Another year, another Halloween... and another list of games that are guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of you. There are a lot of great horror titles out there- and whittling them down to a shortlist was always going to be difficult. We were looking for a game that could be both tense and scary to play (over multiple playthroughs, preferably) as well as being undeniably good.
Honourable Mentions: The Suffering, Pathways Into Darkness, Dead Space, F.E.A.R. 2, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Manhunt, Resident Evil
10: Heavy Rain [PS3]
Heavy Rain was a psychological thriller rather than a supernatural horror experience, but still manages to spin an engrossing yarn that has its fair share of scary moments. The fact that it's essentially an interactive film and flits between characters serves to distance the player from much of the true horror... but since it provides such a richly disturbing story, Heavy Rain more than deserves a place on the list.
9: Wolfenstein 3D [PC]
Yeah, I hear you. What's this doing on a top ten? What the hell are you doing? Let me explain.
The fact is that Wolfenstein taps into one of the scariest things a game can throw at the player: attacking you when you think you're safe. Unlike Doom, Wolfenstein's enemies could follow you the level by opening doors- meaning that you'd frequently retrace your steps straight into a roaring Nazi or undead monstrosity. Mein leben!
8: Doom 3 [PC, Xbox]
Despite assuring us that they had everything in hand, id Software managed to completely screw up a whole host of jump scares by stalwartly relying on archaic 'monster closets' and shooting the scripted moments from a third person perspective. However, Doom 3 succeeded in creating a genuinely oppressive atmosphere that convinced players that chainsaw-wielding zombies were hiding around every single corner... even though they usually weren't.
On a personal note, I actually shrieked like a little girl when my cat jumped onto my lap during a particularly tense moment.
7: Siren: Blood Curse [PS3]
Forget Heavy Rain, this where PS3 owners should go for their horror kicks. After arriving on a remote Japanese island, an American film crew find their documentary going to hell as a mysterious village turns out to be far from deserted. The emphasis on stealth over action adds to the nervewracking atmosphere, though the trial-and-error gameplay occasionally reduces the impact. But when the art direction is this good, who cares?
6: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem [Gamecube]
You know a horror game's doing its job when the main character starts to go mad. However, it takes a truly exceptional IP to convince the player that he's going crazy! Eternal Darkness completely breaks the fourth wall by occasionally tricking gamers into thinking that their television's changing channel by itself, that save game files have been mysteriously deleted and that other horrible gaming nightmares are occurring... and all the while bombards you with some of the scariest moments in videogame history.
Seriously, the bathtub scene gets me every damn time.
5: F.E.A.R. [Multiplatform]
Monolith are the undisputed kings of the Western horror scene (though their latest offerings have lost the plot slightly)- and F.E.A.R. put them there. Truly nervewracking sound design, creepy visuals and awesome shadow effects consipred to create an unpleasantly oppressive game world that can leave a player emotionally and physically drained after a couple of hours. I literally had to pry my bloodless fingers off of the controller after a long session! Having said that, the Point Man was far too overpowered to propel F.E.A.R. any further up the list.
Oh, and evil little girls are scary as hell.
4: Silent Hill 2 [PS2]
Let's face it: no horror game hall of fame would be complete without an entry from the Silent Hill series. Konami's epic franchise blends impeccable storytelling, shockingly explicit adult themes and a real feeling of powerlessness in the face of implacable, mysterious evil... as well as the most f*cked up monsters you'll ever witness outside of H.R. Giger's worst nightmares. Or wet dreams.
Silent Hill 2 takes the biscuit by being so ridiculously disturbing. You'll need a couple of playthroughs to work out the ghoulish symbolism behind each twisted enemy.
3: Project Zero/Fatal Frame II [PS2, Xbox]
F.E.A.R. taught us that little girls are genuinely scary antagonists... but playing as one is another kettle of fish entirely. Armed only with a camera obscura, poor little Mayu has to find the courage to fend off hordes of ravening spirits, solve the mystery behind a series of child sacrifices and save her twin sister from daemonic possession. The scares come thick and fast, the atmosphere is deeply unsettling and the unique lack of overt violence is disturbing in its own right.
I dare you to play through the "doll room" without screaming. I dare you.
2: Condemned: Criminal Origins [PC, Xbox 360]
Picture the scene. You're hunting a derranged serial killer through a dark warren of tunnels when you notice a fire axe on the wall. You’ve already got a serviceable weapon, so you decide to save it for later. However, after a couple of minutes you return… only to find that it’s missing. Someone’s picked it up and is waiting for an opportunity to leap out from the shadows and hack you to bits.
Condemned: Criminal Origins casts you as a perfectly normal bloke who's thrown into an impossibly terrifying nightmare... and leaves most of the story to the imagination. Are you going insane? Are you the serial killer? Did that mannequin just move? You'll just have to play it.
1: System Shock 2 [PC]
System Shock 2 doesn’t rely on cheap jumpy moments or gimmicky scripted events. Its terrifying effectiveness is rooted in the fact that you’ll soil your pants every time you encounter an enemy… which are randomly and continually respawned throughout the levels. Stalking the corridors of a creepy abandoned spaceship with a pipe wrench is creepy enough. Knowing that any corner or shadow could be hiding a murderous zombie alien hybrid is even worse. But knowing that even well-trodden rooms that you thought were safe could now be infested by an undead ex crewman who will beg you for forgiveness even as he bludgeons you to death with with a bloodstained pipe… is something else entirely.
The sound design seals the deal. You can hear your enemies from tens of yards away; but they’re not the usual slavering, gibbering monsters that you’re used to. They were all once human or programmed to serve and still remember their former lives. Hearing cyborg nursemaids singing lullabies to the children that they murdered themselves is as creepy as it gets… and reminds you that they’re very, very close by. To top it off, your only ally is a mysterious force of pure evil that makes GLaDOS resemble Mac OS. SHODAN’s voice acting and scripting is some of the finest you’ll ever witness in a computer game and will send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened gamers.
Happy Halloween, folks... but remember that true horror is in the eye of the beholder. Want to post your own list or take issue with the order? Have your say and state your case in the comments!