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Great pumpkins

Unlike the rest of the gaming world. which begins to focus on the holiday season around well, August, I like to lock my greedy eyes in on something a little more immediate — Halloween.

Scary video games pack so much more visceral, immediate punch than their cinematic counterparts. Instead of watching some poor schlep being run down by a bloodsucker in 30 Days of Night, it’s you who’s backing down a corridor, hoping the scalpel you found in the blood-soaked room is enough to hold off whatever-the-heck is shambling toward you, claws outstretched.

Last year gave us Resident Evil 4, a game I’m still afraid to reboot. 2007’s crop is a mixed bag of scares — a few Three Musketeer bars jostling with some strips of black licorice. Stop covering your eyes — let’s take a look.

You’d think by now that just about everyone would have learned to avoid the fog-enshrouded burg of Silent Hill, home to faceless, homicidal nurses and shuffling monstrosities that look like a Silly Putty experiment gone gruesomely wrong. In Silent Hill: Origins (Konami, Rated Mature), the long-running series (installment five’s only a few months away) goes a couple of places it’s never gone before: back to its roots and onto the PlayStation Portable.

This tale’s about Travis, a trucker who naturally ends up in Silent Hill after nearly running down one of the series’ trademark creepy little girls and then saving her from a burning house.

Silent Hill: Origins was originally supposed to be an action-focused Resident Evil knock-off, and while the rebooted version — with weapons that break all too easily and much more creepy ambience — is much better than it could have been, it can’t overcome one of the scariest things in gaming: The PSP’s confounded loading times. Nothing — and I mean nothing — evaporates the chills out of a scary moment faster than watching the screen hitch and then hearing the deadly whirr of the PSP’s UMD drive. How bad is it? Imagine Jason or Michael Myers ripping a fart mid-slash.

Unlike Stephen King, in whose shadow he’s always crouched, horror novelist Clive Barker actually gets the visceral possibilities of video games. The first couple hours of Clive Barker’s Undying, a 2001 PC title that mixed magic, monsters, and genuine terror with Barker’s storytelling, remains one of the best horror-game experiences ever. (We’ll just forget about the game’s lame second half.)

Can’t quite slap that same label on Clive Barker’s Jericho (Codemasters, Xbox 360, rated Mature), a squad-based shooter featuring, as one of the characters puts it early on, “witches with guns.” The set-up’s certainly terrifying enough: An evil sect seeks to open up a temporal rift that will unleash The Firstborn, God’s disastrous first attempt to create humankind. The Jericho squad, a team of occult-powered operatives featuring a priest with pistols named Faith and Destiny, gets dispatched on a containment mission.

Watching your squad-mates unleash flame spirits and telekinetic bursts on the monsters that inhabit the city of Al Khali is enough to make you wish your own character could do more than shoot and resurrect fallen teammates. Then, about five missions in, the character is shredded by a horrific monster. His spirit lives on, able to bounce between the surviving members of the squad and, conveniently, access all his pals’ occult powers.

Given that the man who gave us Pinhead has his name perched atop the title of the game, it’s no surprise to learn that the monsters here — skeletal Crusaders, pike-wielding Egyptian priests, and teleporting Nazis — are seeping, disgusting, stitched-up horrors. Nobody does this kind of visual terror quite as well as Barker.

Trouble is, the squad-based fire-fests overwhelm the gruesome vibe. Even the lamest horror hackers — Uwe Boll, we’re looking at you — understand that terror comes from the sense of being alone, trapped, and overmatched in the face of a monstrous evil that’s looking for lunch. (Think Doom 3 and Dead Rising). Even when your teammates are falling like flies, having a full occult arsenal at your disposal just doesn’t have that down-to-your-last-bullet desperation. As a shooter, Jericho’s got chops; as a horror game, there’s just not enough scare there.

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SURF’S UP: A PITHY GUIDE TO RIDING THE WEB

Caloriecount.com: Obsessive-compulsives, read no further. I won’t be able to sleep at night knowing I’m responsible for some poor kid’s eating disorder. For those of you left, this is a pretty nifty site. I learned two amazing, possibly untrue things there: I’m technically underweight, it seems, but the sandwich I consumed for lunch constituted all of the calories I’m allowed to have today. How is that possible?


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