A great movie will often leave you with as many questions as answers, encouraging introspection and debate long after the credits have finished rolling; but what of videogames? As a medium are videogames capable of stirring the emotions in the same way as celluloid? Well, reaching the end credits of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain will in all likelihood leave you slightly dazed, as its one of the most unique experiences to hit consoles in quite some time. It may also leave you pondering questions such as: exactly what constitutes ‘a videogame’? What do we expect from the medium? And (most prominently), what are games capable of?
Much has been written about Heavy Rain and that it will fuel debate for many years to come seems to be inevitable. Ever since the game was first revealed with a video audition of a virtual actor at E3 2006, it was apparent that Quantic Dream had ambitions far beyond the usual action/adventure fare; now the completed title is with us, we finally have the opportunity to see if this ambition has borne fruit and if the answers to the game’s main question – “How far are you willing to go to save someone you love?” – are both forthcoming and satisfyingly dramatic. The significance of this quote is two-fold; it drives the game’s narrative but it can also be seen as something of a challenge to you, the gamer – how willing are you to accept new ideas and new mechanics; how much control are you willing to give up and how much control did you actually have in the first place? So many questions…so little time…. Let’s move on shall we?!
Heavy Rain’s plot, characters and settings are so central to the experience that to discuss them in any detail would in all likelihood diminish your experience when you finally get your hands on it; so read on safely in the knowledge that there will be nothing here to ruin your enjoyment of the game. Most simply described as an interactive psychological thriller, Heavy Rain follows the lives of four characters as they all attempt to unravel the truth about the mysterious ‘Origami Killer’. Set in an unnamed American city drowning in torrential, oppressive rain and heaving with terror at the killer in its midst, the world of Heavy Rain is far from a happy place – Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the Mushroom Kingdom any more…
The most obviously striking thing about Heavy Rain is its visuals; this is without doubt one of the best looking games ever made and for the most part borders on photorealism. The sheer level of detail lavished on every scene and character is often staggering and the game admirably fulfils its assumed role as a showcase for what the PlayStation 3 (and console gaming as a whole) is capable of. Any game that pitches itself as an interactive drama would quickly unravel with robotic or lifeless performances from its ‘actors’ but here the cast is wonderfully believable, allowing you to focus on the drama unfolding on screen. There are some dud bits of dialogue here and there and the pace does stall from time to time…but are we now well on our way out of the ‘Uncanny Valley’? With Heavy Rain and Mass Effect 2 as evidence, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘yes we are!’.
Once you’ve stopped gawping at how lovely (in all it’s rainy, overcast misery!) everything looks, you can shift your focus to the gameplay, and it’s here that Heavy Rain will be considered most controversial. Thirty years of gaming history have taught us that (as a general rule of thumb) you control your character with the d-pad/analogue stick, and pressing buttons performs actions. Any game that strays from this format is probably called Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace (famous, and much derided Laserdisc based interactive animations) and has gameplay about as deep as one of the many puddles featured in Heavy Rain.
The control scheme in Heavy Rain is far more fluid, shifting from scene to scene and from moment to moment. In fact there are frequent occasions when it would probably be wrong to call them ‘controls’ at all. The reason for this is that Heavy Rain is as much about decision making as it is about manipulating your character, from simple choices such as: do you want to go left or right?, to more demanding decisions such as: should you intimidate a suspect or attempt to appeal to their good nature? Should you pull the trigger? Flee a crime scene? Tend to a wound? Do you want to live or die? Decisions, decisions, decisions…
There are many scenes in which you assume direct control to explore the environment, approach characters or search for clues; there are an equal number that play out as interactive cutscenes that demand that you press specific buttons, perform SIXAXIS waggles/shakes/swings and/or analogue stick gymnastics. Failure to hit cues results in the onscreen outcome changing course – miss a button press, for example, and an aggressor’s punch reaches its target; a successfully timed tap sees your character nimbly dodging out the way.
‘That sounds a lot like Dragon’s Lair?!’ we hear you say? And, you’re not entirely wrong; in parts Heavy Rain shares a lot in common with the Don Bluth classic/industry joke. Dragon’s Lair was launched 27 years ago however, and much has changed in this time; Heavy Rain offers a far more complex, nuanced and satisfying experience that, while on paper may sound slightly passive, in reality feels utterly engaging and you rarely feel detached from the onscreen action. This is in part due to the fact that inputs are far more densely packed, keeping you on your toes and (in all likelihood) on the edge of your seat.
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