Note: This hands-on preview is based on four hours gameplay with PS3 preview debug code provided by Sony.
Spoiler Warning – There may be some mild spoilers in this preview!
I didn’t really like Heavy Rain, I didn’t even complete it. I played Quantic Dream’s ‘interactive movie’ for about three or four hours before I got bored by its dawdling pace, dull characters, lack of actual gameplay and the fact that I needed to constantly follow on screen prompts before doing something as simple as opening a door.
What I did love about it, however, were the gorgeous graphics and the decision-making element where players got to drive the plot and had an element of freedom with the choices they made. Heavy Rain showed a lot of promise too with the unique way it engaged players with movement to try and make them feel immersed in the game. Though it was a great concept and looked fantastic, it just felt like director David Cage didn’t quite get it right and the finished product wasn’t executed as well as it could have been.
In Beyond: Two Souls, lessons have definitely been learned. This latest interactive movie is a real evolution of the concept and a true showcase of Quantic Dream’s talent. In all areas it’s impressed so far with a really nice balance between gameplay, narrative and interaction. Voice acting from the two main stars Ellen Page (Jodie Holmes) and William Dafoe (Nathan Dawkins) is excellent too and the graphics really are beyond anything I’ve seen before. There’s no shadow of a doubt in my mind: Beyond is shaping up to be the complete cinematic videogame entertainment package.
It helps that the storyline immediately grabs you from the outset. Focusing on 15 years in the life of Jodie Holmes we soon discover that she has an invisible friend, an unknown entity called Aiden who has supernatural abilities. Each section I’ve played so far switches between different periods of her life and not always in the same order, allowing you try to piece together clues as to why Jodie is different and how she ends up as a skilled CIA operative where she uses her powers for government gain.
Without giving too much away, the first four hours of the game introduces you to Jodie’s character as well as another major figure in the game, Nathan Dawkins, a government scientist who becomes a father figure to Jodie after working closely with her and her special abilities. We see a young Jodie locked away in a paranormal department of a government testing facility where they are assessing her supernatural abilities. We then move forward to an Embassy ball where Jodie needs to use her powers to bypass security and grab some secretive documents hidden behind an oil painting. We then rewind backwards and witness her training to become part of the CIA before getting thrown back even further to her teenage years where she attends a birthday party that soon turns sour.
We learn about Jodie’s personality, a little about what motivates her and see increasingly just how powerful Aiden can be. It’s really clever how the narrative switches between points in Jodie’s life and slowly starts to piece things together. The fact that you never know what to expect and what part of Jodie’s journey you’ll be thrust into next certainly keeps you on tenterhooks and excited to find out more. At this stage however you’re still left with far more questions than answers, but come the end of the preview there’s signs that Aiden isn’t the only entity in Jodie’s world. I’m now left desperate to discover more about what happens when the game launches in October.
Beyond isn’t all about the narrative either as gameplay is also living up to the storyline so far. The star of the game is the co-operative mechanic which requires players to control both Jodie and Aiden for various means. You literally play as two players, controlling Jodie for the most part and then turning to Aiden whenever she needs help. Aiden manifests itself as a black mass tethered constantly to Jodie by an energy chord. Switching to Aiden allows you to explore outside of the physical body moving high and low accessing otherwise unreachable areas, moving through walls to listen in on conversations, tipping over chairs like a mischievous poltergeist and possessing people like a demon. Initially, it’s a very strange dynamic to work with, but as things progress and you also start to explore Aiden’s own personality it becomes a lot of fun.
The first chance you get to try this new mechanic is when you see Jodie at a government facility where she’s being tested for her paranormal abilities. Locked in a room, Jodie has a set of marked cards laid out in front of her and in the room next door a lady has the same. Jodie is tasked with guessing which card the lady has picked up. You switch to Aidan, move through the glass window of the control room and into the room next door. Here you can look over her shoulder and with the tap of a button move back into the body of Jodie to guess the card correctly.
However, you can also interact with other objects and people that are outside of this initial objective. This opens up numerous possibilities in the game-world to interact and explore the boundaries of Aiden’s skills. Small blue glowing orbs indicate that you can interact with an object and in this instance I knock things off the table, push over a chair and flip the table over causing the lady to panic with fear and rush for the door. What’s interesting though is that Jodie doesn’t want Aiden to do this and often calls for him to stop. You yourself seem to be testing their relationship and can choose how mischievous Aiden is by pushing the boundaries of what Jodie actually wants him to do. This morale choice you make in the early stages for Aiden’s behaviour is showcased most impressively during a party scene where you can choose to enact revenge on those who have just crossed you, like an evil poltergeist spirit, or simply let them go.
One of the most impressive aspects of Aiden’s ability is the possession technique. When you can possess people they glow orange and during the laboratory scene I jump into the body of one of the scientists in the control room by hovering behind him and carrying out a gesture with the two analog sticks to enter his body. I’m now in control and can walk around in his body. The chance to possess also comes into play a few more times during this play-through as I take over the body of a guard at the Embassy in order to get into the room his is guarding, and later on in a police chase where I possess a sniper on the roof and command him to shoot his colleagues, in the much publicised train scene. In this sequence, I have other choices too, I could have flipped over police cars to kill the officers, use Aiden to pull out the pumps from a gas station and then set it alight, or pull a helicopter out of the sky to help here escape. Though Aiden is a friend to Jodie, there’s also a feeling he can be a burden and there’s definitely a hint that he’s not always got her best interests at heart. Still, you spend a chunk of the initial stages helping her out of situations. In one section, for example, Aiden picks up a fire extinguisher that Jodie can’t reach and then uses it douse out flames.
There’s also plenty of the more subtle interactive type of gameplay that we saw in Heavy Rain, such as dancing by gyrating with the analog stick, opening a door or cracking open a can of beer. However, the in-your-face QTE sequences that we frequently encountered in Heavy Rain, have been ditched. Instead, the way you interact with the world is more subtly presented. Running through a forest in pursuit by the police you have to decide whether to jump, duck, move left or right based on upcoming obstacles, you don’t wait for a prompt. During fight scenes, you need to watch the movement of your attackers and respond according. A prompt is replaced by a brief slow motion moment where you have a split second to make a decision, choosing to block and attack by pushing the analog stick in the right direction.
With the UI not cluttered with constant requests to press circle to punch or tap on triangle frantically to escape, it feels much more intuitive and involving, more realistic in fact. Even though it can get a little frustrating when you’re trying to second guess some of the analag stick movements that need to be made (I played the CIA fight scene eight times before I was successful,) the result is a more immersive experience than Heavy Rain. I’ve seen a few complaints about this control scheme, but I feel it was only the unfamiliarity of doing something in a game that I’ve never done before and expecting it to take me by the hand that made it initially feel a little tricky, but it’s a mechanic that I soon get used to.
Much more familiar gameplay comes in the form of making choices through dialogue. You can steer Jodie’s personality and be as cooperative and guarded as you like. In the early stages you can shrug your shoulders when asked a question by a scientist or co-operate and engage in conversation. At a party, a man sits next to you on the couch and clearly wants to flirt with you. You have the option of being reserved or sociable, deciding to avoid questions about yourself or speak openly with your new found friend. This eventually turns into a slow dance and the chance for an even closer interaction. Beyond should be full of moments where players are forced to make choices.
Beyond: Two Souls will have 23 possible endings, but there’s not much in this initial playthrough that makes me think that anything I’ve done so far has sent me in a new direction. I guess that is coming. I replayed the party scene with Jodie and took another dialogue path, choosing to be reserved rather than sociable. The outcome was actually the same even though I refused his advances. In this case, the reserved option was just the less exciting one rather than having any impact on the story. In the final game, I’m hoping to see more instances where my decisions have impact. Nevertheless, these early conversations draw you into the world and build on Jodie’s character well, filling you in on vital back-story that you won’t want to miss.
Not that you’ll actually need much drawing in because graphically this is one of the most impressive looking games I’ve ever played. Facial animations are incredible. The emotional content of character’s words are reflected in a bead of sweat tricking down a forehead, the raising of an eyebrow or an infinite number of subtle gestures. But what Beyond does so much better than any other game is create eyes that appear almost human. When you stare into Jodie’s eyes you can almost feel the pain, loneliness and sadness she feels. You feel sincerity from characters, their fear, their anxiety and their anger all through their eyes and tiny facial movements. What Cage has done here is somehow take the famous proverb “eyes are the windows to the souls” and apply it into a videogame context to inject real emotion to his characters.
The Last Of Us was a stunning-looking game filled with fine detail in its scenery and impressive set-pieces, but Beyond: Two Souls edges it in terms of realism. There’s a scene where you need to work your way through a fiery building and you can almost feel the heat from the flickering flames due to the way its been designed to mimic a real-looking blaze. The attention to detail is phenomenal. It’s in the way that the rain pours and trickles down a window pane or the movement of the trees and leaves as Jodie runs through a forest. The game feels alive as do its characters and I don’t think I moved my eyes from the screen once during the playthrough.
Cut-scenes merge seamlessly into gameplay and it’s often impossible to tell the difference between the two. I’ve (Jodie) stood there motionless for a few sections before moving because I’ve assumed that I must still be in a cut-scene. Not so…it feels surreal to walk around with this level of detail, kind of like an out-of-body experience. Throughout my hands-on preview of Beyond I’ve shook my head at times and talked to myself out loud uttering phrases like “Look at this” and “You’ve got to be kidding” as the graphics really have blown me away.
Visually, Beyond: Two Souls is set to be the most immersive game of this generation but it’s not just about the freakishly-realistic eyes and painstaking attention to detail. The storyline already has me hooked, the characters have drawn me in thanks to some great voice-acting and a strong script, while the first four hours have already showed me enough gameplay to convince me that the PS3 has landed yet another very special game. A few hours in and I’m already its biggest fan.
Beyond: Two Souls is a PlayStation 3 exclusive and due for release on October 8 in North America and October 11 in Europe.