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Heavy Rain Preview

By Matt Cabral, 1/2/2010

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Briefly playing Quantic Dream's upcoming story-driven thriller Heavy Rain at last summer's E3 left me at a loss to place it in any pre-established genre. Sure, I'd experienced plenty of so-called cinematic games before, but this one seemed to push that concept well beyond anything I'd previously seen. Other players found themselves in a similar predicament, and many posted E3 previews criticizing the title for possibly being little more than an interactive story driven entirely by quick-time events and contextual moves. I suppose that's technically accurate to a certain extent. However, after spending some serious time with an early build of the game, I now have a much better understanding and appreciation of what Quantic's highly ambitious title is aiming for.

Similar to my E3 experience, I spent my first few minutes with the title impressed by its stunning visuals, but a bit bored by its gameplay. Playing the first scene, as architect Ethan Mars—one of four main protagonists—I found myself engaged in a series of mundane activities. Within the first fifteen minutes I'd shaved, showered, urinated, dressed, drank some orange juice, and had a cup of coffee; it more or less reminded me of a really pretty version of the Sims. Participating in these normal activities did teach me the game's unconventional controls, though. Simple, clean prompts pop on the screen when you can interact with objects; up, down, left, and right arrows, as well as button and trigger icons handle most tasks. Additionally, character movement is handled by holding R2 and moving the left analog stick. Subtleties, such as how fast you react to certain prompts, or how quickly you move the analog sticks provide additional depth to the non-traditional navigation. For example, pressing up on the analog stick too fast to close a door, may result in the door slamming shut and, in turn, affect the outcome of the scene.

Heavy Rain is big on giving the player choices, too, so even as I walked Ethan through his ho-hum existence I was afforded options. Do I go out in the garden and relax or get some work done in the office? These choices become available by listening to your character's thoughts; holding L2 swirls icons around your character's head, and choosing one reveals more information. So, a hovering X accompanied by the text “Thirsty” may ultimately lead Ethan to the fridge for a drink. After completing several simple tasks in Ethan's beautiful home, his wife and two children arrived. Soon my tasks included slightly more interesting, but equally simple things like helping my virtual wife with the groceries and playing outside with my virtual kids.

Following a few more activities with the family, such as flirting with the missus and engaging one of my sons in a fake lightsaber duel, it was time for dinner. Now entirely comfortable with the controls, I helped set the table and even snuck away for a second to fiddle with a remote controlled car—the wife didn't approve. Mildly entertained but far from sold on the experience so far, I continued with my tasks when my wife made yet another completely ordinary request. She asked that I call my son, Shaun, to the dinner table. I did so, but he didn't respond, so I looked for him in the living room, then the backyard, but I couldn't find him. This was the precise moment when Quantic Dream's magic began working on me. Without even realizing it, I'd established a deep relationship with this fake family. I cared for them on an emotional level, and was now genuinely worried about the whereabouts of my son. I began frantically scouring the backyard, pressing the X button to yell his name. Not helping to ease my tension was an uncomfortable spike in the piano-heavy score and a concerned look on Ethan's face. Totally engaged now, I ran upstairs where I found Shaun huddled over his pet parakeet that'd just died. Much like Ethan, I felt bad about the bird, but was relieved to have found Shaun safe.

Convinced there may actually be something to Quantic's claims of crafting an emotionally-charged, interactive psychological thriller, I entered the next scene. Still playing as Ethan, I was now with my family in a crowded shopping mall. As with the previous scene, this one was bursting with unbelievably realistic sights and sounds, supported by some of the best animation and motion capturing I've ever seen; amazingly detailed shoppers bustled about, decorative fountains splashed, and a clown sold balloons to eager children. Ethan's older son, Jason, begged his dad for one of these balloons while his mom and little brother shopped for shoes. While paying the clown, Ethan took his eyes off Jason for a moment, and just like that, I was stung with panicky deja vu as I began frantically looking for another lost child. The previous scene should've prepared me for the emotional upwelling, but losing a child in a shopping mall is far more nerve-wracking than doing so in your own home, and Heavy Rain knows just how to tweak the tension to near unbearable levels.

Soon the dramatic score swelled, the contextual icons around Ethan's head moved with dizzying speed, and a look of utter panic stretched across his face and, once again, I was right there with him. I spied a few balloons above the sea of shoppers, so I frantically chased each one down, pushing my way through the crowd, whipping around any child that clutched a balloon. I again started playing right into the developers' hand, as I struggled to remember what the graphic was on my fake son's shirt so I could more easily identify him. I also began to worry what my fake wife's reaction would be to all this. I'd been playing Heavy Rain for less than an hour, and already I was more invested in its story and characters than I'd been in any other game in recent memory. Even more astounding, it pulled this off without the presence of any guns, explosions, zombies, or aliens. Hell, no one had even been killed yet.

That was about to change though. I'd generally consider the following a spoiler and give an appropriate warning (which I guess I just did), but seeing as it happens before the title's opening credits, it's probably the story's least surprising twist. Controlling the frantic Ethan, I finally find Jason outside the mall. He sees me, too, and begins running across a busy street, still holding his red balloon. The game takes control from me as Ethan and Jason simultaneously get mowed down my oncoming traffic. We don't see the outcome of the gruesome scene, just the balloon drifting towards the sky.

Perched on the edge of my couch, I let the impact of this scene sink in while very film-like credits officially open the game. The story soon begins proper two years later, and Ethan, unshaven, saddened, and separated from his wife, arrives at a dingy apartment with Shaun. I'm presented with mundane tasks not unlike those performed in the prologue—prepare dinner, go to the bathroom, turn on the television—but now I'm saddled with questions only my in-game counterpart knows the answers to; was Jason killed by the car? Was Ethan injured by the vehicle? Did Ethan's wife leave him as a result of the accident? Or, maybe Quantic is playing a trick on me? Maybe Jason survived the accident, but was later abducted by the Origami Killer. I got so caught up in Heavy Rain's unmatched cinematic presentation and emotionally-driven storytelling that I nearly forgot I still had a serial killer to track down. Damn you, Quantic Dream!



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