The original Silent Hill is a dead canary. The coal mine it was sent down was the objective of its development team to create a survival horror game in the vein of Resident Evil, but with a more serious psychological story beat. It's not that I think the original Silent Hill is bad or even that it fails in that objective. The cause of death for this canary would be Silent Hill 2. It stands so far above the original Silent Hill that the shadow it casts often leaves me looking less favorably upon its little brother.
The original Silent Hill derails its psychological horror in favor of some more Lovecraftian stylings in its final few hours whereas Silent Hill 2 has a laser beam focus on the story it wants to tell throughout. Everything in Silent Hill 2 is deliberate and well thought out, and there is always something happening in the story beyond what is playing out directly in front of you. The improved power the PS2 brought to the table allowed the developers to paint a much clearer picture of Silent Hill without losing the gritty, disturbing nature of older, less photorealistic graphics. The first game's trademark fog, a feature implemented to compensate for the technical limitations of the original PlayStation, is still present here. Not only does it serve the same technical function as the fog in the original Silent Hill, but it adds to the game's intense atmosphere of dread and constant obfuscation of the reality of the events unfolding around you. The fog itself is even an improvement over the original. Silent Hill's fog is a big gray block and in Silent Hill 2 the fog morphs and forms tendrils.
I also think Silent Hill 2 is something of an anomaly. It's one of maybe 2 or 3 games that I would consider to have a plot that is anywhere near on par with a good book or film. The game has some brilliant symbolic storytelling along with a disturbing overarching narrative that takes on some dark subject matter not often addressed in mainstream media, let alone video games. It tells a tale about suffering, loss, and possibly redemption depending on which of the game's endings you get. The story is also open to a lot of speculation and interpretation, though, so what you get out of the story may be completely different from my own interpretation of the story, which I may go into more detail at a later date.
Silent Hill 2's sound design is masterful as well. Helmed by Akira Yamaoka, the soundtrack can be a cacophony of harsh noise to keep your nerves on edge or a touching piano melody to remind you why you're here. Silence is also used to great effect. Sometimes the bleeding feedback of a harsh noise composition will be cut off as you enter a room, leaving you with only the sound of your footsteps and whatever lurks in that room.
One sour spot on the audio is the voice acting, which is absolutely terrible. Many people will defend the voice acting, but I just don't see it. Some argue that the stilted awkward nature of the acting adds to the uncanny atmosphere the game is building but for me, it almost ruins some very key scenes. The scene where you last see Angela and the scene in the hotel room with Laura are possibly the two most important scenes in Silent Hill 2's story, but the delivery from those characters nearly ruins them for me. Most of the voice acting is bad but tolerable, but when it comes to scenes of intense emotion, it falls apart almost immediately. I'm not going to say it ruins the game, but it certainly doesn't help.
You may have noticed that I haven't addressed the gameplay yet, which is unusual as I just sang the praises of God Hand for putting gameplay above all and that's because Silent Hill 2's gameplay isn't particularly notable, boring even. The gameplay mostly consists of running away from monsters and solving the usual obtuse puzzles, but for some reason I can't picture Silent Hill 2 working as anything other than a game. The four different endings you can get all tie into the story well and seem to be viable endings, and are determined by some pretty specific actions in the story. Exploring the town fills you with dread and builds the atmosphere and tension in a way that I don't think a film quite could. The story is also affected by what kind of a person you think James Sunderland is and how you play him.
While Silent Hill 2 may not have the best gameplay or voice acting, it is one of the only video game stories I would put shoulder to shoulder with other great stories of different mediums. It stands head and shoulders above its predecessor and has since become a gaming classic. That's why Silent Hill 2 is gaming's best 2.0.