Heavy Rain - PS3 - First Look review
Heavy Rain, probably one of the biggest titles for Sony and its PS3 console in 2010, has just one problem - it doesn't fit into a standard genre. It's not a first person shooter, it's not a game that sees you play a member of a special ops team in hostile territory, neither is it a racing game - where you get to drive cars you'll never likely be able to afford around a host of cities you'll most likely never visit.
No, Heavy Rain is probably the closest video game to date to give you a starring role in a Hollywood thriller.
Don't panic, that's not to say this is some artsy first person Murder She Wrote meets Myst experience that will have you slowly clicking through a series of puzzles with some bloke spouting off "Exploration is knowledge" a la Phantasmagoria from the mid-90s. Think "Seven" with Brad Pitt, think "Usual Suspects", think French movie "The Crimson Rivers", and you'll start to get the idea. This is a tense thriller where movies meet video games showing the start of a brave new world.
In a nutshell the story of Heavy Rain, in development for over 3 years, follows an architect whose happy life turns to misery after his son is kidnapped, his wife leaves him, and he is left picking up the pieces, whilst looking to find the Origami Killer responsible for it all.
That's not the back-story by the way, you actually get to play the architect from the beginning before all his troubles start. The move, which is unlike anything that we've experienced from a video game before, sees you start with mundane tasks like taking a shower and drinking orange juice before the story starts to kick in.
For our preview we were treated to a four level walkthrough by the co-ceo Guillaume de Fondaumiere of Quantic Dream, the developers of Heavy Rain and previously Fahrenhiet and Omikron: The Nomad Soul, as well as having hands-on time with preview code of the game.
In the end, there are four characters, all with different strengths and traits that you get to play within the storyline, and you dart around between them just as you would in a Hollywood movie. In fact, that's exactly what this could be classed as. With 90 real actors spending over 172 days in motion-capture studios mapping out all of the scenes for the game, Heavy Rain, rather than follow a continuous level system, is split into around 65 scenes, some of which you'll never see.
That's not to say you can't complete it, it's just like those Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson - how you interact with the story as it progresses will determine the storyline and arc that you take.
"Games are like porn movies", says de Fondaumiere. "There is a little bit of story, a little bit of action. Nobody is ever there for the story." Heavy Rain, hopes to change that. "We are all story", de Fondaumiere says with a grin.
The game's strong focus on the story means that you can get an ending that you might not be enamoured with if you don't do the right things at the right time, rather than simply following through a set of pre-determined tasks like many other games. There are over 20 different endings we are told.
"You can lose all four characters", de Fondaumiere tells us in an interview at Sony Computer America HQ in New York. "It will just be a sad story if you all die".
So that's the story, what about the game? After our extensive demo with de Fondaumiere, we've been playing preview code for ourselves. The game itself isn't quite finished yet, editing, pacing and other elements have still to be completed, just like the final stages of a Hollywood blockbuster, but beside that the core "gaming" element is all here.
The gameplay is incredibly detailed, and as some will find, a tad tedious. This isn't your usual guns blazing romp through umpteen levels. You are responsible for all your characters' actions, asked to help with the shopping, raiding the fridge when you are hungry, investigating (CSI style) murders and getting into complex fights.
The controls are a combination of analogue sticks, buttons and motion with Heavy Rain a strong contender for the "Gem" motion controlled controller already touted by Sony at the Tokyo Game Show. "There is no word as to when the motion controller will be out", says de Fondaumiere when we asked the question on everyone's lips. "We've been very intelligent about it. It will be updateable".
Towelling yourself down (yes the female character offers a full frontal, but not until a lot later in the game) involves shaking your Sixaxis up and down to complete the task. Anything that is logically interactive is. That means you can play with a remote control car, punch another character or even draw a building (remember the lead character is an architect).
Difficulty levels on the game are defined by your gaming experience, essentially, how well you know the controller. We have all been exposed to quick time events requiring the pressing of particular buttons at the right time to cause a distinct action, but Heavy Rain integrates timed button press to a new level. Example: you are having a play Lightsaber battle with your son in the garden, and you'll have to time your analogue stick movements and button presses to deliver killer shots or block an incoming attack. Fortunately the opening stages of the game break you in gently, in a relatively consequence-free environment.
Rather than follow a "tunnel to task" style approach as found in the likes of Call of Duty, your characters have thoughts that you can act on. Easier modes give you plenty, while difficult ones don't.
All this is played out, not in a first person camera mode, but a very cinematic way with cameras that switch to suit the scene and the pace with your choices making this very much like an interactive movie rather than your standard video game.
"We aren't trying to mimic films, nor are we frustrated film designers wanting to get into film. It's all about interaction", says de Fondaumiere.
Although we've already clocked up some time with the game, we feel we've only just scratched the surface with Heavy Rain trying to bridge the gap between video games and movies with a strong focus on the story rather than the action.
It's like the Shenmue of the new decade and promises to be a game that, although you could breeze through in around 15 hours, with the hundreds of possibilities, should have you coming back for more. The danger, is that it's unlikely to appeal to the hardcore gaming masses looking for a quick fix after work or the pub.
It can also be a little disturbing as the level of realism is sometimes a little eerie. This isn't an escapist fantasy and at times, it's a little too close to home. The atmosphere and tension is incredible, a stark contrast to what at times could be taken for little more than an advanced point-and-click adventure game.
This takes the notion of console gaming and turns it into "Oscar" thriller territory. If that's appealing, and you're a fan of the slow-burning serial killer based movies like the ones we've listed above or others like Zodiac, then this will be right up your street.
Heavy Rain will be released in February 2010.