We were really excited to preview Heavy Rain which is lined up to be one of this years essential titles on Sony PS3 – and as you’ll read we weren’t disappointed.
Make no mistake; Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain represents a colossal gamble. Although the developer’s previous release (the critically worshipped, 800,000-plus selling Fahrenheit) was something of a slow-burn smash on all fronts, it existed in a self-made niche all of its own. It was a title that built its fanbase entirely via steady word of mouth, and was beloved most diligently by the clued-up hardcore. But Heavy Rain is being pitched as a serious, highbrow tentpole release, and is surely the biggest exclusive on Sony’s spring release list.
But the publisher appears to be massively confident (swaggeringly so, in fact) and clearly pleased with Quantic Dream’s work thus far, as this v2 preview code (of a game that is still yet to be completed) amounts to a hefty portion of the game’s opening tier. The biggest hurdle that Sony is facing is one of conveying to the public exactly what kind of Sony PS3 game Heavy Rain actually is, because describing it is a far from elementary task. It is an unmistakably crude attempt, but the gameplay is best described as being a cross between a retro graphical adventure (a la Monkey Island) and a Fighting Fantasy novel, with perhaps a little bit of Don Bluth’s Space Ace thrown in for lazy measure. But those comparisons are disingenuous to a fault, simply because they deny Heavy Rain’s totally justified claim to being its very own, deeply idiosyncratic thing.
The story begins with the player in control of Ethan Mars, an affluent architect and family man, as he wakes in bed on a blissful summer’s morning. A few simple QTEs later and Ethan is on his feet, at which point exasperation sets in. The controls are abnormal in the extreme, and the only real comparison that springs to mind is with those first two fiddly Resident Evil titles on the PSOne. Holding R2 moves Ethan forward, and the left analogue stick modifies the direction of his head, which in turn determines the course that he follows. If this control system is immediately irritating, then it is alarming to note just how quickly that feeling dissipates – we’re talking about a few seconds. Literally. After that, the fluidity and general perfection of this system appears fresh and positively joyous. The game’s director (and Quantic Dream’s founder and CEO) David Cage has explained that this control style was primarily chosen to free the character’s movement from the perspective of the camera, putting an emphasis on the cinematic, and it is an idea that has been executed beautifully.
You are initially free to wander around your spacious, minimalist, almost palatial suburban home however you wish, and after taking Ethan for a shower and clothing him, you’re directed downstairs to get coffee, listen to some music, or knuckle down to some unfinished sketch work in the drawing room. What is most surprising about this section is that not only isn’t it boring, but it genuinely feels like the opening of a movie, albeit a heavily conventional one. Anyone in retention of even the most fleeting knowledge of storytelling etiquette will know immediately that things are set to take a turn for the worse, if only because this familiar representation of household utopia is only ever created so that it can be mercilessly smashed to pieces. Awareness of this inevitable U-turn could have led to a desire to step back from engaging with these people, but deft and unobtrusive writing prevents it.
The first time that you are invited to fully interact with another character (and the first time that you are truly invited to marvel at the possibilities of what Heavy Rain could potentially offer you) is when you are encouraged to join Ethan’s two young sons, Shaun and Jason, in the back garden. It is playtime, and Jason (the younger of the two children) instigates a sword battle, and Ethan immediately obliges, triggering a rapid series of quick time events, the nailing of which results in Ethan leaping around the garden like a boastful acrobat, easily out-foxing young Jason and loving every minute of it.
At this point, most players will be thinking only one thing: what kind of douche bag parent takes pleasure in beating his own 8 year old child in a toy sword fight? A moment or two later, and it hits: all of this is completely up to you. The more perverse player will relish the opportunity to lay some smackdown on a vessel of such adorable innocence, but everyone else will throw the fight happily, thus strengthening the bond not only between Ethan and Jason within the game, but between you and both of these characters outside of it. Shrewd, gentle characterisation assists in totally enriching your investment in their relationship.
When the event of inevitably grim reality takes place in Ethan’s world and kicks the plot into gear, the story splinters off in multiple directions, and the heavenly suburbs are replaced by a chilly, depreciated urban landscape that is tinged with the wet, pessimistic repugnance of modern film-noir. David Fincher is clearly a primary aesthetic influence, with Heavy Rain making large stylistic nods towards the classic DVDSs Se7en and Zodiac.
The most immediate (and immediately alluring) chapter available in the preview code is one entitled “Sleazy Place”, in which you play an asthmatic, retired private detective named Scott Shelby, tasked with questioning a blunt, hard-boiled prostitute about the murder of someone close to her. Multiple playthroughs reveal just how subtle your interactions can be for them to fundamentally alter their relationship. Brilliantly, things such as simple, old-fashioned tact aren’t qualities that every character is susceptible to.
The inherent problem with previewing something like Heavy Rain is the same problem that will arise tenfold when critics attempt to review the full game. So story-centric is the game that crippling spoilers are almost impossible to avoid (and some aloof, pernickety gamers are going to argue that a story is all that there is here) irrespective of how many different ways the story can turn. Your (sometimes miniscule) interactions with the world and its characters make the experience feel very much like something that you are assisting in crafting, and in many ways the experience shouldn’t be judged until your own version of the story has run its course.
There is also a danger of being given too much control. Cage has said that he has no intention of offering up anything like a sandbox-style experience, but the ever-present option in the early portion of the game to do ultimately pointless things (like open empty closet doors and switch lights on and off) may dissuade players from investigating background clues that could prove integral to the plot later on – particularly when playable FBI profiler Norman Jayden, with his enjoyably hi-tech brand of detective work, enters the fray.
And the most frustrating problems may yet arise if, ridiculously, the storyline turns out to be every bit as satisfying and engrossing as it appears to be at this point. As anyone who has ever become addicted to a Fighting Fantasy book will tell you, serious emotional investment in a particular plot always resulted in the relentless pursuit of the happiest ending possible, and the crafty use of various fingers (as bookmarks, lest you take a wrong turn) could manifest itself in its modern day equivalent of multiple save slots and endless, jarring restarts. But the overwhelming richness of everything on display, at this late stage, indicates that multiple playthroughs will be a far more desirable (essential, even) option for almost everyone who plays it.
So whether you’re a Fahrenheit junkie hankering after an official descendant, or merely someone intrigued by a videogame that is so bullishly different from everything else in the marketplace, the prognosis is exactly the same either way: Be excited.
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