Heavy Rain – Hands On Preview

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The eyes are the windows to the soul, a common reoccurring theme of Quantic Dream’s work so it’s little wonder that the French studio spent so long creating the most believable pairs of eyes and characters we’ve ever seen in a video game.  Forget one dimensional characters with their corny one-liners or cliched Hollywood heroes, Heavy Rain is truly shaping up to be a game of Oscar worthy performances. Heavy Rain originally made an appearance under the moniker of ‘The Casting’, a tech demo of sorts that was wheeled out at E3’06 to little fanfare but gave us a first look at what the PS3 could offer.  It wasn’t too hard to be impressed considering the competition comprised of Giant Crabs and Riiiiiidge Racer.  Despite providing an early glimpse of what the French studio was up to, the featured footage was never intended to actually appear in the resulting game, it was merely to highlight what a visionary could create when armed with the power of the PlayStation3 and enough courage to take a risk.   Now with a release date of early 2010 fast approaching, TVG has had the opportunity to excessively play the first 11 chapters of the game.   They largely serve as an introduction to the four main characters, each of which have a separate yet interweaving plot which propels the central drama of a serial killer at loose and likely to strike again.  Targeting boys aged between nine and thirteen and leaving an origami animal as his/her calling card, the preview code thankfully refuses to reveal too many clues but leaves our anticipation well and truly drenched for more.  Q1 2010 may already be stocked full of AAA titles, but there’s little doubt that from what we’ve played, Heavy Rain has shot to the top of that list.  Under the watchful gaze of David Cage, Quantic Dream’s follow-up to the widely acclaimed Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) has the potential to be one of the most important video game releases since Mario introduced the world to 3D back in 1996.  It’s hard to pigeonhole the game into one particular genre, but there’s little doubt that it’s striving to create an experience unlike anything else and pushes forward the case for video games to be treated as an artistic medium alongside movies and books.  Strong words, but ones that we don’t use lightly and without a degree of necessity.  But it’s a “game” that will polarise opinions and doesn’t strictly adhere to the AAA video game blockbuster blueprint.  In many ways it’s hard to find the traditional criteria for a compelling video game experience.  The typical mandate for any successful video game largely revolves around intensifying degrees of action and enough weapons to match.  Shooter fans probably won’t get their fix from Heavy Rain’s stunning QTE action sequences, which have more in common with the likes of Dragon’s Lair then AAAs such as Modern Warfare 2.  But it may just provide the answer for those seeking something more than aiming a cross-air and pressing the shoot button.  It could also become this generation’s standout title, employing stunning visuals to create characters that you can genuinely believe and empathise with. Heavy Rain’s story revolves around the aforementioned Origami Killer; like a good episode of Murder She Wrote, Colombo, or Poirot, the underlying challenge is to unravel the mystery and discover who the killer is before they can kill again.  Considering the dark subject, Heavy Rain begins in an inconspicuous manner.  A perfect family home with the white picket fence and children’s playground in the back-garden serves as the intro to the first playable character Ethan Mars.  The beauty behind Heavy Rain is making the mundane wonderfully captivating.  Waking from his bed, Ethan’s daily chores such as taking a shave and a shower before his wife and sons arrive for a birthday party, may seem woefully unexciting to an audience more akin with saving humanity in sci-fi epics or just surviving for a day in Liberty City.  The purpose behind such menial tasks however are subtle elements that set the scene; such subtlety is typically the trait of an acclaimed auteur and not a video game designer.   It’s not long before one of Ethan’s sons is killed but not at the hands of the serial killer.  The traumatic sequence where Jason disappears in a crowded shopping mall is superbly portrayed, playing havoc with the camera direction and intensity of the crowd to create a foreboding sense of panic and despair.  The idyllic beginning is quickly juxtaposed by an unshaven Ethan in the next chapter.  You don’t need to know exactly what happened in the immediate aftermath of the mall to work it out, it’s perfectly conveyed by an unkempt Ethan standing in the rain waiting for his other son to leave school for the day.  This scene alone tells us that Ethan’s world has been turned upside down; his wife has left him, he’s living in a ram-shackled apartment and his relationship with his only son is left distanced by the previous event.  The following scene in which Ethan struggles to relate with Shaun is a touching moment.  As the player you’re not actually doing that much, but in between making dinner, enquiring about his day at school and helping with his homework, Ethan’s anguish is plainly evident as he struggles to overcome his guilt.  You can’t help but sympathise with the character.  Cage has a vision and a team at Quantic Dream to deliver it, Heavy Rain looks set to finally break the barrier to which many video games have aspired and evoke genuine emotions in the player. Like Fahrenheit before it the way in which you interact with the environment is handled with appropriate context sensitive movements on the right thumbstick.  Understandably Quantic Dream has developed the concept with a greater level of refinement as to how you perform actions and introducing new concepts on the basic techniques.  The setup covers the aforementioned everyday actions such as drinking a cup of coffee to secretly stepping up behind a robber and putting a bottle over his head.  Admittedly there’s a distinct lack of gameplay in a traditional sense, but each and every action has been wonderfully mapped and feels completely natural.  In attempting to bottle the robber you have to be very delicate with the thumbstick to prevent him noticing, whereas difficult scenarios require more demanding combinations.  All of these actions and the choices you make in conversation are governed by Quantic Dream’s trademark ‘elastic band narrative’.  Essentially each chapter has a beginning and an end, but the way in which you go about it is largely up to you.  We’ve played the 11 chapters incessantly since code came into the office and managed to find a different way of playing each scene; it’s entirely possible that you’ll play Heavy Rain multiple times and still not discover everything in the game. Continuing to convey the atmosphere of the scene in question, dialogue choices and the thoughts of the playable characters are depicted on the screen with the accompanying button to press.  For example, a tense scene in which a character is under stress will mean that the accompanying choices are blurred or moving quickly, thus making it difficult for the player to make a choice particularly when such choices have to be made in a quick manner.  It’s a fantastic setup that firmly puts the player into the scene, somehow managing to convey the appropriate emotion and atmosphere through the PS3 pad. Scott Shelby is the next main character to appear, a private investigator following a lead with a prostitute who lost her son to the killer.  Dialogue between the two characters provides the opportunity to reveal some details, providing you make the correct choices.  It also leads to a frenetic action sequence when a former client turns up and begins to get violent.  Action heavy scenes are portrayed with a myriad of co-ordinated button presses.  Stunning choreography compliments the frenetic button bashing; truly Quantic Dream knows how to create exhilarating QTE sequences and are easily becoming the best in the business.   The preview code also took us to the crime scene of the latest victim and introduces us to another of the main cast, Norman Jayden, a profiler for the FBI.  Using some newfangled FBI technology that comprises of a snazzy pair of shades and a dubious latex glove, Jayden gets to investigate the area with interesting bits of evidence handily highlighted through his specs.  A later scene in a police office sees Jayden access his virtual office, flicking between pages of virtual evidence and clues that he’s amassed to attempt to unravel the mystery.  We’re hoping these sections really develop and challenge the player to actually investigate and solve the mystery.  The final character Madison Paige is introduced in the last chapter and only gave us a fleeting chance to get to know her.  Struggling with insomnia, this scene features a frenzied action scene as she attempts to escape from somebody who has entered her apartment, but is probably most notable for its particularly seductive shower scene.   It’s the depth and belief of these characters that really makes Heavy Rain.  Because of the way in which the characters that you play already have a purpose and the way in which you influence their actions as opposed to having a precise control over their destiny, lends Heavy Rain a voyeuristic feel.  You never feel as though you’re in total control of these characters, instead watching and influencing how they go about their business.  Because of the depth of the characters, it’s easy to find a sense of empathy with their own individual challenges.  Although we didn’t manage to kill off a character (believe us we tried), the possibility of these characters actually dying during the game has a very tangible sense of loss that goes with it.  It isn’t a case of restarting from a checkpoint or loosing a life in Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain continues the work that Quantic Dream created with Fahrenheit, a gaming experience unlike any other and the nearest we’ve got to the works of great film directors.  If it wasn’t for some dodgy games back in the early 1990s it would be easier to describe it as an interactive movie, but that seems to be doing it a grave misjudgement. 

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