Context is Key
This review is a little late, but hey, why not.
First thing's first, I'm very surprised (in the good way) that Heavy Rain has sold as many units as it has, because ahead of time it seemed it was going to score big with critics but not manage to achieve commercial success. Well done to the gaming nation for giving something new a try, whether they liked it or not. It's nice to see new IP's do well, rather than sequels galore.
In the simplest of terms this game is unlike anything you've played before. No, seriously. I was excited when I first saw this game in action but when it was announced that neither of the analogue sticks would make the characters move and instead holding down the R2 makes them walk forwards in the direction they're facing, I was dubious. It sounded awkward and a buzz-killer for any action that would be taking place.
Turns out that the action sections of heavy rain don't require frantic running around, but instead quick-time events. An entire game of quick-time events you say? Surely that's going to be weak. Well, once again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Heavy Rain handles this new fad of on-screen button prompts better than any other to date. Pressing the button that matches symbol shown to you on screen never gets old and it's far from simple. Even those with impeccable hand-eye co-ordination will find themselves slipping up from time to time for reasons we'll get into in a moment. The controls are very fluid and once again it was nice to see something break away from the norm and work.
The story is expertly written and the dialogue compliments this thanks to some of the best voice-acting you'll ever hear in a video game. Major plot points and banal little every-day interactions alike are engaging and you'd be surprised how much you'll find yourself investing in what time your son gets to bed. I personally didn't guess who the killer would be before it was revealed to me and likewise I found it difficult to guess many of the games mysteries ahead of time, which is a good thing because i often find myself predicting plot twists in games, movies or TV shows. I'm sure there were plenty of places trying to ruin the plot of the game for those who hadn't yet bought it in a "Snape kills Dumbledore" sort of a way, but I got the game on the day of release and managed to avoid any spoilers throughout my time with it. I can't imagine the game's plot being as impactful if I knew the identity of the murderer from the start, and this is why a second play-through doesn't really appeal to me unless showing the game off to a friend. There are trophies and hidden moments to backtrack for, but I elected to simply replay those sections rather than try a whole new story. In fairness, the game's creator David Cage didn't think players should play it again because their story is their own.
The graphics are phenomenal at times, though not always quite on the level of what trailers suggested ahead of time. Cars for example don't look so hot, but not many non-racing games have managed to pull of conventional vehicles in my experience, so I'll give them that. The level of detail in the environments and the sheer amount of work that's gone into facial animations pays off, because it feels like a real, tangible human world. Overall Heavy Rain's visuals aren't the best out there, but they're certainly on the upper end of the spectrum, and perhaps no game to date has managed to generate more convincing humans (thanks to the extensive motion capture.)
Sound may well be the strongest aspect of the game, which is an odd thing to say in the world of gaming, but it really is. The symphonic soundtrack really adds gravitas to the story and the visuals and keeps you on edge at key points. Dramatic moments feel all the more dramatic, the times you're meant to be panicking are backed by jumpy and intense music, and from start to finish you'll find the music is just absolutely top notch.
My one audio critique is that one particular voice actor's ability to master an accent that is not their own is majorly lacking. Most of the cast are not American (nor is the game itself), and whilst Ethan Mars sounds like a regular US citizen, Lauren Winter sounds utterly out of place with the other characters, with strong evocations of a French accent. If this was explained by her being of French origin then no problem, but as she's assumed to be as American as all the others, it sticks out.
Heavy Rain is called an interactive drama and that is a fitting description, because I've never felt more emotionally invested in a video game. When describing my anxiety at making difficult decisions to those who haven't seen or played it, I'm met with laughter as they can't fathom why I would have difficult killing a fictional character in a fictional universe, especially considering the amount of digital lives I've taken over the course of my gaming life. But Heavy Rain has an unrivaled ability to make you genuinely care about fictitious characters as if they were real. While i never felt like I actually was any of them, I certainly put myself in their shoes and thought about what I'd do IF I was them. Normally I just run through a game and do whatever comes instinctually, but with Heavy Rain i was stopping and thinking, weighing up pros and cons. No decision was meaningless, no situation merited thoughtlessness. Which of my children I chose to play with first was just as important as whether or not to kill a suspect.
Perhaps it's the fact that you are rarely in a position to take or save a life that makes it such a big decision. In shooters you kill early and often to the point you don't even hesitate. Your goal is to take lives with guns, so you do it, such is the life of a gamer. But with Heavy Rain you don't HAVE to kill anyone and the moments at which you can are built up to so effectively it is a genuinely moving and for lack of a better term, heavy moment. Pacing is handled wonderfully, seamlessly switching from the slow and methodical to the tense and lighting-quick. I accidentally shot Nathanial the crazy religious fanatic on my first play through as I responded to the option of an on-screen prompt, the ridiculously tense music and the visual stimulus of a sudden movement. He moved, I pressed R2, he died. As soon as it had happened, I didn't laugh and shrug off my mistake, I felt genuinely disappointed in myself for jumping the gun, like I had let Norman Jayden down. The same friend who laughed at my indecision to kill an unnamed character later in the game found it funny that I was unable to keep my finger of the trigger with Nathaniel. This is just one of many instances where the cold, clinical gaming-mind is ignored in favor of genuine human instinct and decision.
Another thing to mention is that this game makes for quite a fun group activity... well, a 2-person one at least. I'm sure in a party environment it would be a real downer, but with two players it's just as fun as when alone. No, they can't pick up a second controller and help you out, but collaborative decision making is pretty fun, or at least it was for me. The first time i played the game I did so with my girlfriend in the room. I did so apologetically, thinking she would grow bored and do the typical sigh of "boys and their toys", but found that she was on the edge of her seat and just as invested in the characters as me, helping make the decisions with me (OK, let's be honest, she made them for me and I did as she suggested.) I don't know if anyone else has tried playing this game through with a friend (male or female) and found similar results, but I for one found that it was that rarest of single player games that are just as fun to observe as play.
Another long review from me, but I like to write, so I wouldn't be able to keep it short if I tried. Heavy Rain is a phenomenally fun game to play for the first time. I really couldn't put it down and I didn't know where the game was taking me (or rather where I was taking it) but I was enjoying the ride. The climax was satisfying, and it is worth mentioning that a huge number of different endings are available a there are key points where any of the four playable characters can die, and if they do, they're gone for the rest of the game. For this reason my experience with the plot may be utterly different to yours, but I personally enjoyed the story that I created and was satisfied with how it all ended up.
The visuals and sound are of the highest level, and there weren't any major bugs, so technically speaking it's among the smoothest experiences you'll find on the PS3. The plot transcends video gaming, so I won't even compare it to other games as it isn't a fair comparison.
Ultimately though, this is not a 5 star game or a perfect 10. It may not even be a 4.5 or a 9. The fact it's almost impossible to care about playing it for a second time, and the low moments deny it from those honours. But the thing to remember here is that it is a very IMPORTANT game for the industry. It has done something different, perhaps more different than any major game has dared to try and be. It is a game that everyone needs to play or see. We may never see another game like this again (although the strong sales suggest a new story and new characters with the same style is surely a lock.)
This is why I titled my review as I did. Most of the gameplay is context sensitive (i.e. quick-time events), but the game as a whole requires one to think of context. There is nothing else like this game and that alone makes it one of the easiest recommendations I've ever made. Nobody could pretend it's perfect, but I doubt anyone could not fall for its charms either.