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Game Preview: Silent Hill: Downpour

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Style: 1-player action

Publisher: Konami

Developer: Vatra Games

Release: March 6

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"Silent Hill" has a past nearly as sordid as the titular town. The first few games won widespread acclaim among horror and gaming enthusiasts. The foggy streets, deeply disturbed characters, and surreal enemies were unlike anything at the time. The horror darling gradually became corrupt in the eyes of gamers as each sequel steady declined in quality, both in terms of storytelling and gameplay. While a 2006 film based on the games saw moderate success, it did little to help the struggling series regain relevancy. My hands-on time with the new "Silent Hill: Downpour" has given me a good feel for Czech-based developer Vatra Games' new take on the iconic horror series, and this studio may have what it takes to shake the rust off the classic survival horror series.

I begin my journey into madness as Murphy, an escaped convict with a murky history, travels into a dank underground tourist attraction. Named the Devil's Pit, this relic of a mining facility is home to foreboding stalactites, flooded passes and threatening shadows. Unfortunately for Murphy, it's his best shot at getting to "Silent Hill" and hopefully finding some help for his crashed prison transport.

Fumbling through the darkened mines without a light source keeps me on edge. A healthy chunk of time has passed since my last encounter with an enemy, so I'm bracing for a surprise. After aimlessly creeping through the blackness for a few minutes, I remember a lighter Murphy acquired earlier. Flicking the flame reveals a stairway that was obscured by the darkness. I probably passed the same stairway in my search for the correct route half a dozen times, and while I'm relieved to discover it, it creeps me out to think that other things could be lurking in the dark.

The stairway leads Murphy to a series of cranks used to route the mine's hydro-powered machinery. Arranging the flumes one way drains a flooded passage and grants Murphy access to a medkit, while organizing the waterway in the opposite direction powers an old elevator. I enjoyed the puzzles "Downpour" has provided previously, but I especially like the idea that solving them in different ways offers more than one path.

After guiding Murphy back to the elevator, I spot something moving down by the elevator. A gangly, pinkish creature crouches over a corpse, loudly taking his fill of flesh. This subtle introduction of a new enemy chills me. I appreciate that Vatra allows the new threat to be revealed organically rather than forcing a rigid cutscene down my throat. The creature skitters away as Murphy descends the stairs, clearing the way to the elevator. The rickety lift's slow descent is interrupted by snarling and a loud slam. The creature from above appears to have taken an interest in Murphy. The beast cuts the elevator cable, sending Murphy plummeting down the shaft. The remainder of Murphy's time in the Devil's Pit is filled with several creepy surprises that I won't spoil. What I will say is that Vatra is continuing "Silent Hill's" long history of disturbing mannequin moments.

With the Devil's Pit behind him, Murphy finally takes to the streets of "Silent Hill." For the most part, these winding, ruinous streets are just like I remember them. Murphy spends most of his time trekking down a road only to find a gaping chasm. Piles of garbage and items clutter lawns and stoops, adding a touch of grimy detail unlike previous entries. Each disheveled yard, street corner, and building seems to have its own unique story to tell. While the visual variety is much appreciated, you'll still find yourself running around in circles quite a bit a?" something fans of the series are likely expecting.

With new territory come new enemies. Vatra continues its trend of anticlimactically introducing new foes; this time it's a shirtless beast man with claws and a demented face. Think of a botched Weapon X experiment with homicidal tendencies. At one point, I was being chased by two of these freaks along with a couple of the shrieking banshee ladies I've been introduced to previously. Outmaneuvering and ditching "Silent Hill's" unsavory population is nerve-racking in a way horror fans will appreciate.

While dodging and running helps preserve medkits and bullets, sometimes a scrap is unavoidable. Thankfully, "Downpour" features one of the most reliable combat systems in the series so far without removing the element of fear and surprise. I switch between pick axes, rebar, baseball bats, and crowbars against my foes. The rhythm of combat usually involves taking a few swings, blocking the enemy's attack, and then going in for a few more swings. Given that Murphy's adversaries are haunted creeps, their movements are erratic and difficult to predict. Combat is consistently challenging without being too frustrating, unlike the clunky encounters of the original game. Weapons also have durability, so that attempted kill shot with the baseball bat may leave you with a splintered mess and a pissed off monster.

Like the older "Silent Hill" games, roaming the streets in "Silent Hill: Downpour" presents plenty of subtle, unsettling moments. One misadventure that stuck with me involves Murphy exploring the basement of a random house. Entering via a window, Murphy is greeted only by the noise of soft sobs. Examining a nearby milk carton reveals an ad for a missing child, hinting at the origin of the haunting wails. After finding the rest of the basement locked off, Murphy follows the sound of TV static upstairs. Flipping the switch causes the TV set to short circuit and explode. The crying stops immediately. Traveling back downstairs, Murphy finds that the once locked door is now open. Without giving too much away, I'll say that Vatra is not afraid to put you in dangerous, surreal situations that will leave you with sweaty palms.

More puzzling and haunting incidents happened to me during my time with "Silent Hill: Downpour," but I'm hesitant to share a?" but not because recalling the events is too taxing on my fragile heart. Rather, I don't want to rob the impact from eager horror fans that deserve a good fright. During the rest of my playthrough Murphy encounters an enigmatic mailman, soothes the unsettled souls of apartment tenants, and travels to the gigantic clock tower in the middle of the city. A memento from Murphy's past greets him at the clock tower, revealing more about his mysterious stint in prison. Based on what I've played of "Silent Hill: Downpour" I can't wait to learn more about Murphy's checkered past, and what other scares Vatra has in store.

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