E3 2009: The Five: Heavy Rain
The Skinny: Perhaps you've heard about the latest "it" game that's supposed to break new aesthetic ground in the medium. Director David Cage has been talking up the adult, complex storytelling of Heavy Rain for a while now -- so much, in fact, that we (politely) asked him to STFU. It's impossible to judge the entire scope of Heavy Rain's narrative from sneak peeks, but in a hands-on demo at E3, I was able to get some hint of the game's direction. Here's what struck me:
1. Nobody's perfect. Heavy Rain plays up the character flaws of its four playable protagonists. One cut scene in my demo zoomed way in on my character's pockmarked face, fawning over FBI agent Norman Jayden's blemished pores with the enthusiasm of a Clearasil commercial. But there's more to the imperfect characters than zits: Jayden also has a drug addiction that causes him to lose focus at critical points in the action. The other three main characters will each have their own Achilles heels, as well.
2. Ssssnap! Prepare to be jolted back to the plot by what a Sony rep called the "rubber-band narrative." The idea is that there's some stretch and give in the player's experience of Cage's story -- you have some room to explore your own path. Of course, "rubber band" also means that the further you stray from Heavy Rain's main track, the harder the game will try to snap you back to center.
3. It's not dreary, it's noir! The title is no metaphor: Heavy Rain is gloomy and wet, with a limited, tastefully executed color palette that sets the mood. Don't be surprised if the release of this game coincides with an outbreak of seasonal affective disorder.
4. 10 HUNT FOR SEMEN. 20 GOTO 10. You hunt for clues in Heavy Rain's detective story by activating a pair of magic sunglasses that reveal blood, footprints and the like near your character. The effect looks like those newsmagazine segments where they use a special light to show you the disgusting secrets of your hotel bedspread, which is neat, but the searching action feels robotic and quickly becomes repetitious.
5. Heavy Rain is a control freak. That is, it does freakish things with the PlayStation 3 controller. The results are hit or miss. During a drug-withdrawal episode, the game forced me to hold down an increasingly awkward series of buttons, a clever way of conceptualizing the struggle to "hold it together." But the cockamamie walking controls are different for the sake of being different. They make the simple act of walking feel like steering a boat through the muck.
The Crispy Forecast: I'll resist the obvious precipitation pun here: The forecast is mixed. Heavy Rain showed little promise in a boring 10-minute play session, but in fairness, this is not a high-concept game. It's an experience that will make its case through nuance, and the finer details aren't there yet. For the time being, temper the high expectations for this one.
This preview is based on a hands-on demo of the game at E3 2009.