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A Procedural Downpour: Heavy Rain Hands-On

After several piecemeal demos, we finally spend some serious time with Quantic Dream's ambitious thriller.

 These two have good reason for looking so dour.
 These two have good reason for looking so dour.
Much has been made about the recent resurgence of the traditional adventure game, though it's a format that Parisian developer Quantic Dream never really abandoned. Its cult-favorite Indigo Prophecy (maybe called Fahrenheit in your neck of the woods) brought a level of cinematic detail and mechanical ingenuity to the genre at a time when "adventure game" was tantamount to a dirty word. Quantic Dream's been making a lot of big promises with its follow-up, Heavy Rain, starting with an impressive early PS3 tech demo that boasted a level of grimy realism and jittery tension few games would dare aim for. Giant Bomb recently received a pre-release build of the game which I dove into immediately. It's not without some odd angles, but I can safely say I've never played anything quite like it, and I'm eager to see more.
 
If you're feeling like you don't have a point of reference here, Heavy Rain is, essentially, a deeply devoted marriage of adventure-game storytelling and quick-time event gameplay. The story of the Origami Killer, as seen from the perspective of multiple characters, is the focus, and it plays like a very deliberately paced police procedural. This is, far and away, the thing that struck me the most during my time with Heavy Rain: the story, the setting, and the characters lack the oversized flourishes and archetypal cartoonishness that even the most serious video games tend to indulge.
 
 Psychoanalysis: The Game!
 Psychoanalysis: The Game!
For about the first hour or so, if it weren't interactive, and the characters weren't polygonal, Heavy Rain could pass for a serious and intense modern-day police drama. Its ability to convincingly stage such day-in-the-life activities as waking up in an empty house and starting your day, taking a trip to the mall, or talking to the grieving mother of a murdered child is so engrossing, that I actually found it kind of jarring when some game-friendly, improbable crime-solving technology made an appearance. It's a very dark, cold, sad, and serious game unafraid to dwell on personal loss, alienation, addiction, and other uncomfortable aspects of the human condition. In a format where escapism and power fantasies are in particularly high demand, Heavy Rain is, least in its early going, an M-for-Mature game in the best possible sense.
 
There's a grit and a pallor to Heavy Rain's presentation that reinforces the everyday weight of the situation. The crummy apartments, seedy motels, muddy crime scenes, and drab police precincts don't just feel like location types, but actual places, thanks to a preternatural attention to detail. Saying it's photorealistic would be irresponsible and hyperbolic, but it looks real enough. One touch that I particularly appreciated was the ability to move about the environment during dialogue sequences. So many games are intent on locking you into a face-to-face two-shot that it's surprisingly rare to see a little walk-and-talk in a game. Beyond some technical hiccups indicative of the non-final software, the only fault I could really find in the presentation concerned some awkward voice acting, which occasionally betrayed the game's non-English-speaking origins.
 
 Architectural Drawing: The Game!
 Architectural Drawing: The Game!
There's a volume of generally naturalistic dialogue in Heavy Rain, though you'll also interact with other characters, as well as objects in the environment, through a variety of permutations on quicktime events. There's almost something kind of perverse about the kinds of mundane activities you'll perform through a series of controller gestures. It starts simply enough, flicking the right analog stick about to open doors and flip light switches, though it gets more involved as you create architectural drawings, climb a muddy embankment, and tie a necktie. The closest I saw to action in my time with Heavy Rain involved a sloppy motel-room fistfight, which demanded some specific timing, but otherwise didn't resemble too many video-game fight sequences I've been a party to. In a game that's not as otherwise as fascinating as Heavy Rain, this style of gameplay could be a significant liability. Here, though, it seems justified, and it brings attention to the minutiae of the world that brings the game to life.
 
I've pretty deliberately avoided talking specifically about the story in Heavy Rain here because, well, it doesn't pack the same punch without the game's greater context, and I feel like it really needs to be experienced whole-cloth to be appreciated. With a few hours under my belt, I'm genuinely intrigued by how this Origami Killer story will unfold, and what the fates it holds for its collection of flawed protagonists. I'm also fascinated by its world of mundane details and the abstract, tactile feel of the gameplay. The lack of compromise promises to make Heavy Rain an incredibly divisive game, and one that will be hard to ignore.