Heavy Rain is everything Quantic Dream promised that it would be: a powerful, emotional, ground-breaking experience with stunning visuals and believable virtual actors. Gripping, moving, intelligent and visionary, it's the richest synthesis of game and film/TV thriller we've seen yet.
And some of you are going to hate it.
Why? The answer lies in the game's description of itself as an "interactive drama". There's no question about Heavy Rain's "drama" credentials; while there are some aspects that don't always click, as a whole it's a compelling piece of fiction. The "interactive" bit, however? Well, we'll come to that later.
Stuart covered the basics of the game's technology and how it works in his First Look, so I won't go overboard on details here. In short, Heavy Rain is a thriller in the mould of Seven or Manhunter/Red Dragon, following four characters - a bereaved dad, a plucky journalist, an FBI agent and a gone-to-seed private eye - who get caught-up in the hunt for a serial killer who is abducting and drowning young boys.
The game is split into a multitude of scenes, and your actions in one scene affect the flow of what comes after, eventually leading the game to one of 20 different conclusions. There's a real sense that the choices you make affect the way the tale progresses (though there are times when the game effectively forces you back into line), and - most importantly - it's entirely possible for one or more of your protagonists to die and the story to carry on without him or her. While you can always go back and replay the game beginning from a certain chapter, there are no saves or checkpoints as such, meaning the death of FBI agent Norman Jayden, for instance, will close off whole scenes, plotlines and outcomes later on.
The strength of the game lies in its storyline, its compelling atmosphere and its amazing motion captured performances. Quantic Dream has lavished a staggering amount of detail on its gritty urban world and human models, creating something that - particularly in stills - could pass for TV footage, not CGI. Meanwhile, the combination of rich textures, superb lighting, advanced sub-surface shaders and some Hollywood standard motion capture techniques, ensures that Heavy Rain's virtual actors can deliver a similar calibre of performance to what you'd expect from a decent TV show. The effect frequently breaks down due to a weird animation or the odd flat line of dialogue, but when it works it's incredibly convincing.
As a director, Quantic Dream's David Cage also knows his stuff. The game is composed like a film or TV show, with Cage making generous use of every Hollywood editing, lighting and camera technique you can think of to keep you on edge and locked in the scene. Combine this with one of the strongest, most haunting scores I've ever come across in a video game, and Heavy Rain has the drama element locked down.
But what about the "interactive" bit? Well, there's no getting away from the fact that Heavy Rain goes large - nay, XXXL - on quick-time events. For the majority of the game you wander around the locations, and when you come across something you can interact with, you simply watch and follow the on-screen prompts. Get involved in a conversation, and you choose the appropriate button for your response as the options rotate in a ring around your character's face.
It's actually more sophisticated than it sounds, as prompts are specifically designed to mimic the physical activities of the protagonist on screen. In fact, the game makes excellent use of psychological effects, deliberately blurring, shaking or moving prompts at times of severe anxiety, and even making it hard to read which button to press during tense dialogue scenes.
When the action speeds up - in a chase sequence or fight-scene - so do the prompts, though the game is reasonably generous about letting you make up for missed prompts during the action. Most cleverly, there are times when Heavy Rain forces you to press and hold uncomfortable button combinations while your protagonist is doing something difficult or dangerous. Twisting your way through live electric cables? Better limber up your fingers, or you and your hero will be in for a shock.
The problem is that, for huge swathes of the game, you can feel like you're simply following a trail of prompts rather than finding and deciphering clues or thinking for yourself. Sure, there are specific moments when you're aware that making one choice will push the story one way, and another choice another, but there are also whole sequences where you seem to be just following the prompts to their logical conclusion. Even the sequences with the FBI agent, tracking clues using a pair of augmented reality glasses, have this sense about them. Are you really investigating, or simply collecting enough evidence for the game to drag you through to the next scene?
Don't worry - we're a long way from Dragon's Lair territory - but this does mean that you can't really look at Heavy Rain as a game in the traditional sense. It's not a test of your skill or intelligence, and if you view it as such you'll probably go away disappointed. Instead, the controls seem designed to bolster an almost physical empathy between you and your protagonists, and this is where the game doesn't just redeem itself, but triumph.
By pushing you closer and closer to the characters as they indulge in simple domestic pleasures, investigate a fanatic's seedy apartment, struggle with a screaming baby or try to escape a psychopath's power tools, the game really heightens the whole experience as a drama. Heavy Rain goes into places where other games don't dare, giving you glimpses of panic, hope, fear, horror and despair that will stay with you long after the buzz of another Modern Warfare skirmish has faded. It's not always perfect, and some major plot twists don't quite ring true, but the overall experience is unlike anything you'll have had from a game before.
In a way, Heavy Rain paves the way for a future fusion of cinema and video game, but the way it does so isn't totally satisfactory. While you can make different choices and watch the storyline evolve to match, there's always a feeling that you're merely directing the action down preset paths rather than controlling the protagonists yourself. The payback, however, lies in the compelling story and the emotional states it pushes you through. Heavy Rain is far from flawless, but if you take gaming seriously, you really need to experience it for yourself.