Dead Space, Silent Hill, BioShock: 3 games that have the fright stuff

You’ll be blowing apart ghoulies in Dead Space for years to come. EA

You’ll be blowing apart ghoulies in Dead Space for years to come. EA

E ver since Sweet Home was released for the Famicom back in 1989, game designers have been trying to find fun ways to scare us. And because it's a little more than three weeks until Halloween, it's time to look where that effort has brought us with three new survival-horror releases.

Actually, BioShock isn't a new release (and arguably more FPS than survival horror), but rather a port of the popular Xbox 360/PC game that won Game of the Year at the 2007 Video Game Awards. Unfortunately for Microsoft, 2K Games decided to bring what was originally an exclusive over to the Playstation 3 today, delighting the Sony faithful. And with good reason.

The PS3 version looks to have lost nothing in translation, preserving all the Objectivism and Adam-harvesting of the initial release. Audio remains first-rate and the creepy atmospherics continue to amaze, despite ad nauseum fanboy dissection.

But we've read reviews of BioShock since 2006, so let's turn to the latest installment of Silent Hill, a survival-horror series that has shuffled across screens since the 1999 PSOne premiere. Every game in the series has been developed by Team Silent for Konami except for the past two — last year's Origins by Climax Studios for PSP and now Homecoming, which was built by American team Double Helix and hit consoles on Sept. 30.

That last bit is important, because the hallmarks of the series have been lifted straight from J-horror flicks — dark hallways, obscured antagonists and overarching, undefinable malevolence. Unlike genre staple Resident Evil, Silent Hill has always been more about mood than action. The characters were compelling in a damaged sort of way, encouraging player empathy in a manner most games don't.

So it's good to see that Double Helix succeeded in keeping the series' themes alive, although it doesn't start off so well. That mostly has to do with a clunky combat system and the fact that the game starts off slow, in a town called Shepherd's Glen. Even with a location change, it's long since started to feel like we've been here before. And that's coming from someone who actually liked Christophe Gans' movie.

Not to ruin anything for you, but things pick up when you reach the titular town itself, and the game manages to replicate past Silent Hill experiences without cannibalizing its catalog too terribly much.

The shining star here, though, is newcomer Dead Space, also coming out today. Developer EA Redwood Shores has been showing this one off for months, and for good reason — it's a knockout winner, and is no doubt the start of a franchise that will rival both Silent Hill and Resident Evil.

The premise is so simple, it's unreal no one has been able to pull it off before: A sci-fi horror game about a spaceman trapped on a ship crawling with monsters. Who knew?

This is no Xenophobe, though. Dead Space is a third-person romp through a derelict capital ship, the USG Ishimura, which happens to be crawling with oogie-boogies known as Necromorphs.

The story is so cliched, so borrowed from other influences (think Aliens, Event Horizon, The Thing, et al., with a Resident Evil 4 interface thrown in), it's amazing it works. But it does, because the execution is stellar. Voice actors sound like they care. Level design is fairly linear and well-drawn (plus, because it's in a spaceship, the claustrophobia is finally warranted). A nifty real-time holographic menu system works well. Cool zero-gravity sequences remind you you're in a haunted house in space. Lighting effects allow cheap thrills and jaw-dropping scenery. And the scares (and gore) come quickly and regularly, like they should.

Part of it, I have to think, is the sound effects. I have surround sound, but to spare others in the house, I played with noise-cancelling headphones. Every little creak and groan — water dripping, canisters tipping over, even protagonist Isaac Clarke's breathing in his helmet — comes through in such clarity that every time a beastie jumps out at you, it's legitimately frightening.

With a comic series and anime movie on the shelves to support the story, EA has pulled together a nice little asset that's begging for sequels. Be prepared to be scared by Dead Space over and over again.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Dead Space

360, PS3, PC

Silent Hill: Homecoming

360, PS3, PC

BioShock

360, PS3, PC

Dead Space, Silent Hill, BioShock: 3 games that have the fright stuff 10/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 12:40pm]

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