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Point and click 2.0
Quantic Dream, headed up by game director David Cage, are back with the much anticipated PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain. Long in development and hoisted high by Sony as a flagship title for their console, Heavy Rain is another example of the 'interactive entertainment' template Quantic Dream have been trying to perfect for years.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Indigo Prophecy (Quantic's previous game) in terms of player interaction, Heavy Rain plays much like an updated version of the classic point and click adventures of old, in that the player is never completely free to interact with their surroundings, only to usher the character through a series of scripted scenes using an ever increasing array of combined button inputs. Regardless of its ancestry or expectations however, Heavy Rain remains a muddled triumph of videogame storytelling.
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The story's centerpiece is an investigation of the origami killer, Heavy Rain's 'Se7en' like villain. Players control the lives of four characters as they are drawn into the Origami investigation. Characters are varied and engaging throughout.
The main kernel of the plot involves Ethan Mars, one of the four leads, forced to take part in elaborate tasks that instantly recall Jigsaws games in the Saw franchise. Along the way he meets Madison Paige, an insomniac photojournalist embroiled in the Origami case. Meanwhile, Scott Shelby, a grizzled private eye and FBI profiler Norman Jayden conduct their own Origami investigation. During the course of the tale, story strands converge and, while the storytelling intentions of Quantic and David Cage are admirable and sufficiently complex the seemingly abstract narrative soon becomes rather linear.
Jayden is the most fun character in terms of game mechanics, he uses 'augmented reality' glasses to survey his surrounding environment, this is basically the cowl vision from Batman Arkham Asylum with added real world relevance, its also very cool. Just a flick of the analogue stick and Norman puts the glasses on, bathing the environment in analyses read outs and sub menus. Ethan forms the centre of the story but his trials are at times too generic and as such his tale becomes quite tedious. Elsewhere Madison and Shelby have largely expositional roles and no matter how many times David Cage claims relevance to the storyline, Madison's naked body appears too frequently during her segments.
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Heavy Rain is another landmark in next generation visuals, easily joining the likes of Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2 in the pantheon of current gen graphical design. Utilising an approach that favours motion capture and realistic facial mapping, the result is similar to that of Heavenly Sword, the slightly disappointing but visually spectacular PS3 exclusive.
The game is, for all intents and purposes, an interactive movie, so it is crucial that it looks the part. In keeping with the film noir style, the environmental design takes in rain soaked back alleys, seedy apartments and neon drenched nightclubs. Its dismal and at times too murky but also painstakingly detailed.
The character design is fluid and realistic, the game sidesteps the usual pitfall of characters that look and act like waxwork robots, here the emotions are conveyed convincingly. It seems almost self indulgent that extreme close ups of the characters should populate loading screens, its also prudent.
It would be remiss to heap too much praise on a games looks, overlooking substance in favour of style, but to be immersed in the gameworld and to become attached to the characters is key in a project such as this and the visual verisimilitude greatly contributes to this immersion.
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Anyone familiar with Quantic Dream's previous output will know what to expect here, the only thing that has changed in the transition to the next generation is that more button inputs are required during the games many action sequences. Essentially one big quick time event, encounters require multiple inputs of context sensitive button presses. This requires dexterity and skill but can get tedious as the game draws on. The stifling nature of the controls will be too much for some to take at first, even moving forward requires a compression of a shoulder button rather than the traditional stick movement.
The controls come into their own however when mapped to everyday tasks; opening a car door, setting a table, using an asthma inhaler, all these things become a sequence of buttons in the world of Heavy Rain. Dialogue choices and situational prompts also work well with the control scheme. Choices float around the environment in real time, forcing the player to choose the next course of action while negotiating the flow of play, its an interesting method and feels fresh compared to the conversation wheels and menu systems of other games. All in all, controlling events in Heavy Rain is a cumbersome yet rewarding experience.
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An interesting quirk of progression in Heavy Rain is the fact that your characters can die at any time in the story. A critical fail or death during progress doesn't have to prompt a repeat of events, the story is capable of moving on. Of course this is an elaborate and telling method of encouraging multiple playthroughs, but while a game like Fallout 3 will 'reward' the player with a different voiceover and some re-arranged flashback clips, Heavy Rain tasks you with reaching a satisfying conclusion to the story.
The trophy list reflects this tactic. Its filled with variables and completion criteria, I only finished one playthrough and barely scratched the surface of that elusive platinum. While there are no really testing choices until the final act, what is present throughout is engaging enough, the morally decisive videogame is somewhat ubiquitous these days but Quantic Dream still offers something fresh and engaging.
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Interactive storytelling wins out
The question is, does the quality of the game warrant multiple playthroughs? Fortunately for Quantic Dream, David Cage and PS3 (who have been relying on Heavy Rain to deliver a blow against their rivals), the answer is yes. This game has waded through a titanic amount of hype and come out shiny on the other side, no mean feat for a triple A flagship title.
While Heavy Rain suffers from similar problems as its predecessor Indigo Prophecy, namely a niche control scheme and overly convoluted narrative, it makes up for its shortcomings with staggering visual style and imagination to spare. It's not going to worry the Modern Warfare crowd with its often plodding narrative and its story lacks the power and complexity of gamings best, but Heavy Rain retains integrity and stands tall as a towering visual spectacle and a brave storytelling experiment.