I played the Heavy Rain demo and I got some thoughts.
The scenery looks great. David Cage, the big kahuna behind the game, at least got the atmosphere right. It’s heavy. And it’s rainy. It’s easy to say, with the constant rain, the disgusting urban setting, and the serial killer plot that Cage is aping Se7en, but since he apes Se7en’s look so well I can’t really complain. I’m a big fan of cities, rain and detectives in rainy cities, so when I saw those opening moments I couldn’t help but feel a swell of excitement.
Presentation-wise, Heavy Rain‘s solid. No heads-up display or doodads get in the world’s way, so the game’s very immersive. At first.
The tutorial that explains the controls classes things up pretty well. Pure white text hovers in the air or appears plastered on concrete detailing which button to press to interact with a car door or which combination of buttons to press to sidle across a wall. It’s all context-sensitive stuff, so there isn’t just one button dedicated to “hit” and another for “jump.” I think the word for that here is intuitive. This is how the Quick Time Events work as well.
Yeah, Quick Time Events. The Simon Says press-this-button-now-or-else baloney made famous first (?) in Dragon’s Lair, given a name in Shenmue, then abused by God of War, Kingdom Hearts and the recent Resident Evils, Metal Gears and Legend of Zeldas, and uh, gosh, nearly everything these days I guess. So it’s like they don’t even matter anymore. Done well, like in Resident Evil 4 they can offer an arcadey thrill. When that’s all there is, that can get pretty dull. And besides walking around and interacting with car doors and muddy hills, that’s all there is in Heavy Rain so far.
There’s a fight in the demo, between the detective and a thug, that relies entirely on the QTE conceit. It’s fast-paced and kind of fun, though not really at all a challenge and I paid way more attention to the button prompts than to the fight itself, so all the action was just a blur to me, really. I imagine playing this with a group of friends to watch would be a lot more fun.
A lot more fun to make fun of, too, to watch the characters jank around onscreen like marionettes. Yeah, the control can get frustrating. Heavy Rain uses the same race car controls as Shenmue: Hold a shoulder button to accelerate your character then steer around with the stick. It’s a terrible way to move around and the robotic animation doesn’t make it look any better. The camera’s fixed to make everything more cinematic — this game’s primary goal — but when you walk into the next angle and suddenly your character’s shimmying around because you can’t get him to go where you want him to go that shatters the reality the game tries to present a tad.
The reality-shattering continues. Why developers keep striving for realistic, life-like human beings, I’ll never know. They never look good, at best, they’re passable. The prostitute the detective encounters is some kind of horse-mouthed android. Her eyes are soulless, vacant. The load screens show off super-detailed portraits, yet the actual in-game characters don’t look half as advanced. I’ve had this same problem with inFamous and a lot of other open-world titles for a while now, where the characters just look simplified and ugly. The excuse for those games is always how vast and intricate everything else is, so all the game’s resources are concentrated in so many other areas rather than in the characters. Heavy Rain is not a giant open-world game, so I don’t know what its excuse is. Is it unreasonable these days to ask that character models look at least as good as those in Silent Hill 4, a six-year-old game for PlayStation 2? Given how Heavy Rain‘s great mission is to make some super emotional marriage of film and video game, it’s disappointing to see the characters themselves don’t look as good as the rain-slick sidewalk they stand on.
Though not nearly as disappointing as the voice acting, which didn’t just suck me out of the reality of the game, it catapulted me around the sun and out into the recesses of the universe. Everyone — everyone — sounds like English is a second language to them. It’s a Spaghetti Western with line readings as unnatural and jumbled as Tommy Wiseau from The Room — “Ahthankyouverymuchhaveaniceday” and “Don’tyoudaretalkaboutmysonthatway!” It’s not good, and it’s weird when you strive for serious tone and realism then botch up something as essential to the cinematic feel as the voice acting. This is supposed to be a AAA title, a PS3 exclusive, and you cast people from the development team?
And all this happened before. Heavy Rain‘s predecessor Indigo Prophecy, was another serious graphic adventure that started out well, then teetered on the brink of ineptitude before it finally plummeted into an incomprehensible pit of cybernetic Grandmas, Mayan Super Saiyans and necrophilia. It was a cheating mess, but don’t tell that to David Cage, who had the French bread to introduce the “game” himself in the in-game tutorial. Heavy Rain, with its years of development and hype behind it, has got to turn out better than Indigo. Not that that’s a challenge, but Cage and his insufferable gall can’t help but remind me of James Cameron and Avatar in how they both want to push their respective mediums in the wrong damn direction — games more like movies and movies more like theme park rides.
And nevermind Hideo Kojima and his brand of cinematic hubris. Kojima earned his autuer/troll status over 23+ years of work. He didn’t trot out and introduce himself in Metal Gear 2 either.
The poster child for bloated, ego-charged projects of Spruce Goose proportions has go to be Heavy Rain‘s generic (as in genre) ancestor, Shenmue. Creator Yu Suzuki promised a 17 chapter game that would be a “gift to the children of the 21st century.” Yeah, a little nuts. In addition to the Quick Time Event, he coined the term F.R.E.E., or Free Reactive Eyes Entertainment, which Shenmue was of course — whatever that means. After costing Sega millions of dollars we only got two games (five chapters, or so Wikipedia says), and it’s one of the major reasons Sega went belly-up. Yet Shenmue, for all its faults and frustrations (four hours of fucking forklifting), made for a somewhat capable adventure game, even with goofy acting.
Heavy Rain has the chance to be the new Shenmue, although judging from the demo it’s going to be way too guided an experience. Shenmue offered a whole town to go through, drawer by drawer. Sure, it’s extraneous, ridiculously so, but Ryo’s journey became very personal that way, following his hand as it explored each doorknob and collectible toy. You could solve your father’s death as leisurely as you wanted.
Heavy Rain‘s demo has a hallway and a muddy field, and I imagine the final game’s areas will be partitioned the same way, which is okay but it offers little in ways of exploration. What will make up for that, hopefully, will be moments like where you have to shake the PlayStation 3’s Sixaxis controller to get the detective to take his inhaler for his asthma, or when the FBI guy struggles up the muddy hill in the crime scene investigation. Touches like that, controlling characters in their weakness, provide their own distinct charm.
But Shenmue was unmistakably a game. A game with a fighting system, moves to learn, items to use, a cat to raise, a girl to romance, and old emulated Sega games to play in the game you’re already playing. No one can look at Shenmue and mistake it for a movie, even with the silly revenge plot that poked its head in every once in a while. Heavy Rain‘s drama, unless it surprises me in the end, pokes it head in and stays there, grim-faced and grimy, without the benefit of forklift racing, cat-rearing, Sonic cameos, and a motorcycle segment to take the edge off. Heavy Rain is serious business, and that’s kind of sad, especially when you have rubber-faced characters pronounce balloons as “pulhoons.”
Hopefully its dopey melodrama will be endearing. I may even enjoy Heavy Rain in spite of Cage’s insistence that mush-mouthed marionettes are the future of video games. I used to get frustrated as hell at all the positive press and hype, but after finishing Bayonetta — a videogame as videogamey as it gets — I don’t feel so compelled to hate its existence as much. So long as Bayonettas are made I suppose Heavy Rains can, too.
Or better yet, Shenmue III.