By Marty Mulrooney
Expectations for Quantic Dream’s new PlayStation 3 game Heavy Rain have been incredibly high for several months now: I cannot personally remember the last time I have so consciously anticipated a game leading up to release day. My mind has been practically salivating at the prospect of experiencing something that could potentially change how interactive stories in videogames are told forever. There have also been worries and doubts: as always, anything with this much anticipation placed upon its shoulders is playing Russian roulette with the critics even before release. But now it’s finally here and I can hopefully convey the extent that Heavy Rain has succeeded, or indeed failed, to Alternative Magazine Online’s readers.
From a purely visual perspective, Quantic Dream has seemingly squeezed the PlayStation 3 for every last ounce of power it can offer. It is immediately noticeable as soon as the game begins. The graphics are quite simply stunning, one of the first times I have seen 3D design match the artistry of 2D. Everything feels solid and tangible, in a way that many other games have failed to deliver. Yes, there are invisible walls that you can hit, with your character automatically turning back, yet it seldom irritates.
Indeed, the various levels are akin to film sets, focused and there to serve a purpose before swiftly moving on to the next scene. Furthermore, this relative lack of freedom soon becomes perfectly acceptable because it allows such a wonderful amount of detail to be packed into every single moment. Sometimes, the amount of characters on screen at once (a crowded shopping mall, a busy train station) is simply breathtaking. Parallels to film are apt simply because the narrative is so masterfully controlled.
Perhaps most importantly, it is controlled well. You never feel trapped, even though you are actually pretty limited with what you can do in a traditional gaming sense. Instead, you live and breath the rain soaked streets, dark motel rooms and crowded nightclubs in bite-sized chunks. This is an absorbing, dangerous world, spoon-fed to us by David Cage and his studio as the story sweeps us along from one location to the next at breakneck speed.
This lack of overarching traditional control (cleverly hidden with the gaming equivalent of smoke and mirrors) is counteracted by the player’s direct input into the unfolding narrative. Without giving too much away, the game centres around the Origami Killer, who kidnaps 10 year old boys before eventually drowning them in rain water. The player takes control of four main characters throughout, with the game switching between them after each scene is completed.
Ethan Mars is a father with a haunted past, whose son has recently disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Madison Paige is a journalist crippled by insomnia and nightmares. Norman Jayden is an FBI profiler struggling to overcome a severe drug addition. Scott Shelby is an ex-cop turned private investigator. Each character is beautifully acted and endeared to the player: this is an ensemble cast that easily rivals those seen in any successful cinematic endeavour. Disappointingly, Ethan and Scott seem to get more extensively developed than Madison and Norman, perhaps a direct result of the specific story that is being told more than anything else. Still, by the end of the game you know each of them intimately, for better or worse.
Controlling these characters, the player pulls the strings of the unravelling plot in numerous ways. The most touted feature of Heavy Rain has been the nature of progression and how it can be manipulated: there are no specific requirements to be met here, no points to be scored. You aren’t playing for a specific outcome like the adventure games of the past, you are instead fighting for the outcome you desire, shared by the current character being played. Every decision does matters, even if the underlying structure is more like that of an elastic band: you can stretch the story to make it your own, but it will always snap back to rejoin Quantic Dream’s original vision.
This is never clearer than when controlling Ethan Mars, who is in many ways the protagonist and catalyst of this interactive drama. Ultimately, the game is about a father’s love and how far he will go to save his son. The fact that the game so effectively wraps the player up in this dilemma speaks volumes about its execution. I am not a father, but I sure felt like one here. Some of the decisions the game asks you to make are gut-wrenchingly powerful.
The fact that you care so deeply about these polygons and their individual fates is astonishing… death in Heavy Rain doesn’t equal a reload. There is finality to every outcome, the show must go on no matter what. The weight this adds to every decision is delicious: I would implore people to not cheat and go back if something doesn’t quite turn out how they had planned. After all, does real life always play out how we had hoped it would? In Heavy Rain, there are no guarantees.
The voice acting can be a bit hit or miss at times (this can perhaps be put down to the shear amount of dialogue present throughout), but overall the four main leads sound pretty great. Some side character’s voices ruin the audio side of things from time to time, but this is a minor distraction at best and only stands out so much because everything else is held to such a high standard. Surprisingly, supporting character Lauren Winters is one of the true triumphs of Heavy Rain, easily upstaging Madison as a female protagonist with bite (even though we never control her). She is voiced and acted to perfection. I wish we could have controlled her and gotten to know her further, for she steals every scene she is in with breathtaking ease, always ringing true.
The music is phenomenal, only adding further to the the richly layered mood that permeates so very darkly throughout. The gradually worsening downpour continually banishes the sunny beginnings to hazy memory, much like Ethan’s distant recollections of a happy family life. Atmospheric doesn’t even begin to describe the dangerous beauty of the titular heavy rain that lashes down throughout. It completely soaks us in the desperation of an innocent child’s eminent death, aligning us with the struggles of our heroes and sweeping us up in their pursuit of the killer.
The controls in Heavy Rain are another unique aspect of the production. The various characters are controlled almost like cars, with R2 initiating them to walk and the left analogue stick controlling their gaze. You look where you want to walk and the character follows, which admittedly takes some getting used to, but does work quite well overall. I say quite well, because I must confess it fails rather horribly at times. Characters will sometimes slide out of the way of other walking characters, breaking the illusion of reality, or completely lose any sense of direction at all due to a sudden change of camera angle. The movement controls are a joy when they work and a glaring scar on an otherwise beautiful face when they fail, which is a true shame.
On the other hand, a tap of L2 lets you see various topics on the currently controlled character’s mind, choices mapped to each face button on the pad. As well as being entertaining to listen to during exploration, these mental titbits can often offer invaluable hints to aid the player’s progression. This feature worked so effectively, I wish that every other game would employ it from now on. Rather than standing there at a loss for what to do next, the character simply thinks about it. Brilliant game design without question, negating the need for a traditional hints system in the process.
Most of the main actions are performed with the use of the right analogue stick. When near an interactive object, a symbol pops up to show the necessary action required, perhaps prompting something as simple as pressing up slowly to raise a glass of water to the character’s lips. Other actions are decidedly more complex, often involving several buttons being held at once, or even needing to be initiated at a certain speed. Motion controls work very well and actually make sense for once too: flicking the controller down to kick open a door, or up to head-butt an assailant, feels very responsive and satisfying. Different replies during conversations can completely shift the tone and direction of a particular discussion.
QTE’s (Quick Time Events) come into play frequently throughout, specifically during the more cinematic moments. Some gaming purists will slander these moments to death, claiming them to be the gaming equivalent of Simon Says. I would have to disagree. Yes, these events do alter what we would expect of gameplay in the traditional sense, but they actually aid the story here, allowing a greater sense of scale and intricacy than what we are accustomed to within the gaming medium. Button prompts appear dynamically, for example Circle may appear on an attacker’s arm as they are about to strike. Hitting the button in time will block the blow, whilst failing to do so will result in you being struck down.
The brilliant thing about these scenes is that failing a prompt will not necessarily result in failing the sequence overall, which should allow every player to have a somewhat unique scene play out for them, even if the overall outcome is the same. Whilst not for everyone, there is a substantial game here to be played, not matter what the naysayers claim. This is more than just an interactive movie and certainly more than just a traditional game too. It is an experiment in interactive entertainment and audience involvement that has gone out on a limb. And that limb has a button prompt floating upon it…
Does it always succeed? Sadly, no. The huge amount of available options have actually backed Quantic Dream into a corner: their ambition is admirable but it has also probably been their worst enemy come crunch time. There are plot-holes and inconsistencies throughout that cannot be ignored. Some are worse than others, but it still doesn’t let us escape the fact that, unlike a good movie (the medium that Heavy Rain so obviously strives to fuse with videogames), the story has moments of intense stumbling between every moment of haunting genius because of player interaction.
How much does this damage the game as a whole then? Again, that depends. Overall, I would say it is a 50/50 split as to how it will ultimately impact the connection made with players. Some will find the blemishes jarring simply because the game otherwise comes so very close to attaining something beyond reproach, namely emotional involvement that physically smarts. Other players, much like myself, will acknowledge the flaws but fall in love anyway because the rain soaked experience is so damn unique and original.
This is a game that features a sex scene that feels real and non-gratuitous. A game that confidentially portrays the horrific effects of drug addiction. A game that tastefully deals with the harrowing sense of loss at the death of your own child. Then there is the reveal of the Origami Killer’s true identity, which is a total knockout. The powerful moments far outweigh the missteps, saving Heavy Rain from failure even if total success has been missed by a hair’s breadth.
There are moments in Heavy Rain that will stick with me forever, moments that other players of the same game may not have even been privy to. It is that uniqueness, both in the worlds of storytelling and gaming, that sets Heavy Rain apart from anything else available today. I cannot say it is perfect, but I will say this: buy Heavy Rain and experience it as soon as possible. Then think about what the future of this medium will hold in ten years time, beyond mindlessly shooting waves of identical enemies and driving around that same old track. Heavy Rain isn’t perfect, but for now it does a pretty damn good job at pointing interactive storytelling in the right direction, if gamers and developers will listen. And for helping to reveal such staggering potential in this often belittled and looked down upon medium that I love so very much, I am truly grateful.
9 OUT OF 10
Collector’s Edition Review
Exclusive to HMV in the UK, the Collector’s Edition of Heavy Rain is quite a snazzy purchase for fans of gaming keepsakes. The case is the most striking feature of the whole package, dowsed in fake rain drops to give that beautiful rain-drizzled effect. Of course, the cardboard digipack will not be as durable as a regular case, so please bare that in mind before parting with your cash. Mine came with a slightly ripped holder inside due to the thickness of the poster it was housing, setting my OCD into overdrive!
Sadly, said foldout poster is largely forgettable (it is mostly a jazzed up manual with some pictures), although the redeemable PSN code is very nice indeed, offering a dynamic theme and also letting players experience Heavy Rain Chronicles: The Taxidermist, which most will remember as the first footage of Heavy Rain that was ever released. Taking control of Madison once more, player venture into a serial killer’s house, with various potential outcomes…
Sadly, the code seems to have problems on Sony’s end. Therefore, redeeming it now doesn’t give players the promised official soundtrack. Highly annoying at first, although HMV have now issued replacement codes which will let you download the soundtrack on March 4th if you’ve already used up your original code. Nice to get a solution, but kind of embarrassing nonetheless…
Pretty but not as durable as the regular case (but with price on its side, costing no more than the regular edition), I have decided to give the Heavy Rain Collector’s Edition a well deserved…
9 OUT OF 10
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