So is it a movie, or ain't it? If the whole damn world can't decide, then how should you? Well, you could start by playing it. We wrote in our hands-on preview for Heavy Rain that "it's a game, not a film," but after playing the full version, it seems to have more in common with the silver screen than ever. Am I saying all the uncertainty and media criss-crossing is a bad thing? Hell no. It's only topical. And film or game or game of the film of the book of the Broadway musical - Heavy Rain is an amazing experience.
Father Ethan Mars, PI Scott Shelby, journo Madison Paige and FBI agent Norman Jayden are all on the path of the Origami Killer. He kills young boys, always in the autumn and they all reappear, after a five or six day absence, drowned in rainwater. Each boy also has an origami figure in their hand, and an orchid on their chest - the killer's signature. It's no secret that Heavy Rain's theme is "How far would you go to save someone you love?" - so that's probably why the game starts with doting father, Ethan, at 11:22am on a Saturday.
This was the third time I had played through the game's prologue. I have to say, once you're used to the controls (and, yes, the game does give you an effective tutorial and constant directive icons) getting around the environment becomes quite intuitive. But "intuition" is the reason that there are some minor frustrations with simple things like walking and turning (we covered this in the preview and, sadly, things haven't gotten a lot better). I'm setting this upfront early, because I think it's only a problem that will get new gamers down. I suppose the point is: persevere. To briefly recap on bygone articles, L2 gets you walking, with direction controlled by the left stick. Right stick, or button combinations - whether you're holding, hitting once or tapping - perform most of your actions. These could be as simple as standing upright or opening a door. If you want to shake up a carton of orange juice, well, shake it. You'll get plenty of clues.
The gameplay itself is mostly quick time events, or arbitrary actions (pick up piece of paper by pulling down on the right stick, and watch passively as the next part of the story unfolds). What's interesting about this is it doesn't take long to see the entire control mechanic as being about as purposeful as turning pages in a book: you only do it to reveal the next part of the story. Sure, there are brief snatches of go-go-go, like wrestling with a robber, or controlling Ethan's car as he blasts the wrong way up a busy road, but they're few and far between. This isn't such a bad thing, but it does separate Heavy Rain from the action pack. All those kiddies with the attention spans of gnats out there will be bored with this game in about three seconds flat, so it's just as well it's aimed squarely at the older set.
How did I go most of my gaming life coming across live-action breasts only once or twice, then suddenly get them in back to back reviews? Madison Paige's pair were made very public in a video released to get gamers sweating some time ago, showing her performing a striptease. Well, suffice to say, that's not where they stop. I mention this only as another example of how this game has been made with maturity in mind. There's nothing highly pornographic or sexual about showering (titillating, maybe) but as it's a necessary part of life, and as this game holds up a mirror and sends back a starkly rendered reflection, all ablutions have been included in Heavy Rain. Not only has the nudity been handled quite tastefully, it only goes to highlight the intense graphical realism inherent in every leaf, shirt pocket or mote of dust.
It's only because of the effort that has been put into making Heavy Rain visually spectacular that a few very minor blemishes make themselves known (you could say that the walking/turning issue mentioned above is for the same reason). I'm talking teeny-tiny details here: a car driving through a puddle without making a splash, characters gliding out of the way if they're standing in an NPC's path during an animation, a heavily pixelated shadow. These work for and against the game. If you can be so picky about such things, then Heavy Rain is obviously extremely impressive. Yes? Yes, it is. This will be something gamers will take great pleasure in discovering for themselves, but let me be clear this game came very (very) close to a 10/10 for graphics.
The filmic quality of Heavy Rain would fail drastically if the story wasn't any good, but it's better than good: it hums. Supported by believable characters and that incredible setting, the narrative is absolutely gripping. After only a few hours of play, I felt like I was lightyears away from that sunny bedroom where Ethan had awoken. I found myself weaved into the lives of four very different people. Those movies where the credits roll and you feel like you have to detach yourself from the land of make believe are always the best ones. There is some of that very magic in Heavy Rain.
There are no blank spots among the characters, either. I must admit I liked watching Shelby's arc the best - you can always count on a PI to walk a rather more zig-zagged line to a killer than someone like Jayden, which makes for a more interesting ride. That said, Paige and Mars's stories are just as intense, and when things all start to wind together you ought to find yourself - ick, I have to do it - on the edge of your seat.
Some of the reactions this game provoked surprised me. After playing the preview, I didn't expect to be so affected, but - yes, just like a good movie - it was too easy to slip right in amongst all the world's troubles. Ethan's life, you can't help but feel, is getting away from him: one son is dead by the end of the prologue, and the other is [SPOILER ALERT] snatched by the Origami Killer. On the back of the box you could easily read, "Ethan Mars's life is spinning out of control!" but that's not really true. It feels more like a slow, gut-wrenching twist, and you're there to share it with him.
Heavy Rain also manages to apply a certain delicious pressure. While I was a bit negative about the controls above, they are instrumental in making choices, and that's not always as easy as it sounds. Holding L2 at any time will bring up a circling set of thoughts banging around in the character's head. You can choose to listen to any one of them. A similar thing happens when the character needs to make a decision - depending on the character's stress level, the options may shake or spin at speed. This makes it more difficult to see, read and decide quickly - simply put, it simulates the brain's difficulty in ordering thoughts and taking action under pressure. Also simply put - it's bloody brilliant.
Assessing Jayden's reaction to seeing a weapon pulled on a colleague whom he doesn't much like was one such highlight. Jayden's off-sider has been all up in the grill of a mentally disturbed man, who finally snaps and takes aim. Jayden pulls his weapon too, giving the player three options to attempt a peaceful resolution, and one at something more definite. I had been taking Jayden along the diplomatic road too much at that point, so decided to pull the trigger. [SPOILER ALERT] Perhaps the "Blunder" trophy I was awarded is telling me something...
Show me another game where you can change a baby's nappy, throw a boomerang, play with a remote control car, search a murder scene, shower, stop a suicide, and maybe catch a killer. I bet you can't do it. With an impressive number of chapters and a host of ways to play through each, you'll probably squeeze a few extra hours out of Heavy Rain even after your first play through.
Heavy Rain acts like a film in almost every way. That ability to change the character's course of direction slightly is the only - albeit quite big - difference. Watching a robbery go down with detached movie-convention-predictability and suddenly realising you have to intervene can freeze you up like Paul Henry spotting a mustache on a lady. It adds the third dimension that makes this game a game. In any case, it's an entertaining variation on screaming, "Don't go in there!" at a flickering screen in the dark. Supported by a flawless soundtrack, knowing on some level that you'll get to the end if only by accident, and that you'll enjoy the ride regardless, Heavy Rain can hardly disappoint.