Simplistic attention grabbing techniques weren’t at the forefront of French developers Quantic Dream’s aims though, as they set out to craft an experience unlike any other the medium has yet offered: A story with real emotional punching power. The likes of Final Fantasy VII may have moved gamers with certain cut-scenes, but it is hard to make the case for them having done so in a consistently sustained manner during gameplay. So, how did developers Quantic Dream plan to succeed where so many others have failed?
Coming as the development studio’s third title, there are high hopes pinned on it, from both the makers of the game and the publishers, Sony, who will no doubt hope its exclusivity to their console will prove to be a system seller. Originally penned in as a PC game, it quickly moved to the PlayStation3 console early in its development. Announced at the E3 games conference back in 2006, the preliminary technical demonstration trailer, entitled The Casting, wowed many with its accurate representation of facial details and its clear intent to place emotional impact at the core of its sales pitch.
Since the mixed reception received by his second game Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream’s founder and co-CEO David Cage has spoken numerous times of his shortcomings as a writer for that title and the missteps that marred an otherwise stellar game. With Heavy Rain, rather than pen the script himself, professional writers have been hired, and it is hoped a more grounded experience and engaging character interplay will be seen as the result.
Set in an unnamed American city (though Philadelphia was used as the template), it is the story of four characters all facing the same task, but from different perspectives. Their intertwined escapades all revolve around the hunt for an infamous child abductor who drowns his victims, dubbed “The Origami Killer” because of his/her predilection for leaving origami models in the hands of victims.
It is an incredibly dark subject matter, and the 18 certificate that so often merely warns of excessive gore and violence is for once entirely warranted for altogether different reasons. It has been described as “interactive drama” by those behind its creation, and the foundations of professional writers and an extremely emotive premise would certainly point to that being the case.
You are thrown into the game and forced to explore via the means of various mundane everyday household tasks. It is your usual “this is how you press the buttons, this is how the game will work” hand holding session. What is refreshing, even at this early stage, is the freedom given to you within the environment. Wander about, have a pee, beat your kids in a toy sword fight, the emphasis is on building up the atmosphere.
This Brady Bunch chocolate box happy family routine serves as a perfect introduction to the parameters of the game’s mechanics as well as performing another, arguably more important function, that of engendering an attachment to the characters themselves. Most gamers have spent far too many years kneecapping NPCs when boredom takes over or attempting to shoot someone in the groin with a sniper rifle if they start to annoy us (though that one refuses to grow old), that to actually care for the safety of not only your avatar, but also an entire peripheral cast is one of the game’s biggest achievements.
Actions take the form of button presses and analogue stick pushes that those who played Fahrenheit will be instantly familiar with. Essentially, all important movements whereby you are called to interact with your environment or other characters start off a sort of Simon Says game with on-screen instructions. Move to a drawer and the symbol for a quarter turn of a thumb stick is highlighted. For this reason Heavy Rain has been invariably labelled as a quick-time-event (QTE for short) game, which is highly misleading.
The vast majority of your movement is governed by actions which are not timed and can be done in an order of your own choosing. Whether you check a piece of evidence, look in a cupboard etc makes up the staple minutiae of the general goings on and there are no time constraints imposed upon the gamer in these instances.
It is only when things that may have a bearing on the outcome of the story (or acquisition of trophies) come into view that we are pushed into a time frame. Correctly matching the on-screen instructions will result in your successful accomplishment of the task at hand, which can be anything from changing a baby’s nappy to battling a homicidal maniac. Given that everything seems to be geared towards adding a cinematic flourish to proceedings, it is not surprising to see that the coloured input instructions that were so helpful in Fahrenheit are now a thing of the past, with Heavy Rain preferring a sombre white input box that surrounds the action symbol indicating what you’re being instructed to perform.
This helps not only in keeping the overall atmosphere, but in maintaining your attention upon what those actions are actually resulting in on-screen. The great blight of QTE moments in games has always been that you become far more focussed on a bright light and your own instinctive reaction to it, to the point whereby you no longer let your gaze fall on any other part of the screen than that which you know the contextual nudge will emanate from.
The drawback in this case is that it becomes far harder to instantly tell the differing symbols from one another. On more than one occasion you will likely mistake the instruction for holding a button for that of tapping a button. This may seem a quibble, but when electrocution and the possible death of your son are at hand, it becomes all the more niggling an annoyance. Some boxes can even be obscured altogether by objects of furniture, with lower drawers on desks being invisibly reachable, but only after a change of camera angle becoming noticeable, the assumption being that you will be wanting to use the R1 trigger to shift to another set camera angle (of which there are only two for each location). This works quite well, and keeps the film noir feel intact, but it also allows the age old blight of pushing in one direction only for the switch of view to cause you to turn in another, to occasionally raise its head. It may not be frequent, and the general slowness of scenes means that it isn’t usually pivotal, but it highlights what some may see as the ranking of cinematic fluidity above that of gameplay.
This is where opinions are likely to be split, with some preferring atmosphere to be added as a layer to their gaming, not the other way round. David Cage and co. have gone about the mammoth undertaking of bringing a mature angle to such everyday videogame story material as the hunt for a killer, by focussing on the minutiae of the experience and presenting these moments in a cinematic way. You walk, talk and investigate, but not in equal measure and certainly not towards the beginning of the saga. Heavy Rain runs the very real risk of being labelled “boring” by those who expect their early levels to be indicative of a lure intended to draw them into the game world.
Those with a daily need for Ritalin to stop their heads bouncing off the ceiling are likely to see these early sequences as more of a slap with a wet fish than a barbed hook. Nonetheless, rather than pander to those who co-mingle their pad waving with a fizzy drink and a sugar rush, the developers have taken this into consideration…..and thankfully dismissed these concerns What we are treated to are intentionally long scenes that require little in the way of input and have the merest hint of interaction at times. In [Heavy Rain[/I], the core give-and-take between games designer and player is not woven around the complete control of perambulation etc but rather the choices made and their repercussions.
This is the real ace up the sleeve of Quantic Dream, and to some extent the genius of this orchestration is held from view until you’ve completed one play through and come to see what you’ve missed. One of the key marketing angles with this title is to hype up the different paths that are open to you or, at times, forced upon you. This not only proves to be a fine way of increasing longevity, but it also makes for a far more intellectually and emotionally taxing game. Each decision must be weighed up because the consequences are unknown.
It may be possible to finish a chapter and immediately replay it, altering your choices to see what these variations might have led to, but it would destroy the most important and painstakingly crafted element of Heavy Rain - atmosphere. The mood can shift not only with what is on-screen but also in the mind of the player. Lose a central character and your attachment to those remaining will no doubt increase. With the very real threat of a permanent death (two words that shouldn’t need to be joined together, but in gaming parlance have to be), hovering over you, there will be more than one case of sweaty palms, and this tension helps to slow the pace and elongate your playing time as you weigh up all your options.
This multi-branching approach points to a level of longevity that is missing from other single player only games, but the fly in the ointment is that Cage never intended it to be replayed to any great extent, certainly not at the time of your first play through. Being a linear story it is only fitting that it be experienced in a straightforward manner, with no back and forth between stages/scenarios to see what might have lain in store for your character.
If anything, the fact that the central themes are so powerful and the cinematic element so well orchestrated, it is only really capable of delivering a genuine punch on the first completion. You can go back, kill people off, take different routes, but once you’ve ridden the emotional rollercoaster once you may just feel that it’s best left there. There is certainly a degree of longevity here, but given the short time it takes to complete it once, it won’t remain a constant feature of your PlayStation3’s cross media bar for weeks on end.
As with the game mechanics, the emphasis with regards presentation is clearly placed upon heightening the atmosphere that the story has lain down. The character models aren’t quite as impressive as those seen in The Casting technical trailer but they are pretty close. In between scenes (I call them that as “levels” or “stages” seems woefully inaccurate) we are treated to a close up of a character’s face, which is painstakingly recreated from their original life sources, with just a few flourishes here and there. Wrinkles, scars, hairs and even pores are noticeable. This may be a mere technical showcase but it is still mightily impressive.
It is easy to see why some are running the rule over whether this trumps Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in the graphical stakes. Both utilise stylistic lighting techniques that are dependent upon environment and both use varying depths of field to create a more cinematic experience. Heavy Rain more than holds its own against the current title holder, but there are places where it is let down. The motion capture technology used may have helped facial expressions and cut-scenes, but the animation of such a simple act as walking can look unnatural when you take control of the joypad once more. The key to this may lie in the control method of utilising the left analogue stick for head movement and the R2 trigger for forward motion. The result is satisfactory at slow paces, but fast head turns, redirection in tight spaces and ascending stairs have the air of Shenmue’s Ryo, with his trademark head/body swivel and shuffling gait.
This however was a game intended to be played at a slow pace, taking the time to allow subtle movement of the head whilst walking and all looks fine. This lethargic pace also gives you ample time to check out the myriad of stunning textures on display. For a dingy game, Quantic Dream has gone to great lengths to give different surfaces and fabrics their own distinctive patina. Combined with the intricate lighting, blurring and focal effects and the outcome can be stunning to behold.
Add in a musical score that is positively haunting and the minor problems regarding some character animation and a few aspects of clothing not flowing in the manner one would like considering the Havok physics engine used, and you’ve got a package that aims to present itself in a manner befitting a tale on the silver screen, and for the most part it succeeds in this ambitious task.
Heavy Rain is an extremely accomplished experience, but one that must come with a couple of minor caveats. It is certainly aimed at those who can slouch on a couch and actually enjoy a cut-scene, rather than wanting to skip it and get back to the action. Nitpickers might point to one particular hole in the plotting, but to find a game that has such a tight script, multi-facetted characters and cinematic framing, all maintained for its entire duration is incredible, in comparison one slight misstep is understandably forgivable. It was made to be both watched and played, experienced and mulled over.
Once completed, the want to replay it again may not seem that instant, but give it a day or so and the nagging doubts about your decisions and how differently things might have turned out may just draw you back for more, at least in the short term. It is dark, brooding and unashamedly adult in both style and execution and demands similar levels of maturity from its audience. If you stay the course beyond the early mundanity, and can allow yourself to enjoy its slow pace in a manner that is outside the usual realms of gaming, the ensuing twists and turns will leave a lasting impression and could serve as a possible indicator for the future of the medium.
Right as rain
- Compelling story
- Intelligent script
- Gorgeous graphics
- Peerless atmosphere
Under the weather
- Input signs can be hard to read
- Occasional lapse in (high) animation quality
Heavy Rain PS3 Review
Bridging the gap between movies and videogames, Quantic Dream build on the cult success of Fahrenheit with a deep, dark and unsettling story that is cinematic in its cut-scene-heavy noir stylings. The reliance on Quick Time Events isn't entirely successful, but the sheer atmosphere, stunning visuals and attention to detail help this blockbuster of a game mark itself as a potential watershed-moment in the history of the medium, and a title that simply must be experienced. If you want a counter to the old "games are for kids" argument - this is it.
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