The following preview is spoiler free. No, really.
There's a thorny problem that arises whenever a critic attempts to deal with a video game - or indeed any other form of media - that relies heavily upon its plot. If you discuss the story with any degree of detail, you'll effectively rob your readers of any surprises they might encounter when they experience things for themselves. On the other hand, if you don't talk about the central narrative, you feel like you're avoiding the meat of your subject matter, skirting around the edges like the nervous kid at a school disco.
In the case of Heavy Rain, this dilemma casts a particularly long shadow. Unexpected happenings and sudden forks in the road abound at every turn, but these spoil-able twists are only part of the problem. Player choice is the lifeblood of the game, the fuel that propels you though the sinister fable of The Origami Killer. There are four user-controlled characters here, and at any given time you'll be shaping their destinies as you steer them through one of the game's dynamic "scenes". Sometimes your choices will be huge, but sometimes they'll be subtle - the answer you give in a conversation, or perhaps even the choice of what you have for dinner. The important thing is that you find your own path blindly stumbling through the darkness. Even the slightest droplet of prior knowledge can have a large impact on how you act. I know this, because I've played quite a bit of Heavy Rain now - and I can tell you that the scenes that came to me "fresh" were far more exciting and engaging than the ones that I'd already heard about.
So, here's the deal: In this preview I'm going to try my damnedest to discuss this game without mentioning any cold specifics of the plot. I'll assume that you're aware of the basic premise, and might occasionally allude to this, but other than that I'll steer clear of anything concrete. Instead, I'm going to focus on Heavy Rain's broader qualities - the graphics, the tone, and what it feels like to play. For those of you who really do want all the juicy details, we'll also run a feature in the near future that will delve deep into the mind-staining gloop of the spoiler basin. Hopefully this will leave everyone happy.
To kick things off, let's talk about the game's graphics and animation. It's been said before, but I'll say it again: this is easily one of the best-looking projects in the history of video gaming. Interestingly there's a slight lack of consistency when it comes to the human models, in that some of the character appear to be far more believable than others when it comes to conveying emotions through facial expression. Every once in a while you'll catch someone out in some way, usually as a line of dialogue fails to connect with the their appearance, and when this happens, the effect can be a tad disorientating. And yet weirdly, these mild hiccups are actually proof of just how impressive the graphics generally are - because within moments of starting the game, you'll totally be sucked into what you're watching. The digital actors are so natural, so lifelike in their movements, that you almost start to forget that you're playing a game.
Okay, so you don't actually forget, obviously, but you do respond in a very unusual way. I soon realised that I was empathising with the characters in a manner than seemed totally unique for a video game. When you see a character in danger, or being hurt, it's somehow a million times more affecting than, say, taking a bullet in your typical FPS title. And it's not just the "big" moments that got to me either; there are plenty of strong emotional moments within the first two hours of Heavy Rain, but strangely it was a tiny, insignificant detail that ended up leaving one of the most indelible impressions on my mind: As a character washed up a plate, they shook it once, lightly, to throw off some of the excess water. It's kind of bizarre that this detail has stuck with me, really, but it shows just how much thought has gone into the game's appearance.
While Cage's actors are clearly intended to be as realistic as possible, the surrounding scenery is given a far more stylised look that reflects the mood of the story. After an initial period of brightness - during which we're introduced to main character Ethan Mars, and his son Shaun - things start to get very bleak indeed: The Origami Killer enters the story, and the game's entire look shifts to reflect a much darker, paranoid atmosphere. The colour set grows colder, shadows become more prevalent, and perhaps most importantly of all, it starts to rain. Whenever you start a new scene, a little subtitle pops up denoting the time, location, and the amount of rainfall, measured in inches, since the start of the game. The bad weather is almost like a character in its own right, and I have a strong suspicion that rain will play a key role in the overall plot. At any rate, the weather effects look pretty damn superb - particularly when water is spattering on your windscreen en route to a crime scene.
As I say, I want to avoid mentioning any plot specifics in this preview, but what I will say is that Quantic Dream has done a good job of filling the first 12 scenarios or so with provocative and exciting events. There are quite a few action-focused scenes during this period - stressful episodes that will test both your reflexes and your concentration - but I found myself equally enjoying the quieter scenarios, like the one I discussed in my last preview. It's often during these moments that Heavy Rain feels most like a hyper-modern descendent of the point-and-click adventure genre. True, there aren't an abundance of puzzles to be solved, but while playing as FBI Agent Norman Jayden you'll frequently be scanning your surroundings and pressing people for clues to push forward your investigation. The detective-playing aspects of Heavy Rain remind me of Westwood's excellent Blade Runner game from 1997, as the issue is often not whom you should talk to, but how you should talk to them. Considering how successful that game was at approaching the adventure genre in a fresh manner, I feel that this similarity bodes well.
Ever since this project first appeared, there's been lots of animated speculation about whether Heavy Rain is a video game in the true sense, or whether it's simply an interactive movie. Having played the game for some time now, my gut says that it's both. Yes, the game is driven by its story, and yes, quick time events form a major part of the player's input - but it would be a big mistake to write the game off for being a collection of cut-scenes. For most of the time, you're fully in control of your character's movement: on its own, the left analogue stick will move your head and allow you to inspect your surroundings; if you hold down R2 you'll start to walk, with the stick now governing your direction. Most other actions are initiated via context-dependent movements of the right stick. Some of these instructions require simple single-direction presses, while others require wide controlled arcs, or motions that are carried out with a slow, controlled speed.
There's actually quite a large selection of moves and button combos that need to be picked up and mastered before you'll be seamlessly following on-screen prompts, and together these inputs form their own sort of control system - in other words, it's not just "Hit triangle to avoid the falling rock". The only time that Heavy Rain ever feels really quick time-y is during its fight sequences, where the more organic inputs are swapped for more random hit-the-button demands. The thing is, these interludes are usually very tense, and you're asked to fulfil so many prompts that it's easy to let one slip. At this point your character will usually take a hit or get hurt in some way - and thanks to the game's graphical strengths, this is a fairly unpleasant experience. Once again, the empathy factor comes into play.
It's also worth a brief mention that the quick time events here are far, far better than the Simon Says system that appeared in Farenheit, Quantic Dream's previous game. Last time around, you'd often find yourself hammering through lengthy pattern-matching sequences that seemed to have little or no correlation to what was actually happening on-screen. Now when you're fighting for your life or desperately trying to escape from someone, it actually feels like you're doing just that. You'll also witness the result of your success or failure almost immediately - eluding an incoming fist or taking it full in the face, depending on your reflexes. As a result, action sequences are far more satisfying than what you'd expect from your typical QTE section.
Heavy Rain has certainly gathered a sizeable collection of sceptics, but if you fall into this camp then I humbly urge you to remain as open-minded as possible - at least until you can try it out for yourself. The control system is less specific than what we're used to, but that's largely because the game is trying to do so much more than the average video game. Most releases only need to handle one or two core mechanisms - usually moving and shooting - but Heavy Rain doesn't have that luxury. This is the game where characters do hundreds of different things, even within one scene: they walk around, pick up objects, and juggle them. It's a game where people threaten, plead and lie to each other. It's a game where people pretend to be airplanes with their kids, where they do the washing up, where they desperately scrabble away from someone who's trying to hurt them. Heavy Rain is all of these things, and I for one can't wait to see what else it has up its sleeve.
Heavy Rain is due out exclusively for the PS3 in 2010.