First Attack, L.A. Noire: By William Milby
L.A. Noire is an extraordinary game from many different aspects: from the ludicrous development time and astounding working conditions; to the unparalleled face scanning tech and innovative game-play. This game is by no means normal. And of course, with anything that is a combination of those things, there are bound to be problems.
When I first saw the game demoed to me (it was non-playable) in Boston at PAX East 2011, it was easily the most impressive game at the show. And since that point, it was on the top of my watch list. So after playing through the game, what do I think? Simply put, it’s a game that was flawed in the concept stage, and because of this one flaw, it could not live up to my expectations.
How about we start with some positive points? When it comes to the world and graphics. you really have to give them props. The graphics are very good (I personally played in black and white the whole way through). The city is meticulously recreated, but obviously it is not 100% accurate. To anyone who doesn’t know better, they would swear that they were transported to the L.A of yesteryear. The world feels alive with action in itself and reaction to yourself. People honk, use turn signals, get in accidents and generally feel…. like they were ripped right out of Grand Theft Auto IV. Not that it is a bad thing, obviously. If Team Bondi had to create their own engine as detailed as that, it would have taken them another four years. Though with how long it has taken, it would not surprise me if they tried at some point. The setting is also superb, it gives off the vibe of the 40’s without feeling cliche or caricature-like. The way the actors, talk, act, relate and look is perfect. The city feels the same way, seeing all this new life springing up in the city of America’s future. All the wonderful urban re-development makes you feel like you are seeing into the future, seeing the dream when you think of what it is now (minus all the gang wars and the interstate road rage). All of this great atmosphere definitely culminates to make the post war optimism get to your core.
Despite the uncanny valley issue people were worried about, I was really able to appreciate the detail (B&W helped I believe). The faces emote very convincingly. Of course the actors ham it up sometimes to make it a little easier to get questions right. However, the emotions, though exaggerated, are often very true to life. They do start to get more subtle as the game progresses to increase the difficulty. Often finding that tell in their face is not about their emotion as a whole. For example, if a suspect or person of interest lies they might make a certain face, but if they lie again in another question, the tell will still be there, but the face might be different overall. You might often find yourself looking up multiple times to study and restudy the face (which does result in seeing the loop of animation on occasion) wondering whether to go against your instinct or not. I can say that for the most part my instinct was correct, and that is pretty impressive. The fact that a game can subconsciously suggest things that you cannot always put your finger on is astonishing.
Now since animation is so tightly woven into game-play I’ll go ahead and talk about how the game-play struck me. Having the notepad be the hub for your entire game was genius. It helps convey that feeling of realism while still making it feasible to feel like a “real detective”. The notepad essentially supplements your memory and serves as your mental butler throughout the game. It will record faces, names and even details that probably are not necessary at all. But of course that is how it would be in real life, you have to record the noise and then use the process of elimination to determine whether it will be needed or not. And that is where the game is the hardest. It will often be easy to spot a lie, the hardest part of the game is reasoning to yourself and figuring out which piece of the evidence you have gathered will be the piece to call him out with. I sometimes wish that the game would tell you whether you had the right piece or not in your evidence collection at all. You might find that you missed that piece of evidence later and did not even realize it. Then you just wasted 10 minutes trying to figure out an impossible problem. But I won’t hold that against the game. I will however say that your character will end up using a piece of evidence completely opposite to how you would have used it, and sometimes the evidence won’t actually be incriminating at all. This is a very hard complaint to put in words, but what would fix this is if when you hovered over a piece of evidence it gave you the opening line of your dialogue. It is kind of like in Mass Effect where you select a phrase but the actual dialogue is completely different in tone.
The actual real time part of the game which mostly consists of driving and running is okay, though for the most part feels unnecessary. The action is similar feeling, okay, but mostly unexciting and over before you know it. It is almost like they came up with a detective game but were noncommittal. In fact, the parts of the game that feel forced the most are very Rockstar-esque (driving, shooting, side-missions). It is not that I find these things boring in games. I loved every part of Red Dead Redemption, but here it feels like they are only serving to dilute what the game is really about. Thankfully they do offer the option to skip out on the driving portion of the game except when there are car chases (which almost always feel disjointed). You can even skip the shooting portions if you want, which only adds to that feeling that they know what the real game is here, but choose to add these “other bits” anyway.
So what is the major flaw that I mentioned in the beginning? Well a lot of it has to do with precedence that Heavy Rain (one of my favorites from last year) set and therefore set this game to be doomed to disappoint even before it came out. Please do not take this as a dismissal of the game by any means. I absolutely had fun with it and would recommend it to anyone. However, because it was in development for so long it was not able to glean ideas from other more recent games. Mostly I’m referring to the branching story paths and the ability to fail in games such as Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. This game literally begs for those abilities but they simply are not there.
When you fail or are on the verge of failing in Heavy Rain specifically you get a sense of devastation or fear that only a few games deliver. Even though Team Bondi tried its hardest to make an involving and intriguing it game, it just lacks the punch. On a few occasions I played through a case so poorly that I most definitely should have failed but for some reason the game feels that it’s necessary for you to always catch the bad guy. And in many cases, L.A. Noire, in order to service the big picture literally makes you fail, even though it gives you five stars for nabbing someone who had nothing to do with anything. And I am not talking about the times in the game where you have a choice between picking one suspect or the other. They definitely have a peculiar emotional impact, but also their own problems. The potential impact of these “choose your own criminal” scenes are often smashed by the fact that the chief will give you crap for not picking the suspect he wanted even if the evidence pointed to the other guy. Getting pressured from the top could be compelling, but I often found myself frustrated when this happens because the game gives you no warning that you would get crap for it in the first place. It is like when your significant other gets frustrated and gives you the silent treatment and you cannot figure out why, only to find out later that they thought they were dropping pretty clear hints and you missed them.
Once you realize that you will progress through the story no matter what happens you realize that you are less playing a game and more watching a movie. And when left only to its story the game does not impress all that much. The acting is top notch, but the story, much like heavy rain tries a little too hard. But where this fell flat, Heavy Rain made you feel like you actually controlled destiny.
And nearly for that alone, I am giving giving L.A. Noire a 4 out of 5
4 out of 5
Second Opinion, L.A. Noire: By Magnus Risebro
Ever since GTA IV, Rockstar has strived to be The Serious Games Company, and while Team Bondi might be the true developer of L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s unmistakable trademark can be found all over the game.
L.A. Noire’s – and Rockstar’s – distinctive creative sensibilities are seldom seen in most titles. Here is a company that is not afraid to make one go through long sequences of plot-exposition with limited gameplay. Like Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV before it, L.A. Noire’s opening hour is mostly spent in cutscenes and calm trips from A to B while plot, mood and setting slowly unwind themselves to you. One could argue that this type of game-design poorly utilizes the particulars of the medium, and in a sense that would be correct. Anything about L.A. Noire that can be described as “gameplay” is not remarkably great by any standards. The driving, while certainly solid, could never support a game on its own merits, and the same could be said for the cover-based gunfights, which are simplistic, and also offer little meat on the gameplay bone.
Those are two of the four noteworthy gameplay elements of L.A. Noire, the two – more significant – others being the investigation and the questioning. Together, these two combine to shape something like an old-skool point ‘n click adventure game. Mostly taking place in crime scenes, “investigation” largely means strolling about until you stumble across an item one can examine. “Questioning” on the other hand, are similar to Mass Effect-conversations, only you go by evidence (picked up during investigations) and facial expressions to determine wether to accuse someone of lying, doubting them, or accepting their statement as truth.However, these point ‘n click-y parts of L.A. Noire, are hardly fantastic either.
Never is there a puzzle clever enough to rival those of games like Phoenix Wright. Seldom does one experience the delight of a solution popping in your head after hours of beating it against the wall. Cases in L.A. Noire are simply not put together with anything approximating the ingenuity and intricacy of, say, a Portal test chamber or a level in Braid.
But in the likely event that you will have gazed at the bottom of this page and seen the concluding score, you will know that L.A. Noire is a tremendous product nonetheless. This is because the streamlined nature of every gameplay element beautifully slots them right into an astoundingly powerful and intriguing narrative. A story of realization, both of self and the world, L.A. Noire depicts post-WW2 Los Angeles with the kind of credibility and attention to detail that rivals, and even surpasses, fellow Rockstar greats RDR and GTA IV.The protagonist Cole Phelps is a disciplined war-hero returning from the pacific campaign to an L.A. where corruption and violence are everyday occasions on its sun-baked streets and seedy back-alleys.
The character-development Phelps experiences during the game is handled with tact and elegance, and is a smooth arc rather than a sudden, contrived spike. That’s not to say there are no twists in Phelps’s tale, but their seeds are subtly planted hours in advance, ensuring they feel like natural yet unexpected developments rather than cheap cop-outs. The plot follows Phelps’s journey, from his humble beginnings as a patrol-cop to star-detective and – as a result of those aforementioned plot-twists – to places I won’t reveal in this review. While the conclusion occurs suddenly, and without quite enough closure, the story is sure to stick in your mind long after the disc has stopped spinning in your console.
Of course, L.A. Noire’s narrative – and focal gameplay element – would be handicapped were it not for what is indisputably the best facial-animation tech around. Team Bondi spent years (according to recent, controversial reports, excruciating years) developing the technology on display here.
A complex setup featuring lots of cameras and, most likely, alien technology from the future, has resulted in faces that, while not being uncannily photo-realistic, communicate emotion very clearly.
The questioning parts of the game hinge completely on this technology working as intended, as spotting a quick and subtle look to the side, a slight waver in a smile, or a raising of the eyebrow often decides between success and failure.
Not to mention, The digital rendition of 1940’s L.A. is a sprawling landmass every bit as full of detailed nooks and crannies as Liberty City. There is little in the mould of secrets and side-quests to be found, but that is entirely understandable given the structure of the game. You are always in a mission, so classifying L.A. Noire as a “sandbox game” and expecting the standards of that genre is misguided. GTA, this is not. L.A. Noire is truly a linear game, it just happens to be set in a non-linear environment.
Some games, such as fighting games, multiplayer-focused games, etc, are best served by strictly moderating the complexity and presence of the story. L.A. Noire is a rare case of the opposite; a game that works brilliantly because its gameplay elements never interfere with its narrative. Though car-chases, shootouts, fist-fights, and point ‘n clicking all feature, they are all well-picked spices on a masterfully cooked dish: Greatly complimentary, but not central.
5 out of 5.