Heavy Rain Review
“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” -- Robert McKee
Great stories leave us fulfilled and even breathless. Great stories we control? The concept is in its infancy stages but after playing Heavy Rain, we feel something in addition to fulfillment and satisfaction; we feel as if we’ve only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg. We see it from afar at first, sitting aboard a comfortable vessel that carries the expected, the familiar, and as time rolls on, the mundane and predictable. That tip of ice hovers in the fog, barely perceptible but somehow managing to impart the fact that a glacier of unimaginable proportions spreads beneath. At the start, we’re a little afraid of leaping overboard and leaving all that we know behind but soon, we’ve disregarded the freezing water and reached out a finger to touch that haunting tip of ice. In that instant, the world changes, the water is warm and inviting, and the fog lifts. We’re glad we took that plunge and begin to relax and indulge. “How far will you go to save someone you love?” No plunge…no answer.
There’s little doubt that Quantic Dream’s masterpiece is one of the best looking games you will ever see. With full motion capture from real actors, over 30,000 unique animations recorded, and an astounding level of detail in the backdrops and environments, Heavy Rain can indeed compete with the best of the best. Close-ups on those very human faces are downright incredible (you’re treated to this at the start of each new section) and although some of the landscape occasionally seems viewed through a misty windowpane, the clarity and overall beauty of this title is impressive. Due to the intense atmosphere that continues throughout the story, we need just the right lighting and shading in certain situations; the visuals are essential for infusing the correct mood into each scene. Quantic Dream really shines in this capacity. Now, I personally think the facial animations are a little overdone, in that each character seems to have a few ticks that – for only brief moments – make their expressions appear silly. There is also a bit of pop-in and screen-tearing when viewing the visuals from certain angles, but these flaws are minor.
The point is that Heavy Rain’s graphics are gorgeous and manage to place the characters in the limelight at all times. We are always drawn to the faces of the major characters, although we continue to drink in our surroundings, which contribute directly to any sensations we feel. Obviously, in order to complete the presentation, the sound needs to blend with the outstanding visual palette. Here, we get the benefit of professional voice acting, nearly flawless sound effects, and a soundtrack that keeps us precariously perched on the edge of our seat. The classical score works extremely well and enhances every tense situation. I’m not the biggest fan of all the spoken voices and I still say Uncharted 2: Among Thieves features the best cast in gaming this generation, but Heavy Rain is a solid second. The professional actors are all wonderful, and Pascal Langdale (Ethan), Jacqui Ainsley (Madison), Sam Douglas (Scott), and Leon Ockenden (Norman) should be commended for excellent performances. The music will sometimes cut out during gameplay, but it’s rarely experienced and hardly a significant drawback. In the end, despite a few extremely small technical missteps, the graphics and sound are absolutely amazing when combined.
What is Heavy Rain? This is a question that has dominated the Internet ever since we read through the first gameplay details with greedy eyes and anxious hearts. Some claimed it would be just like Indigo Prophecy and wouldn’t boast much in the way of extra innovation, while others didn’t like the idea that it was “only about QTEs.” Let’s clear this up right now- yes, you control the action elements via QTEs. The rest of the time, you walk about with the current character and explore your environment with simple button presses and analog movements. Much has been made about movement being mapped to the R2 button and at first, I too questioned this decision. However, after playing for a bit, I came to the following realization: the right analog handles most of your actions when maneuvering about your surroundings (press down to open a door, rotate right and up to open a cabinet, etc.), and the left analog handles the direction of your head. This allows you to look about – which can even shift the fixed camera a bit – and put your eyes on important things.
The R2 is merely held for the action of walking and it’s not really a distraction. However, I will say that this game’s biggest flaw does indeed center on movement. Moving your head doesn’t always gel with the movement of your body, and in cramped spaces, it can be frustrating to move about and peruse. It’s a common, recurring issue and one that unfortunately remains a minor problem throughout the experience; you’ll no doubt notice this rather quickly. The other problem centers on the camera, which isn’t always in the best position. Now, you can switch to an alternate view with the L1 button, which often helps, but even so, there are areas where neither view is really ideal. …that’s it. I’m done with the negatives, believe it or not. Because the entire experience is one continuous, adapting story, the fluidity and seamlessness of the adventure always reigns supreme and you quickly overlook the aforementioned shortcomings. Now, before I begin with the following, please bear in mind one thing: in 27 years, no video game has ever managed to engage me so completely and so often, on a mental level. This is purely subjective but well worth mentioning.
As for the QTEs, they’re perfectly implemented. At no point will you believe the game cheated you; i.e., you think you executed the correct command in time but it still didn’t work. This never happens. If you do it, it always works; I know because I’ve played the game through twice already. I have never been a fan of the Sixaxis motion control, primarily because it usually feels like a gimmick and isn’t 100% accurate but it never fails you in Heavy Rain. The motions are simple, too; it’s either up and down or side to side (or sometimes tilting it in a steering fashion), so you’ll never feel overwhelmed. You have just the right amount of time to complete each command – not too fast to be hard, not too slow to be overly easy – and there’s a wee bit of leniency offered for the more difficult commands, like when you have to quickly move the right analog right and down. There are times when you have to twist your fingers into a bit of a pretzel when holding down multiple buttons at once, but the developers know enough to make the majority of such combined mechanics “hand logical.” In other words, you’ll often hold down the Square and X button; see how you can do that easily with your thumb?
You view the story through four sets of eyes: Ethan Mars, Scott Shelby, Madison Paige, and Norman Jayden; a father and architect, a private detective, a journalist, and an FBI profiler respectively. You will switch between each of the four characters as the story progresses and at first, they are only linked via the Origami Killer – a maniac who kidnaps boys between the ages of 9 and 13 and drowns them in rainwater; hence the title, “Heavy Rain” – but eventually, they all come closer and closer together…provided you keep them alive. As you might have heard by now, any given character can die in certain situations if you don’t execute correctly, and when that happens, there is no “do-over.” The story adapts to that occurrence and continues forward. This creates many branching storylines with any number of results found at the end of the path. How intricate is this process? At one point, Madison gets attacked by a deranged doctor; I missed one of the button prompts and she got slashed across the midsection. Later, when she’s stripping down in the club, I see that slash on her body. …yeah. Impressive.
The questions immediately begin to swirl after significant events. What if I hadn’t managed to fight off that guy? What if I hadn’t escaped the police? What if Jayden succumbs to either his “problem” or to Mad Jack? What if only Madison and Ethan are alive at the end? What if I had Ethan reject Madison? What if Scott hadn’t finished his mission of revenge? What if…what if…what if…? Well, I had to test this, so after my first play-through – when I got the Silver “Four Heroes” Trophy for keeping everyone alive and what I assume to be the ultimate happy ending; this took about 10 hours – I just had to go back and start a new game, complete with totally different decisions. The result? Well, not every event is crucial and will change the story’s direction, especially in regards to the early occurrences. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter much. But later on, most everything matters. Once the really important events and decisions kicked in and I made my alternate choices, I was greeted to all new scenes and an entirely different climax. I’m currently on my third time through and I’m still seeing new scenes; I’m only just now starting to realize how many branches there may be…
The key to the entire experience is the sensation and feeling that makes the heart race. For instance, I am not a father and yet, the prologue was very difficult to watch and even watching it a second time didn’t make it any less horrible. Furthermore, I have this old-fashioned respect for females; even a deference, so-to-speak, so when I was controlling Madison and suffered an injury, I actually winced. The point is, I’m not a father nor am I a woman, but when a single bachelor honestly feels the unimaginable pangs of a distraught father, and when a 6’3, 220lb. individual is terrified for an innocent woman’s well-being (when she’s being attacked in her apartment, I was actually breathing heavy), that is a true, undeniable sign of immersion. You feel so wonderfully connected to every character when you control them. Now, prior to playing, I would have agreed with the argument that less actual control over a character would detract from the overall immersion, but I won’t make that claim now. My reactions are solely responsible for this person’s survival; if he or she dies, that’s it. No “Game Over.”
I don’t think we really understand just how poignant that is. And speaking of poignancy, the artistry of Heavy Rain must be appreciated. It may sound boring to control a character as he brushes his teeth, opens a cabinet, cooks something in the microwave, or simply leans against a wall. But here’s where the atmosphere comes into play; I’m not a good enough writer to make you feel this appropriately, but I’ll try:
An unthinkable tragedy causes a happy family to splinter. Two years later, the father, gaunt and unshaven, stands in the rain and picks up an unsmiling, mostly unresponsive son after school. The aforementioned tragedy prompted a split of the two dedicated parents; for the father, the large, bright, meticulously decorated house has given way to a drab, cramped apartment. The son is on one of his scheduled visits; he sits on the sofa and watches TV, replying to his father’s gently probing questions about school and friends with a depressingly dismissive tone. The ceaseless rain beats against the dirty windowpane as the father prepares a modest dinner for his son, who has finished his homework in silence and now proceeds to eat in silence. In a heart-wrenching display of desperation for an idyllic past that can never be reclaimed, the father juggles a few apples, which elicits the first bright response from his son. But the somber mood returns immediately and the father sits at the kitchen table and waits patiently for his son to finish. Later, just before he puts the son to bed, the father dusts off a desk that hasn’t seen an architect’s touch in quite some time, and views an old home video. He weeps quietly.
Now, in the game, I made all this happen but at the same time, it all happened fluidly and in real-time. Can you appreciate the simple act of sitting down beside your son and watching some TV? Considering the situation, it’s deeply poetic. But if you need more in the way of traditional action, you’ll just think all of this is boring. And here comes the most difficult part of my review; the admission that Heavy Rain, despite its brilliance, isn’t for everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone has the requisite patience, sentimentality, and appreciation for artistic storytelling to actually experience this drama. You must give yourself over to this story. You must realize what it is. If you can’t do that, you will never enjoy it and you will likely be confused as to why it receives any acclaim at all. “It’s barely even a game,” they’ll say. And they have a point. I’m not entirely sure this is a “video game” based on our current definition. But I can indeed tell you it’s a revolution for the industry; this is storytelling that makes us feel in every damn scene. Up to this point, I haven’t felt like this when experiencing a story unless I’m watching a movie or reading a book.
Lastly, there is indeed full nudity in this game but as David Cage said in a recent interview, none of the content is gratuitous. Yes, Madison gets fully nude and takes a shower but that’s only if you decide to wander into the bathroom and make her do it. Yes, she strips down in a nightclub but only if you take off her clothes before reaching for the lamp. It’s all about choice. There is some strong language as well, but it’s hardly overdone and there’s little or nothing in the way of blood and gore (these designers understand that our imaginations are typically worse than actually seeing). I especially like how all the characters are distinctly human. Nobody is a superhero; they move like humans, they have the same limitations and capabilities as humans, and one major character – Scott Shelby – even has a big ol’ gut. Madison has a hell of a body but she doesn’t have the impossible “DD/tiny waist” dimensions we see in other games; she’s a slender, healthy, good-looking woman. Ethan and Norman exhibit the very same traits as males. This is absolutely essential because we always have to believe in the realism of the characters we control.
Heavy Rain isn’t just a masterpiece; it’s an ingenious step in the right direction. I’m terrified that it won’t do well on the sales charts, because this means gamers aren’t mature enough. It means the developers have grown up faster. I honestly hope this isn’t the case and I want nothing more than for Quantic Dream to be rewarded for this effort. If you’re not sure about this game, here’s a clue- if you’ve read this entire review and you actually enjoy reading (you know, books), you’ll likely adore this title. If the only games you’ve played in the past year are shooters and you aren’t having any fun unless there’s blood or explosions or a combination of both, you’ll probably just play this game and laugh at its “lameness.” At which point, I start to feel sorry for you. But to each his own and as amazing as Heavy Rain is, this 9.5 score doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a must-buy for everyone. But I will say this may very well be the most “human” game ever made, and an absolute triumph for the industry. Take from that what you will.
2/10/2010 Ben Dutka