Getting Some Really Heavy Rain

I've played a lot of demos over the past fifteen years covering this industry, but I've never been more impressed than I was with Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer. Out on February 23rd, this one has a chance to be real game changer, forever raising the bar for levels of immersion and storyline. You can download the demo off the PS3 network for free, and if you happen to have one (this is one of those rare PS3 exclusive titles) I would highly recommend it.

The full game follows four characters as they investigate the Origami Killer, a ruthless and almost professional murderer who kills children by drowning them, then leaves their bodies to be found clutching a little origami statue. Four people are trying to stop the killer, and going at it from completely different angles. The demo jumps back and forth, so I assume the game will too, kind of Pulp Fiction style with different stories coming together in the end.

The characters are architect Ethan Mars, who had one of his children die in a car crash a long time ago which really destroyed his life, an FBI profiler named Norman Jayden who has a drug habit that rears up in bad ways, retired private detective Scott Shelby, who looks like he might have been a stunt double (though Shelby is much heavier) for the Nightstakler in the original series and photo-journalist Madison Paige. You play Agent Ethan Mars and Private Eye Scott Shelby in the demo's two main scenes.

First off, the game looks amazing. And by amazing, I mean better than Modern Warfare 2. The developers must have spent ages on each place you visit, as they are perfect and realistic down to the smallest detail. Look in any corner of the few rooms you visit and you will see little things like pictures in frames, a woman's makeup on a dresser or a discarded phone book out in the lobby. Heck, even the trash in the alley looks real without any of the generic filler filth we normally see. You can read brand names on some of the boxes in a dumpster if you want, all with realistic rain falling on them and acting as rain does. The whole world seems to have a dark and foreboding feeling, which is punctuated by the rain. In fact, you are given both the time of day of a scene, and the amount of rain that has fallen so far in the game. So it's Tuesday 6:30AM and 0.21 Inches for example.

The world is living too. In one scene I stayed a long time investigating something and another character left the area. His car was gone when I walked over that way, because he took it with him. In another play through I actually watched as he walked away, got into his car and left. Its little details like that which make Heavy Rain seem like reality.

Now, as amazing as the environments look, the characters are in a league by themselves. If you told me that real people were walking through the game, I'd just about believe you. They are so good that the load screens are actually facial close-ups of the character you are playing. They look around and move, and are so well rendered that you can actually almost read their thoughts just by looking at them. It's a brilliant way to set the mood for the coming scene and help you get into your role.

As the character you are playing moves around, you can click Left Two at any point to hear what they are actually thinking. You don't have to do that, and sometimes they may be thinking the wrong thing in terms of what actions you should probably take, but it serves to make them seem alive, and I mean really alive.

After the brief tutorial, you start the demo as Scott Shelby. He's an aging, formerly retired PI with a lot of hard miles under the hood and quite a few extra pounds to carry. In fact, you have to grab his inhaler and give him a long draw from it from time to time, because his asthma is much worse in the rain. But he seems like a really genuine person who has been asked by one of the families of the dead boys to try and find the killer. And you just know all those miles didn't come cheap, but earned him a lot of street smarts that the regular cops don't have. His first (and your first) mission is to talk to a prostitute who is the mother of one of the murdered boys.

The prostitute is working out of a sleazy motel, and although she's still on the job, she's an emotional wreck. First posing as a client to get your foot in the door, you then have to convince her to talk with you without pissing her off to the point that she throws you out.

How well do you read people in real life? Because you will use the same skills here, and it says a lot that the game looks good enough for you to actually do that. Heavy Rain seems to be all about choices, and it's hard to tell which ones are right, if any are. Do you try to bribe her? Trick her? Beg her? The game sure isn't black and white like, say, Knights of the Old Republic, where the choices between light and dark are crystal clear. Doing the noble or the "right" thing might never get you where you need to go. This is a dark and seedy world, and you will need to become a part of it if you want to catch the killer, or even survive. Play your character and go with your gut instincts is my advice.

If you do get her to talk, the emotions pouring out of her and the nervous reactions of Shelby showing how uncomfortable he is (grabbing his hair, trying to shake it off a bit) make the whole thing a bit gut wrenching, in a good way from a storytelling point of view.

To say you are invested in your characters is an understatement. According to reports from Sony, if one of your four characters dies, you loose that part of the story from that point onward. So that's a fourth of the content you won't be getting on that play through, though hopefully you saved your game.

Replay value seems to be through the roof. I played the demo's two scenes about six times each and had different results and different things happen each time. Some of them were small, like a brief scene where Agent Jayden steps in a deep puddle and looks annoyed at ruining his shoe, or the different damage to Shelby's face after a fight. Others were more profound, like finding a key clue or getting someone to say more than they should.

Choices you make in the full game are supposed to really affect later scenes, sometimes subtlety and sometimes dramatically, even when you are playing other characters later on in the timeline. Expect about 10 to 12 hours of gameplay on average, according to Sony, for a single time through, assuming you make it that far.

The interface for the game is pretty good, though I have to admit that not being a console gamer natively, it was a little frustrating at first. The dialogue choices aren't a problem. Hit Triangle if you want to ask about suspects and Square if you would rather discuss the weather. The rest of the control is you trying to mimic the natural motions the characters would make. So to pull out your FBI badge, you would push down on the right stick to push your hand into your pocket and then roll it slowly to the left to bring it into view. Likewise if you need to shake your inhaler, you actually shake the console. To kick something you push the entire controller down really fast. There are certain sequences where you have to hold different buttons, like when Agent Jayden is trying to climb up a muddy slope, assuming you find enough clues to lead you there because the game won't hold your hand – you could just as easily walk away and not find those clues. When climbing you have to hold Circle when it pops up on the screen and then Triangle (while still holding Circle) and then slide over to Square or Right One. Each button is supposed to represent a limb, so when he has to stretch a long way is when you have to go for the top buttons. Every time an action is possible, you will see a little square icon on the screen that will tell you what to do. You don't have to do each action most of the time (when not in combat) but it tells you that it's available. Perhaps you don't want to knock on a door or pick something up. It's up to you.

Combat however, is a different story. Missing a cue while climbing is not too big a deal in the demo, though you will get muddy, and yes, the mud will stick to your suit realistically for the rest of the scene. But there are also fight scenes. In the demo you will have one as Shelby. Here hitting X or swinging the left stick when prompted will mean the difference between landing a great counter punch to throw a guy through a glass shower door, and taking a chair across the chin. And like some real fights, they go on for a long time. And any damage you take to your body seems to stick with you, at least in the demo. The first time I played I got crushed in the fight, and my face was really messed up. It stayed that way for the rest of the level, even in the ending cutscene. In the full game it might stick with you for much longer, or even slowly heal.

Thankfully there are three levels of difficulty in terms of button control. On the easiest level things seem really simple, even for me. Players who want to concentrate on the story at the expense of almost all the action can choose this option. Medium is a good balance that I really liked, and hard is great for pros who can use the controller as easy as breathing.

After the Shelby level, you play as Agent Jayden. Here you are checking out a crime scene (another origami murder) and you find out that Jayden is almost an MIB (men in black). He's got sunglasses which are actually like a supercomputer. Using them he can see footprints and tiny bits of evidence that everyone else misses. And he has a special glove that if used to touch a DNA sample, will instantly interface with a database and tell him who it came from, whether it's a cop walking around the crime scene or some bank manager who tossed out his bottle of scotch a long time ago. You can even see things like the trail of pollen leading away from the body from an orchid that the killer left behind. All that technology and you still don't get any solid leads on the Origami Killer or DNA hits, a fact that bothers Jayden quite a bit since it means he's working against a really professional murderer. And I have to admit it worried me a lot too, once I got invested so heavily in the game.

Jayden also seems to have some secrets besides his drug use. I don't know if they wanted to imply that he's some type of alien, or just that he's completely a moron socially. Talking to some cops (a totally optional event, like most everything else in Heavy Rain) he seems not to know that it rains, though he could just be really awkward when trying to chat someone up for information. He's obviously the smartest guy in most rooms, so we will have to see how that plays out in the full game.

Action junkies might not like Heavy Rain. It's a game where you actually have to use your brain quite a bit, and to some extent your emotional IQ. But I think it will appeal to most people. It's got the production value of a blockbuster movie, and is completely interactive to boot. As to the prediction that this could be the Citizen Kane of the industry – the title that finally shows that games can be used for serious storytelling, well, if the demo is any indication, I think it will hit pretty close to that mark. Or at least closer than anything else that has come before.

I'll be waiting with baited breath.

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