Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel, Watchmen, quickly became regarded as the unfilmable comic back when it was released in the 1987. However that didn’t stop director Zack Snyder having a go at adapting it for the big screen last year, and doing a pretty good job of it, I might add. Despite this, all he really managed to do was highlight the original intentions of the book; to show off what comics could do that no other medium could.
I’m telling you this because in many ways Quantic Dream’s interactive thriller Heavy Rain is a very similar case to Watchmen. No, I don’t mean there’s a giant blue naked man running around, I mean that Heavy Rain is trying to be the unfilmable game. Sure, it looks like a movie, but the level of interaction the player puts into it tries to highlight what games do that movies can’t.
There are moments, a lot of them in fact, where the game achieves this, and there are moments that kind of work against it. The result is a fairly inconsistent experience, but one that I’ll tell you now I really enjoyed, the first time at least.
As you probably know by now, Heavy Rain is a third-person interactive novel that tells the tale of the Origami Killer, and the search to save his latest victim. The action unfolds through a series of quick time events, stick movements, and sixaxis shaking that try to replicate what the character is actually doing. You take control of four main characters; father Ethan Mars, Private Detective Scott Shelby, F.B.I. Agent Norman Jayden, and journalist Madison Paige. Each character has their own reasons for trying to find the killer, and you’ll take them through a series of investigations, fights, chases and a whole lot more to achieve their goals.
A great point about this title is that all four of these characters are strong and developed. As a result, every time a scene switches, and you take control of a different character, you’re constantly interested and motivated to go on. This is also obviously helped by a great plot that rarely slips up. It has a great noir edge to it, so I came into the game with faint hopes of a story that could hold my interest as much as the first time I watched Se7en, and while the game doesn’t begin to touch David Fincher’s masterpiece (despite a few nods throughout), I left feeling a whole lot more satisfied than I thought I would.
Of course, you actually have some degree of control on how the story goes in Heavy Rain; your characters can potentially die if you fail to carry out a task, and you can make key decisions yourself. This is set to make your first play through of the game different from everyone else’s. It would seem to be a very deep system; there were moments I actually even put the controller down to think about what I was going to do. A character dying would mean that he/she would miss the rest of her scenes, and wouldn’t appear in crucial moments later on, which would seemingly affect the story drastically. Again, this is trying to show off something that games can do that no other medium can (and choose your own adventure novels don’t count).
This was Heavy Rain’s big promise — an interactive story that evolved entirely on how you performed. For the most part, this is realised well, but there were some moments where I couldn’t make the decision I wanted to. There was a time an NPC decided to get out of my character’s car and leave him behind. Personally, I didn’t care, I had no interest in sticking around. Only after about five minutes of wrestling with the game, I finally admitted that it wasn’t going to let me do anything other than to follow this character and regain their trust.
It’s also a little too easy, even on the hardest difficulty. So yes, while characters can die, it’s unlikely they will, which disappoints, as it restricts just how different your playthrough will be from your friends’.
The awesome story that drives all of this also comes with its fair share of problems. Normally it hurts a game to have a few awkward moments in the plot, like characters acting unrealistically or something relatively unfeasible happening, but because Heavy Rain is so focused on story, when these moments happen, it hurts the whole feel twice as much as it would any other game. It’s a good thing that there are only a handful of these moments then, because the ones that are there can bring the experience down considerably.
Another issue is controlling the game, which is also kind of ironic when you think about it. A game that tries to demonstrate the power of the medium fails to utilize a smooth control scheme, or even a camera that lets you see everything, the basics of almost any game. You hold R2 to make a character walk, and then use the left stick to steer. You’ll wrestle with this constantly, trying to get your character to go into the right position, then face the right way etc, and is an unnecessary battle. A fixed camera doesn’t help either. It’s meant to help it feel like a film, sure, but it ends up blocking your view and becoming frustrating.
Still, when the control goes over to a quick time fight for example, you’ll find things become much more exciting. Knowing a character could actually die adds a very intense level to the action, and really makes you sit up at key parts. There are also some really clever uses of motion controls and unique moments that put a great spin on the title. It’s bits like this that I’ll tell you that you have to experience Heavy Rain for.
The game offers some serious replay value too, looking at how every scene can differ. Don’t expect it to change as much as you might first have hoped; some scenes have already been determined before you set foot in them. There are a fair few fights where the only difference made is bumps and bruises on character models, or you can’t move on until you’ve carried out a specific task. This does its bit to kill the illusion a little, but you can still get a lot more out of this game than the initial 10 hour play through.
There’s a surprising amount of glitches however: constant screen tearing, walking through walls, character models disappearing, even a few game freezes all happened to me at least once. You’d think a title so linear would be a little more refined, but then the graphics are a mixed bag too. Some character models are stunning, some are downright embarrassing, and this level of inconsistency applies across the board for visuals and audio. I’d talk about the voice acting, but I’d just be repeating myself.
Don’t get me wrong here, Heavy Rain’s flaws are numerous and damaging, and we haven’t even mentioned mundane tasks like nappy changing but I still feel like this is an excellent videogame. Normally it’s black and white; a faulty game is bad, simple as, but this is one title that rises above. It’s definitely not the gaming industry’s Watchmen, but I will never forget Quantic Dream’s title for my first play through, and the moments I dropped my jaw, or mashed the square button in panic, or simply sat there and thought “Am I going to do this?” For these reasons alone, I beg you to play through Heavy Rain at least once. Look, up in the sky, is it a game? Is it a film? No, it’s Heavy Rain! Pull up the umbrella.
+ An incredible story that you’ll want to see through to the end
+ A bunch of clever gameplay mechanics that are perfect when used at the right moment
+ Huge range of options to make your play through different to everyone else’s
- Perhaps not as flexible as some had hoped, repeated playthroughs can reveal serious cracks in the game’s structure
- Visuals and audio are very inconsistent
- A handful of plot holes, out of character actions, and strange events hurt the plot a fair bit