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Hands-on: 'Heavy Rain'

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Few developers get a second chance to experiment with something. Four years ago Quantic Dream released Fahrenheit, a mature attempt at storytelling in games, looking past gratuitous violence and sex and instead using relationships and actions within a traditional adventuring context. The end result was somewhat broken, with an underlying spiritual narrative that shattered any attempt at a serious and believable storyline, and action sequences completely drenched in uninvolving quick-time button presses. The ideas were all there, but they needed work.

Heavy Rain is that second chance at mature storytelling, and one that presents the same daring ideas but from a different angle. The adventuring elements within preset episodes are still present, whether it is investigating the environment or the people around you, but an overhaul in controls and a greater range of choice - and consequences - leads to a more involving and emotional experience, even just from the short samples we played.

Our first hands-on was a chapter titled Hussain's Shop. You play a criminal investigator that stumbles into a corner shop and asks the clerk for help with his current kidnapping case, which is the central focus of every playable character in the game. The investigator says the Origami Killer, having killed the shopkeeper's son, has kidnapped another victim, but his pleas for help fall on death ears from the distraught vendor. To save a wasted journey, the investigator heads to the far corner aisle to pick up an inhaler, just as a gunman enters and demands money from the till, completely unaware you are in the store. What do you do?

A fire escape veers off to the right, but its fastened status would alert the gunman. Stepping on an open packet of crisps down the central aisle will incur the same result. Going down the left aisle, the option to pick up a frying pan occurs, shrouded in a blurred icon that requires a firm button press to pick up. After all, the investigator is filled with adrenaline, so your reactions need to compensate. Successfully doing so enables you to take a firm grip, walk over to the gunman and crack him over the head, dealing with the threat. With the shopkeeper and yourself safe, he provides you with a piece of origami left behind in his son's locker, giving you a priceless lead.

Of course, that's just one outcome. You can drop the frying pan by not pressing the shoulder button fast or firm enough, or simply walk into the scene, turning the gun on the investigator instead. Do you want to give up so easily and surrender? Pressing L1 and R1 raises your arms, which must be kept up throughout the coming scene to avoid sudden movements. Dropping them an inch will cause him to react, and although it appears somewhat contrived, it makes holding this simple button combination surprisingly tense. You can simply ignore his request and get shot at, or argue with him to the point where he shoots you out of anger.

Wisely keeping your hands in the air, you can choose from a variety of options to talk him out of the shop, reminding him that he might have a family to take care of, or to the point where he is distracted enough so you can turn the gun away, pull him to the floor, and deliver a motion-sensing knock-out blow. It should be pointed out you cannot die at this point - a fired bullet will always graze your shoulder - and that all outcomes will give you the same end origami clue from the shopkeeper, but makes for a powerful example of the scope available in such a tiny segment. Producer David Cage has told DS that characters can die permanently throughout the game, making later holdups and confrontations even more powerful.

Such outcomes seemed possible in the second scenario we played, and while the shop episode highlighted the range of choice that's possible, Madjack's Garage showed us how investigation and hand-to-hand combat works. Driving to a junkyard to follow up on a lead, an FBI agent can wander around piles of scrap using a unique control scheme, where the left stick will move the head or the body depending on whether R2 was pressed, where flicks of the right stick would open doors and pull out shades, and L2 would call up thoughts on the case. Context sensitive commands, such as opening a car door, will appear on the particular item, taking up your focus as it would the character in question.

Inside the garage, the ARI detective mode syncs up a forensics database with the current location which can be refreshed using the R1 button and investigated further with the right stick. It's as unconventional as the movement, and something that's completely jarring to newcomers but hopefully will become second-nature in the final game. You quickly discover that a car-sized outline of paint must have taken place in the garage, which causes Madjack to pull a gun on you. As he talks and paces around you, the camera sits uncomfortably from his perspective, enhancing the sense of dominance in the confrontation.

From here, a quick-time event will play out, where icons appear on top of the current action performed, such as over fists for punches or torsos for snappy right-stick dodges. Compared to the commands of Fahrenheit, where were uniformly in the dead-centre of the screen and away from the action, here a out-of-reach weapon has a similarly isolated icon on the side of the screen that requires keen eyes. After battling him down and making him talk through more branching dialogue, the agent's unexplained illness takes hold, causing a build up of button presses as he clutches his chest, causing you to strain your fingers around the controller in the process, offering the same surprisingly involving tense reaction as surrendering to the shop gunman.

From here, the agent becomes strapped inside a car, picked up by a tractor that's destined for scrap-eating machine. Motion-controls and flicks of the right stick will wiggle you free, allowing you to jump out in time, battle Madjack once more, and cause him to become trapped underneath the tractor and down for good. Interestingly, the game turns away from his gory demise, leaving it up to the imagination, as well as in one of the other outcomes of the episode where the agent fails to wrestle an iron bar from Madjack and gets battered to death off camera, or when he fails to make it out of the car in time and becomes crushed by the spinning blades. It’s a move that leaves it up to the imagination of the player, and forces home that mature rhetoric that's so important to the game.

Not only does each episode offer a different pace of play, but they also differ visually. The shop chapter was crammed with detail, with visible wrinkles and natural facial expressions on each of the scene's characters. Meanwhile, the other area is draped in a dense layer of film static, with character models far more bland and less detailed. Whether it was because the game has yet to be polished and finalised, or the increased draw distance and action of the scrap yard meant the graphics needed to be toned down to compensate, it still looks convincing. Each chapter also loads with a character profile close-up, displaying individual hairs and the tiniest skin blemishes as their eyes pan around the screen, and almost borders on uncanny.

From what we've seen, Heavy Rain looks to have overcome many of the frustrations of its spiritual predecessor, with more involving fight sequences, a wider range of choices and an increased threat from your actions. The characters and settings also seem more grounded, and provided the story can maintain a sufficient pace, we might find ourselves for once truly caring for our on-screen protagonists, and fully consider how we treat them in the game. Hopefully this time Quantic Dream's lofty experiment pays off.

Heavy Rain will be released on PlayStation 3 early next year. You can read our interview with lead producer David Cage here.

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