Heavy Rain Review

   15/02/2010 at 08:55       Phil May       13 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - Heavy Rain, PS3, Quantic Dream, Ethan Mars, Madison Paige
Mature videogaming is almost an oxymoron. So many times we see press articles and releases describing pop-up shooters like Call of Duty, and even the over the top gangster machinations of Grand Theft Auto as "mature" but games still have acres of ground to catch up with even the slackest efforts pumped out by Hollywood.

When Heavy Rain first started to surface, most of the press coverage seemed obsessed with the strive to take videogame characters a step closer towards "Uncanny Valley" - the almost perfect reproduction of human characters and human-like characteristics.

Very little of the plot and central themes in the game warranted much of a mention, and without wandering into spoiler territory it's definitely worth refocusing your attention on what Quantic Dream have tried to do with Heavy Rain's heavy-duty storyline than what they've achieved on the technical side of things.

After a rather nifty game installation sequence (the first time I think I can ever remember successfully making a piece of Origami that wasn't a paper plane, thanks Quantic Dream!) the game unfolds in several branching chapters, with a cast of characters each contributing to a central plot concerning the hunt for a mysterious serial murderer known as The Origami Killer. Each character's particular plot thread ties in with (and sometimes ties itself in knots with) other characters and what they're going through, making the project feel like one of those deeply complex movies where you feel like you have to keep tabs on so much information that you're petrified of missing something.

The opening scenes of the game are bathed in sunlight and happy times as Architect Ethan Mars plays with his two kids in the back yard as his beautiful wife looks on.

It's here that you get your first taste of Heavy Rain's unique blend of context-sensitive gestural joypad controls, the direct control of characters and finger-twisting brain-melting quick-time events. Aside from basic movement, virtually everything you do in the game requires swift reactions, an intimate knowledge of your joypad's button placings, and of course paying rapt attention to the screen at all times. It's difficult to describe how well this control method works but if you treat Heavy Rain like a point-and-click adventure that substitutes a mouse pointer for a dizzying combination of stick and button combinations, you're on the right track.

In some cases, this control method feels quite unique and oddly enough quite natural. The speed you move the left stick can often dictate how smoothly your character performs certain movements (and there are lots of moments where slow and steady wins the race over frantic and erratic movements). Other parts of the game are less successfully implemented, and if like me you've got a blindness for the PS3's circle and square buttons (left and right), then you're going to trip over your toes on more than one occasion.

My other half watched as I played through the opening scenes, making the sage observation that "the bloke's world is about to come tumbling down around his ears" and sure enough she was right. Again strongly emphasizing my wish to deliver a review free of spoilers ahead of the game's release, the sunny and calm skies are soon replaced by storm clouds and some extremely harrowing stuff, which sets the tone for the rest of the game.

As well as Ethan, we soon meet other central characters including gadget-wielding FBI profiler Norman Jayden, grizzled private detective Scott Shelby and photo journalist Madison Paige. Each character has a link with the search for The Origami Killer and you'll divide your game time between them all, a unique multi-faceted approach that drives the plot and stops it from becoming too stale and boring.

In Norman Jayden's case, there are extra gameplay elements introduced as part of his FBI investigator status. Jayden sports a rather nifty pair of Augmented Reality specs. The ARI system is used in the game to gather forensic information from various crime scenes, and later Jayden can return to his poky little office at the local police station and sift through clues and files, furthering the investigation.

The ARI system even allows him to uniquely tailor his immediate environment to his own tastes (which is just as well, because his office makes my crappy one at work look spacious and airy). Most importantly though, the ARI specs form an intrinsic part of the search for the Origami Killer, driving the plot forward substantially.

Foot-slogging Scott Shelby's role in the mystery is equally important, as is Madison Paige's - but if the game has one central character that the plot is effectively built around, it's Ethan Mars and the entire game (and indeed the tagline attached to promotional material and posters) pivots around the core theme - what would you do to save the ones you love?

Technically, Heavy Rain can be dazzling and frustrating in equal measures. The superbly detailed characters and settings are offset by the same old problems that still seem to dog the Playstation 3. Screen tearing is prevalent throughout the game though it's definitely possible to block it out to a certain extent and concentrate on the game's tightly woven themes instead. The QTEs can often be the deciding factor between success and failure of a chapter, and often making one single slip-up or mistake near the end of a sequence can cost you dearly - and as the game does not offer you the chance to retry sequences on first playthrough, you'll feel a little frustrated that so much importance is attached to something as primitive as a button recognition and speed reaction test.

Thankfully the gestural stuff works well enough to offset the QTEs, but sometimes the direct control of characters and the constantly shifting camera angles in each scene can result in some distinctly odd looking movements breaking your immersion a little.

Heavy Rain sucks you in though, despite its quirks and foibles. It's deeply atmospheric and though naysayers might feel that the plot is a little flimsy compared to the dark and twisted movies it undoubtedly draws its inspiration from, you'd be hard pushed to name a handful of other games that tackle some of the content covered in this.

In fact there are moments where it's extremely difficult to play without feeling affected by it, particularly if you really put yourself in the shoes of Ethan Mars. David Cage described the game as dealing with "ordinary people in extraordinary situations" and that's a perfect way to sum up how Heavy Rain feels.

As the game draws to a close, it offers plenty of incentives for a second or third play through just to see if you missed anything first time round, or if your gammy thumb-gymnastics really were all that stood between you and another piece of the puzzle in certain circumstances.

It's far from perfect, and I doubt that even David Cage himself would describe it as such, but it offers up a very interesting way to interact with a game and its central characters, and though I'd love to see QTEs and button-mashing go the way of the dodo, I'm struggling to think of any other way the developers could have delivered Heavy Rain's hard-hitting messages without making the whole thing feel like a more detached experience.

I'd definitely like to see more, and it looks like there will be extra downloadable episodes arriving in bite-sized chunks throughout 2010 (Chronicle 1 - The Taxidermist should be arriving along with the Special Edition of the game in June).

A vast improvement over Quantic Dream's last effort Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain is thought-provoking stuff and if you can live with the QTEs and technical oddities here and there, you'll find a dark, engaging and harrowing multi-faceted tale to sink your teeth into.
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