Heavy Rain // PS3
February 28, 2010
It is hard to judge Heavy Rain against its contemporaries as it doesn’t fit into established genres. It’s impossible to compare its mechanics with those of another title, because it doesn’t bear any similarities to other games, other than the developer’s previous work, Fahrenheit. With such a bold stab at originality, where rulebooks are torn up and discarded with a sneer, it’s an impossibility that Heavy Rain will appeal to everyone. For those entrenched in familiar videogame tropes, in health bars and smashable crates, in boss fights and collectibles, it will be derided as a 10-hour long movie where you decide the outcome; a choose-your-own-adventure book transposed into a Blu-ray disc. But that would be missing the point entirely – Heavy Rain is not only an astonishingly polished attempt at true originality, it’s also a fantastic slice of digital entertainment in its own right.
The director of Heavy Rain, David Cage, who is also the founder of developer Quantic Dream, alludes to the gameplay of his latest magnum opus as Interactive Drama.It fits well as a label; not only is story king, it’s the players emotional resonance to the characters they are controlling that is Cage’s chief concern. And knowledge of the game’s treatment of death, as permanent here as in real life, corresponds to an even greater bond between player and avatar. Put simply, you will do everything in your power to stop them from dying. If a character is killed, their narrative in the overarching plot is removed, which robs the player of the possibility of subsequent scenes. In an industry where death is presented as a temporary annoyance, a minor setback which merely inconveniences the player by restoring them to the last checkpoint, it is refreshing that Heavy Rain brings the actual finality to the final curtain. It is another facet which sets this game apart as the first truly mature title to arrive on this generation of consoles.
And make no mistake, Heavy Rain is an adult experience. In an industry saturated by ‘mature’ games, drenched in blood and crass sexual scenes and slathered with bad language, Cage’s thriller actually deserves the tag. With echoes of chilling serial killer film Se7en permeating later scenes, Heavy Rain offers up a bleak narrative, unsavory characters and truly chilling experiences. When one of the earliest scenes involves the analysis of a dead body dumped in a waterlogged wasteland by a busy highway, its face covered in mud, it’s clear that Heavy Rain is a gaming experience quite unlike anything you have experienced before.
In a gameworld constantly drenched in rain, where grey clouds and squalid locations are the order of the day, it’s perhaps surprising just how beautiful this game is. It’s as simple as this; Heavy Rain is the best-looking game this generation. Textures are crisp, environments are varied and crammed with incidental detail, and light sources are stunningly realised, casting details in a diffuse glow in which dust motes gently drift and coalesce. Characters are equally well-realised. Each one is believable, and unmistakeably human. Private detective Scott Shelby is perhaps the most rounded character, fleshed out with humour but tempered with a world-weariness and a resignation of the presence of suffering in the world. Close-up shots of each character’s face at the beginning of each scene – to indicate to the player which character they will be controlling – is a chance to admire the fruit of Quantic Dream’s extensive labour, and undoubted talent.
It’s a shame then, that the facial animation sometimes falters. There has been extensive work put in in this area – 172 days worth of motion capture if the ‘Making Of’ bonus features are to be believed – but mouth animations in particular can sometimes look very strange, particularly in the case of Norman Jayden, the FBI profiler. This doesn’t detract from the overall believability of the aesthetics, however, and can be easily forgiven in the face of such astonishingly well-polished production values.
Heavy Rain’s detractors will level accusations that it’s an unending series of QTE (Quick Time Events), but this is a gross over-simplification. Although the player is required to press buttons corresponding to on-screen prompts, the actions and context fit seamlessly into what your character is doing and failed button prompts (which usually lead to instant deaths in cruder games) only lead to different consequences; branching narratives that may take the story into different directions. The action scenes are surprisingly difficult encounters, requiring very quick reflexes in order to chain the right sequence of buttons correctly, and infusing the player with a surge of adrenalin that is difficult to recall experiencing in other games. In other areas, Heavy Rain also broadens the scope of QTE’s, whether that’s by asking the player to hold down buttons in order, sometimes leading to very uncomfortable contorted fingers wrapped around the controller, or judicious use of the Sixaxis motion controls. Some of these falter however; as I’ve mentioned before, the PS3 controller wasn’t initially designed for motion control and the game’s inability to detect perfect executions of motion prompts is frustrating and, in my case at least, completely game-changing.
Special mention should also go to way these button prompts are entwined into the gameworld. Icons are positioned over the objects or furniture in the scene, so it is always clear how you interact with your environment. And conversational prompts are affected by your character’s state of mind, or the levels of anxiety they are being subjected to; so skittish, frenzied animations of the button prompts are not an uncommon sight.
How far would you go?
It’s clearly not a game for everyone. Initially a slow-burner, Heavy Rain’s emphasis on story and emotion over everything else is anathema to a certain type of gamer; those who expect well-used systems, comforting tropes and gunning down waves upon waves of faceless enemies. Catering to those that appreciate mature entertainment, that revel in cause and effect, in emotional impact, in experimentation, Heavy Rain is a massive step forward for videogaming, and a brave and laudable attempt at a truly original game. Cage should be congratulated on a compulsive experience, one that rewards and punishes the player in surprising ways, but which never falters in telling its tale. Whilst occasionally flawed in its execution, Heavy Rain is still a remarkably coherent product of one man’s vision of pushing the envelope. Videogames have finally come of age.