Heavy Rain Hands-On: Meeting Mad Jack

Developer Quantic Dreams has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep its upcoming adventure title, Heavy Rain, shrouded in mystery. After years of speculation, teasers, and rumors, I finally played Heavy Rain for the first time at a recent pre-E3 press event in West Hollywood. And while I certainly have a much better idea of what to expect from the game, there are still plenty of mysteries to unravel in Heavy Rain. nope We got our first glimpse of the game more than three years ago with perhaps the most intense tech demo ever created, a wrenching five-minute monologue from a woman auditioning for a part in a film. The next time we saw the game was two years later at E3 2008, when Quantic Dream showed the Taxidermist demo and trailer, created specifically to showcase the game without giving away any of the story.

Before handing the controller over, writer and director David Cage walked through the demo and explained some of the key principles behind the game, saying that "the real message [of the game] is about how far you're willing to go to save someone you love."

Sounds intriguing, but that could mean anything at this point. All we know about the story is that it involves a serial murderer called The Origami Killer, and that the player controls four different characters throughout the game, each offering a unique view of the story. Even more interesting is the fact that if you die at any point in the game, the game continues on and you simply miss out on the remainder of that character's plotline.

The demo I played started out with FBI profiler Norman Jayden arriving at a scrapyard to investigate a tip about a stolen car that was known to be used by the Origami Killer.

Heavy Rain is a gorgeous game, but it also paints such a bleak and dismal picture that you'll almost find yourself shivering right along with Norman as he steps from his nondescript government issued sedan into the cold, grey downpour at Mad Jack's scrapyard.

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Norman gets out of his car in the pouring rain and strolls over to an imposing looking man on a bulldozer. As Norman moves around the environment small icons pop up on the screen. Icons float about all over the place, rather than remaining fixed on a permanent heads-up display. These context-sensitive cues can stay out of the way of the surroundings, lending the game a cinematic look with deliberate camera angles and static backdrops to set each scene.

Mad Jack's scrap yard is clearly a place you don't want to be, and Norman's anxious demeanor makes it abundantly clear that he doesn't especially want to be there either. Norman is tormented by something more than a pair of soggy socks though. Norman is on the dope. Specifically, he's addicted to a drug called triptocaine, and if he doesn't pop a pill every so often he starts to suffer withdrawal symptoms like double vision, blackouts, and general unpleasantness that can severely impede his investigation.

You can move your character by holding the R2 button, and you can look around using the left analog stick. It's awkward at first, but this isn't a game about exploring large, open environments or circle-strafing huge bosses while filling them full of lead. Instead, Heavy Rain is about carefully taking in the details of each scene.

If you ever forget what you're doing or just want a bit more insight into what's going on in your character's head, you can press the L2 button to display your character's thoughts. There are also moments when you'll have to choose a thought to get your character to act, like picking what to say when having a conversation. If your character is stressed for any reason, these thoughts will swirl around the screen faster and faster, making them difficult to read and thus increasing your chances of making a terrible mistake.

The rest of the buttons on the Six Axis controller are used to interact with items and people, and to perform context specific actions. Essentially, Heavy Rain is a 10-hour quick-time event. That might sound like the opposite of fun, but the game will hopefully make up for the timed button-mashing nonsense with gripping dialogue and a level of white-knuckle suspense you'd expect from a David Fincher film.

In the demo I played, I spent a few minutes walking around the scrapyard and used a bit of CSI-esque gadgetry to collect information. Norman can use an advanced prototype technology called ARI, which stands for Added Reality Interface. By putting on a special pair of glasses and a glove, Norman can gather information about his surroundings.

For instance, after I put on the glasses and pressed R1 to scan the surroundings in the garage, I could see a glowing trail of something or other smeared across the floor. By touching the stain with the special glove I learned that the stuff on the floor was, in fact, blood. Unfortunately the tech isn't quite sophisticated enough to tell you whose blood it is exactly.

I also analyzed some tire tracks, a bit of errant paint, and some orchid pollen found in the garage. Presumably collecting these clues will give you a clearer picture of what's going on in the story, although in this particular demo it didn't seem like all of the detective work was actually required to advance through the game.

The blood trail I spotted with the ARI glasses lead to a shallow acid bath in the corner of the garage. Walking over to it, I noticed a skull in the acid. At this point Mad Jack came in and said that skull belonged to one of Norman's cop buddies who had been snooping around, asking too many questions.

Norman tried to arrest Mad Jack and a struggle ensued before Norman was able to hold Jack at gunpoint. Here, icons appeared with various options to choose from, like "impress," "second chance," "persist," and "gasoline." I must have watched at least 10 people play through the demo, and every single time they chose to shoot a nearby gasoline can, presumably hoping for a flashy explosion.

Before Norman could do anything he was overcome by a sudden need for a fix. Holding the gun on Mad Jack with one hand, Norman fumbled through his pockets looking for his pills. Button icons appeared on the screen and I had to hold down all the buttons at once in order to pull out the pills, open the bottle, and get the fix. I failed miserably at this task, as did every single person I watched attempt it, including one of the developers working on the game.

Thanks to my lack of dexterity, Norman got clocked and later woke up in his car, cuffed to the steering wheel. The car was being lifted into a compactor by a large bulldozer, and I had to quickly press buttons to break free and get out of the car before it was pulverized.

After getting knocked out and having his car crushed, you'd think that Norman's day couldn't get any worse, but the sadists at Quantic Dream just keep piling it on the poor guy. Just as Norman got to his feet he was attacked by the hulking Mad Jack. Here I had to run through a series of button presses to perform some scripted fight moves. After a prolonged struggle, Mad Jack's coveralls got caught in the tread of the moving bulldozer and he was crushed by the massive machine.

Quantic Dream is hoping to deliver an emotional, gripping game in Heavy Rain. Based on a short teaser trailer shown after the demonstration, it looks like each of the four playable characters will have to fight their own demons, just like Norman does with his drug addiction. The true test will be bringing those characters' individual stories together to create a cohesive, coherent narrative.

Heavy Rain is scheduled to be released in early 2010, exclusively for PlayStation 3.

Note: This preview was modified following its original posting in order to clarify a point regarding character movement.