Thursday, February 18, 2010

Heavy Rain, Heavy Demo, Heavy Expectations

By David Tracy and Kirk Hamilton

Last week, the demo for Quantic Dream's upcoming, highly-anticipated (especially around these parts) dramatic adventure Heavy Rain dropped. The game has gotten much pre-release attention for its branching narratives, nontraditional gameplay and control, and general terrifying differentness.  Like QD's previous release, Indigo Prophecy, or, as it should heretofore just be re-dubbed on the internet, "Indigo Prophecy a.k.a. Farenheit," Heavy Rain should prove to be a really compelling, highly divisive title. Interactive Movie? Revolution in storytelling? Long, drawn-out Quick-Time Event? Doesn't matter, we're stoked as hell to play the final version.

David and Kirk played through the demo and thought they'd reflect on their adventures in pollen-wrangling, groovy high-tech sunglass wearing, and prostitute-protecting.

Kirk: Let me say at the outset: the gaming blogosphere's collective head is going to explode over this game. In a good way, I'm sure: prepare for much debate about the nature of interactivity and storytelling. Some of it will take place on this very site.

On to the demo. Unsurprisingly, it took me a serious mental shift to adjust for the gameplay and controls.  The first thing I do in a game is go into the options menu and invert the Y-axis, and the fact that the Y axis wasn't even listed made it clear: Heavy Rain is really not going to control like a traditional game.

Easily the single most defining nontraditional aspect? There is a dedicated button that allows you to hear your character's thoughts. That is very cool.  I wish other games had this feature.
Marcus Fenix: "Guns, Guns, Guns. Dom looks nice in his new armor."  
Niko Bellic: "Ach, this tracksuit itches. I tire of these American radio stations." 
Kratos: "I haven't had a decent BM in like months. RAGE."

Okay, maybe I don't wish other games had that feature.

David: I just know I am going to love and hate this game. This innovative control scheme demonstrates all too clearly how uncoordinated I am in real life and then shows me what effect that has on game characters that I care about. Here I am playing an asthmatic old detective guy and he tries to do the good thing and defend a prostitute. Sadly, I am at the controller. Sorry, old man. Random button icons and gestures flash on the screen and I can't hit one of them. He is beaten up pretty bad and there isn't anything I can do about it. It hurt to watch his head get slammed against the table.

At the same time, I feel like I get to play something truly special that is going to haunt me. I just know things in my game are going to go badly. I wonder if any character will be left alive when I am done?

One note though, the walking and directional control scheme brings back bad tastes of older Resident Evil games and those were pretty frustrating.

Kirk: Very true - the fixed camera angle (though you can adjust it with a shoulder button) did harken back to the old RE games. Then again, since the environmental interaction is entirely contextual, you probably won't have to do any precision aiming, so that frustration should be removed. And all action sequences also appear to be contextual.  I'm betting there'll be some really head-spinning new uses of contextual controls, though.

Side note - whenever I need to "shake" the controller in a PS3 game, I'm never sure whether to shake it up and down or left to right or what. I'm sure I'm not alone on this?

The second half of the demo, the crime scene investigation, was a real surprise. The character really reminded me of Ed Norton, which was cool, and the crime-scene investigation was interesting, also way more high-tech than I was expecting. I'm not a fan of when good-looking games make me view things through a filter, though - I didn't like how much time I spent in Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum, and worry that I'll spend all my crime-scene investigating in Heavy Rain looking through a similarly monochrome filter.

You are not alone in your confusion regarding shaking the controller. I never know quite what to do. It is much more intuitive with a Wiimote. Also your fingers get into a bit of a Twister mode when you have to press and hold down multiple buttons at the same time. I may have to start using my feet and my elbows more for some of these button combinations.

The crime scene had such a great mood to it. I sure did slip down that muddy hill a lot, but the graphics of the cars and trucks on the freeway going by you in the rain was gorgeous. I loved tracing the DNA and wearing magical crime vision glasses. I can see how you can rely too much on them and then at some point you just decide that you might as well just leave them on all the time. In Arkham Asylum I had to make a conscious effort to take them off so that I could appreciate the beauty of the levels and also to make sure I didn't miss any hidden riddles. Sonia got bored watching me in magical crime vision mode so she lost interest in the game and went straight to her entertainment magazine. I have to bring her back somehow!

Kirk: What's interesting is that I don't really think the control scheme is really going for "intuitive" - I get the feeling that Quantic Dream is actually trying to recreate the chaos of having to react to a stressful situation, which is pretty interesting. There's a fine line between an interface that is deliberately hectic in the service of the game and one that's just sloppy. After playing the demo, I'm actually hopeful that Heavy Rain will have more of the former than the latter.

Oh, consider that chaos created. I will be fumbling through this thing like crazy. I see what you're getting at though. That was just a simple fight in the kitchen, but it was intense. No convenient button combos for me; I had to react. With this for me comes more emotional involvement. When I fail at a task, I feel more responsible. Sounds strange?

Kirk: I have a feeling you are going to be feeling a lot of responsibility for some pretty intense stuff, then.  Which I think will be right where the developers want you.

This game will be a perfect pick-me-up after spending time in Rapture. Maybe I should have The Hurt Locker playing in the background as well to help me relax.

Kirk: Heh, or you could chill out to the dulcet tones of Mastodon.

David: Yeah, and finally try out that Jolt cola triple espresso milkshake I've been thinking of making.

Kirk: And in preparation for the lengthy cutscenes, carb up with some dates and that bran muffin recipe you've been perfecting. And put on some really tight pants.

David: I have the tightest pants!

Kirk: And make sure you turn the ringer up on your phone all the way. I promise I won't call you.


Jay said...

Wow, great breakdown of the demo you guys. I'm totally with you on this first impression, especially when it comes to the "shake" prompt. I found myself jerking and swirling the controller in front of me like a Mom playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time. I would consider myself a particularly dexterous gamer (no problems with the "twister" prompts) but my brain just can't seem to wrap itself around the controller shaking. Talk about inducing stress!

But seriously, stress & chaos. Specifically, the fight scene where our asthmatic PI throws down to protect the hooker he came to question. Like David, I felt completely immersed in the action. Simply put, the fight with the John just felt REAL. If I reacted too slowly to his advances, my tough old windbag took the punishment. What REALLY got my adrenaline pumping was the pacing. To break down my experience: The fight starts with a couple button prompts that I successfully complete and I assume the guy is down, or at least not coming back at me. Holy s#$% was I wrong. I literally scramble to my feet, trying to force more momentum into every button mash, but I just can't keep up and I am getting POUNDED. With a chair. I'm thrown up against a refrigerator, catch a knee in the face and I'm struggling to even focus on where I am. Just when I think I'm done for, there is a long enough pause between prompts for me to catch my rhythm again. I stand up, dodge a punch or 2, duck and land a couple key blows to get this a-hole off my back. He finally stumbles out the door, clutching his nose. WHEW!

My takeaway: The sheer REALness of the back-and-forth momentum I felt in this fight sequence made me equal parts terrified and elated. I mean, it's arguable that the only thing more satisfying than beating a tough boss in a game, is BARELY winning that boss fight. Whether it's walking away with single-digit HPs, a sliver of a health bar or having the full periphery of your frame filled with that blood-shot effect (ME2), I challenge anyone to find a more intense and rewarding gaming experience. Here's to hoping this is just the tip of the iceberg with Heavy Rain.

sidenote: as a huge crime/noir fan, I LOVE that they gave this private dick a weakness that didn't involve being a complete drunk. Nearly EVERY one of these protagonists has to battle his demons with alcohol while working his case (or just sober up long enough to solve it). It's a character flaw to show he's human and fallible; the anti-hero type. Instead, here we have an asthmatic. He can't help it, but it's an obvious setback to his line of work. What a simple solution to one of the most over-used writing devices in the genre. The other would be an endless supply of cigarettes, but I guess the asthma takes care of the chain-smoking stereotype too. Original and brilliant little details like this are what make modern crime fiction worthwhile.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Totally agree, Jay - it was rewarding as hell to beat that guy, mainly because it felt like I did it by the skin of my teeth.

And such a visceral fight, with such intense motion capture! Wow.

I also liked the asthma - reading the implications behind the PI's thought as he approached the apartment building: "God. This rain makes my asthma worse."

Since the whole of Heavy Rain takes place in a downpour, it's cool that the symbolic heart of the game is the very thing that triggers his weakness.

David said...

Wow! You fared better in the fight than I did, Jay.

That's a good point regarding hard-boiled detectives and their need for hooch. I love crime noir as well, so this is a refreshing fault for the detective. I have a feeling that his fault is going to be pretty darn stressful throughout the game.

Jay said...

Super cool. And I love how that sense of sinking, the struggle, is reflected in little things like the ticker in-between chapters that calculates how many inches of rain has fallen since you began. You're literally getting yourself in deeper and deeper as the game progresses. And the deeper you get, the closer you come to drowning.

One drawback I thought of tho: I wish they would include some kind of endgame bonus unlockable movie so I could go back and watch the cut-scenes/conversations/QTEs as one long movie. At least the QTEs for sure, which basically force you to ignore what's going on behind the flashing button prompts. I realize it won't have the same impact, but I don't think its an unreasonable request for those of us who would like to see exactly what kitchen utensil was used to turn the tides in the battle with Mr. Clean's evil twin (because goatees = evil twin, of course).

Kirk Hamilton said...

That is a really cool thought!

Subsequent playthroughs could all be revisited, too, so you'd have a browseable database of all of the different ways your story has gone, like switching between parallel realities.

Do you know for sure that that's not an option in the final game?

I would imagine it'd require pretty huge savegame files, but other than that, I can't see why they wouldn't do it, unless they just didn't have time to put the system in place.

Jay said...

No, I don't know for sure that it's not an option, but I didn't think about the ramifications of how huge the save file might be. I assumed they could just make the scenes available from straight off the disc, but I didn't take into account the different variations each scene could manifest so of course it would have to be specific to YOUR game. Still, it would be beyond rad.