Heavy Rain (PS4) Review

Heavy Rain (PS4) Review

When Heavy Rain first released for the PlayStation 3 back in 2010, developer Quantic Dream and creative director David Cage quickly and dramatically left their mark on the game industry. Cage and his team expertly showed how to pull off interactive storytelling. Heavy Rain’s ambitious and brooding story could only be told through constant player participation and choice, making for an experience that’s hard to forget. I sure haven’t, even six years later.

If you’ve missed Heavy Rain the first time around, or are looking to play David Cage’s best work for a second or third time, this souped-up PlayStation 4 version of the game is the best way to go. Though it isn’t all that much prettier than the PS3 version, like with most of these PS3-to-PS4 re-releases, the textures and character models still looked slightly improved on the new system. But it still confuses me why more and more developers are churning out HD re-releases of games you can still play on slightly older systems.

Heavy Rain (PS4) Review 2In any case, Heavy Rain’s story follows Ethan Mars—an architect with a wife and two sons. In just the opening hour, the player quickly gets introduced to the main conflict at hand, one that’s the driving force behind each of the characters’ actions. After losing one of his sons to a sudden violent incident in the beginning of the game, Ethan’s life falls apart. He’s depressed, divorced, and distant from his surviving son, Shaun. He soon discovers that Shaun might just be the latest victim of the Origami Killer. Looking to rescue him, Ethan embarks on a dangerous and personal journey to do so. Beyond this, it’s up to you to absorb the rest of Quantic Dreams’ haunting noir thriller.

Besides Ethan, the other three main characters that get dragged into this mess are Scott Shelby, a former police officer who’s now a private investigator; Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler with a drug problem; and Madison Paige, a photojournalist. All four characters are nuanced and well-realized individuals that all play vital roles in Heavy Rain’s plot. You’ll get the chance to play as all of four of them, and Quantic Dreams does an excellent job of giving each of them the spotlight throughout this 10-hour adventure.

The writing and storytelling has always been Heavy Rain’s best feature. The voice acting does feel a bit awkward in certain moments—the infamous “Jason! Jason!” line is a prime example—but given just how ambitious the game’s story is here, some of these minor quirks can be forgiven. You’ll also be making a slew of important choices throughout that’ll dramatically affect the rest of the game moving forward. Characters can die here, and the wrong decisions can and will be made. Trust me. This isn’t like a Telltale adventure game, where the final outcome is relatively similar for everyone. Heavy Rain comes packed with a dozen or so different endings.

On the gameplay side of things, however, Heavy Rain is definitely not for everyone. The best way to describe the game is calling it a movie in which you’ve a lot of input on. No, there’s no traditional combat or any other type of gameplay. All you’ll ever do is follow a ton of button prompts on the screen that’ll increasingly get more challenging as you progress through the game. In the beginning you’ll hold X or press the up and down buttons on the d-pad to get Ethan showered and dressed. By the end, well, let’s just say situations become a lot more life threatening and you’ll have to be quick with your reflexes.

The main criticism Heavy Rain has received over the years is that it borders between being a proper video game and a walking simulator/interactive movie. I wholeheartedly disagree, but I totally get why some people are put off by its minimalistic mechanics. Having said that, I still encourage everyone to check Heavy Rain out, as it still tells a satisfyingly poignant, absorbing, and dark tale.

Beyond: Two Souls (PS4) Review

Beyond: Two Souls (PS4) Review

When Beyond: Two Souls originally launched on the PlayStation 3 in the Fall of 2013 amid heavy marketing by Sony, it was met with mixed reviews. On one side it garnered many accolades for its graphic presentation, daring subject matter, and impressive motion capture performances that often managed to rise above the traditionally ham-fisted dialogue penned by the game’s director, David Cage (no doubt helped by the star power of its lead actress Ellen Page and supporting actor Willem Dafoe); but on the other it was also largely criticized for the sparseness of its gameplay systems, its heavy reliance on Quick-Time-Events (QTEs), and its disjointed, non-linear narrative approach to telling the story of its main character, Jodie.  Despite these and other problems however, CGM’s own Wayne Santos gave the game an 8 out of 10, praising it for “ to do some original things, play with original themes, and provoke some emotions other than anxiety or competitive spirit”, and concluding that while the game was “not a unilateral success, gaming as a medium is, in some way, improved by even just the attempt”.  And now that Sony and Quantum Dream have finally seen fit to remaster Beyond: Two Souls for the PS4, a whole new audience will now be able to experience that effort, arguably in the best way possible.

beyondtwosoulsPS4insert3I use the word ‘arguably’ in part because the most notable improvement over the PS3 version is the ability to play the game in a “remixed chronological” mode in addition to the aforementioned non-linear storyline of the original.  While some purists and fans of the original Beyond may protest at this idea, the deliberately scrambled narrative of the PS3 version was seen by many critics as an obstacle not only to their full enjoyment of the game but also to their ability to relate to Jodie’s character growth over the course of the story, which spans over 15 years of her life. The fact that Quantum Dream has addressed this long-standing complaint can only be a good thing.  As someone who missed out on Beyond in 2013, I was grateful to be given a choice, and did not find anything during my “chronological” playthrough that felt out of place or unfinished as a result of the story chapters’ reorganization.

Beyond was no graphical slouch on PS3, but the game is arrestingly beautiful on PS4, displaying increased texture resolution, improved bloom, lighting and special effects, and particularly in the case of Jodie, highly detailed and fluidly animated character models that up close will often deceive players into thinking they’re looking at the actual person.  In fact, on more than one occasion I found myself making adult Jodie walk around in circles just so I could marvel at how closely she resembled Ellen Page and how cool it was that I was in control of her actions (I realize now that I might have a small crush).

Unfortunately, the more that the world of Beyond and its characters resemble the world outside our window, the more jarring it becomes when the player inevitably comes up against the narrow confines of the game’s Quantic-Dream-circa-2013 gameplay, and by extension, its limited environments and linear narrative.  Much like how Aiden, the mysterious entity that is constantly tethered to Jodie is unable to venture more than a few hundred feet away from her (unless the narrative requires it), players will find themselves constantly coming up against one invisible wall after another should they attempt to veer too far off the path that David Cage has painstakingly written for them.  Try to go down a curious looking hallway or mountain path that’s not directly relevant to the intended story route, or try to have Aiden pop his ghostly head behind a door you’re not meant to open, and you’ll be unceremoniously bounced back.  Occasionally players will get to make a choice that will affect the outcome of a chapter slightly, and the game’s visually impressive but clunky action sequences will try to create the illusion of consequences (i.e. potential death) should one miss a few beats and cause Jodie to take some painful hits, but eventually they will catch on and realize that most of these alternate outcomes are simply cosmetic embellishments to Jodie’s adventure.  As a result, Beyond almost feels more like an interactive movie than it does a game, even more so than its predecessor Heavy Rain, which featured multiple protagonists, some of whom could actually die yet the story would continue without them. But ultimately, the above criticisms come part-and-parcel with “a David Cage game” experience and are unlikely to daunt gamers who are interested in revisiting Beyond on PS4 (the game features a new higher level of difficulty made with these fans in mind) or those curious to finally try the game out for the first time, two years on.  One would have better luck convincing Swery65 fans that Deadly Premonition’s quirkiness was purely the unintentional result of amateurishly bad game design.

beyondtwosoulsPS4insert5One other 2015-era addition to this remaster is an online-connected feature at the end of each completed chapter that compares the player’s decisions to those of other players around the world.  This data, represented in percentages, not only reveals how similar or divergent one’s story path might be from that of the Beyond community, but also highlights what other popular paths the player could have taken that he or she had no previous knowledge about, or can reveal the existence of paths that no one has yet played.  It’s certainly a smart way to encourage replay and exploration in a game that can be completed in two or three five-hour sittings.  And just like in the 2013 version, Beyond can be played alone or with a friend taking on the role of Aiden, via a second controller or mobile app.

At the reasonable price of $29.99 CAD, Beyond is well worth picking up even with all the other triple-A fare competing for your attention and dollars this holiday.  What it lacks in modern procedural narrative and open world sandbox antics it more than makes up for with its updated production values and the places that it dares to go (both thematically and literally) in telling Jodie’s story, which is just as compelling, unexpected and emotionally moving today as it was two years ago.  When you factor in the inclusion of the bonus “Enhanced Experiments” DLC chapter (think Portal) and a second playthrough, we’re looking at a full day of entertainment for the price of two movie tickets, AND kicking butt as Ellen Page.  Now that’s a good deal.

Eventually Graphics Won’t Matter

Eventually Graphics Won’t Matter

This week on Kotaku, there was an article that looked at some of the reasons why the Japanese weren’t buying the PS4 in droves. One of the random remarks from the Japanese corner of the Internet was, “Loads of people are still satisfied with the PS3’s graphics.” This is not something that has really happened before, but, going forward, it’s a problem that’s going to be a challenge for the industry. On the graphical side of games, the law of diminishing returns—especially with untrained eyes—is kicking in.

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The “leap” in graphics from the PS3/60 era to the PS4/Xbox One generation is not a great one. Certain developers, like Quantic Dream, have pushed graphics so far that something like Beyond: Two Souls still looks like an impressive title even today, gameplay criticisms notwithstanding. Meanwhile, people play something like Watch_Dogs on new consoles and many people say “Well, it looks better, but not that much better.” And to some degree they’re right; with the last generation of hardware, studios began to approach that holy grail of gaming, photorealistic graphics. In Beyond: Two Souls, Ellen Page looks like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe looks like his craggy ol’ self. The graphical performances of these two actors in Beyond: Two Souls is not blown away by the early peeks we’re getting of Kevin Spacey in the latest Call of Duty game. In fact, they pretty much look the same. With new generations of hardware, we’re not going to get a gigantic, quantum leap in graphical fidelity that users first experienced 14 years ago, from the PlayStation to PlayStation 2.

One of the big problems here is that programmers have gotten very good at cheating. In the PS3/360 era, even if real-time lighting or simulated particle effects were beyond the capabilities of the hardware, graphics artists were very good at faking it. They faked it well enough that most gamers—except for the extremely discerning graphics hounds—were satisfied with the results. It’s much like how only super strict audiophiles spit on the MP3 audio format whereas, for everyone else, the opinion is “Hey, it works well enough for me.”

Now, with more powerful hardware, developers no longer have to cheat. They can do real light, real smoke, other effects in real time, and the average player can’t tell the difference between the cheat, and the real time effect. What’s more, quite often they don’t even care. With games like The Last of Us and upcoming Uncharted games, graphics have hit a “good enough” level for the average player. Certainly, it’s not indistinguishable from real life, but given the priority that graphics get with each new hardware generation, it’s not unreasonable to think that we’re likely less than 20 years from that day finally coming.

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The Last of Us

And when that day comes, when all PCs and consoles are so powerful that games look photorealistic, what happens then? How can graphics still matter when they all look the same? It’s the same problem cinema has had for years since CG effects entered the industry. We’ve come a long way from the light cycles in Tron, but now movies routinely use photoreal CG effects, and while audiences appreciate the spectacle, no one remarks on the realism as a selling point of the effects. They’re now just considered tools to tell a story. In the same way, when all the waves in a videogame ocean start looking like real oceans, and there’s no discernible difference between a Gran Turismo Lamborghini and a real one, and gamers get 10 years to adjust to this, what will the selling point of games be?

Ultimately, it’s the interactivity, the gameplay that is always going to be the greatest strength of games. And we’re starting to see that gain more and more importance. That’s the way it should be, but it took us many years to get to the point today where people care less about how a game looks and more about how a game plays. Graphics were always important, but ironically, as they get better and better their importance lessens.

 

The Best and Worst of 2013 – Reid McCarter

The Best and Worst of 2013 - Reid McCarter

Best of 2013

2013 was a year of surprises. A few sure bets like The Last of Us were well worth the hype, but it was the smaller, unexpected games that really made this year special. My personal favourite was Papers, Please, a simulation title that overcomes the rather dry trappings of its genre to become one of the most emotionally exhausting and enriching videogames to date. A close second is Gone Home. Exploring the rooms of a virtual house for an hour or two doesn’t sound particularly exciting either, but Gone Home‘s wonderfully paced examination of a family in turmoil was so excellently presented and generally captivating that it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of the year.

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Papers, Please

The ongoing Kentucky Route Zero has also been great. Despite a molasses slow release schedule that makes waiting for new episodes a painful test of patience, each new act in Cardboard Computer’s aesthetically astounding southern gothic is well worth the wait. I’m excited to see where the Lynchian story goes next, not just because the plot and characters are terrific, but because Kentucky Route Zero‘s environments are some of the most creative I’ve ever seen. (Pro tip: they also make great desktop wallpapers.)

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Kentucky Route Zero

Honourable mentions: the incredibly joyful Tearaway, intellectually haunting Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, and the beautifully orchestrated chaos of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and DmC: Devil May Cry.

Worst of 2013

Luckily, I didn’t spend a lot of time playing truly awful games in 2013. This means that the titles I’d qualify as this year’s “worst” are actually more like my biggest disappointments. For this reason I’d single out the highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto V. While GTAV looks great and provides a wonderfully realized setting to explore, its story and mission structure were incredibly uninventive. The trio of main characters all had the potential to be interesting, but the narrative they were a part of felt meandering and half-baked. I’ve come to expect more from Rockstar than the competent, unexciting Grand Theft Auto V offered.

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Grand Theft Auto V

Beyond: Two Souls was another letdown. As a Heavy Rain apologist, I really believed that the introduction of talented actors like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe and a willingness to learn from the mistakes of David Cage’s past games could make the game something special. Instead, Beyond seemed even more tone deaf than its predecessors. While several of the game’s chapters display a lot of promise (the birthday party and apartment date come to mind), Cage continues to include offensive stereotypes and hackneyed plot twists that make it hard to appreciate the good parts of his team’s work.

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Beyond: Two Souls

Dishonourable mentions: the well realized yet overly repetitive Soul Sacrifice, unexpectedly boring The Cave, and just plain crummy Contrast.

Beyond: Two Souls (PS3) Review

Beyond: Two Souls (PS3) Review

The Ambiguity Continues

David Cage is an auteur. He’s a man that believes in a singular creative vision, and, as with cinema directors, impresses upon an entire project and team that vision. Consequently, that means a David Cage game is hard to confuse with any other, and it also means that its lack of generic characteristics won’t appeal to as broad an audience. That’s certainly the case with Beyond: Two Souls, his latest game, although as usual, the term “game” is a difficult one to apply in this case; it’s not the sort traditional play that conventional audiences expect. So is it good? If you like David Cage, then YES, this game is good. If you hated his previous efforts, it’s time to stop reading this review.

Girl With Ghost

Beyond: Two Souls starts out simply enough and then, in typical Cage fashion, goes to some strange, unexpected places. The main plot centers on Jodie Holmes—as played by Ellen Page—a girl with a constant companion; a ghost named Aidan that acts an extra spiritual pair of eyes, ears and occasionally very lethal hands. The story is told non-sequentially, jumping across different points in Jodie’s life from her early childhood to her eventual career with the American government, all the while emphasizing the sense of separation and alienation she feels over never having a normal life.

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At this point, many people who played Heavy Rain may be wondering how the story and writing ultimately stack up to that game. Heavy Rain made some inroads for cinematic games, but at the same time, there were some plot twists that relied on narrative cheats in order to keep the audience guessing. This time around, thanks in part to the focus on only one character, Cage manages to avoid any catastrophic narrative failures, although he still doesn’t craft the tightest plot or most quotable dialog. What he has nailed, however, is a compelling (perhaps manipulative) character study of what it’s like to be someone with a gift you don’t want that others fear, except for the powerful, who view said gift—and you—as a useful tool. Beyond: Two Souls fails miserably at subtlety. It never attempts it, really, but there are certain moments in the game when the raw emotion, helped by some talented performances, rise above the clumsy story moments to genuinely engage the player. Sure, Cage may sometimes write a clunky line of dialog that doesn’t feel natural coming out of Ellen Page’s mouth. But, when she feels lonely, heartbroken or even betrayed, it’s hard not to become invested in her suffering thanks to Ellen Page’s talent, and the phenomenal motion/facial capture work used by Quantic Dream to make sure that performance comes across.

***

You Play & Watch, But Mostly Watch

And here, as we get to the gameplay, is the part where many people are going to be divided. Like Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain before it, Beyond: Two Souls is a game that is primarily focused on its story, and the emotions of its characters. As a result, the number of activities Jodie Holmes performs over the course of the game far exceeds the typical range of action in a first or third person shooter, and so the variety of actions is performed via quick time events. Some will say that a game shouldn’t rely on QTEs and for fans of mechanics and systems, this definition of a game means David Cage’s games are not for them. But then there are those that prefer to emotionally invest in a story or a group of characters, and these are the people that Cage is trying to rope in with his particular brand of videogame. This is not for everyone, but for those willing to overlook the lack of traditional interactivity, and Cage’s occasional writing/dialog stumbles, there is a game here that is trying to go in some very different places. It’s a brave game, clearly trying to pioneer something, and it’s hard not to respect David Cage and the Quantic Dream team for at least trying to provide an alternative to the FPS that isn’t just as equally established as the point and click adventure.

***

There’s also an ability to play the game in local co-op, with one player controlling Jodie while another controls Aidan, her ghostly partner. This lends an interesting dynamic to the game, particularly when played between people who might not always agree. The person controlling Jodie, for example, may prefer more restrained, diplomatic solutions to problems while the person controlling Aidan may simply resort to revenge or violence. It’s another unique twist on the idea that Cage games are like movies where one person controls a character. When TWO people are involved, it can create dramatic tension in the living room as well.

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But even with the added local co-op—and the ability to play using a mobile device—Beyond: Two Souls is still about QTE prompts interspersed with dialog choices and many long cutscenes. In some ways, this is becoming a familiar structure just because of the recent critical success of The Walking Dead, which also left more traditional, hardcore puzzle solving elements of a point and click adventure by the wayside in favor of story. All of this is part of a greater effort on the part of some game creators to try and make the systems less visible and put the player in the moment, experiencing the misery, fear or even joy of the characters in the game.

In this respect, Beyond: Two Souls succeeds. Not all the time. Maybe not even most of the time. Overall, the writing, structure—and perhaps most importantly—pacing of the Walking Dead is superior, with a more consistent level of quality. Cage is an uneven writer and director, and some moments don’t ring true. Then there are other moments, such as the “Homeless” or “Navajo” sections of the game where real moments of humanity manage to shine through. It’s just that for every moment when Beyond feels like it’s doing something really significant, there are others that feel either weak, or even tangential. The game has much in common with Cage’s PS2 game, Indigo Prophecy, in that it goes to many places that don’t always feel natural. There won’t be any spoilers here, but while a girl growing up with a ghost can feel authentic during awkward moments like first brushes with other teens, or even struggling with feelings of self-worth, other moments are simply out of whack. Super spy portions and even contemporary military shooter sequences run right beside childhood abandonment issues and paranormal investigation. The game goes all over the place. Yet… despite the unevenness, there are still moments when Beyond: Two Souls works well. It means taking a more forgiving eye towards Cage’s narrative weaknesses, and it even means letting go of more traditional notions of what a game is. But it goes to places most games won’t go, and attempts to confront players with feelings most games don’t want to touch. There is plenty of machismo and even angst in the narrative of games today, but how often does a game deal with real, everyday loneliness? Or even the issue of homelessness and what it’s like to live on the streets? Every year some game takes us to the Middle East to shoot things, but how many of those games force us to confront the innocent collateral damage of our actions? Beyond: Two Souls attempts to go to all of those places, and more, and while it’s not a unilateral success, gaming as a medium is, in some way, improved by even just the attempt.

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This is not a long game, it can be finished in ten hours or less, and the nonlinear nature of its first playthrough can create serious pacing problems, especially for longer play sessions. But it dares to do some original things, play with original themes, and provoke some emotions other than anxiety or competitive spirit. And in the end, Ellen Page’s performance manages to create a Jodie Holmes that people can care about. This is not a game for everyone, but for those willing to take a chance on its eccentric character, it’s a memorable experience.

*To read the full review pick up the October/November 2013 Issue

Dramatic Games Need An Episodic Structure

Dramatic Games Need An Episodic Structure

I’m playing Beyond: Two Souls right now for my review and I can tell you right now that I’m enjoying the game. But I am noticing one thing that’s been more prominent in my head as games like The Walking Dead lumbered onto the scene and made everyone take more notice of adventure games. I’m getting more and more convinced that this kind of game, just like television, needs a separated, episodic structure.

The “problem,” if you can even call it that with games like Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls and even older games like the older FMV adventure games such as Phantasmagoria and the Tex Murphy games all suffer from not quite being games and not quite being movies. David Cage is far from being a pioneer of trying to marry Hollywood and Silicon Valley together, he’s just the most vocal proponent we have right now. And yet, when you get games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, there’s a problem of pacing, especially when you’re playing for long stretches.

Admittedly, a lot of players won’t (I hope) try to crush a game as quickly as possible, since it’s really only reviewers that don’t have the luxury of taking their time with a game. But in the case of dramatic games, a marathon or power session can really hurt the dramatic momentum the game is trying to achieve. For example, not everyone is going to try and sit down and watch all three Lord of the Rings movies in one, or even two evenings. But Beyond: Two Souls is pretty much what players are doing; this is a very long “movie,” in one sense, one that’s well over eight hours in total running time, and that’s an exhausting amount of time to be invested in some heavy drama.

Walking Dead

This is something that Telltale has managed to avoid by virtue choosing the television episodic structure, rather than the cinematic. By releasing a game with clearly defined episodes, there’s a much clearer arc of events, and appropriate places for players to “close” the game and take a break, have a meal, or continue on the next day. With something like Beyond: Two Souls, the fact that it’s one, huge, non-stop game/movie has created a situation where the game jumps from one high tension, dramatic scene to the next, and there’s little “downtime.” Dramatic climaxes are good, but a series of them in an unpredictable line can create a sense of fatigue. It’s similar to what happens in action movies overloaded with too much action; at some point, because of lack of contrast, all the action blends into each other and feels monotonous regardless of how many explosions are happening.

The Walking Dead and Telltale’s other games, avoid this by making eager fans wait. Like a monthly comic book, or a weekly television series, Telltale games build up anticipation in the audience by enforcing some downtime where fans are left to speculate among themselves and build up their own sense of anticipation. Going back to my earlier comparison of Lord of the Rings, the reception to Return of the King would be very different, if it were the last movie seen after six hours of previous film viewing.

I think that the need to have tension rise and fall is something that David Cage understands, but in some ways, he’s hamstrung by the expectations of a triple A game. People don’t want to pay $60 for three hour game, but at the same time, it’s hard to be unobtrusive about telling people “This concludes this episode of Beyond, you might want to take a break now.”

In the end, I think there’s a place in entertainment for these kinds of games, and I do enjoy the unique take on interactive entertainment that David Cage is trying to create. But I also think that when you place more emphasis on drama, then some of the dramatic rules of storytelling—namely pacing—need to be acknowledged as well.