In the past few days, I've sat through four press conferences and seen a handful of games up close, but remained mostly underwhelmed. Sure, I'd seen some cool stuff and even been surprised by an announcement or two, but I had yet to experience a true "Wow!" moment, the kind that makes you want to call everyone you know and babble semi-incoherently at them. Or maybe that's just how I react in those situations. I came to the show yesterday hoping to be blown away, and Heavy Rain for the PS3 delivered.
Let's get this out of the way - yes, the game has lots of quick-time events. I played through one of them myself, a surprisingly long fight scene between the game's hero and Mad Jack. You may have seen video of that sequence already and written it off as just more random button pushing, but don't. That quick-time event was more exciting, visceral, and gripping than entire action-oriented games I've played. The commands actually make sense with the action; I pushed left and right on the thumbstick to swing with different hands, and it felt completely natural. I failed a few times, too, but that didn't immediately end the fight, just changed the flow of it a bit. QTEs can be punishing, repetitious, and downright unfair, but this was none of those. It was thrilling, immediate, and immersive.
Heavy Rain deals with Norman Jayden's search for the Origami Killer; in the demo I played, the search had led to a junkyard. You'll spend much of your time using the ARI (Added Reality Interface), a high-tech glove and glasses combo, to investigate areas for clues. Hitting R1 sends out a pulse that highlights areas of interest and flicking the thumbstick in the indicated direction lets you know what you've found. In the case of the demo, I identified remnants of a blood trail, fingerprints, traces of blue paint, and pollen from orchids. The fingerprint were Jack's - no big surprise, as it was his place - but the pollen pointed to orchids that were part of the Killer's signature. The blue paint told me that Jack had repainted the killer's care for him. The blood trail, unfortunately, led to the remains of a cop in an acid bath.
You can also get a peek inside Norman's head at any time by hitting L1, which brings up a swirling selection of thoughts, each represented by a different face button. Hit the appropriate button, and you'll hear more about that particular thought, which sometimes will give you a clue as to how you should proceed. Similar options will occasionally pop up during the game, giving you choices as to which approach to take to a problem. I'd beaten Mad Jack into submission, but he still wasn't talking, and up popped a selection of actions, including impressing him, hitting him, and threatening him to light him on fire. Plenty of games have given us multiple options before, but somehow, having them circling around Norman's head, as opposed to sitting in a neat list at the bottom of the screen, makes the player feel more involved in the selection process.
The ARI is a bit magic-wandish in its omniscience, but makes investigating scenes far more interesting and involving than simply walking around and looking for flashing objects would be. You have to actually use your head and think about what you're seeing and what it might mean - the game doesn't connect all the dots for you. I found the two ends of the blood trail, but it wasn't until I found the middle that my character pieced together what had happened.
But Heavy Rain had one more surprise in store. After I successfully cowed Mad Jack, my vision began to blur. Norman is a drug addict going through withdrawl, and chose a really bad time to need a fix. To dig his stash out of his pocket, I had to hold down a succession of buttons and keep them held down until my fingers were playing DualShock twister. It's a simple idea, but it made my situation feel that much more fragile and dangerous.
The one issue I had with the demo - besides Mad Jack's sub-par voice acting - was that the walking was a bit sloppy. Holding down L2 gets you in motion, while moving the thumbstick points you in a desired direction. It takes a bit of getting used to, but works really well. The problem comes when you try to stop. Your character will usually continue on for a step or two, which makes stopping in a precise location difficult. It doesn't break the game, but it can make investigating a specific area more frustrating and difficult than it really needs to be.
My time with Heavy Rain was over far too quickly. I wanted to know more about the story, do more investigating and, yes, go through more quick-time events. I'm even more disappointed now that the game got pushed to 2010, but I'm pretty sure it'll be worth the wait.