E3 2009: Heavy Rain

Until now Heavy Rain has existed to me in much the same way as the Sasquatch; a mythical entity that promises to be glorious and wonderful, and which may also possess some magic properties, yet forever unseen. Oh sure, like anyone else I had seen screens and video clips of the game, but screens are easy to doctor or spruce up, and video is deceiving, you never can tell if what you’re seeing is real in-game footage or merely smoke and mirrors. Rather, the only way to truly believe in a game is to put a controller in your hands and play it, and that’s what I finally had a chance to do on the very last day of this year’s E3 with Heavy Rain.

Our demo picked up somewhere around the middle of the game with Norman Jayden, and FBI agent and one of the title’s four rotating main characters. Norman, like the others, is attempting to track down the Origami Killer and while on the trail of a stolen car his search has brought him to a junk yard. Seems like the owner may know something, but you can bet he’s not going to simply cooperate with a Fed and be on his merry way.

When Norman first parked the car, we got a taste of the game’s rather unique control scheme. The right stick controls nearly all your characters’ movements, and a simple flick of the stick opened up the car door and let us out into the rain. As we stood shivering our guide in the demo suggested we hold down one of the shoulder buttons, which in turn sent Norman’s inner thoughts swirling around him. Tapping one of the buttons let us hear a bit of inner monologue, and some comments were critical to the story while others were simply idle thoughts. Still, for those wanting to get every piece of story possible out of the game it’s a great way to create a tremendous amount of depth for each character.

When we finally decided to get going we had to hold the R2 button to walk while maneuvering the left thumbstick to turn Norman’s head and thus walk in the direction he was looking. It felt a bit weird at first, but considering all actions are mapped to the right stick, thus leaving you without the traditional control for the camera, it works as a substitute. Hopefully though players won’t be forced to make sudden movements while walking about, as that would likely be a recipe for frustration.

At any rate, Norman eventually chats with the junkyard owner, but there’s a distinct lack of helpful information coming out of the fellow. No matter though, as we were then able to whip out a special pair of sunglasses and launch into investigation mode. In this mode Norman can send out a pulse which then detects any sort of anomalous substances and highlights them for the sake of your examination. After investigating the residue of a couple blood pools on the shop floor Norman finds an acid bath, with a human skull inside.

From here the demo launched into an action sequence, as the previously elusive junkyard owner now had a gun to Norman’s head and wasn’t going to hesitate to pull the trigger. Suddenly, a button prompt flashed onscreen and after a series of button presses Norman managed to not only knock the gun free, but stay alive long enough to snatch it up himself and assume the position of power.

At this point the game once again presented Norman’s thoughts swirling around him, only this time they reflected his potential methods of extracting information out of the suspect. Those who want to play good cop can try to coax out the details with sweet talking and promises, while those who prefer the direct route can opt to pistol whip the suspect and threaten to blow up the barrels of gasoline he finds himself leaning against at that exact moment. Needless to say we chose the latter option.

Once Norman gets the info he needs on the car and his new suspects it seems that the level is about to end, but then things go horribly wrong. You seen, it turns out Norman is addicted to a powerful drug and at this precise moment, just as he gains the upper hand, he begins experiencing terrible withdrawals. What ensues is another button sequence, but this time you have to hold down each button as it appears on-screen and keep adding more to the chain. We failed out of this part of the level fairly quickly, but the developer on hand said not to worry about it, the game was designed that way. While he promised that it was technically possible for someone to pass this segment it is highly unfeasible, as it would require dexterity far beyond that possessed by a mere mortal. Still though, the sequence was amazingly indicative of what Norman was going through; just as he was fighting to retain control of his body, so too are players struggling to maintain control of him. In other games you’ve seen characters struggle and falter and wondered why they couldn’t hold it together for just a few minutes more; now you’ll flounder along with them as they completely lose control.

While there is still more to the sequence between Norman and seemingly indestructible junkyard owner we won’t spoil them here except to say that things get extremely hairy on more than one occasion in the final sequence. What I will point out is the same thing the developers told me as I played; be on your toes, because if Norman dies at any time during his encounter, that’s the last you’ll see of him for the rest of the game. Yep, each main character can die, and their demise changes aspects of the game’s overall story as well as the ending. In order to see it all you’ll have to play through this game multiple times, and the concept that a game can keep going even after the death of one of its main characters is a bold concept which has equal chance to both soar and flop.

The knock you’re going to hear repeated about Heavy Rain by naysayers is that it’s not a game, but rather one long QTE with really nice graphics. This is about as bad a misfire as can be, as the title is so much more. A more accurate (yet oversimplified) description is that it’s akin to a digital choose your own adventure book much like Indigo Prophecy, Quantic Dream’s last game. Yes, there are button prompts that pop up onscreen, but they are the mechanic rather than the wrinkle in the combat system, and failing one doesn’t automatically mean you fail them all. In our sequence with Norman we missed a few times, but that merely led us down another branch of the sequence. Some misses can be minor, leading to a character taking a punch or dropping an item, while others are more severe, putting you in a truly perilous state or even killing that particular star of the game outright. Also, the game is so breathtakingly cinematic and realistic that pushing the buttons or following the control prompts at the right moments really feel like natural extensions of your experience anyway. You’ll find yourself so immersed that you want to take a swing or duck out of the way of an incoming pipe, so the game merely allows you to more fully control the action unfolding onscreen.

I walked into Heavy Rain expecting to be let down because, after all, it’s just another game right? Instead I was completely blown away by a title which I had heard about before, but didn’t truly appreciate until I got a chance to actually sit down and play it. The game is the most visually stunning I’ve ever seen, and it’s so immersive and presented so beautifully that you could swear you’re watching a live-action movie rather than playing a video game. This is a game which, if it wasn’t already at the top of your “must-own” list, needs to be lovingly placed there right now; and it’s also going to be the reason you stop putting off the purchase of a PS3 and finally take the plunge. We still don’t know when the game will be released (the latest estimates have it pegged for early 2010), but what I do know is that every day without it is a day too many. Yes, it truly is that amazing.