2012 In Film: My Top Five

Films of 2012This is probably the most difficult list of the year for me. One look at the contents of the archives here on the blog should be an indication that my movie-watching habits are erratic at best, and that Snacked Up’s 2012 was lean for films. I spent my year catching up on the highlights – and positive lowlights – of years gone by; I learned to love Melancholia and Moon, and feel my brain dribble out of my ears watching the likes of Outcast and Killer Elite, but somewhat neglected the year I was in. So yes, I may have missed Looper and Argo, but on the plus side, I got to avoid Total Recall.

I did manage to make my way to the cinema enough times to feel ashamed for Marky Mark Wahlberg, though – and to learn that South Wales, Indonesia, and Linkin Park combine to make martial arts special again. I witnessed Pixar’s descent into colour-by-numbers with Brave, and got all excited for Iron Sky, which saw the glorious rebirth of ‘high schlock’; swatting down the industry’s raging hard-on for exploitation and instead going for the kind of goofy shtick that makes low-budget cinema so endearing. Also, The Avengers happened.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Avengers as much as anyone else, but given that it turned out to be one of the most successful films of all time, and in turn was seen by just about everyone who could conceivably be reading this, I don’t think you need me to tell you about it. It has superheroes, it has some not-so superheroes, and it has a man with a bow who likes to pretend to be a bit of both. Cities are ruined, Bruce Banner gets angered, and Robert Downey Jr. steals the whole thing without even trying, by virtue of the smuggest, sexiest goatee conceivable. As one of those pesky Buffy-loving types I have just one remark to make: it’s about time Joss Whedon got his due.

Speaking of which…

 

5. The Cabin in The Woods

The Cabin in the Woods PosterOver the last twenty or so years, horror cinema has become lazy. We’ve been plagued with sub-par remakes, sequels, and derivatives, all vomiting up the genre’s tired old tropes with no consideration as to why they were so effective in the first place, resulting in a market crowded with the likes of The Devil Inside and Paranormal Entity, to which we’ve all already surrendered far too many brain cells.

Enter The Cabin in the Woods.

I make no suggestion that this film single-handedly redeems the genre – as a matter of fact it barely makes up for Outcast – but it does let us know that we’re not alone in thinking that something is rotten in the land of nightmares. Helmed by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a self-aware mixture of comedy and modern-horror, a wry mirror held up to the face of cinema’s recent attempts at giving us the jeebies – with a ‘no-prisoners’ mantra to boot. When the viewer is presented with a list of potential villains in the film’s opening half, the likes of which extend from ‘evil molesting tree’ to ‘dismemberment goblins’, it becomes clear exactly what the film is hoping to achieve, and from that point on it tries it’s hardest to find new ways to catch the viewer off- guard.

Sure, it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is; and doesn’t hold a candle to Wes Craven’s similar stab at the genre with his 1996 opus, Scream, but it still managed to keep me entranced from minute one. Let’s just hope there won’t be a Cabin in the Woods 2.

 

4. The Raid

The Raid PosterTwenty elite police officers versus one apartment block filled to the brim with pesky ne’er-do-wells. It’s a simple premise, admittedly, but I’ll go ahead and say it: The Raid has perfected the art of one man kicking another in the face. Videogames have been trying to muscle in on the territory for quite some time, seemingly uncontested after the death of Bruce Lee, and yet The Raid has flown in at the last second and stolen Street Fighter‘ s crown. If face-kicking is what you look for in an experience, I have no doubt in my mind that you’ve found a new favourite.

Even if you’re not partial to such pursuits, I think that BBC 5 Live’s Mark Kermode hit the nail on the head when he described The Raid as a musical; a 90 minute-long, tightly choreographed dance routine that stands closer to performance art than a genuine display of combat. Sure, the violent elements are fun – especially when our hero, rookie cop Rama, takes the opportunity to go on a five minute, corridor-long trek through a goon-infested hallway with nothing but a knife and a baton – but The Raid is more than that. A stunning visual display, layered against a backdrop of pure dread, this is one of the most interesting action experiences of the last ten years. Failing to mention that soundtrack.

Of course, it’s worth considering whether or not you want to see a bunch of guys get kung-fu’d into oblivion, considering that’s essentially all the film has to offer. Personally, that’s more than enough for me to declare The Raid as one of 2012’s best films. Hyper-violence hasn’t been this fun in a long while.

 

3. Prometheus

Prometheus PosterYour enjoyment of Prometheus hinges on your expectations going in, which perhaps explains why the film’s Alien-centric marketing and hype sold it short to so many. This isn’t a traditional sci-fi movie, and eschews genre and labelling in a much grander fashion than Ridley Scott’s earlier work within the Alien canon. Prometheus is a visual, philosophical sci-fi flick, one that dares to alter the balance between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ in favour of the latter.

It isn’t necessary plausible, relying on the symbolism  that had previously proven peripheral to films like Alien to carry the weight of the entire film on its shoulders, and this doesn’t come without its casualties. Logical inconsistencies are rife throughout the film’s extended length, and I’ll be the first to admit that it has its narrative flaws, even within the constraints of its thematic set-up. However, I’d argue that it’s approach to the fantastical when it gets things right more than makes up for its misgivings. Prometheus applied predominantly literary concepts to  a genre and universe based in scientific, tactile reality, and came out of it unlike any other film I’ve seen.

If you have an analytical eye when it comes to sci-fi, perhaps it’s best that you give this one a miss. ‘Thought piece’ is the phrase that best encapsulates Prometheus; it’s a film about a lack of answers – about what it means to have questions outstanding, even at the height of human awareness and knowledge.

It’s something different, and entertainingly so – provided you can exercise that suspension of disbelief and exchange one mode of thought for another, seemingly contradictory one.

 

2. Indie Game: The Movie

Indie Game: The Movie PosterConsidering I spend half of my time here talking about videogames, Indie Game’s inclusion on this list was inevitable.

If I pry myself away from my blatant fanboyism, I can try to act all objective. I can tell you how great Indie Game: The Movie is, even independent of its subjects. I can tell you all about how the soundtrack made me feel something, dude; or even conjure up some complete tosh about how the film will change the world – but in the end, it doesn’t even begin to explain why you should watch it. All I can say is that this is a well-made documentary that doesn’t patronise its viewer, regardless of how much or little you know about its subject, which probably explains its rave reception in the non-enthusiast press, and its commercial success over the last six months.

It probably also explains why it’s one of my favourite films of the year.

You can find my full review here.

 

1. The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises Bane PosterIf The Avengers: Assemble was the natural evolution of the friendly, ‘popcorn’ superhero film, then The Dark Knight Rises was the flipside of the same coin; the apex of the darker, brooding variety of superhero tale popularised by Burton’s Batman way back in the 80’s. As great as The Avengers was, when forced to pick a favourite film this year, I think I would have always worked my way back to The Dark Knight Rises, if just because it gave Christopher Nolan the space – once more – to prove that blockbuster cinema can be just as dark, rich, intellectual, symbolic and brooding as anything the little guys are doing, without sacrificing too much along the way (for an example of said sacrifice, you merely need to look at Prometheus). Not to mention, it rekindled squishy feelings in me loins for Tom Hardy, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the ‘grease me up’ scene in Bronson.

Taking place a whole eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Rises portrays a Gotham radically altered by the death of Harvey Dent (the previous film’s ‘Twoface’), a crime placed squarely at the feet of The Batman. The man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne, long-tormented by the death of just about everyone around him, has hung up his cape following the events in The Dark Knight, and in his wake the Gotham Police Department have used his image as a loose-cannon vigilante to enforce a legislated attack on organised crime. It may not be the cleanest cut of events, but as evidenced by the opening’s tendencies towards opulence and kind-hearted humour, things are finally looking up for the long-afflicted citizens of Gotham City.

That is, until the arrival of masked villain-of-the-week, Bane. Nobody in town seems to suspect that the underground could rise once more; leaving an opening for the most unfortunate series of events imaginable, eventually resulting in Bane’s acquisition of a fusion bomb. Needless to say, somebody dropped the ball.

Bane himself is elevated to biblical proportions, Gotham his Sodom or Gomorrah, long overdue for a self-proclaimed ‘reckoning’. The worst part is, maybe he’s right. Contrary to what The Dark Knight’s last act may have had you believe, it becomes readily apparent that, just as Ras Al Guhl speculated way back in Batman Begins, maybe Gotham is far beyond redemption. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t afraid to play with your perceptions of what’s come before, essentially destroying the characters and city that have been fleshed out over the last seven years. Perhaps the scariest thing about Bane isn’t his superior strength or intellect – or even his badass coat or his gnarled mask – it’s the fact that he might just be a better hero than Batman ever was.

It’s this very aspect that allows the film to rise above the failings of most other franchises that reach that dreaded third entry. Both in narrative and tone, Rises has enough confidence in itself that it doesn’t worry about stepping on the toes of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, it just simply gets on with it. Batman is no longer important; the city and the people within are the heroes of this tale, fighting not for any contrived ideas of honour or morality, but simply for survival.

It’s here where the film presents its strongest case, resulting in a first half practically devoid of the titular hero. Bruce Wayne, now living as a recluse, attempts to come to terms with the fact that the ‘Batman’ persona may never be good enough to save Gotham, and in a similar vein Rises explores what happens to ideology when the hero can’t win – what a creed like ‘no guns’ achieves when everyone else is packing heat. These ideas are rounded out with a great turn from the supporting cast, easing into the branching psychodrama that plays out in the film’s second half; free, for the most part, of The Batman’s direct influence.

Ultimately, it’s this absence, restraint, and despair that made me grow so fond of Rises. It finally explored the darker territory that Begins promised to explore back in 2005, free of the big-budget frills typical of such a high-profile release. Superhero films have always stood tall on thin ideology, presenting contrived tales of ‘good versus evil’ with no room for questions. Rises dared to shatter the idea of the infallible man in tights – to suggest that good will and courage aren’t exclusive to the heroes. It went so far as to make the bad guy the good guy – not a gross caricature of evil, but instead someone driven by differing, but equally valid ideologies – and did so without tarnishing the film’s glossy, big-budget veneer. Rises introduced us to Bane, and it’s in his actions that the superhero genre finally found its reckoning.

2012 In Music: My Top Five

Music of 2012 Banner

I’ve never really mentioned music here, perhaps owing to the breakneck speed of that particular industry. It seems that by the time you truly learn to appreciate one release, another five hundred have come and gone in the interim, all of which are equally deserving of a stand in the limelight. I’ve always viewed music as something that warrants a dedicated blog of its own, one conducive to shorter, rapid-fire updates: something which you sure ain’t getting here.

Looking back over the year, however, I can’t help but feel that too much came out in 2012 not to warrant a quick look back. Considering this is the year that saw Psy orchestrate a successful bid for world domination, I’m surprised there were enough raw materials left to press discs that didn’t have the words ‘Gangnam Style’ printed on them, let alone to facilitate the continued rise of the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. 2012 was somewhat of a poster year for experimental, intelligent hip-hop, but more than that, also saw the Deftones’ return to form, Carley Ray Jepsen’s dating masterclass, and the dawn of hamburger-based horror in music videos. We’re truly living in great times.

Tying in with my upcoming run-down of 2012’s videogames, it also wouldn’t be proper if I didn’t give mention to two soundtracks that, like Darren Korb’s work with Bastion last year, watered pants worldwide– Hotline Miami’s eclectic compilation of electro and psychedelica, and the ambient blips of Disasterpeace’s soundtrack to Fez. Throw money at them – they deserve it.

Anyway, here are my top 5 albums of 2012. You’re more than welcome to tell me how wrong I am, and I’m equally welcome to curl up in a ball and cry when you insult my taste. Give it a go; we’ll make a party of it. Continue reading

Silent Hill 2: A Retrospective

(Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fixed Camera Angle)Silent Hill 2 Director's Cut Logo

Eleven years ago, I had to give up on Silent Hill 2. Even under the direction of a friend – who informed me that he’d just found the ‘coolest game ever’ – I could barely make it past the game’s first ‘proper’ challenge: the labyrinthine apartment block that acts as its introduction (and an introduction which, for the record, dominated many a nightmare for years to come). Silent Hill 2 was eerie in a way that even the franchise’s long-running competitor, Resident Evil, couldn’t quite manage. It’s atmosphere was tangibly oppressive.

Driven by a desire to see the experience through, I returned to it again and again, each time beating my chest and throwing out countless hollow platitudes, taken by the belief that I could make the horror go away. Most of the time, I was wrong.

The platitudes never helped. Nor, for that matter, did opening all the curtains and playing the game in beaming sunlight. Eventually, however, I arrived at the game’s conclusion, and breathed a long-deserved sigh of relief.

At the time, I’d enjoyed it as a challenge; as a mark of bravery, but in retrospect it became just another one of those dumb games I’d played to pass the time before growing up. I’d appreciated it, if begrudgingly, for the countless hours it took to finish, but never really looked back; Silent Hill 2 became a footnote in the grander scheme of adolescence.

Cut to about two weeks ago, however, and I was once again sat at the game’s title screen – this time on PC – having decided to give it another run to see whether all those nightmares were justified. Cut to about an hour after that, and the game was shelved once more, set aside for a braver day.

If there’s one thing to be noted returning to Silent Hill 2 after ten years, it’s that it remains an unbelievably intimidating experience.

Silent Hill 2 Gallows Room

Having mostly forgotten the specifics of the game, the first thing to jump back at me was the soundtrack. Composed by Akira Yamaoka, it’s a muddy, grinding mess; a jumble of bassy synths, heavy breathing, and screeching machinery, occasionally broken up with a bit of light acoustic guitar. Far removed from the tired, wailing strings that have come to dominate the genre, Akira’s work blends the innocent romanticism of the American Northeast with something much more sinister, and the dissonance between the two creates a tension that never quite resides. The more I think about it, the more it sums up the game as a whole.

The titular Silent Hill is a place defined by its juxtapositions. The merging of an otherwise-innocent community with the unspeakable horrors of hell is hardly a revelation – Stephen King has written that book at least thirty times in his career alone, but here, the concept is brought kicking and screaming into the interactive format. The game’s narrative is one of the richest in videogaming — thanks in large part to the way in which it is rooted in the act of playing —  and slides to great effect between the metaphorical and the literal without ever quite revealing itself.

At its core, Silent Hill 2 is a story of love and loss, but in a more bodily sense, tackling the ideas of sexual repression and low self-esteem that can stem from a life-shaking personal event. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t present a doomsday scenario, or contrive lore to explain its every creation scientifically; it doesn’t have a codex, or an encyclopaedia – it’s simply a story about a small group of people coming to terms with life, set in a town that gives them the means to do so. The Silent Hill franchise may have flown off the rails in trying to give the town global/universal/dimensional significance, but back when Silent Hill 2 came out, the idea was still pure, focused and personal – and all the better for it.

Silent Hill 2 PC Bathroom

Pictured: Purity

Silent Hill 2 throws its player into the shoes of James Sunderland, a troubled widower drawn to the titular town in the belief that his wife may still be alive there; despite the fact that he witnessed her death at the hands of cancer two years prior. As in the rest of the series, Silent Hill adapts itself to the worries of its protagonist, and it’s from here that the game progresses, funnelling James deeper into a literal manifestation of his own psyche in the search of answers. As a result, the town is heavily laden with symbolism; a compacted vision of his time with his wife, and little is left to cutscenes or text dumps other than the key story beats. In Silent Hill 2, the town is the story, and we’re guided into assumptions based on James’ visions of Silent Hill and his reactions to them.

All the while, there are four additional characters roaming the town’s streets, each more unhinged than the last, each plagued by their own set of horrors resulting from their own – and James’ – grievances. If there’s one thing that struck me about the whole experience, it’s how concentrated it all is. As large as the playable area of Silent Hill may seem at first, in the context of the story progression, it’s surprisingly small. As is typical of survival horror, it’s entirely possible that you could blow through the game in just a few hours and be done with it, and where Silent Hill finds its value is in the attention to detail along the way. Every character is drenched in their own subset of imagery – their own themes; in the audio, the video, and the narrative – and it all comes together to form a cohesive picture of grief, albeit one painted in blood and tears.

The game’s prolonged stop at Silent Hill’s decrepit hospital, for example, is no coincidence. The increasingly begrimed walls and images of death and decay evolve and spread like the cancer that killed James’ wife, and come to represent his internalisation of the few visits to the building in which he would eventually watch her die.  In this regard, the hospital serves as the game’s thematic core, and the rest of the experience spirals outwards from it, taking its players to key areas from its characters’ pasts in order to explore the woes of love, loss and regret in explicitly physical terms. Silent Hill 2’s narrative continually proves itself to be darkly intelligent, much more so than I remembered.

Silent Hill 2 Maria Cutscene Boardwalk

If the dichotomy between the doe-eyed James and the horrifying environment of his mind’s creation wasn’t enough; Maria (pictured) further explores the duality of the human psyche. She is a sinister, sexual doppelganger of his wife, Mary.

If you’ve read my bit on the recent outbreak of indie horror games, then it should come as no surprise to learn that Silent Hill 2 isn’t even a fun game; it’s an oppressive glimpse into humanity’s immoral tendencies, and the overall experience of playing is topped with a relentlessly unforgiving atmosphere reflecting this grim outlook. Movement is deliberately slow and laboured, placing a greater emphasis on smaller encounters, and – following the precedent set by the first game’s technical limitations – the whole thing is drenched in fog and darkness, so much so that you’re lucky to ever see more than a few feet in front of your face, even when equipped with a flashlight.

That last point may prove particularly irksome to some, too, considering that there are some genuinely unsettling creatures lurking behind the fog, topping out at a moving, writhing depiction of incestuous rape. As much as I feel like I need a shower after typing that, it’s contextualised within the narrative and subtle enough that it comes across as more sophisticated than the shock value of its description would suggest (but that still doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to witness).  Silent Hill 2 is a horror game with modesty – walls drip with blood, sure, but in moderation; and while a lot of its scares may be tried-and-tested in the bigger picture of the genre, it paces and delivers them in such a way that they seem new. Nothing appears contrived for shock value, or created purely to look as grotesque as possible, and as a result, it doesn’t give us anything quite as ridiculous as Resident Evil’s shoulder-eyeball antics.

The man responsible for this decision, monster designer Masahiro Ito, has made clear that his ‘basic idea in creating the monsters of Silent Hill 2 was to give them a human aspect’, and it’s this human aspect, and it’s concentrated removal, that keeps Silent Hill 2 grounded and believable, even in its most bizarre moments. The aforementioned hospital environment, for example, introduces its own monstrosities to the fold, the now-stalwart ‘bubblehead’ nurses; silent, faceless apparitions of the building’s former workers. As what can be seen as the beginning of the game’s ‘deeper’ exploration of James’ anxieties, the nurses are, in a strange turn from the game’s previous offerings, somewhat sexy, sporting short skirts and coyly exposed cleavage – rotten and bloodied, of course, but still conforming to a physical ideal atypical of standard horror creations.

As character artist Takayoshi Sato explains, ‘everybody is thinking and concerned about sex and death, [so we] tried to mix erotic essence…this is a kind of a visual and a core concept’. The twisting, faceless nurses that inhabit the hospital’s wards exemplify this ‘erotic essence’, embodying James’ sexual frustrations during his wife’s illness, and a guilt over his natural sexual urges. In speaking on the ‘main factors that evoke fear’, Sato expresses humanities reluctance ‘to see concealed their true-self’, a fear made all-too clear in James’ visions of the nurses (and the rest of the game’s creatures, for that matter).

Again, it remains impressive just how concentrated Silent Hill 2 proves to be, reigning in videogaming’s tendencies to aim for the stars and instead portraying something more realistic and relatable. Given this microscopic focus on detail, even something as simple as James’ radio – the game’s analog to a radar, which floods with static as enemies come closer – serves as a firm symbolic statement of communication, a means through which James can converse with his subconscious, and in gameplay terms, avoid the negative manifestations of his own mind that threaten this conversational ability. When it comes to the surreal and the weird, it helps if there’s some underlying support holding everything together, a thematic backbone that can make the inexplicable explicable, and in this regard, Silent Hill 2 never strays too far from its own support.

Silent Hill 2 Apartment TV Room

One of the biggest surprises for me was how nicely the game holds up for its age. Sure, it’s still positioned in that awkward PS2-era bracket where animations and geometry can come across stiff and flat, but it’s sure enough in its art direction and texture work that it ignores system limitations, in a similar vein to Resident Evil 4 or Shadow of the Colossus.

The denizens of Silent Hill are as grotesque and gnarled as ever, from the mechanical spiders that roam its streets, to ‘those guys with pyramids on their heads’; visually, Silent Hill 2 still stands its ground. I suppose polygon count doesn’t stand for much when ninety percent of your creations are twitching masses of flesh. To this day, the bizarre spasms of an approaching ghoul are still enough to give me a severe case of the heebie-jeebies, probably even more so now that I understand what they’re meant to represent.

Complementing this, Silent Hill 2 tries it’s hardest to shy away from the Resident Evil/Dead Space ‘monster in the closet’ approach. Creepy as they may be, enemies are sparse in Silent Hill, especially towards the game’s earlier half; and if you’re familiar with the genre, that can end up being the scariest thing about Silent Hill 2. Subtle, one-off audio cues are thrown at you to brilliant effect, from the sudden, cut-off wail of a woman’s scream coming from a toilet cubicle you just checked, to the thunderous, approaching footsteps of something better left alone approaching you in the darkness, a vast majority of which might not ever culminate in any actual action. ‘Pyramid Head’, the game’s closest analog to an antagonist, serves up the occasional ‘boo’ scare, but almost everything else is left within the mind, and it pays off tenfold.

Silent Hill 2 PC Town Fog Gameplay

There’s one part in particular that cemented Silent Hill 2’s greatness for me and, like the rest of the game, it went largely unannounced. Through a lovably contrived twist of fate, there’s a point towards the game’s later half in which the player is left defenseless, forced to roam Silent Hill’s familiar, twisted halls with the training wheels off. It’s a segment that’s just about as mischievously evil as you’d imagine, leaving the player with no option but to crawl into the corner, adopt the foetal position and mash every button on the controller in an attempt to bite at the ankles of their aggressors, while they take their opportunity to return in kind. It’s spooky as they come, and especially clever in the way that it mixes up enemy spawning patterns, meaning that even when you decide to kick the controller into ‘flail and run around screaming’ mode, you still can’t quite predict how to get past the ghouls in your way.

For me, the most chilling and game-defining moment was an unassuming corridor just seconds into that section; a simple ‘L’-bend that branched off into a small corridor with no purpose, other than to look intimidating. If the screenshots dashed around the page aren’t enough indication, Silent Hill 2’s particular blend of third-person action is dictated by fixed camera angles, the kind that could instil a sense of claustrophobia in an industrial mine-worker. As anti-climactic as it may sound, that single corridor, obscured by a shifty camera, and completely inoffensive in the grand scheme of Silent Hill’s horrors, pushed me to my absolute limits. Building up the courage to progress took me longer than I’d care to admit.

Silent Hill 2 Hotel Elevator Corridor

Pictured: One man’s terror

It’s because of cases like these that, come any discussion concerning Silent Hill, or the earlier Resident Evil games (or in some rare circles, Alone in the Dark or Dino Crisis), I’ll always be the first to defend fixed camera angles, and by extension, ‘tank’ controls.

While the sole bastion of most popular videogame writing is the vacuous entity known only as ‘the gameplay’, I’m a firm believer that, unless you’re looking to make an ‘arcade’ style game wherein snappy mechanics sit above all else (and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that), the developer’s first concern should be the desired experience –the story, the feel; and the gameplay should work in favour of this experience.

Especially in horror – gameplay decisions that aren’t necessarily conducive to the arcade ideal of ‘fun’ shouldn’t be seen as bad things. Tank controls might be a misstep for a more action-oriented game, but in horror, they play perfectly into the feeling of powerlessness and tension that are the staples of the genre. The fixed camera angle isn’t practical – heck, it isn’t even realistic – but then, neither is using a £20 hunk of plastic to manoeuvre around the world.

The problem with chasing realism in videogames is ultimately: until we reach that zenith of an immersive virtual reality, we’re still just guys and gals sat on our asses in front of a row of buttons. A realistic horror experience, ironically enough, isn’t a horrifying one in videogaming, because we’ll always be that one step removed from the ‘reality’ presented. More responsive controls might help us better approximate real human movement, but they’ve killed more experiences than I can count. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s better that we handicap ourselves with restrictive styles like the fixed camera angle if it conveys the fear of a situation more appropriately than pin-point, Halo controls. There’s a reason why Amnesia’s sanity effects spat in the face of the precision of a keyboard and mouse.

Silent Hill 2 has an odd evolution of the fixed camera angle, one that can obscure vital information about what’s to come, and trick the mind into seeing things that aren’t there. It has sluggish controls, and makes turning corners in a pinch much harder than it would be in any other game – essentially condemning the player to a slew of stressful encounters, and slowing the game’s pace down to a crawl. By most conceivable metrics, Silent Hill 2’s entire system of control seems regressive – and yet this only works in its favour.

Silent Hill 2 PC Prison

It may seem unnecessary to dedicate so much real estate to one small feature, especially one as debatable as this game’s cumbersome controls, but as I’ve come to find, it’s these little things that prove most endearing in Silent Hill 2, and videogaming as a whole; the unannounced details that creep up on you and hit you where you least expect it. A lot of Silent Hill 2’s  design decisions may seem ass-backwards when starting out, but I found myself agreeing with them more and more as the experience went on, to the point at which I’d say it couldn’t have been done any other way. Games like Dead Space and Condemned, as fond as I am of those particular series, fall into one of the worst traps of modern horror, in that they grant their players too much power over their horror  elements – they don’t take enough risks, and as a result, announce all of their scares

In Silent Hill 2 this idea is completely inverted – it may occasionally present you with an ammo dump or a ‘keep out’ sign so obvious, that you can’t help but find yourself on edge. It might throw a storage cupboard into view, full of goodies, then funnel you into a wide, open space- and leave you free of enemies for upwards of ten minutes, left to suffer from your own anxieties and assumptions. It’s a game where the scares are derived from the player’s knowledge of the medium, in tandem with the developer’s understanding of interactivity, rather than some tired Hollywood ideal of what should go bump in the night. Very few punches are telegraphed in Silent Hill 2, and it helps keep the player on edge; and draws attention to some of the smaller details, fostering a sense of paranoia than only grows as the game progresses. You probably won’t find the ‘corridor of doom’ as terrifying as I did, but I have no doubt that there’ll be something else in this game that will eventually get to you; whether it be a shivering wall of creatures or something as simple as a flickering light.

Silent Hill 2 PC Hospital Nurses

Again, it’s these sorts of juxtapositions that define the game; bad ideas made good, the innocent perverted, and perhaps most important of all, a videogame made clever. If you were like me, and never quite got around to putting the lid on this game – or better yet, if you’ve never played it at all: pick up a copy on PS2 or PC (not the god-awful HD port) and set aside some time in the dark to get into this one, because it remains one of the most relentlessly atmospheric and rewardingly cerebral games ever made.

I took some time away from this little write-up before posting, just to make sure I’d support myself in such a bold closing statement, but heck, I can’t think of a game more set in its aims, and more accomplished in delivery. It has its quirks sure, but when it comes to horror in videogames Silent Hill 2 is perfect.

If you want to find out more about Silent Hill 2, then you can view the once-DVD-exclusive ‘Making Of’ here (transcribed here), or head on over to Silent Hill Memories, a series-specific site that borders on the fanatical, in the best possible way. Shamus Young has a rather neat plot analysis over on his personal site and Twin Perfect have collected every reason not to buy the HD collection as part of their season-long look at the series. Failing that, Wikipedia is always just a click away, assuming you’re willing to brave a potential mugging by Jimmy Wales.

Silent Hill 2 PC Pyramid Head Fight

Review: Hitman Absolution

Hitman Absolution Logo

Context is an important thing. Without a whole slew of identical games before it, Medal of Honour: Warfighter would have been regarded as one of the best games of this year. Without such a ridiculous marketing push, Daikatana might have escaped critical humiliation. Likewise, without knowing a thing about the barcode on the back of Agent 47’s head, you could assume that he’s a genuine human being.

So goes the premise of Hitman: Absolution, the most recent entry in IO Interactive’s Hitman series. Scoffing at the titular agent’s previous cold demeanour, Absolution dares to give the Hitman a soul, and in doing so, paves the way for the most narrative-driven – and in many ways, the most disappointing – Hitman game yet.

Hitman Absolution Agent 47 Face

Within the opening hour of Hitman: Absolution, Agent 47 (now directly identified as ‘The Hitman’) fulfills an assassination contract on his long-time handler, Diana Burnwood, only to realize two seconds later that maybe it wasn’t the smartest of moves. Complying with Diana’s dying wish; he agrees to protect a young girl from a whole host of characters looking to claim her in the name of genetic voodoo, and sets in motion a chain of events that… well, don’t really make sense.

If I have one problem with the series’ newfound narrative focus, it’s that the narrative itself is god-awful. Impressive voice acting and motion capture are destroyed by a plot that proves itself to be completely inept. The general mood seems to gravitate towards a faux-grind-house style, complete with big breasts, backwater murderers and an obnoxious grain filter; and if one thing has been proven in recent years, it’s that big budget grind-house experiences don’t work – by nature; they’re antithetical to the premise of the genre. When an initial target dies questioning an impromptu death-boner, you can’t help but be forced to wonder what happened to subtlety. I have nothing against Tarantino’s introduction of sleaze-cinema to the mass market, but Hitman Absolution is a perfect example of its more regrettable influences. The story on display here is a complete bastardization of everything that makes the dumb so endearing.

What’s worse is that it will occasionally lapse into sincerity, and expect you to come along with it, in some cases mere minutes after witnessing the last Rodriguez inspired blunder. Tonally inconsistent, woefully misguided, and in complete opposition to the series’ previous sombre outings, Absolution’s story is, in short, a huge mistake.

Hitman Absolution Stealth Screenshot

Of course, Hitman has never proved itself too reliable in the story department, so this turnout should prove relatively inoffensive to fans of the series. The real concern lies in the alterations that IO Interactive have made to the core gameplay. Of Absolution’s twenty missions, only four or five follow the ‘traditional’ Hitman formula – that being, locking you in a large, closed system with a target to kill and a place to escape. The bulk of the game is instead composed of smaller systems, often no bigger than a couple of rooms, linked together by linear stealth segments. The bulk of the game’s content takes a backseat to a story that most people won’t even care about.

Clearly, it’s not Hitman as we know it, but perhaps it’s not entirely removed from the chrome-domed beauty we know and love, either. As a matter of fact, when it comes to game mechanics, Absolution provides its most compelling case for existence, and alters a lot of the series’ set-in-stone workings. Gone are the pinpoint, almost Quake-precision levels of control that the series once provided, giving way to a more concentrated movement, reminiscent of a deliberate tactical shooter. While this may create a poor first impression with the Hitman Old Guard, it goes great lengths towards grounding 47 in the world, free of the ‘floaty’ feel of previous entries. For the first time, he actually looks like a plausible human being. The hallmark disguise system has also been overhauled and geared towards creating a greater challenge, and for better or worse, succeeds.

There are a few glaring flaws in these new systems though, the most infuriating of which being the enemies ability to notice 47 at a short glance, from the other side of a room, even when he’s wearing a mask that should for all intents and purposes render him incognito. Once you’ve learned the systems, it doesn’t prove to be too much of a problem, and, admittedly, helps balance the game out; but it’s indicative of just how far you have to suspend your disbelief in order to stay immersed in game’s world.

Whereas the Hitman series was once renowned for stepping outside of the boundaries of the stealth genre, Absolution falls into the trappings of most stealth games in that you’ll find yourself feeling alienated until you’ve come to terms with the minutiae of the AI’s behaviour. It’s a videogame, full of videogame systems, and any steps taken towards a more realistic aesthetic have been lost in the mechanics’ move away from common sense.

Hitman Absolution Gameplay

In theory, the game’s mechanics are capable of giving us the best Hitman game to date. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we’ve been given. If there’s one major flaw with Absolution, it lies in the level design. As a substitute for Hitman‘s usual emergent sandboxes, we’re presented with an assortment of narrative focused scenarios that drift in and out of plausibility far too much. A large portion of the series’ charm lies in the realism of its environments – they’ve always been coloured by the wacky and wonderful, but never to the ridiculous extent portrayed in Absolution.

It was around the point at which I was sneaking into a Bond villain-calibre weapons lab, surrounded by exploding pigs, that I had to stop and think about what, exactly, the designers were hoping to achieve. The world around 47 has lost its sincerity, apparently devolving into absolute chaos in the six year gap between games, and as a result, there’s less fun to be found in bringing any of your own chaos into the mix. It’s hard to feel like a the sole chaotic element in a system when you’re confronted with a group of latex-clad super-nuns in an exploding pig factory.

Although plausibility is the least of Absolution’s concerns when even its flagship levels, such as the oft-publicised ‘Streets of Hope’, just feel limited in scope compared to the series’ previous attempts. Your options are no longer emergent, they’re scripted, a fact made blatantly obvious in the game’s new ‘challenges’ screen, which for the most part gives you a comprehensive outline of every way to approach a level, often limited to no more than eight or nine approaches. It has replay value, sure, but it’s all prescribed for you, set out in digestible chunks in the form of a dishearteningly uninspired list. The levels feel less dynamic – less like a closed system, and more like a traditional, Splinter Cell-style shadow run through the developer’s gauntlet.

Most of Absolution‘s achievements are purely technical.  IO’s new Glacier 2 engine proves stunning on both console and PC, and finally does justice to the ‘neon grime’ art design that was so prevalent, and yet technically restrained in the earlier Hitman: Contracts. Blood Money’s awkward middle-ground discounted, it’s great to finally see a high-definition Hitman game; and the capabilities of the technology really shine through as early as the game’s second level, where bustling crowds are realised in a much more reactive, dynamic faction than in the series’ previous efforts. Square Enix, first-time publisher of the series, are obviously putting some of their money in the right places; Absolution is the first IO Interactive game that feels like it’s been given a proper spit-shine, and accentuates their confidence and skill as developers as a result. (Consider yourself forewarned, however, a few sections have the ‘glare’ slider set to ‘five thousand suns’. Some of Absolution’s brighter areas forced me to literally squint at the screen to avoid eye damage.)

Hitman Absolution Crowd Screenshot

The game also attempts to find some degree of absolution (GEDDIT?) in a mode, confusingly enough, titled Hitman: Contracts (also, there’s a mission called ‘Hunter and Hunted’ – completely unrelated to Contracts’ closing mission of the same name – someone over at IO Interactive seems intent on messing with us). While some of the single player campaigns missions might leave you feeling a little underwhelmed, Contracts mode attempts to alleviate those concerns, allowing you to pick any mission and turn it into a more traditional assassination via an on-the-fly mission editor. The ability to choose any segment of any level is appreciated, allowing you to cherry-pick choice sections from otherwise bland levels and turn them into something closer resembling the Hitman of old. It’s surprising how distinctly a sudden change of focus can affect some of the game’s more debatable segments, in some cases transforming once-linear shadow-crawls into semi-open sandboxes. It doesn’t fix the broken level design, but at least tends itself towards more dynamic, systems-heavy approaches to missions; though if you’re anything like me, it’ll just make you want to play Blood Money again.

This is a petty complaint, too, but it’s worth remembering that the Contracts mode is subject to your ability to stay online – so if, like me, you have a connection that isn’t quite stable, expect the game to forcibly remove you when the line drops. If anything, it just reminds me that one day, the servers will be thrown offline for good and it’ll be left inaccessible in the vanilla game – a shame, considering it’s one of Absolution’s greatest additions to the franchise, and is gated behind an unreliable barrier. The day Contracts goes offline, Absolution ceases to be a worthwhile product.

Hitman Absolution Blackwater Gameplay

Absolution is exceptionally well-polished, there’s no doubt about that. The real problem lies in the series’ legacy and the game’s necessity and possible inclusion within it. Given the Hitman series’ reputation for innovation in the stealth genre, I think it’s fair to expect something more than a ‘decent’ game; and Absolution’s advancement towards a Bourne-esque middle ground feels unnecessary and even detrimental to the franchise’s identity. I can’t imagine I’ll find myself returning to play this one for years on end, as I did with previous entries in the series, chiefly because it feels so familiar – not to other Hitman games, but to other, less distinct entries in the stealth genre as a whole.

A lot of the comparisons to Splinter Cell: Conviction are unfair, but certain missions really do fall into the blockbuster trappings indicative of a ‘dumbing down’ of the series’ core ideas. Levels are beautifully envisioned, and fun to replay, but not in the same way that they have been, especially when the in-game systems, such as the persistent score meter and lack of checkpoints, seem to act in direct opposition to the experimentation that had previously proven central to the series’ allure.

It’s a weird phenomenon, in that it occupies a space in which it’s not quite deep-rooted enough to satisfy core Hitman fans, and yet may be a bit too abstract for the average consumer. I’m sure sales figures will tell otherwise, but Absolution sits in an odd place, and will no doubt be viewed as the bastard child of the series for a long time to come.

That said, I’m not wholly dismissive of the game’s efforts, and it’s worth taking the internet’s knee-jerk reaction with a pinch of salt, Absolution doesn’t exactly spit in the face of everything that’s come before, as a matter of fact, it proves to be slyly self-referential throughout. The game’s penultimate mission, for example, seems to act as a veiled tribute to the fan-favourite Contracts level, ‘Traditions of the Trade’, while levels as seemingly unique as those in Chicago Chinatown are coyly reminiscent of the first game’s middle section. Non-player character dialogue is tighter than ever before, and proves funny and disturbing in equal measure, playing into the veiled sense of voyeurism that no doubt led most to become Hitman fans in the first place, and grind-house failings aside, there’s still plenty of IO Interactive’s wacky, unannounced humour present, from weapons-grade toilet plungers to giant chipmunk costumes ripe for combination, and even a surprise cameo by the protagonists of IO’s other prominent videogame franchise.

Hitman Absolution Hope Screenshot

Overall, Absolution is a fun diversion, but doesn’t quite strike that same magical vein that previous entries dug so deep into. If anything, it’s reminiscent of Dishonoured’s recent release and reception: to me, it seems that big-budget gaming is so starved of genuinely divergent and emergent experiences that we’ll happily jump on the lap of any blockbuster title that provides us with a modicum of player choice, longing for the days of Deus Ex and Hitman 2, when ‘choice’ was still a common factor, and not a game-selling gimmick. Hitman: Absolution fares better than other recent efforts, but remains indicative of a negative trend in triple-A development. Again, context is an important thing. If you’ve never played a Hitman game before, you’ll be able to have some meaningless fun with this one, sure. Play it in the context of the series as a whole, however, and you’ll be left twenty hours short with a slightly sour taste in your mouth.

2/5