Game trailer: Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain is by far one of the most ambitious video games to hit consoles in quite some time. From David Cage, the man behind Omikron and Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain is much more heavily invested in real human emotion than in supernatural phenomenon.
Regardless of whether the story affects you, we guarantee you've never played anything like this before.
Heavy Rain isn't a video game per se. It's actually an interactive story that you watch first and participate in second. The narrative told in Heavy Rain is so many light years ahead of anything else out there that it stands separate from the rest as a truly innovative piece of software. The game places you in the shoes of four central characters whose storylines interweave and connect through one common goal: revealing the identity of a serial murderer known only as the Origami Killer. Make no mistake, the true star of Heavy Rain is its psychologically thrilling exposition, a story with just the right amount of twists and turns that it trumps most of what Hollywood offers us today.
Things don't pick up until an hour or so in, but when they do, Heavy Rain is able to successfully transport you into its creepy and occasionally all-too-real atmosphere. By giving you control over making major decisions in each of the main characters' paths, you are able to identify with these fictional people. And because these ultimatums must be made with great haste, you're easily able to understand the gravity of their importance. Playing off the basic human emotions of love for one's family and the desperate lengths we go to preserve that, Heavy Rain is much more identifiable than your average game.
All the action is carefully choreographed and--most impressive--dynamic. Fight scenes can change on-the-fly, all but guaranteeing you'll never see the same sequence twice. Every decision you make in the game is linked to changes in the story's presentation, which add to the overall sense of a personalized experience. All the major chapters have such impressive build ups and suspense that we occasionally forgot this was a Blu-ray game in our PS3 and not a drama on cable.
There are a few moments in Heavy Rain that just feel awkward. For one, the controls are a bit wonky. It feels like the game goes out of its way to handle walking differently than anything else you're used to--and because of this uncharted territory, you're sporadically treated to a few frustrating letdowns. Also, there are moments of cultural disconnect (as Dan will elaborate on), which we think is something that probably could have been better regionalized. Luckily, the rest of the experience is so engrossing and innovative that these tiny bumps in the road are easily overlooked.
What we've learned from Heavy Rain is that the less you are allowed to roam free and actually play as a character in a game, the better the story will probably be. The true genius of Heavy Rain is that it provides you with just enough of an invested connection--perhaps an illusion of intervention--that you're totally compelled to see your story's path all the way through. It's probably best described as one of those books that you can't put down.
I was confident I'd never meet a video game that would make me cry, and despite reviews flaunting its emotive capacity, I was doubtful about Heavy Rain. Still, my tears did flow--in an early scene, preparing my son for bed, in a sad, dilapidated apartment, the quiet emotions were overwhelming. I won't tell you more of what happens later, because I don't want to ruin any of the plot--but, atmospherically, Heavy Rain is a masterpiece.
Composed as a series of interactive cinematic chapters, Heavy Rain unfolds as much like a novel as it does like a movie. I found myself playing a few chapters, coming back a few hours later, and playing a few more. Flipping back and forth between four main characters, the plot puts you on all sides of a David Fincher-esque thriller, with a heavy focus on deep emotion versus scare tactics.
The controls feel somewhere between the old Resident Evil games and the quicktime battle sequences in God of War, and since many of the game's settings choose to semi-fix the camera angles, your player control can get awkward. Facial animations and voice acting also take dips in quality at times, which can be jarring considering how effective they can be at other times. The game alternates between fast-paced chase-and-fight sequences and far slower information-gathering and exploration moments. While I appreciated the arcade twitch-pressing in chases, I far preferred the slower, more haunting pace of free exploration, and felt this game was best in moments of stillness and near silence.
The music, audio environments, location designs, and deliberate sense of pacing are Heavy Rain's strongest suits. Whereas many games make you replay failed "quicktime" button-pressing sequences, Heavy Rain keeps going on, with different endings and plot paths emerging based on your actions in moments ranging from moral dilemmas to minor interactions. I played through only once, but Dan and Jeff also played through, allowing us to compare what happened. I was a coward in one sequence, and my actions resulted in heroic but depressing plot turns. Chapters can be revisited to replay and alter the outcome in different directions, but I preferred having a single experience. Despite the multiple endings, I don't feel like I'd be compelled to play again.
For those looking for a piece to show off their PS3 to a friend, or who seek that ever-elusive merger of games with Hollywood, this is as close as you're likely to find until Avatar-style motion capture can elevate the experience beyond the uncanny valley of heavy gaming.
What is Heavy Rain? A visionary interactive experience, a too-clever experiment in video game storytelling, or a fuzzy tachyon transmission from the future, giving us a glimpse of things to come?
It's perhaps easiest to say that playing Heavy Rain is like experiencing the first "talkies," (such as The Jazz Singer). The transition was not an entirely smooth one, and those early examples awkwardly mixed silent film conventions with some (at the time) groundbreaking examples of synced sound.
The level of detail and character interaction in Heavy Rain makes it a unique experience, albeit one that fans of traditional action/stealth/shooter games may find too exotic to enjoy. Being forced to consciously think about real-world actions, such as opening car doors or taking medications forces us to confront the mundane moments that inevitably come between the action set pieces in games, movies, and novels. While many games have branching conversation trees that can lead to different outcomes, we've never seen one as in-depth or organic as this.
Having heard some players decry the game's occasional scenes of domestic suburban life as boring and pointless, we'd counter by pointing out this is exactly the kind of basic character building missing from other games. Even the cheesiest direct-to-cable Steven Segal revenge action thriller pauses for a few idyllic scenes of family harmony, to set up the inevitable price of heroism. To truly break from their arcade origins, games must do at least that much.
Of course, we expect nothing less than bold, if overreaching, experiments from writer/director David Cage (the nom de jue of French game designer David De Gruttola). His previous efforts, 1999's Omikron and 2005's Indigo Prophecy (also known as Fahrenheit), were both concerned with similar issues of identity and personal responsibility.
Like those games, however, Heavy Rain also fails to completely fulfill its potential. A seemingly open-ended world eventually funnels itself down to a handful of set narrative conclusions; the potboiler plot quickly devolves into illogic, and the ruinous attempt by French actors to mimic American accents and colloquialisms pulls you out of the experience.
It's also interesting to note the bizarre European touches that abound in the game's unnamed American metropolis. A briefly glimpsed newspaper contains a reference to the Prime Minister, toilets all have top-flush buttons, and several buildings even have Euro-style middle doorknobs--at times it feels more like we're touring the arrondissements of Paris than a rainy East Coast city.
That said, few games come closer to earning the title of "must play" than Heavy Rain. It's a peek into one possible future of interactive entertainment, and even though it misses the mark, it misses on levels more mainstream games don't even aspire to.
For more on Heavy Rain, check out a live demo on preGAME!