Friday, 5 March 2010

Review: Heavy Rain (PS3)

There are a few games out there that aspire to becoming art, trying out new things in the aim of being seen as ‘different’ or ‘serious’, whilst at the same time there are games which are developed and made solely for our entertainment, as games, different due to the sheer imagination and creative brilliance of the team behind it, pushing boundaries in order to deliver something unique and fulfilling to gamers everywhere. These are the ones also considered by many to have entered the world of art, rather than just the confines of being innovative videogames.

Heavy Rain for me at least, is one that belongs in the former. A game which cries out to be recognised as more than just a videogame, as an interactive tale, a computer generated drama going beyond the shackles and conventions of the modern day videogame, a title which so desperately wants to be seen as some else, but in which by trying too hard, may perhaps not be seen as neither. Certainly whilst you could argue that all games are a form of art – they all have designs, inspirations, and are trying to tell us something, or make us react to them in some way – Heavy Rain definitely seems like it’s deliberately trying to step into those realms, rather than achieve this kind of status simply through original game design and a individualistic look.

Saying that, the game takes it’s blueprint firmly from those old early nineties laserdisc games, such as Dragon’s Lair or Space ace, along with a whole host of Mega CD FMV games, basically boiling down to a series of interactive cut-scenes and some set-pieces. There are parts in which you can walk around freely in the scene, examining and picking up various objects whilst looking for clues to find the killer, or to simply make progress by moving on the story. The ideas here are not wholly original, taking inspiration from newer games in the same genre. But where Heavy Rain does decide to do something different is to attempt to create a tightly directed narrative, whilst allowing the player to change fundamental parts of how it all plays out - or at least that is what your are meant to be able to do, being a tad too restrictive through the whole endeavour.

The game centres around four characters whose individual stories are all connected in some way to each other through the murder case surrounding the origami killer. You’ve got Ethan Mars, an architect constantly troubled by the death of one of his sons, now in turmoil due to losing a second to the origami killer; Scott Shelby, a private detective looking into the murder personally for the victims of the killer; Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler and relapsing drug addict; and finally Madison Paige, a photojournalist suffering from insomnia. Each of the characters stories may cross each other at some point in the game, depending on what you do and what the game wants you to know, whilst at least one of those is left almost completely redundant at the end of the experience.

Most of these characters are written with every cliché in the book, taken from various detective thrillers, horrors, and a few generic Hollywood cop movies. It’s hard to talk about why one of the characters is so much more interesting than the rest without breaking any spoilers on the story, suffice to say, that they make up the most interesting and sometimes involving parts of the game, though not the most exhilarating. Having said that, the story and overall narrative of the game does try – and occasionally succeeds – into drawing you in, making you actively question each of the characters motivations, their desires, and just how they fit into the piece of the puzzle that is Heavy Rain. At one point I thought that one of the main character’s plotline might be integral into how the endgame would eventually play out, a gelling factor into combining all four stories cohesively together. I however was very wrong, and it’s this character that in my opinion get the short end of the stick, especially when so much of what they do helps form the partially immersive experience the game provides on a few occasions, without it stumbling along the way.

This immersive experience is almost exclusively provided by the memorable musical score in conjunction with the unique controls the game presents you with. Heavy Rain effectively plays like an interactive movie, moving players through the game scene by scene, each time presenting choices for them to make, along with two distinct plays styles. The first has you walking around your environment interacting with various objects, talking to people, and picking up clues to further progress the story; the second sees you taking challenges and fights using the QTE style on screen prompts system found in games such as Shenmue and God Of War. However the system found in Heavy Rain is far more advanced, expanded upon with multiple button presses and use of the right analogue stick.

On screen prompts tell you which of the four face buttons or four shoulder buttons and triggers to press, in addition to moving or rolling around the right analogue stick, varying the speed and complexity at which these movements occur. Sometimes you will find yourself holding down all manner of combinations, whilst at the same frantically pushing down on another button struggling to complete the QTE, whilst feeling the sense of frustration shown by the character on screen.

These moments are utterly brilliant, and serve to completely connect you into the game world, and provide an almost tangible link between your actions and your characters. It’s cleaver stuff indeed, even though the game tends to re-use and repeat the same types of encounters all the way through diluting its impact the further on you go. However when you are presented something new, which uses this same system, it works to regain your attention sucking you back in, such as having the icons on screen shake and become semi transparent when your character is stressed or under pressure on screen, making the choice that much harder for you, or when using the method of making you button presses and holds more difficult to do when tackling a completely new obstacles which stand in your way.

Even with these revitalising moments there are still issues with the control scheme, and how the game uses it; far too often does it try out the same tricks but in a different skin. In addition with sections in which the player is free to move around and select which objects he or she wishes to interact with, the game almost always actively controls what it wants you to do, and in what order to do it. It’s only in the last third of the game does the experience fee up a little, making you decide which things to look at or investigate, the outcome being different if you miss out something, or choose not to do it. At the same time even in these scenarios, objects that you have interacted with in one scene are often ignored completely in another, leaving you with an illusion of choice and realism, whilst at other times the game will direct you to look at particular items without giving off a reaction when you eventually do. These items can be looked at over and over, but not once did the character I was controlling react to their presence. It seems that items used in this manner are simply to help the player in guessing who the origami killer is, and eventually influence their choices later on in the game.

Outside the QTE’s, the game will often present you with a number of choices in the form of options with regards to either speech or an action on screen. It also allows you to select and hear your characters thoughts, though this is largely superficial and only on one or two occasions did selecting my thoughts change what dialogue options that were available. In fact the choices you make during the first half of the game have virtually no impact outside the scene they are selected, minus a few cosmetic or superficial changes and dialogue inclusions. It’s not until the latter parts of the game – around the last third – that your choices begin to seriously impact the game’s conclusion, and start to branch off the story in different directions; characters can die for example; parts of the story may never come to light, and the killer might never be revealed. Quite why the game couldn’t have allowed for noticeable choices to be made whilst working to the different conclusions is beyond me. There was many times in which things could have played out differently without needing lots of new scenes or characters, which then arrive and end up going nowhere.

In the end, the much vaunted feature of choices and freedom amounted to very little until the end of the game, in which case the stage had been set and the journey had largely been directed tightly up to this point. This is done mainly to set up the narrative for the obligatory plot twist, which when it hits, has all the subtlety and refinement of a Steven Segal detective flick. The thing that I’m getting at, is that sometimes it’s the not the end that is all that important, but how you get there and what you do along the way.

This is perhaps the biggest issue I have with Heavy Rain, for a game so dependant on story and cinematics to succeed, it fails to put together an intriguing and concisely delivered narrative to the player, leaving many questions unanswered, and numerous gaping plot holes left wide open. Plenty of potentially interested leads and side stories are left on the sidelines, simply used to justify the twist near the end of the game and steer the narrative in one particular direction. At the same time the game becomes a cliché of various thrillers made in the last fifteen years of so, borrowing heavily from at least three films in particular - which ones I won’t say as that would certainly spoil the story.

Heavy Rain goes from presenting us with a fairly grounded thriller, to a Hollywood b-movie fantasy, taking away from what we believed to be a much more serious affair, which certainly, if director David Cage wanted us to cry, and feel with the characters, that’s not the approach needed for the player to fully believe what’s going on. At least near the end, the game actually allows you to make some real and meaningful choices, some of which will have one or more of the main characters die, the failure to reveal who is the origami killer, and of course to either save or not save your son. Other more subtle outcomes are present, such as what happens to one of the secondary characters if you choose to save her, or not.

Voice acting and dialogue throughout most of Heavy Rain is surprisingly poor for a game with such high production values, and for one which strongly aspires to be something else, a movie or, as Mr Cage would put it, an interactive drama. In scenes in which the player has no control, the voice acting ranges from very good to laughably bad, heading down the depth to Shemue-esque levels of cheese and ridiculousness. At other times the dialogue in combination with the characters, story and gameplay sequences can combine together to form a truly compelling experience. I found that the gameplay kept on sucking me back in despite the problems with the clichéd script and wooden acting.

Another area holding up the game in terms of believability and connection with the player is the game’s beautiful visuals. Heavy Rain is easily one of the best-looking games this generation, creating a lovingly crafted stylised realism through the use of art design and technology. It’s not as polished or as technically proficient as say, Uncharted 2, Crysis, or even Killzone 2, but it does feature some intricately crafted modelling work for both the characters and environments, finished off with superbly detailed textures, dynamic shadows which cast themselves from the characters onto the environments, and some trademark bloom via the use of HDR effects. It’s really quite stunning to behold, sometimes let down by occasional screen tearing, with a few bouts of slowdown, and some texture pop in when the game zooms in on various items.

Animation and motion capture work is also exemplary. Movements are incredibly realistic, and at times frightfully faithful to how you’d expect these characters to move and tussle in real life. The illusion is only broken when certain walking or running animations are repeated, or when two sets of motion capture work aren’t blended as well as they should have been.

You will also notice that the game’s collision detection occasionally falters; at one point my character was supposed to be cleaning out another’s lacerated wounds on their arm, but instead they appeared to be touching the bed sheets, whilst the other character was still reacting as if I was touching them. When these things happen they are not only laugh out loud funny, but also in turn only harm the stellar work the game does to draw you in to the experience.

It’s hard not to be critical when talking about the experience Heavy Rain provides. On one hand it’s a game which attempts to redefine the boundaries of creating an emotional connection between the player and the virtual world, through a compelling veil of choices and plot points, with a uniquely successful control system. On the other hand, it also takes so much inspiration from tired and tested movie formulas, that it becomes a simple cliché of what has been done before, at the same time trying to be cleaver and push the user into a thrill ride that doesn’t always make sense, stretching believability to the point of making the game seem like a cheap Saturday Night DTV spectacular.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time with Quantic Dream’s interactive drama, as there were various points which had me utterly hooked, compelling me to play on, and gripping me in a way only a few games have ever done. The controls for me, stood out as a way of really immersing you in a world in which, although a little too disjointed, had the desired effect of creating tension, panic, and the sense of struggling against potential failure. I would argue that the story, voice acting, and delivery is far from the most involving I’ve seen in a game, and the central question that Heavy Rain asks of you: “How far would you go to save someone you love”, becomes at times something more like “How far will it actually let me go”, reflecting the smoke and mirrors method of delivering choices to the player for most of the game.

Most of the game’s issues seem to be the same as with those of Fahrenheit, a title which starts off relatively grounded, before descending into the realms of stupidity with paranormal activity and bizarre hallucinations, and whilst Heavy Rain doesn’t go that far down that road, it does try to turn an interesting little thriller into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Despite all these criticisms, David Cage’s stab at creating a compelling interactive movie is well worth a go, if only to sample the potential for something which at times is so involving and quite unique. It may not be to everyone’s taste, with some people being absolutely captivated by the overdone story filled with plot holes and unexplained situations; or with some like me, who feel that the heavy handed direction and lack of freedom – until the end, along with the mundane voice acting, ultimately subdues a potentially ground breaking experience.

I’m all for developers trying out new things, taking risks and attempting to find other ways of interacting with the user, even if in some cases they don’t turn out as you’d expect them to be. That’s why Heavy Rain deserves at least one solid play through, because although it does fail in many ways both as a film and as a game, it does at least try very hard to make the two work together, whilst providing scope for the player to tell their own story.

Heavy Rain may not live up to all the hype, but it will certainly be remembered for trying to at least bring something new to the table, even if the end result is what could be described as flawed genius, let down by a sense of a self serving nature, perhaps attempting to create a work deliberately recognised as an art piece, rather than just a game, which through it’s unique design and original way of thinking, transcends being referred to as just a videogame, and into something more along the lines of a contemporary art form.


No comments:

Post a Comment