Tuesday 2 March 2010

Heavy Rain - Review

Where do you start with a game, that is not strictly speaking, a game?

Heavy Rain is something new, something different and therefore in today's gaming market a bit of a gamble.  It doesn't subscribe to many of the gaming rules that we're used to and it's not got the high octane thrills of something like Call of Duty.  This is gaming as interactive movie.  The big question is whether Quantic Dream have pulled it off or whether it's a massive miss step.

The game begins with Ethan Mars and his family.  It's all very picket fence to start with but it doesn't take long for Ethan's life to unravel.  First his eldest son is killed in a car accident, that leaves him in a coma for six months and suffering a series of black outs.  Then his wife leaves him and his younger son gets abducted by the Origami Killer (bare with me on that one).  He's not in a good way and his frantic, if sometimes slightly deranged searching is sometimes painful to watch.

You'll note the 'watch' in that last sentence.  For large sections of the game that is what you do, 'watch'.  So is that a bad thing?  Well in any other title the answer is invariably, 'Yes,' but here the watching is almost as important as the interaction.  And the interaction here is not like anything you've experienced before.

You take control of four character in all.  Each with there own agenda to try and solve the Origami Killer murders.  As well as Ethan, there is Scott Shelby the grizzled, slightly over weight, asthmatic private eye, Madison Paige a journalist and Norman Jayden who works for the FBI.

You play through a scene/chapter with one of them and then move onto one of the other four characters as each of them try and figure out what is going on and work out who the killer is.  As you progress you start to build up a picture in your own mind of who it might be, collecting clues and info along the way.  Much has been made about the quality of the story telling here, mainly criticising it.  I don't fall into that camp.  Ok it's not gonna win any prizes but it works brilliantly within the context of the game.  There are plot holes, it isn't perfect, but it does it's job and draws you in.  Think B movie thriller.

Looks wise this is possibly the best looking game yet on Sony's monolith, couple that with the clever camera tricks and multiple viewing angles and it's a dream to look at despite the occasional screen glitch.  The rain effects and ensuing puddles are simply incredible.  There's some clever shit going on inside the PS3 here.

The voice acting is also no where near as bad as you might have heard.  It's not Uncharted quality but it's not far behind.

So the story holds up and the visuals are stunning.  The make or break for Heavy Rain is the gameplay.

And there are two aspects to that.  The first is control, or frankly the lack of it.

You do have moments where you are moving your character in a fairly standard way, you hold down R2 and your character moves in the direction you make them look, but there are times when you do just sit and watch.  However it's these sections that will have you on the edge of your seat because each cut scene is likely to involve a quick time event (QTE).  This involves having to hit a sequence of buttons that appear on screen in the correct way in order to achieve the best result.  Initially it all feels quite easy and anyone familiar with a pad is going to be coping comfortably. But it doesn't take long for the first fight to come along and it's in these frantic sections that the controls come into their own.  At times it's clear, after only two play throughs, that the game is going to let you succeed, no matter how many times you fuck up, but in others not getting it right can result in the death of one of your four leads.  (The game continues regardless.)  First time around this makes each of the more dangerous chapters a fraught and incredibly involving experience.  Your heart will race, you will panic as you forget what the symbols mean and Jayden ends up tumbling into... ah but that would spoil it for you.  There are also sections where the controls work beautifully in more tender moments and no I'm not referring to the much talked about, but frankly not in anyway titillating, sex scene.

The second key ingredient to the gameplay is 'choice'.  Or the illusion of choice.  Of course it's a trick but the game doesn't end up leading to one inevitable conclusion, there are multiple 'good/bad/not great/kind of ok' endings here.  You will feel driven to save Ethan's younger son from the killer and this will lead to some pretty horrible moments, where yes, there is choice of sorts.  And as much as you will try and distance yourself from those decisions and tell yourself it's just a game, you will find yourself wincing and questioning your actions.  It is that engaging.  It simply wouldn't work if the four leads weren't characters you liked or at least felt some sympathy with, you do end up wanting all four to make it through to the end in one piece.

It's not a long game by any means, probably around six hours which is pretty short by today's standards but it's six of the best hours you can spend with your Playstation.  It has it's flaws, some times the controls can feel  clunky when moving a character around a scene and badly timed movements can make Ethan, for example, look like a prop as the rest of the cut scene plays out around him.  Although the fixed camera positions are clearly used to create that 'movie feel' to the game, at times you'd give anything to be able to swing it around to see what where you are supposed to head next.

This is not, by any means, thrill a minute gaming.  It isn't supposed to be.  It's a brave step.  A genuine attempt at something different in a crowded market of first person shooters and sport sims.

It's not perfect.  It isn't going to suit everyone, but if you own a Playstation you should play this game.  Not a game changer but a stunning experience never the less.


Format: PS3
Available: Now
Price: £39.99
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: SCEE

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