Video games allow the average schmo to do everything from piloting the latest military hardware to saving a grateful medieval town from maniacal overlords. Rarely, though, are the heroes of these games -- the characters that players assume -- anything but muscle-bound studs who have a wit as deadly as their aim.
Few titles feature average guys. "Silent Hill," a spooky role-playing game for Sony PlayStation, does. And it's one of the elements that makes the game so much fun and so addictive. Players assume the role of Harry Mason, a father on vacation with his 7-year-old daughter.
It doesn't get any more normal than that.
But when Harry spins out his Jeep on the road to the town of Silent Hill, his relaxing vacation turns into a frightening freak-fest full of harpies, hellhounds and a mysterious little girl who vanishes in the omnipresent fog. The aim of the game is to find Harry's daughter, Cheryl, who disappears after the crash.
Not since "Resident Evil" has a PlayStation game so effectively created an environment as frightening as the one in "Silent Hill." Action takes place in a rundown resort town, but players find the place abandoned. As light snow shrouds the streets, players guide Harry along block after block as he searches for Cheryl.
Seems the town emptied out not so much because of economic hard times, but because of the beasties that prowl its streets. Although the ostensible goal of the game is to reunite Harry and Cheryl, players also must crack the mystery of what happened in Silent Hill.
As an average schmo, Harry starts the game with nothing except the clothes he's wearing. After stumbling into a den of evil, Harry gets conked and wakes up under the watchful eye of Cybil Bennet, a twentysomething police officer who supplies the video game recommended daily allowance of feminine curves.
In perhaps the most unrealistic moment of the game -- if you, of course, ignore the harpies and the pre-pubescent zombies -- Cybil gives her gun to Harry and leaves him to his own devices in a town crawling with monsters. As if. But it gets Harry rolling and gives players at least a degree of protection as they prowl the streets of Silent Hill.
Astute players will appreciate the intelligent subtlety of "Silent Hill." For instance, Harry carries an old radio. As monsters approach, the radio crackles with static. Not only is it a useful tool in the game, but it creates creepy audio cues. And the use of PlayStation's vibration function is second to none. After a particularly bruising fight, players can feel Harry's heart thumping through the controller.
Those are visceral thrills. But the designers of "Silent Hill" also provide hints to the inspirations for their game. The streets of the town boast names of famous writers, such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch, the author of "Psycho." Literary touches abound.
For a game starring an average guy, "Silent Hill" is anything but average. It preys on fear and takes PlayStation gaming to a place few have explored. The result: An uncommonly good game.
Far more common are games like "Need for Speed: High Stakes," "Rollcage" and "Rushdown." None deliver anything but variations on time-tested formulas. Each boasts a few nice features, but they are the most common of games.
The "Need for Speed" franchise has long been one of the best in digital racing. Tracks and cars were among the most realistic available. In "High Stakes," though, the franchise stumbles. The cars are still top-notch and the tracks are longer than the average racer, but it seems as if "High Stakes" is not sure what kind of game it wants to be.
Players can race for money and use the proceeds to soup up their cars. But the improvements are not as refined as they are in a game like "Gran Turismo." And with so many game modes -- including Hot Pursuit, in which players try to flee the cops -- it's difficult to get into any one for too long.
Many of the same problems plague "Rushdown," a compilation of extreme sports. Basically, players either snowboard, kayak or mountain bike through courses on various continents. The graphics are great -- especially the water in the kayak races -- but sometimes the screen is too cluttered to see obstacles clearly.
There are nice touches: In the kayak races, the current affects progress and players can feel the difference in various parts of the river. But overall, "Rushdown" plays like a variation on the ESPN Xtreme games. If you like those, "Rushdown" may be worth a look.
But "Rollcage" is barely worth the effort. This eminently forgettable racer puts players behind the controls of buggies that can slip and slide all over the game's short tracks. The gimmick of "Rollcage" is that players can climb the walls of tunnels or the sides of buildings as they zip through futuristic environments and blast opponents.