There's something to be said for the atmosphere of games. Atmosphere has made a home for itself in gaming more recently than not. Early Atari and MS-DOS titles never had the particular capability for ambient music and detailed settings, so its not a terribly old practice to make a game very atmospheric or have a lot of personality outside of the writing. It wasn't until the the fifth generation when such games like Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye, Ocarina of Time, or Final Fantasy VII were able to build a deeply atmospheric game setting.
While there's not a precedent for presentation in gaming, there's no shortage of expectation for it of late. Games like Uncharted are really raising the bar on writing, voice work, graphics, and detail in video games. However, while these seem to scratch the surface, it takes a game like Heavy Rain to really, really push the boundaries. This is something Indigo Prophecy tried in the previous generation. While it wasn't a smash hit, a pretty impressive score of 83 on Metacritic is nothing to scoff at. Although the reviews were all highly praising, the low scores were very scathing. Mine was among them.
My biggest issue came when there was a gear-shift in the story, going from open-ended decision-adventure-mystery into a terrible series of action-movie climaxes that diverted the game's multiple ending story into a line-up of repetitive bosses. The action scenes themselves were only part at best, gameplay-wise, and the turn of the story felt too forced for me to feel like I was participating. The game had a gimmick, a indicator on the scene shift that announced the temperature outside. The game started cold, on a snowy day in a dingy diner. By the end of the game, it was roughly twice as cold as any recorded temperature on the inhabited Earth.
While it had an impressive atmosphere and such a great handle on story telling aspects, the story was the crushing disappointment. As much as I wanted to feel like it was just a fluke, a mistake that wouldn't happen again, I was introduced to a title called Heavy Rain. Same developers, same writer, and same feel to it. Carla of Indigo Prophecy had achluophobia (fear of the dark) and claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces), Scott of Heavy Rain has asthma, and Detective Jayden apparently has a drug problem. Where Lucas (IP) had a mystic cult behind his puppet strings, Ethan seems to be haunted by a terrible past and a psychotic Jigsaw-clone. Indigo Prophecy has the cold, Heavy Rain has rainfall, measured in inches at every scene change.
While this might seem circumstantial, it just builds a bridge between Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, and for the latter to repeat the mistakes of the former. The question is how well it will manage to keep the elements that worked, and ditch those that didn't. The demo is unclear on that, so it will be up to the finished product to really come to the conclusion there, but there's enough to comment on. So without further preamble, the review itself.
If there's anything Quantic Dreams can write the book on, it's how it manages to build an atmosphere almost without equal. The tone of the game is completely gripping, and every instant spent in the world refuses to let go of the player from the get-go. It's impossible not to notice, and is commendable for how unshakable capable the game is for managing to grab the player by the brain from the first button press, and hold onto it. Both parts of the intro, when watched, are slow, drawling, and drag on, and on, and on. This isn't a game that can be turned on a few minutes before work. Where the game fails to excite, it lets the player experience. The exploration, the looking around... It honestly feels like a real world going all around the player. Where most games provide stock NPCs who fulfill their space-obligation, Heavy Rain has a heart that beats beneath the surface. Every texture, every scowling face, every drop of rain. It all seems to live, independent of the player. That's an accomplishment worth a king's ransom.
The graphical ability of the PS3 certainly does not let this game down. It really builds a visual world, dark, wet, and beautiful. The rain splashes harshly against the coats of the passers-by, umbrellas curb the rain that acts as a shelter for those standing beneath them, and everything just seems to work. Clocks tick-and-tock, stairs creak when you step on them. It is a monumentally successful demo, atmospherically speaking.
The problem comes when we stop letting ourselves get wrapped up in it all. The accents of the characters all seem to be dodging the American standard, one which should probably be followed (if the five dollar bill at the beginning of the demo is any indication), and a lot of the voice work just doesn't seem to fit. Volumes sometimes rise and fall jerkily. The controls are often awkward. There's a very minimal visual difference between "press button once" and "repeatedly tap button" in the QTE moments, and any point that requires holding one or more buttons can often get awkward if three face buttons are in the equation at once (Try holding Circle, Square, Triangle, and R2 at the same time for proof of that.), and the motion-capture movements can sometimes appear so alien that they're actually harmful to watch. While these irks are minor, and short-lived, they can interrupt immersion, which is almost a cardinal sin for overly cinematic games like Heavy Rain.
Another irk is that its all done, better, elsewhere. The aforementioned Uncharted (specially Uncharted 2: Among Thieves) manages facial structures, personalities, motion-capture, and expressions better. Considering that game's main focus is the mobility and gunning mechanics, how it manages the secondary goals of interaction and cinematic effects better than Heavy Rain is almost absurd.
For as hard as I am on it, Heavy Rain is pretty successful. While the game doesn't seem to have the facial steadiness or voice talents of Uncharted, the atmosphere more than makes up for it. Where the voice work sometimes fails, the rest just helps is slide by unnoticed. An overarching coherence really pulls it together.
Recommendation: If you own a PS3, and are into this sort of thing, the demo is easily worth the 1.3 GBs it takes to download and play. It really does manage something special, and might even tide you over until the full release.
However much I can say about presentation, though, I have to withhold a final verdict. The PS2 demo for Indigo Prophecy would've gotten a similar review, having been a deep, enthralling confluence of events. The problem in the story didn't even manifest until the latter quarter of the game. So whether or not Heavy Rain will fall down the same pits is yet to be seen.
My biggest issue, which is more implied than proven, is that the game has multiple endings. These endings are affected by who dies (which is repeatedly advertised as not ending the game, rather simply continuing the story without that character), decisions the player makes, and things of that sort. The problem is reading carefully enough into the lines shows a frightening prospect. Going back up to a line in the review, this part of the game manages to shoot itself in the foot: "It all seems to live, independent of the player."
Any game requires the interaction to work. Levels in games are designed to be just high enough to require a player to go to this point, get this power-up or item, and return to overcome the trial with the new ability. It's a mechanic that's been around for a very long time, and one that will persist in the future. However a game may limit its players progress, its tough to convince a player that an accomplishment wasn't theirs. Even if Samus was the powerful super-human that took out Ridley, it's the player that killed the giant monster. Even if the chasm required the jetpack to clear, its the player that got the jetpack and made the jump. The player does the heavy lifting.
Heavy Rain, even in the demo, shows signs of having only the slightest regard for the player. While it may seem like the player can talk to passers-by in order to get a better understanding of the situations, the passers-by won't even speak. If a player tries to leave a crime scene when missing a pivotal clue, the game will bald-facedly force the player onto the clue. Make no mistake, the player is simply an actor in a play. While they may get to choose high or low roads, both roads lead to the same destination. It means that the choices are an illusion. It makes for imperfect interaction. That sort of predestination blurs the line between playing and being played.
While it's present in all games, Heavy Rain really makes you feel powerless.
So perhaps this is all meaningless speculation, and Heavy Rain will be that next step into gaming storytelling and atmosphere. Or, like Indigo Prophecy, the player is just a pawn in Quantic Dream's tale, unable to escape their fate.