The employment of much maligned Quick Time Events is likely to stir opinion even beyond Heavy Rain's release, and while David Cage's description of the game positions the title as an 'interactive drama', we've had enough hands-on time with Quantic Dream's almost too-ambitious adventure to no longer fear a return to the bad old days of the so-called 'interactive movie'.
Not that the CD-ROM-obsessed PC genre hasn't informed Heavy Rain. In fact, Cage and his team seem quite literally obsessed with the merits of a tightly controlled plot - the developer shunning the fashionable open-world genre in favour of something more controlled if, we hope, not contrived.
Indeed, on paper one has to wonder why Sony have picked Heavy Rain to be one of 2010's PS3 poster-childs, the game even dispensing with traditional controls in order to appeal to those illusive and so called non-hardcore gamers (let's not even mention the lack of multiplayer). But then when you witness the title's production values first-hand, soaking up the atmosphere while becoming enveloped in the unfolding mystery, you can see why the publisher at least feel they're onto something unique and special that can sell their console to new kinds of potential players.
Having cut their teeth experimenting with narrative-heavy gaming in Omikron: Nomad Soul and then the impressive-if-imperfect Fahrenheit, it is apparent that Quantic Dream have an eye for the cinematic, specifically film noir-esque, style-fests starring realistically nuanced and ultimately flawed characters. It remains to be seen how engaging Heavy Rain's extensive cast turns out to be, but the omens are good in early footage and play-tests, not least because the game's engine really can bring facial expressions to life, raising the prospect of genuine empathy in the player - if the plot really works.
Ambitiously, Cage's Heavy Rain will star not one but four lead-characters, the same tale unfolding from multiple and starkly different perspectives. This could deliver an experience Post-Modern in the tradition of Quentin Tarantino, and Cage's talk of ambiguous morality - with morally grey decisions to be taken - certainly sounds appropriate for what sounds like a gritty, rain-swept tale, set in a down at heel urban America; a far crate from bright city lights and shimmering beaches.
In fact, dystopian TV like The Wire seems to influence the game more, the adventure taking in an FBI profiler named Norman Jayden, a private detective named Scott Shelby, an architect named Ethan Mars, and a journalist named Madison Paige. All four protagonists are wrapped up in a series of grizzly murders, on the heels of the so-called Origami Killer; Heavy Rain best classified as a thriller from a story perspective. The stunning visuals look set to make this a personal experience, richly detailed and surprisingly interactive settings coupled with dramatic close-ups and camera angles immersing the player into the world of their on-screen charge.
Beyond the game's obvious Hollywood pretensions there also lies a fairly ambitious and also highly risky control scheme. The idea is that movement is de-coupled from the camera, so a trigger button duly controls movement, freeing up the left analogue stick for directing the character's head, encouraging players to take in their surroundings, soaking up the ambience, looking for clues, plot hints and more. The rest of the experience is played out using context sensitive actions and the aforementioned Quick Time Events on the remaining buttons.
The QTEs come into play during combat, in the main, and third-person action-adventure purists are going to struggle with this scheme initially, despite Quantic Dream assuring that this move was necessary to open up the experience to gamers unaccustomed to traditional action experiences. This is an interactive movie for the Grand Theft Auto generation, and also a story-driven action game for the Wii generation.
If one of your charges should die during the game, the story won't draw to a close, rather you'll carry on through the eyes of one of the other lead characters - this approach continuing until everyone dies, at which point the plot will wrap-up.
Cage and Quantic Dream's craftsmanship is obvious, although elements like the QTE (which fails to totally convince during play) do offer cause for concern, alongside the linear nature of the plot. In fact, Heavy Rain is perhaps best viewed as a series of highly interactive but simultaneously highly scripted scenes.
Regardless of the end product, however, the ambition of Heavy Rain simply demands to be appreciated, not least because this could be the best-looking game ever made; certainly from an atmospheric perspective (I've neglected, for example, to mention the subtle voice work, naturalistic script, tense music and evocative sound effects). Plot is key, then, while the game will live or die upon whether players buy into the world and find enough genuinely challenging gameplay within the folds of this accessibility. Early 2010 should reveal all, and in the meantime we're left to ponder just how far we would really go for someone we love.
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