Heavy Rain Review
Posted by James Newton
Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain arrived in early 2010 in a downpour of critical acclaim, its storytelling, graphical quality and sheer audacity a breath of fresh air. Now a free patch has added support for Sony's Move controller (with a disc release landing soon) and although the game's strengths still shine through, its niggling flaws are sadly just as noticeable.
Heavy Rain is the latest in a long string of attempts at interactive movies, and shows how far the genre has come since the days when FMV sequences chained together constituted gaming's best stab at mimicking movies. The quality of the acting on display is far superior to any seen before or since; Quantic Dream excelled in creating digital actors, both through casting and in performance capture. Video diaries showing the real actors behind Ethan, Scott and the rest of the cast are eye-opening and genuinely stunning looks at the work that went into crafting the impressive and mostly believable performances. There are still some elements that prove beyond even this advanced technology – particularly fabric physics and some facial expressions – but they're minor grievances to level against one of gaming's best-ever representations of 'real' people.
Taking control of four characters involved in a series of slayings by the notorious Origami Killer, Heavy Rain plays like a cross between murder mystery and action thriller, with shady cops, brutal criminals and fights, chases and shoot-outs between you and the discovery of the killer's identity. Standard exploration segments take a familiar third-person perspective, though gamers who played the original release will be disappointed to hear the disjointed and unresponsive walking controls still remain.
Whilst the original made the best of an analogue stick to interact with the environment, this new edition uses a wide range of Move inputs to better effect; pulling doors towards you, twisting car keys and knocking on doors all play out with varying motion controlled inputs that feel responsive and mostly relevant to the action at hand. It may not be the best display of all Move's features, but on the whole it walks the fine line between subtlety and making the motions broad enough to make you feel involved; in fact, the subtler movements feel better on Move than on the DualShock 3. Whereas unfolding delicate moves before could be a tough proposition due to the smaller range of movement on an analogue stick, Move allows you to use the full control of your arm rather than just your thumb, and is more responsive as a result.
The expansion of controls from small thumb movements to larger physical motions brings the fight scenes alive, and there's plenty to relish throughout the course of the game. The game masterfully creates an atmosphere of genuine danger in its combat, even though there's no way to get 'Game Over'; if one of your four characters dies, the game continues without them, the plot altering accordingly. That said, swinging the Move around to fend off enraged criminals or domestic invader is so satisfying you'll strive to keep your characters alive for as long as possible the first time around.
After your first go-around, once the killer's identity has been revealed, the game gains an (albeit limited) extra level of depth as you watch out for telltale signs that point towards the Origami Killer, and begin to toy around with the fabric of the plot. For a game so narrow in so many ways – it's impossible to proceed until you've seen what the game needs you to – there's a sense of freedom that comes with knowing each character is disposable. "What would happen if...?" questions become impossible to resist, as you begin to play each character differently to before; more aggressive, more distant, less compliant.
If there is one complaint to be levelled at the game's replay value, it's this: the killer is always the same. Whilst a necessary function for the game's storyline to make sense, the second play-through can never provide a scene to rival the moment you realise the murderer's identity, but then few games can offer such a scene in the first place. It's also remarkably difficult to kill your characters; intentionally failing Ethan's first two tests puts him in the same place as if you'd passed, for example, although again this is necessary to keep the game a reasonable length and prevent less capable gamers from seeing as much of the game as more skilled players.
It's a shame that a game like Heavy Rain, such a pioneer in so many regards, can also stand as an example of poorly implemented motion controls. The game frequently creates disconnects between the player and the character as the motions you perform are really just substitutes for button presses, and you never have true control over characters' motions, just a string of canned animations to activate with a twist, turn or pull. The fight sequences are perfect examples: you'll sit on the edge of your seat and swing the Move around exactly how you're told, but for a game built on freedom you might find such implementation limited.
Creating a cast of four believable, humanised characters each with their own motivations would be a tough proposition for any creator, and Quantic Dream isn't wholly successful here either. Each person has an illness or physical affliction: Jayden's drug addiction; Ethan's possible schizophrenia; Madison's insomnia; Scott's asthma – yet something doesn't ring true about controlling so many intentionally broken individuals. If they were true character flaws – narcissism, selfishness and so on – they would contribute to the characters, but they feel more like convenient plot elements than personality quirks. It's understandable Quantic Dream wanted to present a range of imperfect leads, but these flaws often make them feel less human than perhaps they should.
The game's sexism is similarly disappointing: the lead women in the game fulfil the roles of mother, whore and guardian angel, some even fulfilling more than one simultaneously. Such a triptych of sexist archetypes shows how far interactive drama has yet to go to match novels and movies as modern storytelling methods.
Heavy Rain was bound to make a few missteps as a pioneering attempt at an interactive movie, one that matches the production values of many films whilst maintaining the level of involvement and excitement one would associate with a top-class action video game. It's innovative and brilliantly acted, and the Move controls bring a new level of engagement to the action scenes whilst registering subtler movements just as well. Like its lead characters, it's flawed and jarringly artificial at times, but you'll love it all the same.