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Eurogamer Expo 2009 Hands-on: Heavy Rain

How many times have you found yourself playing a “new” game and thought, “I’ve seen all this before”? While many gamers profess to want more and more innovation as technology and industry talent progress, publishers and developers continue to churn out carbon copy titles by the bucket load, safe in the knowledge that tried and trusted formulas will continue to rake in the cash. The truth is, as much as we talk about wanting inventive gameplay and new ideas, most of us are content to sit and play the same old thing time and again.

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That’s why, when something like Heavy Rain comes along, it represents something of a risk to the people who’ve invested in it. It’s also why, when something like Heavy Rain comes along, we should all sit up and take notice. For better or worse, there are some truly fresh ideas on display in this game.

On paper, most of these ideas have been seen before. Strong, dark cinematic stylings combined with a murder mystery storyline? So far, so Fahrenheit. Funky, in-game split screens? Fahrenheit again, or XIIV maybe. Context sensitive controls? Take your pick of titles that rely on screen prompts and QTEs. But it’s the way all these aspects are fused together that, at this early stage, seems to make Heavy Rain a unique experience.

This may seem hyperbolic based on very limited playtime on an obviously far from finished code, but it is transparent right from the off that this is something different to the norm. There were two scenes playable at the Expo, and they were superficially similar in nature. Each involved a lone law enforcer probing someone about a crime, but from there on in the similarities end.

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Scene one places you as a slightly overweight, middle-aged detective questioning the owner of a grocery store about the murder of his son. Whilst in the store, an armed robber bursts in. Where the scene goes from here can vary quite dramatically, and every one of the playthroughs we took part in went differently. It all comes down to how you want your character to behave, and seems to mainly revolve around the dialogue selections you make.

While this may sound very similar to the conversational choices on offer in everything from Mass Effect to Fallout 3, the main difference here is in the presentation. In order to make the experience more interactive than just picking a chosen response from a list, the dialogue options here are much more dynamic. The choices may seem fairly basic, and are often limited to single words like “calm” or “suspicious”, but find yourself with a gun in your face and all of a sudden these options are whirling around your head like that unfortunate cow at the end of Twister. That panic may well affect your decision making, and what you say or do could be the difference between disarming the bad guy and someone ending up with a big, squelchy hole in their body.

There is also a degree of moral ambiguity on display, and even within this small snippet of gameplay it is obvious that no-one’s motives are clear-cut. The idea of shades of grey, rather than just good guy versus bad guy is still relatively fresh where gaming is concerned, and may make the content of Heavy Rain a lot more “mature” than, say, someone’s head exploding in Saints Row 2.

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The second scene again involved a lone agent making inquiries into a crime, this time a stolen car. Introducing two completely different characters, the only clear link between the two scenes is that each protagonist is investigating the same serial killer. The game’s sense of style is still present and correct, with the titular weather pummelling down from a moody grey sky. It will be interesting to see how these seemingly unrelated scenes and characters dovetail in the finished story.

If there is a gripe at this stage it is that the contextual controls (mainly triggered with the right stick) are not always clear, but this may just be down to the fact that we were playing an early version with no help screen or manual to refer to. The control scheme could take some getting used to (with R2 used to walk forwards, as well as some other idiosyncrasies), but that remains to be seen for now. With extended play it seems like it could become very intuitive if implemented correctly.

A suitably strong storyline could carry Heavy Rain even if the slightly experimental nature of the gameplay doesn’t always hit the mark. In some respects it feels like a spiritual successor to Shenmue, which should ensure a cult following at the very least. Taking different approaches to situations and finding alternative outcomes could be very intriguing, and you can’t help but feel that if all the elements fall into place as well as they could do, we could be looking at a Game of the Year contender.

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Fellow Staff Writer Terence had the following thoughts:

Heavy Rain was one of the more prominent games of the show, playable on eight consoles in the over-18 area, and given how filmic its aspirations are, it’s no surprise that it drew large and enthusiastic crowds. Two episodes were available, and I got the chance to play through the Mad Jack episode twice, as well as observe a number of other people play through it. One of the most interesting things about Heavy Rain is watching the choices different players make, and observing the branching conversation paths. Clearly it’s not going to be as in-depth as an RPG, for instance, but scenarios can play out in very different ways depending on choices made and dialogue selected.

It’s clear that those who dislike QTEs will find much to gripe about in Heavy Rain, as it seems that every action sequence was driven by them, from movement through quick-fire dialogue. However, it’s the way in which they’re used that demands appreciation – in the first episode when the character is accosted by a would-be robber, the dialogue selection shakes as the stress of the situation increases. You’re also required to press L1 and R1 to hold up his hands while you talk, and it’s very easy to forget this which results in warnings to put his hands back up. The QTEs are wonderfully woven into the gameplay, and so far seem to be far smoother and more naturalistic than pretty much any comparative game, including Quantic Dreams’ last development, Fahrenheit.

Taking the role of an FBI agent, the player visits a scrap yard looking for the origins of a car linked to the ‘Origami Killer’. Questioning the very hostile yard owner, Mad Jack, the agent is rebuffed and warned to leave. Ignoring this advice and employing some kind of uber-CSI equipment, the agent looks around, finding suspicious footprints, tyre marks and blood. Before he can investigate too much further he is attacked by Jack and the two have an intense fight lasting a couple of minutes, with both characters gaining the upper hand at various points. We won’t give too much away on how this fight turns out, but it’s very intense and enjoyable to watch. There’s always the criticism that the player spends more time watching for the button prompts than watching the on-screen action, but that’s an inherent flaw with QTEs rather than a specific problem here.

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The atmosphere is oppressive, and very commendable. Like in David Fincher’s classic movie Seven, the constant thundering rain creates a tangible weight to the atmosphere and narrative. The character models are also incredibly detailed, able to create a range of expressions and emotions, which is shown off a little as the very brief loading time is accompanied by close-ups of the characters’ faces. The voiceovers seem fairly good so far, perhaps a little over-exaggerated in places, but it’s hard to really get a feel for this from a play-through of two ten minute episodes.

Heavy Rain was one of the nicest surprises of the show. It may have been in development for a long time, but clearly it’s all coming together very well and the developers have made leaps and bounds since their previous game. If Quantic Dream can keep the narrative compelling and intriguing, balance the multi-character dynamic and maintain innovative takes on the QTE gameplay, there’s every chance this will be one of the most exciting, unique and impressive games of 2010.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2009.

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