Title: Heavy Rain Demo: Review
Posted: February 12, 2010 (08:29 PM)
The demo for Heavy Rain came out this week and I spent the last hour playing it, exploring the various things the game has to offer. The demo is a four part affair. I'll take you through all four parts and discuss the various ins, outs, and potentials of the game as we go. Obviously, there's some small spoilers, so if you don't want to know ANYTHING about Heavy Rain or how it plays, don't continue.
The first part is a tutorial in which you guide a portly middle aged man (who looks remarkably like Jack Lemmon in a trench coat) down a dark alley. Right away we can see that the game is beautifully produced. Water trickles off surfaces, the lighting casts realistic shadows, and the main character's gait is captured perfectly; the uncomfortable hunched walk of someone who has seen too many wet days (living in Oregon, I see this walk a lot). When the character has an asthma attack, the spasms that wrack his body are beautiful to watch (in a disturbing kind of way).
About that asthma attack... the game starts us off with a healthy dose of the quick-time-events (QTE) that we've been promised will pepper Heavy Rain quite liberally. We get to experience how any action outside of walking is controlled through QTE, whether it be sucking on your inhaler or opening your car door. These controls feel very responsive and generally fit the action that's being taken (for instance, "pushing" the analog stick over and out to open a door, and being able to control how fast the door is opened by the speed of your movement). Examining objects is also pretty cool. It's not done in the classic adventure game way, where you select an object or have to lead a character over to it. Here it's done by hitting L2, which pulls up a rotating list of the character's current thoughts. When the character spots something of interest or has a thought about something, it appears in this list. It's an innovative take on the old method which cuts down on the frustration of adventure games of yore, where you were constantly trying to get the character to move into the right spot to check something out long after you'd seen it.
For getting that complicated stuff right, it's shocking that simple stuff goes wrong. You move forward with the R2 trigger and steer with the left analog stick. Oddly, the game steers based on camera orientation, which is something I thought we did away with back in the days of the original Resident Evil. It's reappearance here isn't only unwelcome, it's out-of-date and out-of-sync with every other third person game out there right now. As the camera is constantly moving and shifting, the developers are going to be hard pressed to explain why they choose to use this method. Hopefully there's an option to change this in the final release, but I doubt it. It really does break the otherwise extremely immersive experience.
The tutorial ends with the as-of-yet unnamed character entering a building and we switch to part 2. Part 2 demonstrates a lot more of the "sandbox" elements of the game. I don't mean that you get free reign over where you go or that you gain access to a whole city to explore. It's more of a "sandbox director" experience, in which you are presented with a scene and your choices and actions change the way the scene plays out.
In this case, the scene finds our character (who we learn through his thoughts is Jack Shelby, a private eye) looking to question a hooker about the Origami Killer. She was the mother of one of the murder victims. Right away we are made aware of our control over the scene. Jack can question the desk clerk about which room Lauren (the hooker) is in (and then persuade him with some cash, if he doesn't feel like talking) or walk on by and try to find the room by knocking on all the doors. When you get to the right room, Lauren tells you she "only does appointments" and tries to shut the door. You can either stop the door with your hand or let it close and knock again.
These kind of changes are obviously cosmetic. Regardless of how you do it, you've got to get in Lauren's room. Once there, however, we start to see some more meaningful branching paths. Try to bribe Lauren to talk about her son's death with money and she'll become irate, telling you to "get the fuck out of her room" and leaving you with no leads. But try to appeal to her motherly nature and she'll be more talkative. I find a little bit of fault here with how these persuasion choices are laid out. Sometimes it's not clear what kind of statement certain choices will elicit from Jack. For example, it's by clicking on the choice to "trick her" that you end up appealing to Lauren's motherly side. That said, the fact that you can miss out on an entire scene just by making the wrong choices is appreciated and adds a huge amount of potential replay value to the game.
The last part of the scene also highlights the sandbox nature of these scenes. As you leave Lauren's room another man comes in... forcibly. Rush back into the room to help her and you suddenly hit a plethora of branching QTEs as you're introduced to Heavy Rain's unique combat system.
Like the rest of the game, the combat system feels like a scene in a movie that you direct. Push open the door as the punk comes to answer it and you can greet him with a headbutt. Kick it open and he'll charge at you for the first strike. Failing to hit the buttons correctly or fast enough or not performing the proper action (some QTEs require you to shake the controller or hold multiple buttons at once) will cause you to miss with your blows or take blows yourself.
There isn't a health bar; your progression through combat changes based on what actions you succeed or fail at. We've already heard that some combats can prove fatal and change the course of the game (from interviews we've learned your game doesn't end when a character dies, they just drop out of the story) but in this case combat just serves to either leave Shelby bloody or the punk bloody... in either case, Lauren threatens to call the cops and the punk flees. Thus, however intricate the combat progression might be, the changes in this particular combat are just cosmetic. However, what isn't cosmetic is that you don't have to do this scene at all. As the punk forces his way into the room you can choose to ignore Lauren's screams and leave the building. In either case, Part 2 ends at this point, leaving me interested in seeing how these kind of decisions will affect the story of the game in the long run, as well as things like whether or not you choose to leave your card in Lauren's room in case she remembers anything.
The third part of the demo showcases the ARI system, which is going to make up the forensic part of the game. As Federal Agent Norman Jayden, you arrive at a crime scene for a victim of the Origami killer and proceed to examine the scene to find clues. The ARI system is simple enough; by pushing right and up on the controller, you'll whip out a pair of high-tech sunglasses and some bitchin' gloves and enter a mode similar to Arkham Asylum's detective mode. At this point, you wander around the crime scene and light up general areas with your glove to see if you reveal any clues. If you do, you can examine them in more detail. Some are red herrings, mostly caused by the sloppy police-work going on around you. Others, if pieced together correctly, may set you on the trail of the killer.
Note that when I say pieced together correctly, this is player logic that I'm talking about. Unlike adventure games of old, you don't have to investigate every little thing or find them in certain orders to locate the trail of the Origami Killer. The clues are there to point the player in the right direction. As in the last scene, it's also up to the player to decide if they want to follow the clues.
In my first playthrough of this scene I hunted down all the clues, following them ultimately outside of the crime scene and over to a busy road before the trail went cold. I went back to my car loaded with information. The second time I played, I wandered around, talked to the police and drank their coffee, took a rudimentary glance at the body, and left. As with the previous scene, I'm hopeful that these differences in player decisions will have an impact on future scenes.
Playing through twice also highlighted the dynamic environments that Heavy Rain creates. My first time through I was completely distracted by all of the policemen wandering about. I actually felt claustrophobic in their midsts as I stumbled around looking for my clues. The second time around, I spent more time on the fringes of the masses and got to see things I didn't the first time, such as a freight train passing through the crime scene, or a journalist in the shadows madly taking notes on a pad.
The final part of the demo is a video trailer highlighting the "heaviness" of the game (it starts with a video asking a character to cut off his finger to save his son). After viewing it multiple times and putting it together with what I experienced in the other parts of the demo, the most accurate statement I can make about the game is that it has potential; maybe more potential than any game that's come out in the adventure genre.
The presentation is over-the-top, so I don't think anyone has to worry about not having something pretty to look at, and the two characters we meet in the demo are interesting in an accessible and realistic way (they aren't over-the-top). From the demo, Heavy Rain could be the Noir RPG that only the most clever GM could hold; could be the Jacob's Shadow we never got to read; could be Sin City 2. All of that is going to ride on how well they develop the characters, how much influence the player's decisions have over the story, and how well the story pans out.
Now, for anyone who has played Indigo Prophecy, that is not a comforting list. It is true that Quantic Dreams failed to deliver on their last big game and, worse, failed to deliver after a hugely promising build up. But Heavy Rain is interesting and unique enough to warrant them a second chance, I think. It will either be the game that cements Quantic Dreams as a lackaluster designer or the game that wipes their slate clean and allows gamers everywhere to say "all is forgiven." I have high hopes for the latter.
Heavy Rain comes out on the 23rd of this month and is exclusive for the PS3.
Posted: February 13, 2010 (01:28 AM)
well it wasn't as boring as i thought it was going to be. maneuvering is kind of clumsy though. don't see why you need two buttons to control movement when it could be done with just the left analog stick. the whole "whatever happens, happens" and the player having influence over how scenarios unfold seems like an interesting idea. still i'm not completely sold on Heavy Rain but my perception of it now isn't as negative.
Posted: February 13, 2010 (12:37 PM)
I can't wait for Yahtzee's review.
Posted: February 13, 2010 (05:26 PM)
Yahtzee's funny, but I don't take him seriously as a reviewer. After all, it's his job to not like (as much as possible) the games that are given him.