This was my entry for our very own Review Wars 4. Went over alright, so I figured I'd post it.
It's a matter of personal taste and all, but, for what it's worth, 2010 has been an extraordinary year for me in terms of gaming. Of course, many might object that the year has seen the release of the Playstation Move and the Xbox Kinect, both intriguing concepts that have yet failed to really deliver in terms of their libraries. This is what 2010 is likey to be remembered for but, aside from that, there have been other, much more significant (in this reviewer's opinion) developments - the gigantic success of Minecraft due to its depth and despite its outdated graphics has diminished the weight of the "gamers only care about technology and title" argument, while the mass continuations of AAA-title series have proven that popular games are usually popular for a pretty good reason. From Red Dead Redemption to Mass Effect 2, the year has given us many different titles that should appeal to a wide variety of people.
But I'm not here to review the year, but rather the best game it has produced. And, while I'm not going to lie, there are two answers I can easily give to this question, I'm going to name only one game today - Heavy Rain.
Heavy Rain is a game by Quantic Dream, the French developers behind Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a high-on-originality production that, unfortunately, continues to be overlooked even today, and Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy for the you, Americans, out there), my GOTY of 2005 and the game with the best prologue sequence I've ever seen, marred by its writers going a little insane while penning the second half of the game.
Fahrenheit was fairly successfull, so, naturally, Quantic Dream were picked up by a big publisher (Sony) to do another game for them. The new game was called Heavy Rain and it was first shown in 2006 with its The Casting demo, which didn't really show much of the game's mechanics... not much of anything, really. And then the game kind of dissapeared.
At that time, the only gaming platform I had was a PC, but when I heard of it again, 2009, I had already owned a 360 and figured that I had to play it. As you see, Heavy Rain had a lot to live up to being the main reason for me getting a PS3.
But more to the point. For those unfamiliar, Heavy Rain is a PS3-exclusive video game in the loosest sense of the word. Yes, that is, in fact, one of the main selling points of the game - it's not exactly what we're used to seeing on the shelves in video game stores. It doesn't even have a genre, really, so it's described by some people as "an interactive drama" and by others as "a movie you have to press buttons to watch".
The game is set in an nameless fictional town in the U.S.A. and revolves around a string of child murders comitted by the so-called Origami Killer. By the time the game's events start to unfold, the body of the eighth victim is found and Shaun Mars, another child, has dissapeared, thought to be kidnapped by the killer.
The game has four playable protagonists, all of whom are engaged in the search for the missing boy. Among them are Ethan Mars, the boy's father, a promising architect whose life has gone astray after the accidental death of his child two years prior to the main plot's events, Madison Paige, an insomniac journalist trying to dig deeper into the story of the killer, Scott Shelby, a private investigator hired by the families of the previous victims to find the boy, and Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler working in collaboration with the city's police.
This is all, I can tell you, because, saying more than that would be a definite spoiler... and you wouldn't want to have this game spoiled. The story is, undoubtedly, the main focus of the game and, as such, it is absolutely obligatory that it is good. Thankfully, it's good. Really good, in fact. The overall plot of the game easily keeps you interested, is filled with suspense and thrill and, while not particularly full of revelations and surprises, build up to one hell of a final act. Most of the people who played Fahrenheit will tell you that its greatest misstep was in the story department. Heavy Rain has none of that. It's solid, engaging and fairly meaningful throughout the whole game.
However, it's not its strongest point. By far. No, that would be the direction and the situations the game puts you in. In that regard, the series I would compare Heavy Rain to is Call of Duty. Both of the games, while completely different in about everything, rely heavily on set pieces and creative situations. And both do it really well. I could give you an example of the genius behind Heavy Rain's set pieces, but, really, that would be the biggest spoiler I could give away.
Another spectacular achievement by the game's creators is the emphasis on characterization. Let me put it bluntly - you will care for the characters in Heavy Rain. Not only are they as real as characters in gaming have ever been, they're immensely likeable and very complex. Heavy Rain centers around a fairly outlandish situation, but puts real people in it, which is why it is all the more powerful. The only thing I really need to tell you about that is that there were moments in the game where I had to look away from the screen - not because something gross or scary was going on, but because I saw bad things happen to people I got used to and grew to like over the course of the game and I could not look at them unfold.
Actually, the characterization in Heavy Rain is not the only thing that contributed to me caring for the game's protagonists. The other thing is a very simple, yet ingenious game design move - if you screw up and something bad happens, it will stay that way till the rest of the game. And you can screw up, royally at that. This is puts a sense of danger and anxiety to the game I can't properly describe. Yeah, alright, you can sort of restart a chapter (which I did, I admit), but that's really missing the point.
Now you might be asking: "How can you screw up? What's the gameplay part of this game?". The answer is - basically, quick-time-events. Now, I'm not a particular fan of those, although I don't really mind them as well, unless they're poorly implemented. Good thing, then, that Heavy Rain does them really, really well. As well as it should, QTEs being an integral part of the game.
They take some getting used to, but, once you get over your initial scepticism, you should probably find out that the button prompts you are required to press are not random at all - the right analog stick is used for whole body movement actions, the cross-square-triangle-circle buttons represent certain limbs and R1 is for shooting a gun. The action scenes these are required for are amazingly fast-paced and, after a while, the controls get really intuitive.
Of course, not the whole game is QTEs. There are parts where you walk around, talk, interact with objects. The big problem some people had with the game is the walking controls - the camera is fixed, giving the game a cinematic feel, but it changes quite often and can disorientate the player. Moreover, you have to use the left thumbstick and be pressing R2 to move around, otherwise you'll just turn to facing the direction you need to go in.
This is not a game breaker by any means. Sure, the fact that the camera is fixed and you have only a couple of camera options per scene does make interacting with some of the scenery a little harder, but, really, it's a minor problem. And the fact that the camera perspective might shift while you're walking is negated by the fact that, unless you make any adjustments with the left control stick, your character will keep walking the way he was walking.
You also constantly talk to people, which is realised by giving you a number of dialogue variants that don't include whole phrases, but, rather, the general themes of your answers. No complaints about that, it's pretty accurate, the only problem is that the answers spin around the head of your character as if he's dizzy or something and are fairly hard to see. It wouldn't be a problem, but, if you don't chose fast enough, but the game will do it for you and it won't go for the better choice.
That's how Heavy Rain plays. But there's much more to the game. The game's really atmospheric with constant raining and darkness, there is an overarching weather theme, like the one found in Fahrenheit (rain and snow, respectively). What complements that are beautiful, borderline incredible graphics, great motion capture and facial recognition that only once or twice slips into the uncanny valley throughout the game, tremendous voice acting by, in this reviewer's opinion, one of the most underrated casts of the history of gaming, an amazing musical score which, while repeating itself fairly often thoughout the game, is memorable and authentic... and that's kind of it.
It's not perfect. There are no scenes quite up to par with Fahrenheit's intro, the plot has some noticeable holes and the game is really meant to be played once, which you will understand if you should go into a second playthrough. It's not that original either, most of the ideas originated in Fahrenheit, but, here, they really shine. This is interactive drama perfection, the best this concept could ever offer. If there was a deeper, more bold and fresh experience in 2010, I have no knowledge of it. As such, I can only recommend you to buy this incredible title.