When the first (now rather primitive looking) footage of Heavy Rain emerged onto the Internet, the â€œuncanny valleyâ€ like animation looked stunning and slightly disturbing.
Now that David Cage / Quantic Dream have delivered their masterpiece, it stands as a brave and bold experiment in delivering a truly mature gaming experience to an audience that usually applies that tag to mindless shooters or games featuring laughably unsexy examples of tittilation. Youâ€™ll either be pleased or horrified (depending on your game tastes) to know that Heavy Rain features neither.
While I played the game, my long suffering other half remarked that the opening scenes of a man enjoying a wonderful sun-kissed perfect life meant that the poor guyâ€™s world was about to come crashing down around his ears. She wasnâ€™t wrong and in Heavy Rain we follow Ethan Mars and several other characters who become entangled in the hunt for the mysterious Origami Killer. A serial murderer with a particularly nasty modus operandi, The Origami Killer kidnaps boys, drowns them in rainwater, and then dumps their bodies on a wasteland leaving an origami figure and an orchid with the body.
Itâ€™s a struggle to write a fully rounded review that doesnâ€™t stray into spoiler territory but with the gameâ€™s tag line of â€œhow far would you go to save the one you loveâ€, you can guess that Ethanâ€™s son becomes one of the kidnap victims, and the game becomes a race to thwart the origami killer and find him before itâ€™s too late.
After a lengthy installation sequence (which helped me to complete my first ever successful Origami model! Thanks Quantic Dream!), you get to grips with the game itself.
Heavy Rain features a novel method of interaction, heavily relying on quick time events (rapid button reaction test sequences), the age-old â€œtrack and fieldâ€ button-mashing and some finer gestural control work to govern what actions your characters take. In some places you also directly control characters to move around scenes. Largely the control method sounds hateful and Iâ€™m really not a fan of Quick-time events or button mashing, but in Heavy Rain itâ€™s definitely done with more subtlety and more attention to contextual use of the Playstation 3â€™s Sixaxis controller.
Within the first hour of play I found a lot of extremely emotive and powerful stuff that might wash over you unless youâ€™ve got kids of your own. It feels like tough decisions were made by David Cage on what to include and what to cut out of a game that requires a lot of soul-searching and tests of your moral fibre, but Heavy Rain does so without feeling too preachy and often without directly encouraging you to â€œplay the goodieâ€ all the time.
As the story unfolds we meet other characters including a world-weary private detective, Scott Shelby, a gadget-toting FBI agent, Norman Jayden and a tough uncompromising journalist, Madison Paige. These are the main characters you play, along with Ethan Mars and each character has a link with The Origami Killer case.
Exploring the narrative from several different points of view keeps things fresh and lends the project a more cinematic feel, particularly when characters are eventually drawn together in their quest to save Ethanâ€™s son.
Above all, characters feel realistically vulnerable and prone to mistakes and moments of triumph. In interviews, Cage expressly underlines the point that these are ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations. No supernatural hocus-pocus as with Fahrenheit (Quantic Dreamâ€™s last game that had a similar experimental control system but a ludicrously surreal plot), just a dark, gritty and twisted tale.
The PS3 is put through its paces, delivering some of the most detailed character models and backdrops Iâ€™ve seen in a PS3 game. Thereâ€™s a fair amount of screen tearing, and there are still moments where your immersion is broken by odd character movements and animations (particularly in sequences where you directly control characters), but itâ€™s extremely well done and makes the early show reels mentioned at the top of this review look extremely primitive.
Itâ€™s worth watching the bonus footage included once youâ€™ve completed the game, just to see how much work went into the project. 90 actors and over 800 hours of motion capture contributed to Heavy Rainâ€™s distinct look and feel, and to compliment the visuals the sound work and dialogue acting are both equally as impressive.
The plot is the star though, and several reviews have unfairly stated that Heavy Rain feels clichÃ©d and cumbersome compared to the movies it draws its inspiration from. Thatâ€™s an unfair criticism when you consider how rarely games tackle the issues and themes explored here. Itâ€™s an amateur psychologistâ€™s dream, delving into aspects of human behaviour ranging from fatherly love to ego and ambition, right through to the very extremes of hate, psychosis and feelings of helplessness in situations of dire peril. Itâ€™s easy to get wrapped up in a particular scene and to feel genuine remorse if a character suffers because of your ineptitude with the joypad. Thankfully, the game does allow you to replay chapters once completed, but the chances are that youâ€™ll want to dive straight back in and start the game from the beginning just to see if you can nail it perfectly.
There are criticisms to be made. Some quick time sequences feel long and drawn out, and failure to press a button in time or worse â€“ pressing the wrong button in a stressful situation – can completely change the outcome of a chapter, more often for the worse. Genius moments of innovation in the game like Norman Jaydenâ€™s fantastic augmented reality specs (The ARI system) make up for some of the clunky moments, and though the game is set in 2011 this is one of the only times where youâ€™ll feel it strays into flights of fancy (Iâ€™d be the first to admit Iâ€™d love the opportunity to use those specs to change my office around though. Youâ€™ll see what I mean).
Above all, youâ€™ll probably be surprised to find that the gameâ€™s main plot is a mereÂ six or so hours long, but cannily it seems that Sony / Quantic Dream are following the route so many other games this year will take, dishing up a short main game to get you hooked enough so youâ€™ll buy the (inevitable) downloadable content. The first mini chapter, The Taxidermist, will be arriving sometime in May so you havenâ€™t got too long to wait.
All in all, Heavy Rain offers enough interesting ideas and grown-up themes to put it head and shoulders above quite a few other so-called â€œmatureâ€ titles, leaving me wanting more. Who knows, it might even teach you something about yourself while you play too.