastiness to be pretty convincing. There were some jump-scares, such as when a mangled corpse fell from the ceiling right in front of me, but mostly it was the sound design that got under my skin. Using the sound of a crying baby might be a little easy, but I'll be damned if it wasn't effective.

Personally, I've always found the pacing of the Silent Hill games to be too plodding, but I've also always admired their acutely unsettling tone. With Silent Hill: Homecoming, I get the impression that it'll be picking up the pace, without sacrificing that impending sense of dread that all but defines Silent Hill.