At last year’s half-assed version of E3, there weren’t too many highlights. It was pretty dismal, in fact. It wasn’t until the second day of the show that I was ushered into a room with around 25 other journalists who would get to see one of a handful of behind closed door demos of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. What I was greeted with was one of the most unique experiences, and breathtaking visuals I had seen at the show. Not only was it my game of the show for E3, but also game of the show at Germany's Games Convention last summer. It wasn’t until last month at Sony’s Gamers’ Day that I actually got my hands on the game, and while there’s still a few tweaks the game needs, Heavy Rain is one impressive PS3-exclusive that could turn out to be one of the biggest games of the year.
While the first demo focused on a made-up scenario with Madison Paige, we finally were privy to real gameplay from Heavy Rain, and more details on the characters. Heavy Rain will feature four main playable characters, including Ethan Mars, Scott Shelby, Madison Paige, and Norman Jayden. Gamers will play each character from one scene to another, and each of the four characters will have four separate destinies, however each of their stories will be interlaced around the central story and theme – “How far are you prepared to go to save the one you love?”
The playable demo featured Norman Jayden, a 29-year-old FBI profiler from the East Coast who has spent the last three years talking to serial killers to understand what makes them tick. Jayden is investigating a lead in a case concerning a suspect dubbed the Origami Killer. The police have investigated for a month, and have interrogated hundreds of witnesses and suspects, but they don’t know who the killer is.
Jayden is armed with a governmental prototype for an added reality interface called ARI. It comes in two pieces, a pair of glasses that analyzes the environment, and a wireless glove that can immediately analyze evidence such as blood droplets, and the glasses will display the result. The second important thing to know about Jayden is that he's a drug addict who regularly needs a fix of a synthetic drug called tryptocaine. Even though Jayden wants to keep his addiction at bay, he needs to take it to stay normal. Plus he has to keep this addiction secret or he’ll probably get the boot from the FBI.
Heavy Rain Pre-E3 Interview
The scenario featured in the demo was said to be about halfway through the game, and was titled, "Madjack." Madjack is a junk yard owner who steals cars, and he’s related to the case because it’s been discovered that the Origami Killer used one of his stolen cars.
Controls are highly context-sensitive; if you can interact with something -- opening the glove compartment of the car, taking off your glasses, or opening a door -- symbols will appear onscreen describing what you have to do to with either button presses or the right stick. Instead of using the left control stick to navigate, R2 moves the character forward. The left stick turns the characters head, so to move forward, you actually press R2 and rotate the left stick in the desired direction.
Quantic Dream has implemented a new thought system to get you inside the head of the character you’re playing as, and by pressing the thought button – L2 – a few keywords will float about, and by selecting them, you’ll hear how the character feels about a situation. If the character is tense, or upset, the keyword will move quickly and won’t be clear; just like what happens when you're overly stressed and your head isn't quite together.
As Jayden enters the junkyard he discovers Madjack operating a heavy lifter. Waving him down he explains to the burly driver that he’s looking for the owner of a specific Chevy. Madjack acts like an ass, doesn’t feel like talking, and goes back to his work. So Jayden walks around the junkyard garage and uses ARI to scan for clues. ARI is a neat device that doesn't just detect blood drops; it picks up tire tracks, footprints, and other elements, such as pollen. In this case, pollen is from an orchid, which provides an interesting clue, since the Origami Killer leaves an orchid on the chest of his victims.
Upon analyzing the area, Jayden notices identical tire tracks, paint traces and more similarities to the Chevy he’s looking for. Finding a blood trail, Jayden follows the trail to an acid bath where he locates a submerged skeleton. Suddenly Madjack corners Jayden from behind, and lets him know that one of his cop friends got a little too nosy and had to be disposed. Inconveniently, Jayden loses his concentration as well as his sidearm, and the struggle begins. All of the combat actions and dodges are completed by contextually pressing buttons at the correct time. Messing up enough could cost Jayden his life, so pressing buttons precisely is key.
In this demo, Jayden gets tossed on top of a car and scurries toward his gun. As he pulls the gun on Madjack, and threatens the enemy to pull information out of him, the camera gets all shaky. Uh oh, it’s the wrong time to need a fix. Here’s where things start getting tricky. To overcome the urge for a fix, the player must hold an awkwardly increasing number of buttons such as L1, X, O, R2, R1--not an easy feat, and the player fails. Madjack takes control of the situation, and takes out Jayden.
Jayden awakens in a stupor, and finds himself handcuffed to the steering wheel of a car being pulled by a bulldozer. The camera cuts to a dramatic split-screen view as Madjack attempts to drop the car into a crusher. Finally getting free, Jayden jumps to safety. After escaping the crusher, Madjack begins the fight again, this time next to the moving dozer. By successfully nailing a multitude of context button presses, Jayden overcomes Madjack’s toughness, and knocks him down. Unfortunately for Madjack, his leg gets caught near a gear, and Jayden witnesses Madjack getting crushed by the dozer. The scene ends.
Quantic Dream’s David Cage explained that this was only one of the possibilities of how this scene could turn out. In the demo played before us successfully, Madjack was killed by the dozer, but he could have been arrested, or Jayden could have been killed. However, that wouldn’t have meant "game over." If Jayden is killed, the game will continue on without his scenes, and the story will be altered throughout the game to mention a fallen federal agent. But considering the fact that Jayden is an FBI profiler and you’re trying to track down a serial killer, his skills are probably highly important, so making sure he stays alive would be a good idea.
The amount of different possibilities that Heavy Rain’s story and gameplay allows for seems to be quite remarkable and one of the main reasons that this game excites me. Being a fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, this seems like the ultimate video game version of that.
On top of that, the game is truly atmospheric, and is oftentimes hard to describe unless you see the game in action. The facial animation tech that Quantic Dream utilizes is truly breaktaking, and the virtual actors look eerily realistic. The environments, and weather effects, and how they interact with the characters, and how the characters interact with them are quite fluid.
Problem was, the same demo they showed us was spoiled, and I'm looking forward to actually feeling the pressure of the events unfolding for the first time. When I actually got my hands on it, the controls did take some time to get used to, but it began to flow after a few minutes. One of the hardest things to get over is moving forward by pressing R2. Also, since the controls are still being refined, it was frustrating that no matter how hard you pressed R2 Jayden would generally move quickly. Considering this control scheme is such a huge departure from a “normal” control scheme I hope there’s a big focus on allowing a user to familiarize themselves with them. But then again, Heavy Rain isn’t a normal game.
Which brings me to my final point about Heavy Rain. Sony is going to have a relatively large challenge explaining what Heavy Rain is, and how the whole system works to a lot of people who never played Quantic Dream's first game, Indigo Prophecy. But the big question is, outside of the hardcore PS3 user, will the average – "I play Resistance and it’s fun" – crowd be able to adapt? Or will they be terrified? Then again, the selfish gamer inside of me could care less, and I am even more excited to see more of this game in action. Hopefully we’ll get another character and scenario to rip through when E3 2009 hits.