In a moment that was too good to pass up for an opening line, it was cloudy, rainy day when Konami arrived in Toronto to show off Silent Hill: Downpour. Somewhere else in the city, the new movie was also in the middle of production, so it seemed appropriate that the city that acted as site for the most famous town in video games would also show off the first area being played through its entirety.
Tomm Hulett, one of the producers on the game, was on hand to show off the latest title, a bizarre fusion of development with Czech Republic studio Vatra, and the fevered imagination of American comic book writer Tom Waltz. Tomm warned us ahead of time that what we were about to see was pre-Alpha code, so this was a far from finished product with differing voice actors, untextured characters and bugs that might occasionally crash the game. That said, when things got going, that familiar sense of wrongness the series is known for could still be felt in the room.
Man On The Run
Murphy Pendleton was a prisoner enroute to another jail when the bus carrying him and a few other prisoners crashes off the road and near the town of Silent Hill. As fans might expect, this is the beginning of the worst day of Murphy’s life. We don’t know why he’s a prisoner yet, but things get going with Murphy waking up, realizing he’s in a forest, and wandering through trees, squeezing through a crevasse with automatic, context sensitive actions, and encountering the signature fog of Silent Hill. The first thing we noticed about the fog is that this time it’s more a complex particle effect that works like the real thing, rather than a simple blanket of gray to hide a short draw distance. The game is using a new engine, this time licensing technology from the pros and going with the Unreal engine as opposed to the internal technology used by Double Helix on Silent Hill: Homecoming.
Even in the pre-alpha stage, the engine is doing a good job of keeping the visuals detailed, and we didn’t see any of the usual texture detail loading that the Unreal engine is notorious for. From here, Murphy finds a lake with a boat on the shore, with a bit of scrap paper in it talking about Silent Hill, and then moves further into the woods, crouching under logs until he comes to a cliff. It’s here that he runs into a female police officer from the crash, and she attempts to crawl against the cliff-face wall to get to him. Things go badly and she slips, gripping onto the ledge and begging for help.
We were shown that this was a decision moment that would go some way towards determining certain consequences in the game, such as the ending. Murphy could choose to do nothing and let her fall, or attempt to save her, though the result would be he can’t reach her in time and she still falls. Either way, the player’s choice is tracked by the game.
From there, Murphy came across what looked like a derelict sky tram or cable car station. Like most things in the town of Silent Hill, the facility looked abandoned and slightly rundown, but surprisingly functional. A cable car system trailed off into the fog, but the way was blocked by a rotating door that would only turn if a cable car ticket was inserted into a nearby machine. Fortunately, a poster on the wall indicated that free tickets were offered as prizes from a machine available at the Devil’s Pitstop Diner.
The way to the diner revealed a few things about the game, such as the appearance of a mail man who thought the only odd thing going on around town was the sudden disappearance of the roads. He also dropped more hints about taking the cable car to get further into town and failed to answer any of Murphy’s questions about the strangeness of the area before disappearing the second Murphy turned his back to look at something strongly resembling a monster in a window. As Murphy made his way through the area, he found a gate with a rusty lock which he was quickly able to open by finding a nearby crow bar to use as a hammer. It was here that Hulett also pointed out that many places in the game would be accessible, unlike the original games where a hallway might leave 4 out of 10 doors open, while the remaining six would be locked with no way to get in.
At the diner, Murphy finds the place deserted, raids the cash register for some petty cash, and notices that the gas is still on in the kitchen. Turning on the stove results in large fire that quickly spreads, alarms ringing. When Murphy puts the fire out by going to a nearby switch to activate the interior sprinklers, the town transforms—in the same style as the first film and Silent Hill: Homecoming—with the world peeling away like paint to reveal the Silent Hill Otherworld. Here, Murphy quickly negotiated a puzzle involving rotating portraits to get out of the room and found himself in a hallway, being chased by black fog. It’s a moment fans of Silent Hill 3 might recognize as Heather from that game found herself running away from a bloody red cloud in a cramped hallway. Here, however, as Murphy got close to the corner, the hallway would visibly recede away from him, like a sadistic cinematic trick, stretching further and further away every time he got close to turning the corner.
After a harrowing pursuit, Murphy eventually finds himself in a safe area, a gritty, industrial room surrounded by waterfalls that are running in every direction, including upside down and sideways. He encounters another puzzle, this time involving the turning of valves and, after solving it, the black fog returns, chasing him through more corridors until he comes crashing through a door back into the “real world,” only now he is in the basement of the Devil’s Pitstop. He makes is way out, and a new cut-scene kicks in, showing a man sitting on top of a woman, beating her viciously. When Murphy intervenes to stop the beating, the man, in a panic tells him he doesn’t understand and is killed by the woman, who is in actuality a bestial, ghostly hag that then attacks Murphy. He manages to beat her down, using the crowbar he’s still carrying. We were warned not to get too comfortable with any weapon we find, as destructible tools are the order of the day in order to keep tension intact. We also saw some context sensitive actions, such as when the hag jumped on Murphy’s back and Hulett had to shake the left analog stick in order to throw it off before beating it until it stopped moving. After that, Murphy takes a small elevator back up, where he finds himself near a cabin by the diner. He enters and changes out of his prison uniform, and finds himself attacked by the hag again. This time Murphy beats the hag repeatedly, even when it stops moving on the ground until it transforms into red dust that blows away.
Murphy then finds a generator, uses it to restore power to the area, and goes back into the diner to play a mini-game called “Jailbreak” that involved raising the water level in a small tank, bringing three balls up to the top and making sure they slipped into their appropriate holes. The reward is, finally, a ticket for the cable car. As Murphy returns to the station, there is the rumble of thunder and just as the rain falls, multiple hags appear and give chase. Clearly outnumbered, Murphy runs away, makes it back to the station, gets inside safely and uses the ticket to travel deeper into Silent Hill, thus bringing the preview to a close.
It’s hard to make a judgment call on a game from the pre-alpha stage, particularly when it comes from a franchise that normally takes its time to get its hooks into players before getting truly frightening. What’s obvious out of the gates is that the game manages to hold its own visually, keeping the same detailed, gritty style of previous games in the series. Murphy’s combat prowess has been dialed back from the soldiering skill of Alex Shepherd in Silent Hill: Homecoming, so there’s more uncertainty in combat once again. The destructible weapons definitely arches a skeptical brow, but that can be still a manageable feature depending on how delicate the weapons are and how often players will be required to replace them. The Otherworld has managed to retain its grimy look and still bears a resemblance to its previous appearance in Homecoming, but the big omission for long time fans is that Akira Yamaoka, musician for previous games will not be contributing to the score this time. Instead, Daniel Licht, composer on the TV series Dexter will be handling music duties.
We’re definitely going to need to see more before we can inform an opinion of how faithful the new game is to the franchise, but what’s been shown so far—Yamaoka’s absence excepted—doesn’t ring any alarm bells just yet. The graphics look good, the gameplay seems in line with what we’ve come to expect from the series, and the Prague-based studio working on the game seems to have added their own, European sense of creepiness to the world that Murphy explores. The game has been nebulously pegged down as a “Holidays 2011” release, so there’s still quite a bit of time for Konami to show us how this new, non-Japanese team is handling one of their most beloved properties.