Story, intensity make ‘Heavy Rain’ spectacular

Love this game. Love, love, love, love.

Standing in the living room of a suspect’s apartment, you hear a key rattle in the lock. Your partner, a local PD detective named Blake, doesn’t catch the sound – until the man is in the room with you both.

Your search of the home, strewn with about 2,000 crucifixes among lit candles and pictures from Catholic scripture, is an illegal one. You know you shouldn’t be here, but the suspect is clearly disturbed and, after all, a child’s life hangs in the balance. You have only a few more days to find that child alive. So you and Blake question the suspect.

As you’re speaking to him, you back into a table, knocking over a candle. You turn, picking it up and replacing it, and spin back around – to find Blake standing at the wrong end of a gun the suspect had been hiding. FBI training kicks in and you pull your own weapon, training it on the suspect.

“He is the Antichrist,” the suspect drones as he gestures with the gun at Blake, his voice full of fear, full of despair. Through your head buzz a thousand things you could say and do – and as Blake keeps shouting, you could shoot the man.

The suspect makes a move and you twitch. You fire. He falls.

You know you could have talked him down, but it’s too late. The suspect is dead – if he was the killer you’re after, what knowledge he had just died with him. And your decision, your action, you have to live with.

It’s a nearly unprecedented position for a video game to take: there are no game-over screens, no failing and reloading to try again, no second chances. In Heavy Rain, as in no other game I’ve ever played, you live with the consequences of your actions.

Even the main characters – there are four of them, whose stories in their search for a serial child murdered known as the Origami Killer are told in alternating chapters – are susceptible to dying and staying dead in Heavy Rain. You can play the game one week with one outcome, another week with very different one, depending on your choices, your successes, and your failures.

The failures are the especially intriguing parts. The game doesn’t have many dedicated buttons – you walk using R2 on the Playstation 3 controller, steer with the left analog stick, but that’s about it. Everything that happens, instead, is context-sensitive. Sometimes the game will prompt you with instructions about how to open a cabinet or look out a window; other times it will tell you which buttons to press in sequence to deflect a punch or climb a hill.

For the first time, my Playstation 3 is more than a blu-ray player with an irritating menu.

Heavy Rain is all story, so instead of guiding your character through level after level, pressing buttons to instruct the character, the game instead is guiding you through its story. You get to guide your character in walking around, but more often, your controls are meant to simulate the action you initiated your character into taking. For example, when playing a chapter in which you’re driving a car, the story dictates where the car goes. You hit the buttons it tells you, simulating concentration, precise motions, and the intensity of the situation.

Fail during one of these sequences – they are many – and the story proceeds differently than if you had succeeded. In the car-driving scenario, for example, missing too many button combinations ends with a flaming wreck. At another point, during a shootout, screwing up too often gets your character injured and forces him to kick down a door and escape into the night, rather than take the rampage to its bloody conclusion.

Playing Heavy Rain is much more like watching a movie, in which your decisions, unlike almost any game I’ve heretofore encountered, impact the way the story plays out. But what the game really excels at delivering is a level of intensity that’s even more exciting than the choice aspects of a game. Fail any of the difficult, concentration-heavy and awesome-to-watch deadly action sequences and your character could be killed, and stay killed, for the rest of the story. Nothing builds tension like consequences that can’t be taken back.

And because the emphasis is so heavily on story, the one here is pretty great. Unlike Indigo Prophecy, developer Quantic Dream’s Xbox title from a few years ago that’s in the same vein and with a similar delivery to Rain, this game never takes too many twists into crazyville. The story makes sense, the twists make sense, and it’s down-to-earth enough to engage you fully from front to back. As some reviews I’ve read have pointed out, Rain is written to the caliber of many Hollywood movies – and it would do pretty well as one, more than likely.

There are a few issues with the writing. Quantic Dream is a French company. The voice actors are mostly European. As an American gamer, you’ll feel it immediately in the dialogue and delivery. When one character pats herself on the back by uttering the phrase, “You go girl,” it’s not because the game is 10 years old – it’s because French culture isn’t quite in sync with American culture.

Even then, these are extremely minor squabbles in the face of what is among my top five gaming experiences of the last 20 years. Rain is so engaging, so intense, so entertaining and so well-made that even goofy lost-in-translation moments or a Resident Evil 2-esque crappy movement control system detract only in the smallest possible way. The fact that the game is a little short – I finished it pretty much in a pair of marathon sessions because I couldn’t put it down, so maybe around eight or 10 hours – also is easy to overlook, partially because Quantic Dream promises downloadable content (one new chapter’s already available), and partially because it’s clear that replaying the game will be very satisfying.

I loved this game. This is the first title I’ve picked up that truly made me happy to own a PS3, and one of a very small number of games that I started playing again almost as soon as I’d finished.

‘Bioshock 2’ more rehash than sequel

A new scary monster in Rapture, the Big Sister. It’s important to qualify my following complaints about Bioshock 2 by saying that I loved Bioshock and played it through no fewer than three times.

For a sequel, Bioshock 2 does a lot of things right. It recaptures the feel of the first game while presenting new locations and a storyline that moves in interesting directions. It improves on some of the more annoying aspects of the original in organic ways that make sense.

So I loved it for a lot of reasons. I played it zealously because the tone and story are as engaging as they were in the first iteration of the game. And the gameplay, while largely the same, is just as fun as it was in the first game as well. It isn’t broken, so publisher 2K Marin hasn’t bothered to try to fix it much.

Set 10 years after the first Bioshock, the game takes players back to Rapture, the city built by laissez-faire-touting billionaire Andrew Ryan to be a haven for science, art and business uninhibited by pesky morals, society or gross poor people.

Along the way, Rapture’s scientists discovered Adam, a substance that lets people rewrite their DNA, and suddenly the economy of the city turned from oxygen and food to splicing, or using Adam to make people better-looking or give them special abilities – like telekinesis or the ability to throw lightning bolts.

Splicing drove Rapture-ites insane, and Adam became the most precious commodity in the place. People were dying, and the Adam in their bodies was going to waste.

So the guys running Rapture made some monsters: Little Sisters, who can reclaim Adam from dead bodies, and Big Daddies, who protect Little Sisters.

Enter Subject Delta, one of the first-ever Big Daddies. He was killed and his Little Sister was stolen back from him by her mother, psychiatrist Sofia Lamb.

You wake up as Delta 10 years later with a burning desire to find your Little Sister, Eleanor. Because if you don’t, the psychological conditioning the scientists implanted in your brain will make you slip into a coma and die. Nevermind just yet how Delta happens to be alive right now. It’s time to smash your way through Rapture and find Eleanor.

Unfortunately, the whole game could stand to be creepier, like this Little Sister's doll. My major problems with Bioshock 2 are that it fails to go far enough. The story, while still cool, is far less engaging than that of the first game. Instead of a stunning revelation with a backdrop of discovery – finding out how a city built beneath the ocean fell into utter murderous chaos – 2 is much more “do this, do that, because you have to.” The first game imparted a sense of moral obligation to you for much of the game; you were looking to escape and you were helping allies to do the same. Now, you’re hunting Eleanor because that’s what you do, The End.

And you’re supposed to be a Big Daddy – essentially an unthinking Frankenstein monster whose sole function is to kill things that threaten the Little Sister.

It might be difficult to make the player feel like a brainless zombie, but Bioshock 2 doesn’t even really try to do so. Stylistically, tonally and thematically, this is virtually the same game as the first iteration. The bummer of that is, for people who’ve already played Bioshock, there’s not a whole lot new going on here.

The other thing that’s always bothered me about Bioshock, and which is therefore a problem in 2, is that the horrors that descended on Rapture don’t seem to affect the player’s character. You spend all of both games splicing up more than most of Rapture’s denizens, hitting people with lightning, fire, even bees that come out of a hive created in your forearm. Yet the player receives no abnormal effects: no homicidal mania, no deformed face, no hallucinations. I wish 2K had chosen to push the envelope further.

Bioshock 2 makes playing the game a little easier and a little more fun – you can use Plasmids, your gene weapons, at the same time as firearms, instead of switching between lightning and shotgun as in the first game. This dual-wield action lets you pull off some nasty combos and suit your weapons to the situation a lot better than in the previous game. Basically, it makes the game easier and more fun to play.

The multiplayer mode puts you in the shoes of a splicer during Rapture's civil war. The big change for the sequel is the addition of a multiplayer mode, which, like all first-person shooters, lets you murder other players over the Internet. Bioshock 2 has the added benefit of letting you use telekinesis, pyrokinesis, lightning and the like to do it.

That doesn’t really make Bioshock 2’s multiplayer all that different from that of any other game.

All the standard bases are covered – team-based combat, free-for-all modes, a keep-away mode and a territory mode. This is all standard fare in a game of this type and nothing about Bioshock stands out.

It’s the reward system that makes the multiplayer worth playing. The more you play, the more bad guys you kill, the stronger your character becomes and the more access your character has to better Plasmids, gene therapy and weapons.

And Bioshock rewards you for doing random other things too – like hacking machines, collecting vials of Adam scattered around each level, capturing Little Sisters, even performing “research” on dead enemies to get a damage boost against them – which is nice, because every game you play in, regardless of whether you play poorly, lets you advance your rank and eventually earn new stuff.

It’s fun – that’s important to remember – but a whole new installment of what is largely the same game is tough to swallow. Bioshock 2 does have a lot of the original’s greatness, and with some friends on board the multiplayer can be a good time, but for players who don’t intend to make a big commitment to the game, this is a rental that can be completed in a little less than a week.

Mitigated disasters

Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation I went with fellow Ultimate Frisbee enthusiast Nick Hurwitch to a pick-up game that occurs every Sunday up the hill toward the Hollywood sign from my house. I played pretty well (though most of the group was middle-aged) and punctuated my first real strong physical activity in months by rolling my ankle so bad, it felt like God was punishing me.

So I’ve spent the last week pretty much incapacitated, as far as the whole “moving-around-on-one’s-own” thing.

This on the heels of the beginning of April, which has me participating in the month-long Script Frenzy event (from the people who brought you National Novel Writing Month). Script Frenzy has its participants attempting to write a 100-page screenplay, play, graphic novel, etc. by the end of April – 30 days.

That’s going pretty well. As of this writing (Day 12), I have 55 pages done. Which is a little ahead of the game, all things considered, and I should be able to write a few more scenes this evening. (I should note: The story isn’t moving extremely well, despite the script’s length. Still, I think I have it and with some pushing, it’ll come together. Read the first 10 or so pages here.)

But my ankle has been a disaster. It has left me stranded, laid up, for most of the week, unable to do even simple things like make myself food.

Being stranded on the couch is somewhat maddening, but it could have been worse.

Oh, wait – did I mention it was worse?

Seems the hard drive has melted. A few days before the ankle injury, I suffered an injury of another sort. Apparently, the hard drive in my HP laptop overheated, melted, and otherwise completely broke. So then I couldn’t move and I had no means of communication or working.

Losing my computer and my mobility was a serious detriment. I make my living on my laptop – so not only was my script in serious jeopardy, but so was paying rent. And buying food. And managing the Netflix queue.

Fortunately, we were able to jury rig Caitlin’s Mac to keep me working. I managed to find all the bookmarks and passwords that I require to do my job somewhere in my e-mails (thanks for saving EVERYTHING, Gmail), and before long I was working really slowly on a foreign computer, which felt a lot like learning to use an American computer without being able to speak English.

At half-speed but still going, I looked into getting the computer fixed by HP. I’m just barely still inside the year warranty, so I pushed a few buttons and the computer company was more than happy to accommodate me. Two days later, they sent me a shipping box to send off my laptop for repair, free of charge.

Script Frenzy continued unabated, much to my surprise. I bought a couple of composition notebooks from the nearby Rite-Aid so I could work by hand while Caitlin was using the Macbook we were now sharing. Because of my stellar Act 1 outline, I was able to truck along pretty much unhindered. (Since then, I’ve made it to Act 2, where I discovered my outline was less an outline and more a scattered list of vague ideas about story flow. So I’m trying to, you know…get on that.)

Then I twisted my ankle.

Different kind of writing disaster. In the meantime, the new video game I ordered, Bioshock 2, arrived in the mail, so I had something to do while I wasn’t writing. I blasted through that at about the pace one would expect – it was a good thing to do after being asked to politely stop hogging up the computer for the day. (I wrote a Bioshock 2 review that you can read here [which I’ll link when I write it].)

Around Thursday my iPhone broke. The screen went blank on it, and while the phone itself seemed to continue to work, it was unusable. Rapidly running out of communications equipment important to my daily survival, I started looking into getting that fixed as well.

HP sent the computer back by Friday. With no cost to me. And it was completely fixed. After a few hours of running system restores off my external hard drive, I was back in business at near 100 percent efficiency. I’m missing a few files that I got in the couple of weeks between my last backup and my hard drive failure, but mostly they were book proposal- and Script Frenzy related, and all of those files exist elsewhere.

Aftermath of iPhone explosion. And after a fast trip to the Apple store near Beverly Hills, and about five minutes with the “Genius” (I hate calling them that), the phone was fixed. For free.

Back with my own system and my own programs and my own files, all the disasters are (pretty much) cleared out of the way. The ankle is healing and feels better every day. The computer has been rehabilitated. The iPhone works about as well as an iPhone works.

In fact, there’s so little preventing me from writing that I’ve completely run out of excuses.

Except for this blog. Need to finish this blog. Then I’ll work on Script Frenzy.

…And maybe after some lunch.