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Game Impressions: Heavy Rain

February 28, 2010

Introduction

By description, Heavy Rain is the type of game to which I would naturally gravitate.  Developer Quantic Dream describes it as interactive drama, which smacks of my love of interactive fiction, choose your own adventures, and point-and-click games.  The game uses a unique control scheme that uses context sensitive actions and quick time events to tell the story of four characters and the mystery of the Origami Killer.  So what’s my take on this new interactive drama?


Story

Usually in this section I outline the major plotlines, giving a flavor of the story without a spoiling the majority of the game.  With Heavy Rain, this is extremely difficult to do, as the essence of the game is the narrative and plot.  So this section will probably be disjointed and short.  There should be nothing I write that isn’t obvious in the games official trailer.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

Heavy Rain allows the player to control the actions of four main characters.  The first is Ethan Mars, a dad who’s been affected by one life-shattering event, the death of one of his sons.  When his other son is kidnapped by the Origami Killer, he’s put through the tagline of the game, which is “How far will you go to save someone you love?”.  Madison Paige is a photojournalist who suffers from chronic insomnia.  Her investigations into the mystery of the Origami Killer draw her down a dangerous, life-threatening path.  Scott Shelby is a ex-cop who’s now working as a private detective on the Origami Killer case.  He’s a classic gumshoe who believes in good old-fashioned legwork.  Finally, Norman Jayden is an drug-addicted FBI agent assigned to the case.  He uses an experimental set of sunglasses with an augmented reality interface (ARI) to track down an analyze clues.

And who is the Origami Killer?  Well, that’s for you to determine as you use all four characters in a race to save Ethan’s son from becoming the Origami Killer’s next victim.

Gameplay

Heavy Rain was developed by motion capturing each and every scene, and the payoff of that labor-intensive effort is in the gorgeous visuals.  The game looks superb.  One of the most difficult things to get right is facial animation, and this game is one of the best at it.  When player controlled and not computer driven, the characters still have a little unnatural or wooden feel to them, but there’s very little to complain about visually.

I’d segregate the audio into two distinct parts.  The music is great, and goes a long way in setting up the suspense and mood of the whole game.  It really drives the game forward.  The acting, on the other hand, is not as stellar.  I would not go so far as to say it was bad, but the use of actors to whom English is not their first language for many of the speaking parts tends to hamper the performances.  Maybe it’s the case where the computer animation hasn’t transcended that in the way that seeing the actual actor would.  There are occasional lapses in good dialog as well, though I tend not to get hung up on things like that.  I never really sat there thinking that the acting wasn’t good or the dialog was really bad, though.  It’s just a general sense afterwords that maybe it wasn’t as good as it could have been.

The controls setup is unique and integral to the game.  Walking is performed with a combination of using the left analog stick to turn and the R2 button to walk.  Other actions are context sensitive, like picking up a bottle or opening a cabinet door.  The analogue nature of the controller is used such that some actions are controlled by how far down you press the button, or how fast you turn the stick.  The motion sensing capabilities are also used when prompted to move the whole controller a certain direction.  Most of the combat and action sequences are played out as quick time events, where the action taken by the character is totally computer driven, but based on the player responses to rapid on-screen prompts.

For the most part, the controls work fine.  You’re first 20 minutes of trying to walk is painful, but you quickly adapt.  I had a harder time just adapting to which buttons are which on the PS3 controller.  It’s not like I am unfamiliar with Playstation buttons, but I’m just more used to using them than remembering which symbol is which.  That early frustration was compounded by the fact that I hadn’t played much on my PS3 lately, and further compounded by the fact that the developers chose a stylistic approach to showing the buttons on the screen in white only.  Having the X be blue and the triangle be green visually would have helped me out.  I have a feeling that casual PS3 players would thnk the same.

There were several other frustrations with the controls during gameplay.  With so many options, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between a button press, a repeated button press, and a hold-it-down button press during the heat of a quick time event.  While you know what the difference is, pushing the right stick up versus moving the whole controller up can make a big difference in the outcome of a scene.  And occasionally the game would just not recognize what I did, particularly when it didn’t think I did a quarter stick turn the right way, or perhaps at the right speed.  When the intent is there and you feel that your response was right, but the game records it as wrong, it can be a bit frustrating.  Nothing show-stopping, but occasional enough to warrant mentioning.

Plot.  Plot.  Plot.  I’ll give Quantic Dream kudos for weaving together a story that has a myriad of possible outcomes depending on the players decisions and actions.  After my play through I went and looked up what could have been, and the number of possibilities is staggering.  I guess if you are so inclined, that creates a lot of re-playability.  For me, though, the fact that the killer will always be one person takes a lot of fun out of that.  Plus, the game does fantastic at creating suspense, something that just wouldn’t be the same in repeated play throughs, no matter how you mix up your choices.

I really like how the title of the game, Heavy Rain, is descriptive of more than just the weather during the game.  And I like the motivations of the killer, which tie in rather smartly with the game’s tagline.  But for a game with such a dependence on plot and narrative, however, there sure are a lot of plot holes.  It reminds me a bit of a summer blockbuster movie.  Enjoy the show but don’t think too hard about the plot.  Which for a game like Heavy Rain is kind of a problem, since the “interactive drama” is all about the plot.  It’s where the game excels and falters both at the same time.  Couple that with some red herrings that an murder mystery fan will tell you are downright cheats, and what could be a great game becomes just a good game.

Some people have reported glitches and lockups while playing.  For the record, I saw both, but nothing I couldn’t get past after a reset and nothing so frustrating it put me off playing it (I’m looking at you, God of War Collection!).  It’s probably something that Quantic Dream can fix in a patch.

Extras

As is the norm, you unlock trophies on the PS3 as you progress through the game and events unfold.  In the case of Heavy Rain more than most others I’ve played, I can’t say for sure whether this was good or bad.  After seeing a pattern of receiving trophies after completing scenes, I started wondering if getting a trophy meant that I “did something right” and not getting a trophy meant a missed opportunity.  I would have almost liked to have accumulated the trophies silently during the game, to be made available only after finishing it, or something like that.  They were a distraction to me rather than an added bonus.

You can also unlock the standard concept art and making-of movies and trailers.  Concept art doesn’t do much for me, but I did watch all the unlocked videos, which were short and interesting.  I have no idea if my play through unlocked everything or not, though.  They ought to have some indicator of that.

Lastly, and probably most interestingly, Heavy Rain is a PS3 game that must be installed on your hard drive in order to play.  Some gamers will bitch and moan about that, like the extra few minutes just ruined the game for them, but it doesn’t really bother me.  In anticipation, however, Quantic Dream included a small square paper sheet in the game case, that you can fold into the origami bird featured prominently on the game covers and artwork.  There are on-screen instructions on how to fold it that you can follow while the game installs behind the scenes.  That’s pretty cool.  It actually took me longer to make my bird (below) than it took to install the game.

Conclusion

Heavy Rain is a unique title that has more potential than it delivers.  It does a great job at building suspense in the game and making you want to experience and uncover more, but in the end you are left a little let down by how you got there, which is a shame.  Having said that, I’ll swing the opposite way and say that despite the flaws, it’s a game worth having in your PS3 library and worth playing if you have even the slightest interest in the concept.  It’s definitely a game to remember.

All told, it took me about 10 hours to play through the entire game.  I unlocked 49% of the available trophies, so there’s still a lot of game there I didn’t see on the first play through.  I don’t plan on playing through it again any time soon (the backlog pile would never forgive me), but I do plan on playing the downloadable content as it gets released.  With luck the game will sell well enough for developers to make more games in this genre, because the potential is there.  I hope that Heavy Rain is just a drop in the bucket.

Wanna see my thoughts on other games?  Check out my other Game Impressions.

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