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.