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E3 2009: Heavy Rain

We have high hopes for Heavy Rain, a new PS3 exclusive adventure from French designer Davids Cage.

With the ability to change directions on a dime based on user input, it's sometimes surprising how little serious interactive storytelling happens in modern games. One exception is the games of David Cage, the creative force behind ambitious, if flawed, games such as Indigo Prophesy and Omikron.

In 2005's Indigo Prophesy, for example, players took control of several different characters acting out a supernatural-themed police procedural, and could affect the game world in many ways--leaving more evidence at a crime scene, for example, or sending a character out of town. Unfortunately, that game's seemingly open-ended nature was actually a funnel, starting with many choices but eventually whittling everything down to the same conclusion as the game became exactingly linear in its second half.

With several years of new technology, we have high hopes for Heavy Rain, a new PS3 exclusive adventure that carries over many of the same concepts about making choices that affect a seemingly fixed virtual world. Cage walked us through two segments of the game, showcasing the project's unique controls.

Another detective tale, Heavy Rain tells the intertwining stories of four individuals (a journalist, an FBI profiler, etc.), who are involved in the hunt for a serial killer. The dark, moody graphics were impressive, but the nontraditional control scheme threw us for a loop. Instead of using both analog sticks to move the character, the R2 shoulder button moves you forward, while the left stick turns your shoulders--essentially steering your character like a car.

The problem with changing well-established control schemes is that the controls end up not being transparent to players, who will spend more time thinking about where their fingers should be, and less time immersing themselves in the story.

Another nontraditional element is the use of so-called "quick-time events," an often overused game mechanic where gamers have to quickly press a series of buttons in time with onscreen instructions in order to complete a task. Heavy Rain's gameplay is largely built around this mechanic, but it's used in a much more organic way, with subtle 3D icons for button presses and analog stick movements worked right into the scene. Fights, investigations, and conversations are all done using this button-pressing system. The examples we saw were well-integrated, but we can see playing an entire game waiting for a timed button icon to appear on the screen losing its appeal quickly.

That said, Cage's games have always pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative gaming, and his embrace of branching stories and nonlinear plots make Heavy Rain worth a look for mystery/adventure fans when it comes out in early 2010.