That's two Silent Hills for the price of... no, must not... be... seduced....
I have a confession to make. Before playing Silent Hill: Downpour, I had never played a Silent Hill game. (Downpour might have been downgraded further if I had...) I’d watched a friend play almost all of Silent Hill 4: The Room, but hadn’t played one myself. So it was awesome to get the chance to experience both Silent Hill 2 and 3 in Silent Hill HD Collection.
Compared to modern horror fare, like Dead Space, these games are still freaky. Silent Hill 2 especially has better psychological frights that almost any game I’ve ever played. When I played Silent Hill 3, I turned up the gamma a little bit on the game so I wouldn’t be as freaked out by what was in the shadows and still had plenty of scares. Yes, I’ll cop to changing screen brightness to make the game less scary. Even then, these games still had me jumping at shadows and looking at discarded scraps of paper I found on the street—for clues, of course. My girlfriend had to remind me that I was not, in fact, in a video game.
Let’s address the conversion first: Silent Hill 2 shows its age the most blatantly; you can see the rectangles that make up the fog effect in town, and the pre-rendered cut-scenes in standard definition look worse than the high-res in-game cut-scenes. This is a consistent problem for HD collections—God of War HD Collection has the same issues. You’d think they’d have saved the 3D animation assets and could just output them for HD; then again, that’d probably cost a pretty penny and would increase the cost of a re-release cash cow.
Due to a dispute with one of the original voice actors, Silent Hill 2 was re-dubbed, but an agreement was reached with the voice actor and the game includes both the original and new vocal tracks. Frankly, I prefer the original subdued audio, where everyone sounds like they’re in an opium den; it helps to enhance the dreamlike quality of the environment.
On the other side, Silent Hill 3’s up-res looks amazing; there are current-gen games that suffer by comparison. That said, it still has issues on the PS3 version. Its “slowdown” problem doesn't seem to be a frame-rate because it always looks smooth, but the animations sometimes slow to a crawl, especially in the town of Silent Hill, and the audio can get grossly out of sync in in-game cut-scenes.
One unfortunate cinematic at the end had a clipping error, with spikes coming out of protagonist Heather’s chest for no reason. It’d be appropriately bizarre if it hadn’t been such a clear technical error. At one point, after being killed in the final act of the game, it glitched out, and the screen froze black. Well played, Silent Hill HD Collection, you convinced me that a glitch was a game feature.
Silent Hill 3 also has a new vocal track, and you can tell where they made subtle changes to the script because the subtitles show the original dialogue. I’m guessing that was overlooked by the same quality assurance managers who ignored the slowdown issues.
Silent Hill 2 shines the most in the collection. Since it doesn’t have to worry about an apocalyptic plot (Silent Hill 3 is a direct sequel to the original Silent Hill), its focus on the characters makes it the stronger of the two narratively. This overshines some of its technical problems. Both games have camera issues; turning the wrong direction while leaving a door, or moving into a new environment can shift the camera to a weird angle, making character control difficult. Some of the puzzles make no sense at all, and I only figured one of them out because I suddenly had three different items and a place circled on my map in which to use them.
Both games could also be described as having a “press the action button on every surface” approach to item collection for puzzles. I found myself scouring every room upon entering it, as if I were a dog sniffing for a place to leave my mark. This aws more problematic in 2, but it could be that by 3, I was already clicking on absolutely everything twice.
That said, Silent Hill 2 had the more compelling story. The narcotic haze that James wanders around in suggests the town of Silent Hill as a place of psychic fugue. You’re playing a character’s psychotic breakdown with the town as the catalyst. How vague things are actually accentuates the weirdness and horror of the game. I got the suicidal “In Water” ending that was suitably depressing. I loved playing this game.
Silent Hill 3 is much more linear, and the combat (especially if the player finds the katana) is much easier. The puzzles make more sense contextually, and it was way, way less vague about whether it was in the Otherworld or the regular world. The set pieces flowed more clearly, but there also seems to be less of a sense of urgency in spite of the larger-scale, more apocalyptic narrative. 3 was more streamlined, with tighter gameplay, set pieces, puzzles, and stronger graphics, but it also lost some of the creepy weirdness that really makes Silent Hill 2 stand out.
Both are still great games and worth checking out if you haven’t played them, as I hadn’t. Still, the control scheme and camera are old school, and not in a positive way. Objectives are sometimes unclear and the PS3 version chugs like no one’s business in the larger environments. But these are classic games that are at the apex of the survival horror genre, now playable on current-gen platforms. Great games, warts and all.