Quantic Dream's much-discussed opus is a difficult game to review. The inspiration drawn from previous David Cage titles like Fahrenheit is obvious, but the game perhaps owes a larger debt of gratitude to Hollywood. In an era that sees games moving into movie territory - both financially and creatively - Heavy Rain is definitely a landmark. What's more difficult to decide is whether Heavy Rain represents a step forward for interactive entertainment overall.
This is an 'interactive movie' for the GTA generation; Grand Theft Auto on rails, but with a control over plot and production values that would make Myst blush. Initial impressions: Heavy Rain is visually quite astonishing. The best looking game ever, potentially, although the linear nature of the control scheme perhaps means that Quantic Dream find it easier to pull off the stunning aesthetics without overt player freedom to contend with.
The same could in fact be said of the narrative, which although offering you key choices at times is nonetheless a tightly controlled and scripted beast, told through post-modern multiple perspectives. For most of the game you'll take charge of FBI profiler Norman Jayden, private detective Scott Shelby, troubled architect Ethan Mars and photo journalist Madison Paige. The action is beautifully directed with multiple camera angles that once again would do the silver screen proud, and all in all the atmosphere is wonderfully paced and realised, through a combination of the lush, detailed visuals, music, direction and dialogue.
The scripting is also first rate, dialogue naturalistic and unencumbered in a way video games seldom manage. At times the story will also sweep you off in control of other characters vital to the story, but for the most part Cage and co are keen to engender empathy with the central stars - all of whom are excellently voiced, and for the most part three-dimensional. There is the odd moment where you'll need to suspend your disbelief, the odd unusual line, something in the narrative that doesn't quite feel right or a clumsy bit of direction but for the most part the production values are exemplary. Its obvious Sony hope Heavy Rain can be a system-seller.
But what of the all important interactivity and more pointedly the control scheme so divisive in the run up to release? There are times where directing the unfolding action in Heavy Rain feels very much like the interactive movies of old, quick-time sequences key during the frequently violent brawls, when controlling the direct movement of your character takes a back seat in favour of context relative movements. Of course, the animation is perfect during these scenes, the contrived nature of the controls resulting in sequences that look like something a Hollywood movie would be proud of. But, and there's always a but, is this the way games are and should be going, in the era of advanced motion control and vast, open-world games - both of which offer vast senses of realism, control?
This is a question I've come back to repeatedly while playing Heavy Rain, and to be brutally honest I'm still not entirely sure I know the answer. The story and action segments, which split the gameplay down the middle, are for the most part gripping, and there's plenty of decisions to be made, strands of the mystery to consider; which ensures the experience is anything but shallow. Then again, certain scenes are highly reminiscent of several Hollywood films - Saw, Seven and Blade Runner all springing to mind at various points. The controls also serve to make the experience accessible to less hardcore players, who can pick up the gradually more-challenging pace of the quick-time instances more readily than, say, traditional third-person controls.
While I won't talk about how the plot evolves too much, what I will say is that the 'Origami Killer' plotline around which our four characters oscillate is a great conceit, and the multiple perspectives makes for an experience that rarely gets dull or frustrating. LA Confidential springs to mind, albeit in a darker, more rundown America, a world of urban decay, seedy foes and near-constant rain. There are a few genuine surprises along the way, and a few nicely spun moments of misdirection, and there's no doubt that the central mystery - the identity of the ruthless killer - will keep you guessing and only slips up very occasionally.
What's also brave about Heavy Rain is the manner in which the quick-time events are used. While navigation, evidence gathering and conversation is mostly undertaken with the character on-screen under your direct control, there are moments where Quantic Dream opt to take a firmer grasp on the reins. These times aren't always about shooting and fisticuffs, either, and you'll find yourself using quick-time style button presses to escape confinement, cook, play, undress and get intimate at various points in the story.
Some of the most tense action occurs while controlling the beautiful journalist Madison, although one particularly violent rampage in the shoes of the haggard Shelby was also highly gripping. Jayden, the FBI man, also has some interesting instances, gathering evidence while on the hunt for the murderer he is able to use virtual reality glasses to pick out evidence and control the environment around him.
Heavy Rain is a dark and engrossing experience; troubled characters battling for control in a world of vagary, twists and cynicism. There are some genuinely fraught decisions to be made along the way, morally grey moments compounded by the intense atmosphere and a sense of ever-increasing tension. Alongside all the ingredients of a thriller and a character drama, there are also pure horror scenes, Heavy Rain straddling narrative genres as engagingly as it blurs the line between cinema and interactivity.
The experience is an altogether impressive one, and while Cage's opus isn't without its frustrations there can be no doubting the conviction of Quantic Dream in pushing ahead with a control scheme some won't enjoy. The visuals and the film noir-inspired direction are a real treat, meanwhile, Heavy Rain enjoying some of the finest production values I've witnessed. Whether the title can attract non-hardcore gamers to the PS3 remains to be seen, much will depend on how Sony can position this ambitious game, but those of you willing to concede a degree of control, and embrace the game world, its characters, its ambience, will find that Heavy Rain is a slice of entertainment that stays with you between plays and compels you forward. It isn't perfect, but there's no questioning the gripping endeavour here. Meanwhile outside, in the night, the rain keeps falling, and time is of the essence. Get to it.