Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Heavy Rain: Demo Impressions

Late last week Sony released a demo of Quantic Dream’s upcoming Heavy Rain (HR), a game that promises to evoke some sort of deep emotional response from all who sample its delights, branching out and away from being just another interactive movie into something else completely, a new experience in which you should be able to ‘feel’ with the characters and become entangled in their own troubled minds, or so that’s the idea they are hoping for.

My interest with Heavy Rain peaked after playing through two sections of the game at the Eurogamer Expo back in October last year. It felt very much like an more in depth version of Sega’s hugely loved, but massively unsuccessful Shenmue, featuring greater levels of interactivity during the Quick Timer Event style (QTE’s) cut scenes, along with better dialogue and tighter direction, whilst also having less of the rather cool, but mundane stuff; like being able to pick up and look at various items in the shops you ventured into, or simply having fun by harassing random people in the street.

However unlike Shenmue, Heavy Rain’s slice of cinematic gaming is a far more tightly directed and concise affair, spending an increased amount of time setting up a connection between the player and the characters on screen, whilst also making you feel what they are going through both mentally and physically. In this aspect director David Cage and the developers at Quantic, have taken the time to present a much greater link between the actions displayed on screen with what happens on your controller. In this new PSN demo - in which there are two separate scenarios to play - the second one best demonstrates the combination of visual cues and control used for that effect perfectly.

In the second part of the demo, the game sees you playing as Norman Jaden, an FBI investigator closely analysing a crime scene found just over by a railway line, gathering evidence and making small connections to the serial killer. At one point the evidence you find leads you up a wet, muddy embankment, and it’s here that the game showcases one of the much talked about links to evoking emotion.

The way the QTE system is used in this section is incredibly immersive, and really does add to the sense of feeling the developers are trying to create. As you are climbing up the bank, the game makes you push and hold down a series of buttons, slowly making the combinations more difficult for your fingers to reach - making it uncomfortable for you - while at the same time moving across the pad with the face buttons and then bringing in both L1 and R1 into the mix, moving back and forth between them. If you let go of either of the two buttons still in play, you will find yourself sliding back down to the bottom and having to repeat the process all over again. When you’ve finished gathering any evidence you might need and begin heading back down. The game gives you a much easier, but by no means less successful, set of combinations to push as you run down the bank attempting to not slide on your arse as you do so. Essentially this involves quickly alternating between pushing the L and R buttons as you take each step before reaching the bottom.

The controls in this scene cleverly combine your own emotions with the character’s on screen, and it does this by either pairing up the buttons you push with what your character is doing, or by simply making you feel their difficultly using harder to reach button combinations at different speeds. It’s a nice concept that could have fallen completely flat on its face. However Quantic Dream seem to have thought things through very carefully and have not been at all brash with their implementation.

The same style can be found in the more regular QTE fight sequence from the first part of the demo, though perhaps less convincing, in which various rolling motions with the right analogue stick are used, along with frantic button presses and various timed releases to produce an exhilarating effect, making you completely involved without so much as quick second or so break in between actions. A more hectic and expanded version of the system used in Shenmue is what this most feels like, and if Yu Suzuki’s game were released today then I would probably expect something similar.

Along with these mandatory QTE events, the game also has some more sedate sections, which has you briefly talking to people and examining evidence scattered around a crime scene. In this scene the controls are also context sensitive and used to produce the same effect in a similar way. You might find yourself rolling the right analogue stick a quarter-circle in a forwards-upward motion to pull out your ID badge for example, or pushing down on the stick to pick any evidence you might find. Again, all these motions attempt to make it feel like you are actually doing these things instead of arbitrarily pushing a button baring no resemblance to the movement you are performing.

It’s pure genius; it really is, and it never feels forced or contrived either, which is exactly how any well thought out gameplay system should be.

The voice acting however, and the dialogue isn’t quite so inspired, quite often failing within the small self contained contexts found in the demo, with flat delivery and a decidedly clichéd script. The most noticeable thing is that the conversations never flow smoothly when you are in control of choosing a response, giving out answers or asking questions. Instead the often-stilted dialogue comes out much better during the pre-scripted parts of the scene in which you have no control, flowing far more like a real conversation. However as with any game giving you multiple choices for dialogue, it’s not always possible to blend the different responses in a way that seem natural without taking away some of the users freedom in how the they will want to express themselves. It’s just a common side effect of this open system which is always going to be present. Although with Heavy Rain setting the bar so high for trying to evoke an emotional response, it can seem quite jarring to the experience, especially when you have either plainly flat delivery of vocals, or enthusiastic over-acting which comes across as cliché.

Despite this, the choices you make and how the characters respond in conjunction with the controls, all make Heavy Rain a very interesting prospect. Sure, we don’t know how the outcomes in any of these two scenes will impact on the rest of the game, or really know enough about the characters to care about them, or even to make a connection. But we do know, that all these little nuances add up to form something quite different and a potentially very involving experience. Perhaps Heavy Rain might not end up making you cry- which according to David Cage is one of his ambitions to achieve in a game - but instead be sucking you in deeper than you have ever been before, giving you a greater feeling of connection through the controls, dialogue, and story.

We will find out in a couple of weeks time how successful Mr Cage and Quantic Dream have been in delivering their promises. However, even if they haven’t, they’ll still have made what looks like could be one of the most intriguing, inventive games around; something that hardly any developers these days can put a claim to. Either way, I will be giving this one a thorough play through before delivering any definitive conclusions in the eventual IQGamer review.

Until then you should check out Beames on Games for another interesting take on Heavy Rain, along with more talk of that illustrious multi-million dollar flop that was Shenmue, which by the way, if you haven’t actually played already, should really pick it up along with a Dreamcast and do so.

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