Sunday, November 29, 2009

Silent Hill

Silent Hill
Developer: KCET
Publisher: Konami
Horror - Playstation
Memory Card: Multiple Saves
1 player
Silent Hill Box Art

Aside from the terrible Resident Evil series, the Japanese really have a knack for horror. Creepy lingering imagery and minimalistic sound are their specialty. Silent Hill is no exception. Sometimes cited as the scariest video game around, I vowed to play through it one day. Does it live up to the hype? Mostly.

The story begins with Harry Mason vacationing in a resort town of Silent Hill with his daughter Cheryl. Right off the bat, creepiness shines through. You start the game following a car accident, stranded and lost. Cheryl is missing, and the town seems deserted, contributing to an unnerving feeling of solitude. If that wasn't bad enough, the heat is really turned up only moments later. Pools of blood and body parts lay strewn throughout the world. I had no idea that Silent Hill would be this gory, but the opening scenes set the stage for the rest of the game. This is unsettling stuff. But Harry's search for his daughter must go on.

The crux of the game involves navigating through this nightmare town for any signs of Cheryl. The town is quite massive, and really gives you a sense of scale about how insignificant your character is. It would be easy to get lost walking around town, except the game keeps the scope relatively simple by blocking off certain pathways. As you traverse different areas, you'll encounter survivors, old newspaper clippings, and other miscellaneous clues to help you figure out your daughter's location and the reason for the town's descent to madness.

Like other games of this genre, you'll be fetch-questing, backtracking, puzzle solving and surviving your way through the game. The survival aspects are somewhat similar to Resident Evil - the limited ammunition, awful un-involving combat and minimal save points are staples here too. But Silent Hill is much more streamlined. For instance, the combat really isn't any fun at all, but I believe the developers realized that, and made it so you can simply run away from most encounters in the game. There isn't much in the way of enemy variety. It's much less of an action game than RE is, and is much better for that. The puzzles, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The good ones are among the best in this genre, with some clever word puzzles to decipher. But the bad ones can be way too cryptic or have hints that lead you to over-think what the solutions should be. Overall though, the decision to emphasize more puzzle / less "action" is a positive.

The audio and visual direction are to be commended for helping to bring out the horror elements. The game has a generally gritty look to it, especially some of the nightmarish interiors. Grates are broken, glass cabinets are shattered, metal is rusted, and blood is splattered. These are all reminders that something is very wrong. Then there's the music. The soundtrack is very sparse. Sometimes it's an eerie ringing. Other times it's a raging pulsing drum. The music convincingly conveys the mood at every point in the game. It is dreadful. It is ominous. It is terrifying.

But for all Silent Hill's successes at creating and sustaining a mood, its story-telling is its weakest link. Maybe it's because I saw the movie first, and maybe because Silent Hill's story is only subtly hinted at here and expanded upon in other games... but I just felt like the connections were too loose, and the details too fleeting for a lot of the subplots. In the end, it was this aspect that was the least satisfying.

As far as horror games go, Silent Hill does the job adequately. I still have to give the nod to the Fatal Frame series, not only because it's the only series that's actually entertaining to play, but to me, it's scarier too. That's not to say that Silent Hill isn't scary. Silent Hill emphasizes its creepiness primarily through the environments themselves, whereas Fatal Frame has many carefully directed cut scenes. Two different ways of doing things, but both will make you uncomfortable and tense while playing. Silent Hill does come up a bit short in making the narrative fit together with all the eerie imagery. To that end, maybe it's not unlike a typical horror film after all.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x
Developer: NeverSoft / Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Extreme Sports / Platformer - XBox
Hard Drive Backup - 3 Saves
1 player
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x

I played the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater back on Dreamcast way back in the 90s, when it was all the rage. I have to admit. I totally didn't understand it. Controls seemed clumsy, and there seemed to be too many moves with no point. Then the owner of the game showed me how the game was supposed to be played and things were never the same again. Playing this game 10 years later only confirmed my feelings back then: This is the greatest 3D platformer ever.

What most people don't know is that THPS is a 3D platformer disguised as an extreme sports game. It has all the elements of 3D platforming I like, and adds the necessary ingredient missing from most: skill. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x is an Xbox port of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 and 2, but adds 3 additional stages. Visuals are slightly upgraded for the Xbox, but it more or less looks and plays like the Dreamcast version.

Like other 3d platforming games, the game puts you through different stages where exploration is encouraged. The structure is sort of free-form, but there are 5-8 goals per stage. Complete a set number of goals (not necessarily all of them), and the next stage opens up. Each stage is timed, but as long as you fulfill a goal within the time frame, it's counted toward your total. Goals are generally of the following types:

  • Obtain a certain score
  • Collect / Find Items
  • Perform a specific trick

The collecting of items is my favorite part of the game. The brilliance of THPS is that often times you'll see the item that you want - maybe in the distance, maybe way up high. But there's no immediate way to get there. Figuring it out requires exploring the stage to the fullest, and experimenting with what you can interact with in order to reach it. Or sometimes you cannot see the item you want at all, which means it's being concealed somewhere. In stage 1 of THPS2, for instance, you have to grind on the helicopter rotor which triggers it to take off and crash through a window, revealing a secret area. In a lot of ways, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is like a puzzle game. Every stage is a new environment with quirks to discover.

The skill system also keeps things interesting. Being based on extreme sports means that tricks are a major emphasis for scoring. Tricks are pretty easy to initiate, using a direction on the D-pad + one of the face buttons, but executing them requires some delicacy. If you're doing some mid-air trick, you better make sure your skateboard is perpendicular with the ground when you land or else you get docked points for mediocre landings. Even worse, poor landings cause you to fall, making you lose all your points for that trick. Similarly, grinding also requires some precision. If you want to grind, jump and then position yourself in mid-air so that you're aligned with the object you want to grind on. Once you're grinding, you have to maintain your balance, or else you'll fall off. Points are rewarded for pulling off these tricks. The more dangerous the trick, the higher the score. Chain multiple tricks together for multipliers.

Often, performing tricks and exploring a stage go hand-in-hand. There is a secret tape in every stage that is one of the goals. As an example of how to get that secret tape, you may need to perform a couple of tricks to build up speed, launch off a ramp with enough height, land on a set of cables and grind, jump, land on another set of cables and grind until you reach the tape. Doing these kinds of things requires the utmost precision, where a single mistake in a string of maneuvers means failure. That's the sort of thing I love. The game rewards those who master it.

No discussion of THPS is complete without mentioning the gaps. Gaps are optional "discoveries" that are stage-specific. It's hard to explain, but they're basically specific type of tricks such as grinding a particular rail or hopping from one place to another. It's become the series trademark. You'll know when you've triggered a gap, because they're displayed with your tricks and have names like "IT'S COLD OUT HERE" in bold blue font. The game keeps a record of all the gaps you've found for you anal types. They're definitely not required, but they're fun to find, and they contribute to your score multiplier.

If there's any flaw, it's the music. Not that it's bad - most of it rock music, with some hip-hop thrown in. It just plays songs randomly, so you'll be hearing the same stuff in stage 1 as you will at stage 8, so it gets tiresome. They don't even change the music as you play through 2x and 1.

As far as the different games included, THPS2 has larger areas, more goals, and more secrets to discover. It's more challenging too. But the one thing I really like about the original is that there are a few stages that force you in one direction (downhill). That kind of design means that you more or less get one chance to execute what you need to do. I also felt like the overall design (item locations, goals, etc) were better thought out. But 2 definitely offers more of everything, and 1 is so incredibly easy after playing 2. Luckily, with this compilation, you get both, so you don't have to choose. The extra stages are a decent addition, but are quite inferior in quality to the stages in the normal games.

Truly one of the few Western games that I think deserves more recognition than it got. Sure it was popular, but even so, I'm sure it got ignored by a lot of people who couldn't think anything good could come from an extreme sports game. Yet, I can think of no better 3D platformer in existence.