Thursday, February 18, 2010
´Heavy Rain´ to turn the tide for PS3
The PlayStation3 exclusive ´Heavy Rain´ is likely to turn the tide for the console, which has been trailing its competitors up until now. The installed hardware base is now within close range of the Xbox360 and – if buyers perceive a better line-up of games – could be set to overtake it this year. The current tally is as follows:
Wii: 67.45 million
Xbox360: 39 million
PlayStation3: 33.71 million
I believe that, given the recent surge in sales, Sony CEO Howard Stringer is confident that the PlayStation branch can soon turn a profit. I no longer believe that Sony is considering leaving the home console business, although that possibility was certainly discussed by Sony executives over the last years. For a final judgement, of course, we will have to wait for the introduction of ´Project Natal´ and ´Sphere´. How the public perceives these new motion control technologies will determine the fate of both the PS3 and Xbox360.
´Heavy Rain´ – a videogaming milestone
As far as ´Heavy Rain´ is concerned, I can assure you that it is a milestone of videogaming and, if marketed effectively, can certainly help to turn the tide for the PlayStation3. It is a thriller with an extremely dense and dark atmosphere, developed by Quantic Dream (´Fahrenheit´, aka ´Indigo Prophecy´). It draws from movies like ´Blade Runner´, but also ´Saw´. As a game, it is highly reminiscent of ´Shenmue´, since it involves players in cut-scenes via quick time events and does not follow the usual pacing of action titles. Instead, the player is invited to take his time and has to engage in mundane tasks, such as cooking lunch, taking a shower or minding kids and infants. As in ´Shenmue´, the game offers an unusually slow but rewarding pacing. The mundane tasks serve to identify with the characters and to only heighten the action which invariably follows.
What greatly sets it apart from ´Shenmue´ is that the game always continues, even if you miss all the quick time events. Your current character (out of a total of four playable ones) may die or another character may die as a result of your failure. But the game will continue, missing out chapters that would have contained those characters, and bringing the story to a conclusion, albeit a grim one. The story, it is claimed, will always make sense, no matter how it plays out individually. And, of course, the choices are sometimes drastic and not easy. Would you go as far as to harm yourself in order to save your child’s life?
As such, ´Heavy Rain´ is taking a number of big risks. If you only play through it once, you will only see a fraction of the entire game. Also, the player is bound to feel frustration and regret, since you cannot easily restart the game when you failed in a specific task. Ideally, the game should be played through without any cheating. For some, frustration may simply put them off. But the majority, I believe, will simply itch to play the game again, right after finishing it for the first time. ´Heavy Rain´ certainly has the highest replay value of any such game I have ever seen.
Emotionally engaging, astounding graphics
And, I can assure you, it is a very emotional game. The plight of a father who wants to save his remaining son from a serial killer is extremely well communicated and the mundane tasks aid this greatly. Playing with a withdrawn and depressed child and eventually making him laugh is utterly rewarding and emotionally engaging. This effectively raises the stakes for you performing well. Failure will result in some feelings of guilt.
The graphics are nothing short of astounding. I attended the game’s premiere in Paris and meeting the actors was an eerie experience, because some of them looked exactly like their digital counterparts. In fact, I would argue, the game is so much closer to photorealism than any other game that you inevitably realize just how far we still have to go to achieve full photorealism. Real facial expressions are extremely subtle, based on dozens and dozens of intricate muscles. In ´Heavy Rain´, the range of emotional expressions is still limited and so the acting comes across as a little woody. But this is by far the best effort in this regard ever. It is leaps and bounds ahead of any other game and probably will remain so for some years to come.
The game is not without its flaws, of course. Since the camera will change automatically, to give you that cinematic experience, the controls are compromised. You start off in one direction, but if the game cuts to an opposing camera angle, you will end up pointing the analogue stick straight back while continuing to walk forward. There is a small latency built in, so you don’t mess up when correcting your path. But it is a little awkward nonetheless.
Also, the frame rate ranges from excellent to abysmal, especially when surrounded by around one hundred people. But these slight technical issues appear irrelevant, given the most rewarding experience that ´Heavy Rain´ offers. An admissible criticism is the fact that the player’s freedom is an illusion, to some extent. Not all quick time events have wide-ranging consequences. You cannot, for example, save the main character’s first son from being killed in a car accident in the very beginning, no matter how well you keep up with him. So ´Heavy Rain´ also shows the limits of a non-linear videogame. But with more than two dozen different endings, this is as good as it gets.
There are some minor features worth noting. Innovatively, it allows the player to show the current character’s thoughts via what looks like a tag cloud. The same system is used for conversations. If the character is irate, the tag cloud will shake and make your choice more difficult.
At the Paris launch event, legendary director Terry Gilliam headed a group of movie professionals which discussed the game. Speaking to Gilliam, he found much praise for ´Heavy Rain´ and, after a screening of the first hour, noted many scenes that played out differently when he had played it. I wondered whether the rich artistic visions he brought to the silver screen, such as ´Brazil´, could ever be realized in a videogame and acknowledged the intrinsic contradiction between a linear story and an interactive medium. But Gilliam was genuinely convinced that videogames had great potential as a storytelling tool and that ´Heavy Rain´ illustrated that potential well. Speaking to David Cage, he was flattered by me calling the game a milestone. He downplayed the comparison with ´Shenmue´, though, telling me that he never played it, which is striking, given the parallels. The event on the whole was impressive, if only for the presence of such a talented movie director as Terry Gilliam.
Experience it yourself
Finally, I urge every one of you to play this game and experience it for yourself. It could easily become a system-seller for the console. Needless to say, it will be bundled with the hardware. Let us see whether ´Heavy Rain´ can truly turn the tide for the PlayStation3. On Friday, I get a close look at ´Alan Wake´. Stay tuned to find out how these games compare and measure up.
EDIT I have to slightly reevaluate the game after playing it a second time. My assertion that "if you only play through it once, you will only see a fraction of the entire game" was wrong. It turns out that only very few key scenes can have potential consequences at all. Very often, missing QTEs causes the game to wait for you until you get it right, like ´Shenmue´.
Here are some examples (from earlier chapters to minimize the spoiler effect). When the detective needs to reach for his inhaler, you have no time limit at all. You can safely leave the game for an hour and come back and he will still be waiting for you. Him collapsing without the medicine and the story taking a different turn has not been implemented.
In Ethan's dream-like sequence in the station, you have an unlimited number of attempts to focus on the task of getting through the crowd. Again, you cannot fail. Worse still, later in the game you need to steer the detective's car while an upset passenger is trying to steer it in the opposite direction. Getting everything right yields the same result as missing every single one. You will be able to see this in my review when it goes on air and online at the same time, next Sunday.
In another instance, there appears to be no consequence of the first fight scene, regardless of whether you lose or win. Only walking away from it altogether slightly changes an upcoming scene. Finally, even the dialogue choices lead to the same answers, regardless of whether you act compassionate or cold. This was the case in all dialogue scenes I tested.
Of course, many of the above instances may contribute to an aggregate which will determine which end scene you will get. However, a great many moments where you feel you have to perform well ´or else´ have no immediate effect. This, of course, mitigates the game's ambitious goals, as well as its replay value.
In the few key scenes I mentioned, two out of the four playable characters can die, in which case subsequent chapters featuring them will be dropped. And not knowing which scenes are key will give the players the illusion of a story constantly branching off. It is, however, an illusion to a large extent. And I would estimate that playing through the game once will get you to experience around seventy percent of content or more. It is still a remarkable game and a welcome break from the norm, as well as the new standard in interactive storytelling. ´Heavy Rain´ simply leaves it up to successors in the genre to offer a broad range of choices and consequences.