EUROGAMER EXPO ’09 Pt 1: Heavy Rain

Working at a games show is a strange one: while you have privileges over the average attendee, most of the show is spent being restrained from all the awesome games. So time must be spent wisely. Not being able to get near the 4v4 stand set-ups for Left4Dead 2 and Aliens vs. Predator, there was only one game that I could possibly fritter my time away on: Heavy Rain.

I’ve been dubious about Heavy Rain from the start. If you believe the hype, it’s going to revolutionise the world of games forever. If you’ve played Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, to you Yanks), you probably have your doubts about Quantic Dream. A bunch of Quicktime Events mashed into a renewed Point-&-Click adventure game, with a story likely to dribble into nonsense? And this is the game that’s going to revolutionise the industry?Meatloaf got a problem with you...Actually, however surprisingly, Heavy Rain succeeds. It manages to be impressively tense- just watching other people fight for their lives had me clutching my fists and cheering the characters on.  It was more effective than a great film- I had no connection to, or prior knowledge of, these characters, yet found myself wincing at every punch, every time a gun was levelled at them. When’s the last time you walked into a cinema and immediately started rooting for the guy on-screen?

The comparison to film is important- Heavy Rain is gaming’s equivalent to the thriller. Obviously so; it wears the trappings of a Se7en or Usual Suspects, but more importantly it captures the central feel of them- the thrill. Until now, games have looked like a thriller- see Condemned for a game example- but they’ve never played like a thriller- Condemned had dark moody atmosphere and the occasional jump, but it was more akin to a survival horror than a true thriller. Here, though, pretty much every game mechanic works to build the edge-of-your-seat tension: in life-or-death situations, the controls begin to muddle themselves up, so you’re chasing thoughts to find the right thing to say or tilting your head to work out, just what is that button? Triangle? Left thum- erk! Dead.HeavyRain3The other important comparison is the Point-&-Click genre. Supposedly going through a revival at the moment, it’s clear how little has actually changed from the old 2d Lucasarts-and-Sierra days. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of stuff there to love- see my review of the wonderful Time Gentlemen, Pleasebut this is the reinvention of the genre. Using the conventions not to make a comedy game, but a thriller.

And it turns out the two are pretty much made for each other. Still a little doubtful, I played one of the two scenes on show (starring a less-interesting David Duchovny, or a shaven Meatloaf fighting crime in their own special ways- I opted for Meatloaf, the ‘convenience store’ scene you’ve probably seen around.) It was interactivity I was worried about, having a deep dislike of the aforementioned Quicktime Events: a press-that-button now-this-button mash of ready prepared cutscenes working towards a single possible outcome. While some of the controls were a little sluggish- walking Meatloaf around the store required common camera changes, the important difference to a QTE was that I felt part of shaping the narrative.

I tried my hardest to fight the story I knew would unfold, by finishing Meatloaf’s interview with the shop-keeper and leaving the shop straight away, but the game managed to believably draw me back into it. Having watched a few other situations play out, I was able to quickly  ‘beat’ the scene, but winning is a strange concept in Heavy Rain. I wanted to try again, see another way it could have played out.Softly...softly...This is where the expo setup really helped Heavy Rain, I think. You wouldn’t expect it, from a story-heavy, unusually controlled experiment game. But being able to see other people carrying out other routes on the next screen; the controls (again, surprisingly) genuinely intuitive; the short episodes immediately familiar- the cop trailing a killer and ending up fighting for his life, the private eye reluctantly stopping a hold-up. The latter was more immediately compelling, if only because it’s less familiar to games than the clue-hunting crime-solving special-vision-mode (see Batman: Arkham Asylum or, again, Condemned).

With all my initial worries effectively dispelled, this is what remains: a worry that much of Heavy Rain‘s appeal lies in novelty. We’ve never seen a game like this before- neither in gameplay nor its incredibly smooth presentation. The multiple-outcomes angle is a sort of Rubik’s Cube-esque pleasure, something to be played and experimented with. While this might well hold out for this game, it certainly won’t revolutionise the industry. If it’s at all successful, expect loads of cheap knock-offs, but too much money, too much polish has gone into this game to invent a new genre.  Alas, Good-QTE-Point&Click-Thriller, we knew ye all too briefly.

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