Silent Hill: Homecoming

I like Alex, but his under development doesn't quite put him on the same level as James Sunderland.

I like Alex Shepherd, but he feels under development compared to James Sunderland.

There’s always a sense of nostalgia when a long time Silent Hill fan goes back for a visit. There’s a few monsters who are just, classic. The creepy atmosphere. The same sense of foreboding and the story concept often have to do with the subject of sins left without atonement.

Let’s start with the story and characters. A major difference between this Silent Hill and others is that the likeable main character, Alex Shepherd, knows almost everyone in his home town. This sets the plot apart in that Alex has existing biases (both favorable and not) for the people of his hometown. I feel this better drives the story than a handful of strangers. Yet at the same time, the story itself wasn’t exactly well executed. I had to deduct points for the poor voice acting with memorably bad lines like, “Where’s… my… brother?!”

Although the developers did a great job of maintaining the mystery element, the ending was not quite what I expected.

One can draw a lot of parallels between Silent Hill 2 and Homecoming. At its heart is the denial of one’s sins and atonement. However, it is hard to top the overall experience and discovery of the earlier game. Homecoming‘s ending surprised me, just as SH2‘s did. But it does not give you time to really reflect on the surprise. I like, if not love, twist endings. But the main character needs a bit of time to really reflect on the surprise. That was something I got with SH2 but not with SH:H.

Another point of contention that many fans feel is how Pyramid Head was resurrected strictly to draw upon SH2 appeal. Rather than as a masculine avatar of self punishment that he was for James Sunderland, Pyramid Head was used as the Boogeyman for Shepherd. A scary entity of revenge.

Although the third possible ending made some sense of Pyramid Heads return, Konami blew two great opportunities here. First, they had a great opportunity to develop a monster that is parallel to the original Pyramid Head, but different and just as memorable. Considering how awesome the bosses were in this game, they have no excuses.

Scenes like this make Sunderland difficult to forget.

Scenes like this make Sunderland difficult to forget, and hard to compare too.

Second, they never successfully developed just what the Boogeyman was, a conjuration of childhood fears manifest from one’s lack of parental protection. Instead, they plugged Pyramid Head into a role that didn’t quite fit.

Again and again, the developers wrestle with the combat system. I admit they have to strike a difficult balance between keeping the main character as combat green as possible, while allowing the player to succeed against rough odds.

One considerable difference is that Alex Shepherd is a soldier, and it shows in the game. He can switch weapons on the fly, which is great because the various monsters are weak to various weapons. He can evade and duck, and recover from being knocked down. Getting your timing down for dodging is very tricky.

The music is good as ever, as are the sound effects and the atmosphere. I got a little frustrated by the shadow effect that creates pixel-shadows on the characters during cut scenes.

I think what frustrates me the most about the Silent Hill series, and SH:H, is that the game developers don’t want to get off the path they’ve worn. Sure, there was Silent Hill 4: The Room, but the game play wasn’t terribly different.

Personally? If I were to develop another Silent Hill game, I’d focus a lot more on sneaking around. Sure, you can cut out the light, kill the radio, but there are areas where combat is unavoidable. I want to move with stealth across the map. Even with bosses, I’d try to avoid being spotted and steal or undo something important that kills them. Combat would be a last resort. Shake it up already.

Silent Hill: Homecoming was satisfying enough, but will not enter my hall of favorite games.

Space Marine

Expect a few oil tankers worth of blood.

Expect a few oil tankers worth of blood.

For some time now, THQ has been teasing and teasing Warhammer fans with the chance to step into the shoes of a Space Marine. We’ve seen all manner of trailers, talk and ideas spun about what we’re going to get. But this month, Games Workshop fans finally got a reward for their faith.

The game is good. Not perfect, but damn good.

Let’s start with what we see. The game is a marvel, the characters detailed and amazing to behold. There are these tiny details, ranging from the streaming purity seals to the variety of armor components. The scars across their faces and especially Captain Titus, whose hair is parted by a nice scalp wound. Part of me wants to point out that there seem to be a general lack of facial expressions before I remind myself that Space Marines, being the perfect soldiers, are effectively psychopaths. Why they would need to smile is not even worth asking.

The levels are huge, but are completely dominated with Imperial iconography. THQ has gone above and beyond to truly and fully bring the intellectual property of Games Workshop to the home screen. They’ve done this very well before in the Dawn of War series and even when viewing the world from the eyes of a single Astartes, they do not stop.

Speaking of levels, I noticed two flaws. The first is technical and the problem is probably unique only to my situation. My experience with the game comes from Windows XP SP3 on a solid machine. Compared to the other platform options, which include XBox 360, Playstation 3 and Windows 7 PCs, this is well on the lower end. Every time the screen shakes considerably, a black skeleton of the architecture can be seen. I doubt others will experience this.

The second problem is the lack of choices. I am a PC gamer, my time on the console is behind me. Many of the games I play, like Fallout, tend to spoil me with the options and choices of destinations being at my discretion. To its credit, Space Marine does a bang up job of guiding the player to the next objective by pointing them out. You do not spend an hour looking for some switch to activate a bridge, like you did in the second stage of the original Halo. Yes, I still remember that. But it doesn’t give you any paths to choose from. I’m sure fans will rise to Space Marine‘s defense regarding this, but I think even they will agree they would like to see such choices in future installments.

"Come, join us. We have tacos." ... My, only weakness...

"Come, join Chaos. We have tacos."

The game play is solid, successfully combining hack and slash melee action with cool and composed gun battles. Many a times I’ve charged into the fray, before pulling back to pop the heads of a few Ork Shoota Boyz with my Stalker pattern Bolter. I was very worried about the game folding into a pattern of wash, rinse and repeat, but the weapon and enemy varieties have avoided that boring problem. Though I was glad to finally see Chaos when they popped up.

Speaking of Chaos, I have to apologize to my readers. My earlier insinuation of Chaos being the Iron Warriors was wrong. I was misled by the color scheme and emblem designs, but the Chaos Space Marines belong to some unusual chapter called the Chosen of Nemeroth. It was my fault for spreading misinformation.

Anyway, besides fighting the other object is simply staying alive. The first survival metric is against your armor’s power rating, and the second is your health. Armor recovers on its own if you stay out of combat. Health doesn’t in single player. Captain Titus recovers health by either unleashing fury or delivering executions. Executions are amazing to watch, but you’re very vulnerable while performing them. In multiplayer, players recover their health as they do their shields, but it takes a little longer.

The single player game has enough content to merit at least a replay. Beside the list of achievements and challenges to attempt, there are also servo-skulls scattered through the stages to find and collect. The medium difficult has thus far proven challenging enough, but I will want to try my hand at the hard setting.

But the multiplayer is where it’s at. THQ knew exactly how to rope players in with an addictive, reward based leveling system. There are 41 levels to earn, and perks and equipment are unlocked as you do so. These perks can start to give significant benefits to players. For new guys, this can be discouraging, but THQ thought ahead. When you die, you can “copy the loadout” of the guy who killed you for a single life when you respawn. This lets you fight on equal terms for much of the game if you desire.

Overall, Space Marine is a great game for the casual player or violent action junkie, but more importantly is what the fans have been waiting for. It may seem greedy to ask for more but if I didn’t, THQ could very well rest their laurels. Still, the game is an evolutionary step of what I’ve been wanting to see for a very, very long time…