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Oh bugger, not again

The moment you take control of Lucas Kane, he has just butchered a stranger in the grubby bathroom of a diner in New York.  He has no idea why he did it.  All he knows is that he has to escape before someone comes in and sees the body, sees Lucas clutching a knife, and puts two and two together.  Your first instinct may be to run for the door, but if you charge straight out you crash into the waitress and her shrieking attracts the attention of a nearby patron - a cop.  He wanders over to investigate and that’s it, game over after just twenty seconds.  Next time, you may try a calmer approach.  Drag the body into the stalls and close the door, then mop up the blood that leaked across the tiles.  Remember to hide the knife too - the less evidence the cops have to work with, the harder it’ll be for them to find you.  But then the screen suddenly splits in two, and you get a view of the diner interior.  The cop just stood up, and the bastard’s on his way to the bathroom.  Did you forget to hide anything?  He’s only a few steps away when you realise your hands are still soaked with the dead man’s blood!  You rush over to the sinks, just as the cop reaches the door…

Fahrenheit, known as ‘Indigo Prophecy’ in the States, made a huge impact on its release in 2005.  The aim of developers Quantic Dream was to create a truly original adventure game, one which focused on the lives of the main protagonists and the way they deal with the situations they find themselves in.  Founder David Cage chose to dedicate huge amounts of his time to writing the story, so much so that the final script ran to over 2,000 pages.  Those extra hours really paid off.  The quality of the writing shines through as you become absorbed in Lucas’ world, and you’ll find you empathise with his plight from the very beginning, even going through the same mental and physical stress as him.  With every step he takes towards the truth behind the murder, the cops are closing in.

Lucas isn’t the only character you control in Fahrenheit - you will also play as the very people who are hunting him, officers Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles.  It’s an unusual concept, but one that somehow works, mostly due to the fantastic writing.  In one scene, Lucas is at work when the two officers pay him a visit.  At first you control Lucas as he is interrogated, desperately trying not to arouse any suspicion.  Then, when Lucas makes his excuses and goes to use the bathroom, you will take over as Carla and Tyler and try to find evidence linking Lucas to the diner murders.  Working against a character you just had control of may seem strange, but I found myself trying just as hard to convict Lucas as I did to save him.

Control is as basic as can be.  For the majority of the game you will use only the two thumbsticks on the controller (or mouse and keyboard for the PC version).  The left thumbstick moves your character,  while the right performs actions such as examining an object or talking to a character.  Conversations use a similar control method, where your response is selected by pressing the relevant direction on the right thumbstick.  Each response comes with a time limit, and the character you’re conversing with has a ‘suspicion meter’ which increases if you fail to respond in time, or respond incorrectly.  It’s a simple method but one which creates unbearable tension during interrogation scenes.

A number of action sequences are spread throughout the game, and these use two main control schemes.  First are the dreaded ‘quicktime’ sequences.  For anyone who hasn’t played games such as God of War and Resident Evil 4, these are well lauded for being ‘the unfair bits that occasionally pop up and kill you unexpectedly’.  A key sequence flashes up on screen and you must repeat the sequence immediately, or else you generally meet with a sticky and unpleasant death.  However, in Fahrenheit you do actually receive a warning before these sequences, and they’re not too tricky for anyone with reasonable reaction skills.  Just don’t attempt them after half a bottle of JD.

The second type of action sequence has you bashing one or two buttons as fast as possible, usually to perform a physical task such as lifting a heavy object.  They’re designed to leave you as exhausted as the character you control, and they succeed magnificently.  My fingers were whittled down to bloody stumps by the end of this damn game.  Some of the action scenes you encounter are truly breathtaking, such as a daring escape on foot down a busy highway, but this is also the central flaw with these sequences.  You’ll want to pay attention to what’s actually happening, but you won’t have time because you’re too busy punching in button sequences or grinding your knuckles against the controller.  At least any spectators will be suitably entertained, by both the action onscreen and your wails of agony.

Another gameplay function that has to be mentioned is the stress gauge.  Each character you control has one, and it acts as an indicator of their current state of health (from ‘neutral’ all the way down to ‘wrecked’).  If the stress gauge empties for any character then it’s game over - Carla and Tyler will hand in their badges, and Lucas will either give himself in or do himself in, depending on the situation.  Encounter a stressful event, such as discovering a dead body, and the meter will drop.  However, the meter can also be boosted by actions such as eating, sleeping, or - bizarrely - taking a piss.  You can even relieve stress by having sex, which led to a censorship row and subsequent cuts in the US version, as Fahrenheit was rather unfortunately released at the same time as the GTA: San Andreas ‘hot coffee’ scandal.

The graphics are not particularly impressive and have dated a little, but they fit their purpose and the expressions of the characters are still quite detailed.  This is no doubt down to the motion capture process which took place during production, with eight separate actors being used to create Lucas’ body movements and facial animations.  The sound, however, is still as remarkable as when I first played the game on release.  Quantic enlisted the help of Angelo Badalamenti for the score, a composer who is best known for his work with David Lynch.  The music fits each scene perfectly, which helps to convey the emotion of the characters and build tension.  I’d be happy to listen to the soundtrack in my car, which is a true testament to its quality.

The importance of Fahrenheit is that it was a bold attempt at something new in a time when the games charts were dominated by sequels and remakes.  Silent Hunter 3, Age of Empires 3, Call of Duty 2, Civilisation 4, Battlefield 2, GTA: San Andreas, the list goes on.  Great titles undoubtedly, but they don’t deliver the buzz that only something truly original can.  I got that buzz when I played Fahrenheit.  The game is not quite perfect - Cage himself admitted that the ending was a step too far in terms of unreasonable propositions, and the quicktime events did get a little repetitive.  We can only hope that Quantic Dream address these issues and add even more fresh ideas to their new title, Heavy Rain, which is due for release on the PS3 in summer 2009.  Until then, if you haven’t yet played Fahrenheit, I highly recommend you hunt down a cheap copy.