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Silent Hill: Homecoming [PS3]

When news emerged that the team behind the Silent Hill franchise (called, cleverly, Team Silent) would not be involved in Homecoming, and that development duties had passed to Double Helix, alarm bells began ringing for many fans of the series. The fear was that the delicate Silent Hill atmosphere would be butchered by big, clumsy Western hands and Homecoming would not sit comfortably with its predecessors. Bravely, the developer went ahead and made some major changes anyway, most notably to the control and combat systems albeit with mixed results. However, while Homecoming plays a little differently, it is still, unmistakeably, a Silent Hill game.Homecoming features a new protagonist in the form of Special Forces type Alex Shepherd who returns to his hometown, Shepherd’s Glen, following a spell in hospital.  Like the earlier games in the series, Homecoming throws you straight into the story with no explanation. Alex is immediately caught up in a nightmare involving his younger brother Josh and when he arrives at his family home, he finds his brother and father have gone missing. And his mother seems a little…odd. Visions of Josh guide Alex through the game, and soon he arrives in the titular Silent Hill. Homecoming once again features the classic Silent Hill structure – the game is divided between two worlds: a real world shrouded in mist and the hellish vision of blood and rust that is the Otherworld.   Although, that’s not to say the real world is exactly safe and normal. Not only have some nightmarish creatures spilled over from the Otherworld, the real world’s people often seem creepily distracted and resigned to whatever horrific fate awaits the town. It’s all very familiar Silent Hill territory and testament to Double Helix’s respect for the series that Homecoming doesn’t feel like a thematic departure. However, while the overall feel of the game is familiar, the developer has made some pretty major changes to the gameplay.Most notably, Homecoming is much more combat-focused than its predecessors. After all, Alex is a Special Forces soldier so it stands to reason that he’s a bit handier in a tear-up than your average SH protagonist. And it’s here that Double Helix has concentrated its efforts, changing the standard SH control scheme. The right stick now controls the game camera, with the left stick responsible for movement and strafing. This new system is clearly designed to be more combat-friendly and, on the most part, it is.  A manual camera is essential to close quarters combat and Alex also has light and heavy attacks (mapped to X and Square respectively) at his disposal which can be chained together to achieve combos. But it’s the circle button that is the key to success in Homecoming, as it allows Alex to dodge and counter incoming attacks. Most battles in the game are simply a matter of waiting until an enemy is about to attack, dodging the blow and then landing a counter/combo of your own.  It’s a simple system but one that’s not without its problems.Firstly, combat soon becomes repetitive and, while the variety of weapons on offer does add some depth, by the time you’re facing multiple enemies in the mid-section of the game, you’ll likely be a bit tired of lock on, wait, dodge and counter.  While the right stick camera does help when you’re surrounded by slavering nasties, Alex’s turning circle is painfully slow and, when coupled with an awkward lock-on feature (mapped to L2) which isn’t particularly fond of switching to other enemies, it makes for a frequently frustrating experience. On top of that, it’s hard not to arrive at the conclusion that sometimes the game just isn’t playing fair. Some of the enemies’ attacks simply cannot be dodged meaning you’ll soon come to resent battling certain foes because you know it’s almost impossible to defeat them without losing energy. And, in a game in which health and ammo are rare commodities, this poses a problem. In fact, it’s hard not to view the energy system in Homecoming as a dated mechanic, especially in the days of regenerative health. But this is a survival horror game after all and survival shouldn’t be easy. One of Double Helix’s main achievements in Homecoming is capturing the sense of desperation and, when you’re staggering around on the tiniest sliver of health, you’ll find yourself dreading whatever’s around the next corner.It’s this atmosphere that always lifted Silent Hill above the majority of its survival horror competition, and Double Helix, for the most part, has nailed it in Homecoming. While the story is a little more straightforward and easy to follow than your average SH narrative, the cutscenes are well voiced and you’ll be forced to make some pretty major choices in the game which affect what kind of ending you will see  (in true SH tradition, the UFO ending is still present). The visual style of the game feeds into the atmosphere with a grain filter effect giving Homecoming an almost B-movie horror feel. It’s not exactly the “fear in daylight” vibe which was hinted at during development – indeed, Homecoming is a dark game in every way –  but the environments on offer are well-conceived, if entirely linear. Factor in the understated, spooky score by producer/composer Akira Yamaoka and it all combines to create a genuinely unsettling experience, which is the exactly what a Silent Hill game should be. Although the game features some dated mechanics, they do serve the atmosphere well and while the new combat focus is not entirely successful, Homecoming tells a dark, compelling tale which sits well with the series. There was little reason to worry. 

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