Heavy Rain PS3 Review
Bing! “Thank you for supporting interactive drama!” chimes the PSN trophy. David Cage is very comfortable with what his latest project has become and is unafraid to define it. Heavy Rain may take some time to gather momentum but once it’s rolling, you’ll be powerless to stop it. Few games, or other media for that matter involve the player in the story as an emotionally engaged participant, instead tending to leave you on the sideline as a passive observer. Dark, beautiful and thrilling, Heavy Rain is a tour de force of storytelling blending the lines between game and film, linearity and freedom. Despite some technical errors, it is an exhilarating experience and quite unlike anything we have seen before. Heavy Rain is the most successful depiction of Cage’s idea of an interactive narrative to date; scene to scene, few games match Heavy Rain’s exciting, compulsive pull to the very end.
“How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?” is the core question to the main protagonists: a loving father desperately following a serial killer’s gruelling set of trials to save his kidnapped son, a private detective searching through the killer’s fallout, a bold sassy journalist trying to uncover the truth (resident in Lucas Kane’s flat since saving the world), and a young FBI agent hunting the killer with the latest technology. Progressively following the story through each character Quantum Leap style, you are bound to these very real, flawed individuals. The decisions you make have a genuine and profound effect on their development and the part they play in the story, even in death. The story is full of reoccurring and circular themes and clever diversions evoking the – just one more chapter before bed – of a page-turning master piece. Do you care if you hurt someone’s feelings? Are you paying attention to your responsibilities? Can you murder in cold blood? These are all things asked of you, and your actions will shape your personal version of the story.
It’s not just the story that forms the downbeat essence of the game; rain oppresses almost every scene – a key theme – even in daylight, while interiors are layout with remarkable attention to detail and an ominously beautiful soundtrack pervades the whole experience. Forbidden mysterious dilapidated spaces press in on the characters, crumbling forgotten buildings reflect the dark pessimistic narrative and depressing trailer homes display the despair of the denizens. The critical attention to detail in every scene, down to the rubbish collecting in the corners of deserted hallways, gun shots exploding in frightening surround sound and lines of cocaine tapped out on CD cases gives the game an air of gritty authenticity his previous work strived for. Heavy Rain’s style draws heavily from drama and film noir sources such as Philadelphia, The Big Sleep and self-consciously admits The Zodiac, the former being used extensively to form the look and feel of the game. It’s hard not to see that Cage’s skill has matured to a new level. Some of his previous ideas such as using multiple cameras to give a greater scene awareness and to build tension; fish-eyed lens to create a sense of disorientation and disconnection from reality, and spunky heroines parading in their pants are still present but more refined. Gone are the clichéd cyberpunk conspiracy theories and unconvincing paranormal themes seen in his first titles, The Nomad Soul and Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy). Instead Cage presents a much more identifiable, down to earth concept of a serial killer mystery; granted there is a virtual-reality, motion controlled computer system, but it’s so brilliantly conceived, you won’t care.
This complex, compulsively paced narrative is orchestrated mainly by Cage but the player can directly effect the outcome; this gives your actions real weight and opens you to a rare gaming position, strong empathy with the characters. Panic, joy, fear, anger, sadness are all transferred with remarkable effectiveness, owed hugely to the fantastic facial-animation. It actually provides the much more subtle expressions of subdued pain, sarcasm and a liar’s uncomfortable twitch. I’ve never been able to collect so much information from a game character purely from their expression; I was actually able to deduce motives and gain hints through observation. The main characters, with the exception of some out-of-place villains, not only have been written and voice-acted outstandingly well, but visually performed to a pedigree never before seen in a game. Quantic Dreams specialist motion-capture team have also done a superb job with physical animation, well, until the duff animations show up. Kissing in particular just looks odd, walking up stairs has a robotic edge and there are still animated mannequins in many scenes.
I also witnessed terrible object collision during a touching cinematic, a police woman walking through a character and a desk. Maybe Cage just had to get some sort of supernatural element in at some angle, no matter the cost. I thought we’d seen the last of this sort of malarkey back in the late nineties… To add insult to injury in what is an otherwise remarkable game, there are also some glaring graphical issues. At times the frame-rate drops noticeably, in particular the press conference near the beginning and the scrap-yard. There is also unignorable screen tearing in places and low resolution textures hanging out like a builder’s butt. Overall though the visuals and the animation are fantastic, from picking up a phone, play sword fighting on a hot sunny day, rocking out at another of Cage’s favourite settings – the techno night club complete with lasers – to being smashed through a table, it convinces and becomes seamless. Heavy Rain is a stunningly good looking game which makes immersion all the easier.
However it’s not just the outstanding visuals that allow for this involvement with the game; if the story is the locked book, the controls are the key. Granted it essentially translates to a point and click adventure with a gargantuan verb sheet but the overall effect is still effective. The game essentially has two modes: exploration and action. The former is where you can look for clues, solve puzzles and interact with the environment. This is achieved by using the R2 button to move and the left stick to direct the character. It sounds great in theory and mostly works; it can however be teeth grinningly irritating, making you feel like you’re trying to wave a cat into a running shower at times. This seems to be due to a smart environment navigation system implemented to remove that stupid game situation where you end up getting stuck on the side of a desk. It’s not game breaking, but this spongy movement could have seen more polish. Still Heavy Rain has a nice trick up its film noir trench-coat. As part of these exploration sections pushing L2 allows you to view the thoughts of your character, providing a monolog or choice which appear as floating words circling their head. Depending on the situation and the emotional state of your character, these words can be steady and easy to read while calm, or jumbled and distorted spinning out of control if stressed: simple but effective. Especially since your choice will affect the story.
The latter mode, occurs every time you interact with the game world including the thrillingly choreographed fight scenes. Interaction is represented by holographic cues similar to Zombieland, hovering over items, doors and faces requiring punching. Every input on the PS3 pad is put to use including the Sixaxis motion control, a rarity indeed especially as effectively as this. Some actions require slow accurate movements on the stick – placing fragile plates for example – or holding down a sequence of buttons before flicking the pad simulating the concentration needed to shoot a basket-hoop, or just honest button mashing on the shoulder buttons to dodge pesky frozen fish. The effect of this physical interaction with the game is that it feels intuitive and refreshingly pragmatic; inevitable habituation to the discrete on screen cues gives an unprecedented level of immersion. New interactions are as much of an exciting twist as the narrative they drive, and remain engaging to the end. Some actions however are a bit heavy-handed, such as the frantic pad waving needed to brush your teeth or out the out of context nappy changing. Further to this, for a game that places so much emphasis on choosing your own path, it’s not always clear what a cue will actually perform. Despite this, the game is the proud holder of the most empathetically excruciatingly painful game action I’ve ever performed; I was physically shaking from the experience. So regardless of whether you are waggling the pad to mix up orange juice, slamming it into a viscous right-hook or franticly doing a twister like act across the pad, jabbing it sideways to escape almost certain death; it grips you in its intimate and exhausting embrace.
Unfortunately, despite the excellent communication between player and game, confusion can arise from Heavy Rain’s adaptable storytelling; an ambitious system which is set with the impossible task of always bringing Cage’s scenarios together convincingly. The game will still come to a proper conclusion even in the event of death, and losing main characters is alarmingly shocking. Still, deliberately tempting fate and missing cues during dangerous QTEs can play out in non-fatal fashion. It seems Death is off on holiday, leaving his dozy cousin in charge. Understandable considering the weather, but in Cage’s attempt to create a story which can be played by all, the consequences of failure are seldom forced on the player. There are also a few concepts which are established early on in the story and never returned to or explained, which leaves some unsatisfying plot-holes. Reiteration of the plot by the characters is seemingly forbidden meaning some chains of events don’t quite make sense, you sometimes end up in scenes not really knowing why you are there. The game seems all too willing to don a welding mask and charge down your chosen narrative path all for the sake of pacing. Much of the game’s strength comes from the journey and not the conclusion, causing the curt summations at the end to feel a bit unsatisfying compared to the earlier dedicated attention to detail.
It’s a shame that a milestone in gaming is tarnished by both technical and plot issues, but nevertheless, Cage has taken a visionary step in interactive storytelling, creating something bold, beautiful and engaging. Storytelling has come a long way since painting in caves and it’s slightly giddying for it to reach this evolution. To see what so many other titles have set out to integrate – a blend of tightly scripted story and player choice – to come this close to perfection is amazing. Every decision you make – from mundane to dark and unsettling – is an exhilarating, exhausting and emotionally gripping journey; Heavy Rain is something you just have to play. I guess if you don’t like stories and have no hands then you’ll hate it, but for the rest of you, Heavy Rain is an experience you will not soon forget.