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Silent Hill: Homecoming - updated impressions

All the skull-crushing weapons in the world won't do you any good if you can't get to them in time. To that end, Homecoming introduces a new item screen that makes health, weapons and puzzle items all easily accessible. Most of this information stays off the main game screen (as has been the case for some time), but now an actual life meter will quickly flash whenever Alex is bitten, burned by acid or run through by a giant sword. Hopping into the menu screen shows the same health bar for those who want to take a quick glance, but the main perk is getting to your arsenal much faster than before. PS3 players get to examine puzzle objects via titly-whirly SIXAXIS control; 360 owners can simply use the analog sticks.

The only weapons we saw were series staples like the pipe, knife and pistol, so at first glance there's nothing new to report other than their unique finishing moves. Then we saw Alex return to an old area and cut open a fleshy door with the newly acquired knife, entering a room that was previously inaccessible.

These destructible doors are scattered around the entire game, protecting extra content that builds on the dense backstory. The items these blocked paths contain aren't essential, but do add Castlevania-esque optional backtracking for fans who want to know absolutely everything about Alex and his relationship to Silent Hill. We've pieced together that Alex's last name is Mary Sunderland's maiden name - you might remember her as James Sunderland's dying wife in Silent Hill 2.

It's generally accepted that 2 is the series' highest point, delivering astoryso deeply detailed that it stuck with players for years and inspired the best parts of 2006's feature film. Homecoming appears to be following that lead, offering tons of ways to get personal info about Alex, his hometown of Shepherd's Glen and how it all comes together for a profoundly shocking end. The hidden items mentioned above flesh out things a little, but new dialogue trees offer a more interactive means of digging up the truth.

Most of the chatting we saw gave two options: ask the obvious question or ask a personal one. Sticking to the former moves the story along and gets you back on your quest to find your missing brother. Choosing the latter could offer clues to puzzles or insight into each character's undoubtedly troubled state of mind. Most are just for filler, but a small number of crucial conversations could affect the ending - yes, there will be multiple endings for completionists to obsess over.

Maybe extra dialogue isn't your thing. Maybe you're more into the amped-up action. There's more to say about that too, as Double Helix has also introduced Resident Evil 4-style action commands that pop up during up-close moments. Early on we saw Alex reach into a crack in the wall (always a bad idea) and something on the other end tried to yank his arm off. If you're not quick with A-spamming, you'll witness the first of many grisly death scenes, something we'll probably do just to see them all. A similar fate waits if you don't struggle to push the inside-out dog off before it rips your throat out.

Reading about altered combat and arcadey action commands might make Homecoming sound like a total revamp of the series, but the core elements are all the same; these new bits should freshen up gameplay that has mostly refused to grow since the second game. It makes perfect sense for Alex to be rougher and more physical than a mopey husband or teenage girl, so we welcome the more in-your-face approach. You see it not only in combat but also in simple navigation - Alex can hop over, slide through or climb up areas that James or Heather would have written off. These subtle changes make it seem new without sacrificing what made the series famous. Based on what we've seen so far, fans should feel right at home while newcomers let all the nuances sink in - provided the extra-aggressive monsters don't eat their skin first.

Starting with the next page we're going to divulge all the plot points we saw in our hours-long eyes-on. If you don't want to hear about the incredible twist right from the beginning or which former protagonist makes a surprise cameo, then maybe you should just chill and wait for our movies tomorrow, or perhaps seek our bevy of newscreens. Everyone else - it's time to step back into the mental fog of Silent Hill.