Games 3/2/10: Heavy Rain, MLB 2K10, Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx

Heavy Rain
For: Playstation 3
From: Quantic Dream/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature

Early on, when it becomes clear just how good “Heavy Rain” is at doing the unique little things it does, it also becomes clear that this might be the first video game capable — to a stunningly unsettling degree and under the cover of complete banality — of making players feel like a lousy parent.

The guilt is somewhat temporary, if only because “Rain” periodically shifts the player between four characters — two detectives, a photojournalist and a fourth person whose role won’t be specified for spoiler-proofing purposes — with ties to a story centered around a serial killer and a race to find his latest abductee alive.

But “Rain” has a knack for using small details and interactions to engender some surprisingly strong connections to all four characters, and those connections prove invaluable toward transforming a reasonably conventional suspense thriller into something pretty special. That some of them are borne out of completely pedestrian moments — one character helping his son with his homework, another reaching for his inhaler during an asthma attack — speak to the game’s striking attention to detail.

The connection between player and characters appears to be “Rain’s” primary objective, and the game goes to unconventional gameplay lengths to fulfill its mission. The camera perspective harkens back to “Resident Evil’s” formative years, and “Rain’s” walking controls — hold R2 to walk and use only the left stick to control all movement — fall similarly in line. It’s initially jarring and, in certain tight spaces, clumsy.

But in the context of everything else, it also makes sense. “Rain” uses the rest of the controller for a myriad of small, context-sensitive movements — a measured pull on the right stick to sip coffee without spilling, a quick twirl to open an envelope, a tilt of the controller to yank the steering wheel during a skid down the highway, timed alternate presses of L1 and R1 to straighten out a character’s left and right feet while he climbs a slippery mud hill.

“Rain” handles the majority of these actions through time-sensitive onscreen prompts, which on paper sounds like a nightmare to gamers already fed up with developers’ overuse of the technique.

But where most games seem to spit out random prompts without any rhythm, “Rain” maps them so thoughtfully as to change the entire tenor of the mechanic. The input choices make actual sense, and “Rain” uses numerous techniques with regard to combinations, timing and speed of execution to match the situation on the screen. The attention to detail, once again, makes all the difference.

These scenarios have additional significance because, unlike almost every game ever, “Rain” only flashes a “Game Over” screen when the story ends. Failed challenges and foolish decisions with regard to the story’s many moral and dialogue choices can kill a playable character, and if a character dies, the story still continues.

“Rain’s” four characters face some 20 or so combined fates that can lead to dramatically different stories for different players, and it often isn’t the obvious decisions and scenarios that can take the storyline down a completely different road. Dare we say it again? Attention to small details sometimes makes all the difference, and that’s true of the player as well as the game.

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MLB 2K10
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Playstation 2, Windows PC, Sony PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s usually a pretty funny sight when a major league pitcher completely fouls up and accidentally launches a pitch six feet over the catcher’s head.

But Visual Concepts seems to think it’s downright hilarious, because it happens more times in one game of “MLB 2K10” than it likely will throughout the entire 2010 season.

To be fair, “2K10’s” pitching controls, which use right-joystick gestures to control the speed and movement of each pitch, are considerably more user-friendly than “2K9’s” system. Conceivably, it’s also more fun to pitch this way than by hitting buttons and navigating meters.

But just like in “2K9,” the margin for error is absurdly fickle. Miss the gesture by a tick, and even a fastball sails out of the strike zone. Miss it by two ticks, and it flies wildly over the catcher’s head. The degree between a lights-out pitch and a wild pitch is unrealistically small, and players who lack surgeon hands are bound to pay unfairly because of it.

The continued problems with pitching underscore the story of “2K10” as a whole. It’s better than its broken predecessor and has some nice overdue features — most notably the My Player mode, which apes Sony’s MLB game by allowing players to experience a professional career from a single player’s perspective. But too much sloppiness carries over to call this a return to the series’ better days, and because those new features don’t fix the regressions the series has endured over time, they feel the same effects.

The best news about “2K9” is that the aggravating (and occasionally hilarious) bugs that often changed a game — disappearing outfielders, fielders catching balls with their face, baserunners running to who knows where — appear squashed.

But numerous weird instances remain — including, for instance, baserunners’ bizarre propensity to slide into first far too often. Occasionally, the runner gets up and inexplicably rounds first without getting tagged out even though the first baseman has the ball. Once in a while, he’ll slide into first before circling the bases after hitting a home run.

Strange occurrences like these don’t cripple “2K10’s” gameplay so much as damage the illusion, but when something so instantly and continually out of place in “2K9” shows up yet again in “2K10,” it speaks either to the developers’ disinterest in refinement or its inability to understand its subject matter. That, in turn, kills hope that real problems — including A.I. pitchers picking off would-be stealers with psychic accuracy and the aforementioned wild pitch bonanza — will ever get a patch.

Per tradition, “2K10” allows players to adjust difficulty sliders to somewhat mitigate these problems, but players who do so also lose access to all unlockable achievements, trophies and virtual baseball cards — as if “2K10” is punishing players who just want to take extra steps to enjoy their $60 purchase rather than fight it.

As always, those who play with friends or online will benefit the most, if only because both teams have the same issues to overcome. Questionable gameplay aside, “2K10” at least delivers in terms of features, with full-featured online leagues and the fun highlight reel editing and sharing tool back for another season.

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Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

A lot of people weren’t thrilled with the second “Borderlands” downloadable pack, which felt more like a self-contained (and oppressively difficult) extra mode than a seamless extension of the game world. For those folks and everyone else who loves that world, this latest pack is more like it. “The Secret Armory Of General Knoxx” introduces a huge new plot of frontier to explore, and with that comes new instances of everything — guns, vehicles, enemies (hello giant mechs), main/side missions, weird characters, dark humor — that make the main game great. The level cap receives an overdue boost, from 50 to 61, and with that comes new privileges with regard to abilities and rare weapon types. All the rewards naturally carry back into the rest of the game, and per “Borderlands” tradition, Gearbox encourages multiple playthroughs by dialing up the difficulty and payoff the second time around. Just be sure to have your wits about you before digging in: Gearbox recommends players enter “Knoxx” at around level 35, which means beating the main game’s storyline first is advisable. “Knoxxx” won’t stop anyone who wishes to dive in sooner than that, but it also won’t scale down its difficulty to accommodate low-level characters, so consider this your fair warning if you’re feeling bold.