Friday, March 12, 2010

NextGen Player Review: Heavy Rain

By Alice Stancu

The last 15 years of gaming have seen a dramatic fall in the popularity of interactive cinema. The Sega Mega-CD brought us a slew of few full-motion video classics like Night Trap and Double Switch, but hardware limitations, uninspired gameplay, and poor acting led to the demise of the genre. Quantic Dream's previous game, Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a. Fahrenheit) was the first step toward the revival of the genre, and now we have Heavy Rain which comes out on top of its predecessor and surpasses most of the historical shortcomings of interactive cinema.

For starters: Heavy Rain is not a game for children, or even for teenagers. There is some gratuitous nudity and a lot of very graphic violence, but the game earns its mature rating for the intense emotional trauma that it may cause the player. There are some kill-or-be-killed scenarios, and some of the decisions that you will have to make throughout the game will not be easy to make. The game comes with a tagline of “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?” and this is repeatedly put to the test. Would you put yourself in danger? Would you put others in danger? The choice is yours.

Heavy Rain draws a lot from the hardboiled detective fiction genre in its gritty portrayal of violence and sex, as well as from the style and cynicism of film noir. Every scenario is breathtaking, whether it is the ominous and ever-rainy city or a meticulously detailed apartment. While it is nice to lose yourself in the environments, many of the challenges are time-based (or at least feel that way) and do not allow for environment exploration. The motion-capture is flawlessly executed and it comes through in every scene of the game; from dynamic action to everyday walking around, every slight nuance of natural human movement is reproduced. Even NPCs milling about the various scenes blend completely into the background through their realistic actions and gestures.

The game starts you off with about an hour's worth of cheerful mundane tasks – showering and shaving, preparing for a birthday party, and play-fighting with your kids. At risk of giving away too much of the plot, let's just say that it soon takes a dark turn, and stays that way for the remainder of the game. The game's lighter elements – preparing an omelet and taking care of a crying infant, for example – are necessary to prevent the bleak mood from becoming unbearable. A five-minute non-stop action sequence can be so intense that half an hour of wandering around trying to find clues seems like a naturally essential buffer. There is definitely nothing traditionally “fun” about this game; rather, it's an intensely emotional story.

The player takes part in just about every decision that characters make in the game. Most of these choices don't affect the ending, but they make the characters and the overall story more personal. You can choose to be a doting father or a bad cop; you can even let all the characters perish if that's what you'd like to see. Some decisions must be made in a split-second and much like in real life, you might make the “wrong” choice because there isn't enough time to examine the options – and at times these options can be extremely vague. To make it even more challenging, if your character is in a situation in which they are scared or nervous, the on-screen buttons and corresponding actions start shaking and become very hard to read, adding to the pressure of deciding what to do. Failing just one quick-time event can alter the course of the entire story, especially in the later sequences of the game – and quite unusually, a character's death does not lead to a “game over” screen. Even if a main character is killed, the story will adapt and continue without them.

While the quick-time events that make up the majority of gameplay are very well-done, actually moving around is the main element in which Heavy Rain is lacking. Open streets and long hallways pose no threat to the two-button movement system (one to turn, one to walk), but once you enter a cramped office or living room, turning to face that desk drawer or filing cabinet can become a more formidable feat than beating up thugs in the action portions of the game.

Most of the characters are realistic and believable – Ethan is a concerned father, Shelby is a gruff but kind private investigator, and Jayden is a calm and dedicated FBI agent. The exception is Madison Paige, an underdeveloped protagonist who isn't terribly necessary to the story other than as a potential love interest. Her inclusion in the playable cast appears to be solely to add some gender diversity while functioning in a pretty limited support role, much like the female white mages of classic RPGs.

Another drawback to the game is the voice-acting, which is absolutely awful at some points. I understand that Quantic Dream is based in France and that they hired native English speakers for the main roles – Shelby and Jayden especially sound good – but there is no excuse for the assortment of cheesy accents sported by secondary characters. On top of that, the script has a tendency to occasionally dip into Hollywood-style cheesiness when it should be more subtle. Luckily, the music does redeem the overall quality of sound in the game – the soundtrack is memorable and seamless, with catchy themes that play during appropriately dramatic moments.

While it's been often said, it's true – Heavy Rain is a groundbreaking gaming experience that should not be missed. The tale is incredibly moving and leaves a lasting impression long after the credits roll, regardless of whether your ending is tragic or satisfying – because in the end, the story that unfolds is the story that you chose for yourself. I'm hoping to see other interactive movies coming up in the next few years; after all, if nothing else, Heavy Rain has shown us that breaking all the conventions of gaming can still result in a fantastic experience.

NextGen Player gives Heavy Rain a...

1 comment:

Stacey Fowler said...

Paul! Good review - I just finished playing this (in one weekend LOL) and must say it is quite possibly the most depressing video game ever, but SO realistic - never played an "interactive drama" before - very "Choose Your Own Story" (remember those kids books?!)

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