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We Review: Heavy Rain

I must admit when I first heard about Heavy Rain, I was a little dubious about it. I wondered whether it had an identity crisis, not knowing if it wanted to be a video game or a movie, or whether its developers had a sure sense of self in their attempt to bring innovation and a different form of story-telling into the gaming genre?

I had a bunch of other questions so I wrote this review like a little Q&A session, where I would answer my very own questions. Hit the jump to see the conversation I had with myself about Heavy Rain.

What’s the big fuss about Heavy Rain?

French video game developer Quantic Dream has lofty aspirations and with Heavy Rain they are attempting to exploring new directions in video gaming, and break the mould of what a traditional video game is. So it’s not a video game, nor is it a film, but somewhere in between, an interactive action-adventure title that plays out like a film noir. The developers set out to blend Hollywood-style cinematography with immersive action to bring a unique experience to a Playstation 3 console near you.

Your marketing spiel is a little brief, but I am intrigued. Tell me about the plot?

With Heavy Rain naturally being story-driven, I would be remiss in my duties if I spoiled anything for you, but it is set in a drab east coast American town that seems to receive an uncomfortable amount of rainfall. Amidst the citizens of this town is a creepy serial killer who kidnaps young boys, drowns them, and later dumps their bodies with an origami object in their hand and an orchid on their chest.

As news of the latest victim to go missing emerges, the game follows four strangers whose stories are separate from each other but slowly become intertwined as the search for the so-called Origami Killer progresses. There is Ethan Mars, an architect and family man whose happy existence is shattered by an accident. Madison Paige is a neurotic investigative journalist determined to get her story. Scott Shelby is a gruff, old-school private detective being paid to sniff out the serial killer. And finally, there is Norman Jayden, a high-tech FBI profiler with a substance abuse problem.

On this note, I should mention that the story starts off quite slowly. After having to install the 226 MB patch, and wait for the installation process to complete, I hoped that it would start off with a bang, but this is not the case. Every good interactive drama has to set the scene and introduce the characters, and in Heavy Rain the start is one of least glamorous you’re likely to see. The domesticity is mind-numbing but it has its purpose, so stick with it. It won’t be long before you are drawn into this most extraordinary world.

So what’s this I hear about me being able to influence the course of the story?

Heavy Rain shines in a lot of areas, but I’d say the best thing is the decision-making part. It makes you drive the story rather than having to react to it – each decision you make will have an effect on the narrative.

Be it movies, games, or books, every story wants to create a bond with its observer, and with Heavy Rain I felt more of an emotional connection to the characters than I have with any other game. I cared about what happened to them and truly wanted to make best of the situation they were in. Some of the decisions you have to make are quite intense and often have to be made quickly. I was jarred by a couple of these and made several gut calls at the time. I didn’t know if they were the right ones but I stuck with them, and with the branching plot mechanism I was able to create my own path in the game, eventually heading to the conclusion that was a direct consequence of my actions.

Heavy Rain doesn’t have a typical “Game Over” screen so if your choices lead to the death of a character the game doesn’t end, the story continues with play switching to another character. In the event that you kill off all four characters (you sadist!), there’s a conclusion for that.

Once the story is finished, you can go back to the chapter selection screen and play out your “what if” scenarios on any of the scenes that make up the game. It’s rewarding for those who are interested in discovering what may have happened if they had acted differently, hindsight and all that. If you didn’t purchase the collector’s edition of the game, you’ll be happy to know that a scene that came bundled with it is now will be available for download on April 1st. The DLC is entitled The Taxidermist and follows Madison Paige during the initial murders of the Origami Killer, a preface to the main game so to speak. It too has different outcomes based on your actions.

Now, what of the controls? I heard they are a little awkward.

Well, Heavy Rain isn’t a traditional video game, and it does bring with it a slightly unconventional control scheme. In the moments when you’re directly controlling your character, you need to hold down one of the trigger buttons and direct the left analogue stick to where you need them to go. You’d think that is an easy thing to do, so did I, but sometimes I found it annoyingly difficult to get them to face in the right direction. Having missed the object, I’d have to circle around around and try it over and over – I looked like a right spastic. Another cause of mild frustration is that you can’t directly control the camera. I’ve become accustomed to rotating one of the analogue sticks to survey the world around me, but in Heavy Rain the camera is fixed. I suppose it’s for good reason – the angles are specifically set to give the game a more cinematic experience and to bring attention to details in the specific scene you are playing.

When you’re not walking about, the majority your interaction with the game comes in the form of QTEs (Quick Time Events) that require you to press a variety of buttons or waggle the Sixaxis controller or a combination of those two actions to perform the task at hand. Messing up a sequence doesn’t spell the end, the game lets you recover from it quite well, and it’s very satisfying to complete and watch the frenetic QTE scene you were a part of. The QTE mechanics also come across in dialogue scenes when your character needs to make a decision. If their mental state is going down the toilet, the decision options swirl around and envelope the character. The more tense the situation, the more jittery the options are, often making it trickier for you to choose the right thing to do. At other times, hitting one of the trigger buttons lets you know what your character is thinking and may give you hints about what you need to do next.

Much like other games, it takes a little while to get used to the controls. They are suited to the style of the game but I felt they were a little clumsy in the movement area.

I hear the visuals are stunning. What are they like?

You heard right. From the characters faces to their clothing to foreboding locations they have to explore, the graphics are indeed stunning – some of the most beautiful I have ever seen on a console. It’s  not perfect though, I did spot a few instances of screen tearing and some texture popping issues. It’s nothing too serious.

Since Heavy Rain relies heavily on its story, its characters have to carry that story. With over 170 days of motion capture done, the characters and their facial expressions feel very real and help to immerse you further into the game.

Like the visuals, the voice acting too is remarkable, it never felt forced or unnatural to me. The main characters are voiced by real actors so perhaps that helped. I haven’t seen or heard acting this excellent since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Whilst I’m here I should also mention the game’s fantastic score. The orchestral sounds are melancholy when it needs to be and filled with high energy for the action scenes. It just adds another layer of immersion to the whole thing. Great stuff.

Ok ok, so in a nutshell?

Quantic Dream’s founder and game director CEO David Cage has been working on the project since 2006. Cage spent 15 months writing 6,000 pages of notes and the 2,000-page script; he even spent an age creating 30,00 words of non-linear dialogue. 70 actors were used and 170 days of motion capture went into the project. More than all these stats, it’s a labour or love and sign of the dedication and passion the team had to deliver a solid, different, emotive experience not yet seen on the Playstation 3 console.

The game isn’t that lengthy at roughly 10 hours, however the ability to revisit the scenes extends the replayability. Aside from a few holes in the plot, a little screen tearing, and a few control issues, it is an otherwise commendable effort by David Cage and Quantic Dream.

It’s not a game for everyone, but those who go in with no preconceptions and persist with it will be rewarded with a different, visually pleasing, and powerful piece of interactive entertainment. And if this amalgamation of movies and games becomes the standard in the near future, you know who to thank ;-)