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Friday, 12 February 2010

Heavy Rain demo available!

Anyone who read my first post on this blog will know I am keenly awaiting Heavy Rain, the PS3 exclusive crime-thriller game. Developed under the direction of David Cage (the man responsible for the interesting Fahrenheit as well as the underappreciated Omikron: The Nomad Soul), Heavy Rain has attracted a lot of interest since it was announced way back in 2006. Much of this interest has been raised by the games mission to be a genuinely emotional experience, with realistic and interesting characters.

Personally, Heavy Rain excites me for many reasons, the first and most frivolous being that it bears some resemblance to the notorious Dreamcast flop, Shenmue (one of my favourite games of all time - pictured above). The resemblance, as I see it, is in the way both games feature mundane actions as gameplay elements. For example, Shenmue saw players waiting at a bus stop on their way to work every morning. You could also open pointless drawers and pick up the various pots and pans... for no reason whatsoever. Heavy Rain seems to allow similar scope for relatively pointless moments, such as playing with your son or opening a fridge. Of course, none of these moments are pointless within the context of the game, as they create a world and an atmosphere. The other similarity both games seem to share is a reliance on reaction times in responding to on-screen button prompts, popularly known as QTE’s (quick timer events).

Shenmue likeness aside, the main reason I am excited by Heavy Rain is that I want to see whether it lives up to its ambitious goal, and makes me cry (or at least feel something for the characters). In that earlier post, I discussed whether games could be considered art, and I see Heavy Rain as a potentially interesting chapter in that ongoing saga.

The reason for writing this now is that a playable demo has arrived on Playstation Network. In it you are allowed to play two brief scenarios, which introduce you to the games control system, as well as setting up two of its characters. I have played this demo and can now give my proper first impressions on the title.

I’ll start with the bad. Well, nothing I played was truly bad. The one thing I really wasn’t sure about was the control system. Pressing the “R2” button (the lower-right trigger on the control pad) causes your character to move forwards (this is again similar to Shenmue) and this took some time getting used to. Moving your character in this way lacks fluidity and this seems to undermine the realism of the game, as my character changes direction like a robot. The QTE’s themselves work well, but I was thrown by their inconsistency. For example, at one point in the demo I was told that pressing down “L2” would always present the option of hearing my characters thoughts. However, this didn’t prove to be the case more than half of the time. Another minor gripe is that the early previews of the game made the characters facial animations appear much more detailed and fluid then they would seem to be in the final game.

The single worst thing I can say about Heavy Rain, so far, is this: the all-important believable story and characters are falling into the trap of aiming for “cinematic”. The story and the dialogue do indeed feel cinematic, but only because they feel cliché. In one section of the demo I played as an FBI agent, complete with the standard banter with local law enforcement about jurisdictions and people saying “look, just remember we’re both on the same team here”. All the dialogue, from what I’ve played in the demo, seems directly ripped out of a million cop shows and movies. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t groundbreaking either. It certainly isn’t “realistic”. Within a minute of starting the demo I was asking a hotel receptionist whether Abe Lincoln would jog his memory. It’s that sort of thing.

It was all curiously affecting, however. Once the demo was over I was surprised that I was really hungry for more, despite having some reservations about what I’d seen. Most encouragingly I was left feeling that even though I had only spent limited time with them I knew both the characters I had been playing as. This will be vital in a game which splits between multiple characters fairly frequently. The game also had a decent atmosphere, with the titular heavy rain lashing down throughout. I must also say that the QTE fight scene I had in the first half of the demo was pretty good. I missed lots of prompts and was rewarded with bruises and busted limbs, rather than having to replay the section as with other games that feature QTE’s. I need to replay the demo and check this out, but it certainly felt like I could have walked away and not had the fight at all, or like I could have come out of it without taking a beating or even that I could have been truly smashed up by the end of it. One of the most intriguing elements of all this is seeing how these different outcomes will affect the remainder of the story. Of course, the demo gives me no insight into this.

It remains to be seem whether the story is emotionally affecting, but overall I am left excited by the prospect of getting deeper into it and I am looking forward to playing the full game (and reviewing it here) later this month.

Heavy Rain is released on Playstation 3 on the 26th of February and was rated a 15 by the BBFC.

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