While these flexible controls are the key to the game's wide-ranging action set pieces, it's the virtual cast that make them count. Alongside Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain sets a new standard for lifelike human characters, and while the game generally employs a highly stylistic look, there are times where you could be forgiven for thinking that you're watching a film or high-budget TV show. The effect isn't constant, naturally, and the occasional odd movement or strange expression will remind you that you're playing a game, but the fact remains that these are characters who feel alive. You can read their mood from their expressions, from the way they move, and you'll soon realise that you actually care about what happens to them. Aside from the child actors and a few minor characters who are a bit too colourful for their own good, the cast turn in some very strong performances.
As you might expect, the central quartet are particularly well-drawn and voiced. Top honours should probably go to Leon Ockenden as Norman Jayden, a drug-addicted FBI agent who comes across as a good man haunted by his demons, but Sam Douglas also does a great job as Scott Shelby, an avuncular private detective whose inherent good nature steers him through all manner of tough spots. I found that it took me a little longer to warm to the other two characters – architect Ethan Mars and journalist Madison Paige. Mars is actually the star of the show, but he's about as far removed as you can get from your typical video game frontman: He's depressed, mentally confused, and more than a little tragic. I initially found the experience of “playing” him to be a bit jarring, but you're probably supposed to feel that way – and he ends up going through so much for the sake of his missing kid, it's hard not to empathise.
It feels a little strange to be writing such things in a game review, but the characters really are the heart of Heavy Rain. The atmosphere conjured by the constant drizzling rain, the bleak-but-beautiful lighting and the sublime music definitely plays an important role too, but it's the four heroes who drive things onward. When their lives are in danger, you'll care about whether or not they survive, and if they do die, you'll almost certainly mourn their absence. At the touch of a button you'll be able to listen to what they're thinking – a neat touch that further helps to make the cast feel like solid, organic creations. This ability can also be a massive help in the situations where you need to act fast. There actually aren't that many puzzles in the game, but several of the stickier situations are pretty terrifying when they crop up – and under these circumstances it's great to be able to get a clue from the hero's mind. On a similar note, there are several moments where the game will present you with a genuinely tough choice as to how to proceed, and here again you can listen in to get a handle on the character's response to a situation.
Ultimately, however, the choice is yours – and you'll have to live with the consequences of your actions, even if your characters might not. As I say, it took me roughly 10 hours to finish Heavy Rain, and after I was done I went back to tinker with some of the choices I'd made along the way. Strangely, my prior fears about the game being strictly controlled were both confirmed and assuaged by the final product. The path you take through the story is relatively linear, and some of the seemingly-important choices you make actually have very little bearing on the overall flow of the plot; on the other hand, the game is very clever in the way it folds the important points of difference – and indeed the missing presence of dead characters – back into the overall thread. I've seen five different endings so far, and while they all have certain common elements, I was very pleased by the variation in the conclusions I saw. More impressively, each of the endings seems to work well on its own terms: there are “good” and “bad” endings, to an extent, but the bad ones seem just as valid as the ones which reach a more positive end (I'll stop here now, as I feel like I'm verging on spoiler territory).
A slightly more concerning discovery, and one that's only really apparent on the second playthrough, is that often the player's input is fairly insignificant in terms of the overall way a scene plays out. You can screw things up, but a lot of the time you have to try quite hard to do so, and at times the game gives the impression that you might be in danger when it's actually impossible to fail. In short, the game uses a “rubber band” structure rather than a true branching plotline, and at time the bands are far tighter than how they might appear. Still, this is only really evident when you're coldly testing the mechanics of the game – and doing this feels a bit like pulling the wings off a butterfly.
As surprised as I am to say it, there's actually quite a bit of replay value in Heavy Rain, but my advice would be to leave the game a while after you complete it for the first time. Go look at the concept art, watch the little making-of videos, and play something else for a week or two before you come back. If you do this, it'll feel that much better on the second playthrough – but be aware that it will never be as exciting as the first time you venture into the great unknown. Beyond this, and the occasional slip in the otherwise superlative animation standards, there's only one criticism I can see people levelling at the game: it's very, very different to anything that's come before. If you're a twitch gamer, the kind of person who values the likes of Bayonetta above all else, you may struggle to get to grips with Heavy Rain. There's not a lot of gameplay in the traditional sense. The scenes which focus more heavily on detective work – largely those featuring Norman Jayden – suggest that the game could have been a lot closer to traditional point-and-click adventures, but that's not the path that Quantic Dream took. Make no mistake, this is an incredible game – but if you're a hardcore traditionalist who's sceptical of anything that doesn't demand oodles of player skill, it's unlikely you'll be falling in love here.
But for the rest of you, for those of you who can open your minds to the possibility of something genuinely new, this is mana from heaven. Heavy Rain is one of the most exciting things to happen to video games for a long, long time. It's not a threat to the old way of doing things, but it does hint at the possiblity of a whole new genre. It occupies a middle ground somewhere between gaming and cinema, and to be quite frank, there's nothing else like it anywhere. If you do plump for giving a pop, I can guarantee that you'll be discussing it – and all the great moments that I've resisted telling you about – for months to come. And if you want a true indicator of the PS3's abilities, and of the true potential of what video games can do, I can think of no better candidate.