Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Topical reviews of 13 month old games: Heavy Rain

X is the easiest button to remember, so Write a blog post it is then.
Last week Tara and I watched the excellent Video Games BAFTAs (hosted by the as-always excellent Dara O'Briain) which was pretty much overwhelmed by artistic and music awards for the Playstation 3 game Heavy Rain (and sadly nothing for the excellent yet overlooked Limbo). I'll admit that I never picked up Heavy Rain first time round because it didn't look like the sort of game that would appeal, but what with it being dirt cheap now on pre-owned I thought I'd give it a try to see what all the fuss was about - and before the price suddenly rose on it with the inevitable "Game of the year edition" that'll no doubt be released shortly.

It was purchased on Friday, and some six or seven hours of gameplay I beat it this afternoon - Well, by 'beaten' I mean 'Reached one of the many endings'. So what with the game only being 13 months old I thought what better time than now to give you my opinions. I'm nowt if not typical. Next week I shall be reviewing the eighties classics "Weird Science" and "Teen Wolf" and making some humorous jokes about the skiing accident of Sonny Bono.

Heavy Rain isn't so much a computer game - It's the expensive genetically engineered nephew of those 'Choose your own adventure' novels from the eighties, albeit one with more swearing and nudity. It tells the tale of four protagonists living in a permanently rain-soaked city in America which is in the grip of a serial killer. This 'Origami Killer' is grabbing children from the streets (exclusively from poorer areas) and their bodies are found in wasteland several days later, the cause of death being drowning in rain water, an orchid left on their chest and origami figure in their dead grip.

Four protagonists.  One Origami Killer.  Millions of thriller cliches.
Despite billing itself as an intelligent crime thriller noir, the storyline is hackneyed rubbish. The motivations of the four main characters are vague or non-existent as they wander haplessly through ridiculous coincidence and plot-holes you could march a damp parade through.

What the game does well is atmosphere. The soundtrack is brilliant although oddly paced - even an action as simple as trying to open a fridge (Well, I say 'simple'. More on that later) will be accompanied by an ominous orchestral backing as though Freddy Kruger is in there lurking behind the Frozen yoghurt. The permanent moist setting is brilliantly realised and feels like a living, breathing place, but then...

It introduces one of the characters, an FBI agent, investigating a recent murder. All makes sense so far, but then you're introduced to an item from his inventory - some magic FBI glasses that he puts on.. and any atmosphere previously established runs kicking, swearing and screaming out of the room.

I'd previously thought of the FBI as being hard-working individuals, skilled at investigation and criminal profiling. My faith in them has slipped somewhat knowing that they're equipped with magic glasses which, at the press of a button, show the world in an eerie green tint and handily identifies nearby clues with a level of technology that will be difficult to create in a few decades time, let alone one supposed to exist in the modern day setting of Heavy Rain. It's definitely set in 2011 and not 2036, I checked.

Some fairness is restored in that said FBI agents investigations are hindered by the fact that even when a clue is right in front of him glowing bright green with some neon arrow pointing down at it reading 'Here's a fucking clue. CLUE!  CLUE!' that it'll take him a good minute or so to be able to actually manoeuvre himself into a position to do anything about it.

The controls are absolutely horrible. I know it wouldn't achieve the revolutionary aims that the makers of Heavy Rain set out to meet, but would there really be anything wrong with the old tried and trusted 'move the joystick in the direction you want to go' control mechanism?  Instead you have to rotate yourself around with the joystick and hold a button down to walk forward. Even an act as straightforward as walking into a different room will result in your own screen avatar wandering haplessly into every bit of furniture and crashing his (or her) face repeatedly against the door frame. Trying to open a cupboard?  Get used to spinning around on the spot whilst trying to do so and looking for all intents and purposes like you're wearing ill fitting (and different sized) rollerskates with broken wheels.

There is a particularly nightmarish sequence in which you're trying to make your way through an electrical powerstation without stir-frying yourself. Hold down the Square button on the PS3 controller to begin the process, and then hold down the triangle key at the same time. And then hold R1. And then hold R2. And then - hang on a fucking minute, I haven't got enough fingers for this. Bzzzzzzzt.

Although, that said, for much of the game you're not actually in control of the characters anyway. Just sitting through lengthy cutscenes or involved in set pieces where you can't actually die, no matter how dangerous the situation, matching key presses that appear on the screen that barely seem to represent the on-screen action your character will actually carry out. Unless you're the type who always opens cupboards by swiping your hand right across the front of it and then moving it slowly clockwise.

My hands... if only I could control them.
But do you know what?  Despite all my reservations about it and that it pretty much stands for everything I hate about videogames; I.e. it's pretentious, badly written and that it barely qualifies as being a computer game at all, I've really enjoyed the time I've spent in it.

The ridiculous storyline is far-fetched but I genuinely wanted to know how it panned out. Some of the set pieces, despite the fact I felt I had little influence over their outcome, are genuinely gripping and had my heart racing more than once.

Also, It looks absolutely gorgeous. The character models are truly incredible, although their realism is somewhat ruined as soon as my on-screen avatar comes blundering into a room like a chieftain tank. The voice acting is also spot-on with some genuinely decent acting - despite the incredible cheesiness of some of the dialogue, which makes a change.

So, all in all, a brave experiment. I'd have felt cheated paying full price for it, and I can't ever see myself playing it again - I can't imagine the plot will deviate that much as a result of my actions - but I enjoyed my time in Heavy Rain. It's only slightly more interactive than Dragons Lair, but in comparison to the bland identikit first person shooters that make up the video game marketplace these days, it genuinely felt different.

And it's the first game in history that Tara has been interested in and has watched from start to finish.

Let's get a proper author writing the script for a computer game and bung the Heavy Rain technology behind it. Keep the setting true within its own guidelines - that means no silly uber-technology anachronistic Magic FBI glasses, and we might genuinely be onto something interesting. And we'll be a step closer to that oh-so elusive "Video Games as Art".

It's like real life.  PLUS.

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