It's not that Silent Hill games have been terrible since Silent Hill 2 by any means, but it's true that none have really lived up to its excellence. It's like Silent Hill 2 is to the Silent Hill series what Thriller was to Michael Jackson – it's a peak that's hard to match. Silent Hill: Downpour looks like it's headed in the right direction though, and so far it feels like a good mix of bringing back what made Silent Hill 2 great while still setting itself apart where it counts.
In Downpour, protagonist (is protagonist the right word for a main character in Silent Hill?) Murphy Pendleton is trapped in an area of the town of Silent Hill that's southeast from where previous characters have been (careful observers can piece together the maps from previous games by picking up on clues within the game). From what we've explored so far, the town feels like the town in Silent Hill 2, but without all the locked doors and dead ends ultimately leading down a linear path. Silent Hill feels like a current-gen town now, and you're able to wander and explore its various buildings much more openly.
Overall, it seems like there's more to see and do in Downpour's take on Silent Hill than ever before. Dynamic weather, from cloudy skies to sprinkles to full-on titular downpours, indicate how much danger you're in at any given time, so you can seek cover indoors or stay out in the rain and fight if you choose. Sidequests seem plentiful as you explore too, and we hope that these optional tasks will gradually unveil story details and background. Then again, there's also the possibility that a less focused experience will water down the atmosphere, but we're still excited at the prospect of being able to explore the town freely.
Silent Hill 2's James Sunderland was just a regular guy, and the game reflected that by giving him terrible combat controls. That was part of the genius of SH2 though – because James couldn't defend himself very well, the player constantly felt the tension and suspense of being in mortal peril. Homecoming went in the complete opposite direction, making Alex Shepherd a battle-trained ex-soldier who knew how to fight. That was great for the combat mechanics, but it took away the sense of vulnerability and constant danger that made Silent Hill 2 so terrifying and tense. As a generic action game it might have been technically more playable, but that's not what Silent Hill is about.
Downpour hopes to provide the best of both those approaches, with a main character that can fight competently but who's up against even more menacing enemies. Murphy may be a hardened convict (we're still not what crime he's guilty of, but that's part of the mystery), but his version of Silent Hill isn't exactly stocked with powerful weapons, and its nightmarish inhabitants aren't exactly pushovers. Realistically, Murphy can only wield one melee weapon and one firearm at a time, both of which wear down with use until they break. Even though he could probably take on most regular people, Murphy will still have to run from many an encounter in Silent Hill. In this way, Downpour preserves the more playable mechanics of a typical action game but still maintains an atmosphere of fear.
Speaking of enemies, we still haven't seen many of Downpour's monstrous inhabitants, but whatever grotesque surprises the new Silent Hill has in store, it looks like Pyramid Head won't be one of them. Pyramid Head the stuff of nightmares for sure, but he's specifically James Sunderland's nightmare, and because of that we're glad that Konami isn't trotting him out again for lack of other ideas.
Above: Our recent Downpour demo with commentary from producer Tomm Hulett
Expectations for Silent Hill: Downpour have been fairly low since it was announced that it was being developed by Vatra Games, a relatively unproven studio that isn't known for work in the survival-horror genre. From what we've seen so far though, it looks like Downpour is on the right track, although it's still way too early to say either way without seeing more. We look forward to plumbing the depths of this new take on Silent Hill when Downpour comes out this March – look for our full review then.