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Review: Heavy Rain
What is it?
An 'interactive movie' where you control four characters who are all on the hunt for the feared 'Origami Killer' serial child murderer.
What we like:
A huge leap forward in videogame storytelling - proper, grown-up themes worked through brilliantly. Relentlessly gripping - characters you care about, a story that holds your attention.
What we don't like:
Awkward controls occasionally mar the mood. Occasional jarring dialogue/tonal shifts to story. Lack of gameyness/feeling of being on narrative conveyor belt.
Despite at its core being an old-school adventure game, Heavy Rain is a massive leap forward for storytelling in videogames - and it grips like nothing else.
Heavy Rain arrives on a wave of anticipation. A massive Sony PS3 exclusive, made by David Cage at Quantic Dreams, the creator of the critically-acclaimed Fahrenheit; Heavy Rain is an 'interactive movie' hyped to be the Citizen Kane of videogames. But does it live up to that billing?
The game tells the story of four lives that intersect with the Origami Killer. In an unnamed gritty and rain-drenched city, the sinister Origami has been kidnapping young boys. Their bodies turn up days later, having been drowned, with an orchid on their chest and an origami figurine in their hand.
Thematically and stylistically, Heavy Rain ultimately has far more in common with a great thriller movie than it does with Gears Of War 2. There are 'videogamey' moments, true. But these often are the worst bits of the game - a ludicrously unrealistic shoot-out in a mansion, and a weakly scripted confrontation in a nightclub with a manager taken straight from Grand Theft Auto's Vice City, stand out as low points.
When Heavy Rain tries to shoehorn interactivity into the game, it looks silly. But thankfully, these moments are relatively rare and tend to come late in the game, by which point you'll be so hooked to the plot it won't matter so much.
Often, the best moments are quiet, understated points of emotion, or terrible and sudden, real choices where interactivity allows Heavy Rain to create different story paths for you to choose: how far would you go to save your son, can romance blossom in desperate circumstances, are some people better off dead?
These are the least 'videogamey' segments - but the choices you make can and do change the plot, ultimately defining this as a game before anything else.
Heavy Rain starts with architect Ethan Mars at home, preparing for the birthday of his son. You can mow the lawn, run around the garden with your two boys, help your wife prepare lunch. This is cannily both a classic set-up that lures you into caring for the characters before the story proper kicks off and a tutorial on the controls.
Those controls repeat through the game - simple button choices flash up on screen, often either asking you to choose between a few options (that can change a character's entire story/life in an instant) or challenging you to press button sequences fast before they flash off screen (to steer a careening car through a road block, for instance).
Once you've got the controls, Heavy Rain's plot really starts. A family trip to the mall turns gradually terrifying as you realise you've lost one of your boys. Pushing through the crowds, you're desperately looking for the red balloon he was holding. This is barely more interactive than moving in the direction of any red balloon you can see while hitting X to issue the ever-more shaky command to yell out your boy's name. It's a slow, un-gamey start to Heavy Rain, but by the end of the first chapter, it's already more gripping than any other videogame.
The secret to Heavy Rain is, in part, its characters. Each - the architect Ethan, a wheezing private investigator, a drug-addicted FBI expert and the only playable female character, an insomniac photojournalist, have their own flaws, weaknesses and personality. They're far from the cardboard cutouts most games go for.
On top of character, Heavy Rain adds believability. Few elements break from real, normal life. This is a downbeat, unsettling and emotional story. It may not be Citizen Kane, but it's way more realistic than 24. Characters respond to real-seeming situations largely in real-seeming ways. There are no superheroes, nor supervillains.
On top of believability, layer realism - a real-seeming city hums with real life: crowds jostle in subway stations, discos teem with gyrating bodies and playgrounds are full of kids, but also blown leaves and litter. The stunning visuals give real character details to movements and faces too - eyebrows crease in anger, people huddle from the rain, victims go wide-eyed with terror. All the while, rain drips down windows foggy with condensation in rooms stuffed with real-feeling clutter.
Finally, add scripting - in both senses of the word. Firstly, characters speak to each other realistically, hooking you into believing in them. Secondly, interactive choices and segments are designed to make you feel like you're creating the plot as you go along, even when you aren't.
The naughty trick behind Heavy Rain is that, for most of the action-oriented sequences particularly, you simply can't go wrong. Stop pressing buttons and you'll still survive. But you won't want to - because you'll feel you have to swerve that car/dodge that blow or else...
And Heavy Rain is smart enough to let you know when you've failed, without rendering a game over screen - characters limp or look more beaten up as they go. In a few scenes playable characters can even die, forcing you to continue the game without their plotline.
The scripting of your choices is also well done when it comes to genuine moral moments - to kiss or not to kiss, to kill or not to kill, even to talk to your son or just prepare dinner in silence - these genuinely affect the story and characters in subtle ways (that also add to replayability).
In all, despite some moments of cliché, despite some minor control issues, despite the fact that this is just a very advanced version of things point-and-click adventures have been doing for decades, Heavy Rain is a must-buy.
How good is it? How different is it? While reviewing it, several non-gamers saw sections of it and became so hooked that by the final dénouement, there was a crowd of people watching or wanting to know what happened. That has never happened with Halo or Grand Theft Auto or even Uncharted 2, no matter how pretty, absorbing and well-scripted those games were.
Perhaps even more telling, this is a game where a genuinely gripping choice is to sit and observe your son watching TV - a decision with enough moral complexity and delicate emotion that it can put tears on your face.
Heavy Rain is the real deal - it may not be the Citizen Kane of videogames, but it's more engrossing, grown-up and well told than anything we've yet seen.
Heavy Rain is out on 26 February for PS3