L.A. Noire Review
L.A. Noire is unique. Strangely enough, however, it isn’t unique in the most literal sense of the word, as half of it utilizes a familiar – even outdated – gameplay mechanic, while the other half pushes the envelope and pours a strong foundation for the future. It’s such an odd mix of impressively progressive drama and functional yet relatively old-fashioned elements; it defies categorization and labeling. It lacks a cohesive sense of identity and is continually jarring and yet, we find ourselves immersed in a painstakingly crafted world of beauty and intrigue; a singular atmosphere; a memorable time in American history. And oh yes, it’s amazingly addictive. Despite the inherent clash of old and new, we can’t get enough of it.
The gameplay best characterizes the aforementioned contrast, but the graphics also represent a blend; a dichotomy where two distinct features seem mutually exclusive. On the one hand, there’s that unbelievable environment, which is beautifully designed and created, but doesn’t always boast immense polish and sharpness. Indeed, it’s an upgraded GTA landscape. The city is vast and awash in that vintage 1940s fashion; featuring nearly a hundred different vehicles, lots of NPCs, and an undeniably gorgeous presentation, it’s easy to get lost amidst the richness. But there are visual issues, like clipping and pop-in, and such drawbacks are prominent enough to remind us of some familiar limitations.
But on the high end of the spectrum is that much-lauded facial animation, generated by the great new MotionScan technology. In the world of video games, this is unparalleled. Nothing can touch it. I could provide you with an elaborate explanation but I believe one example says it all- when I first saw traffic desk captain Gordon Leary, I knew I recognized the face. After a little thought, I realized I had seen him in the movie “Life” with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It was Ned Vaughn, who had only a small role as the young Sherriff Pike. The movie is 12 years old; I instantly recognized his face, now older, in L.A. Noire. …I’m sorry, but I can’t think of a better representation of this thrilling new step in gaming.
Considering the massive voice cast of professional actors, it should come as no surprise when I say the voiceover performances are top-notch. We gave Red Dead Redemption our Best Acting award last year and at this rate, it seems only Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception can give L.A. Noire a run for its money in this category. So many actors and actresses; so many fantastic performances. The phenomenal soundtrack may not suit all tastes, which is understandable, and it may also sound limited in scope. But we have to understand that in this time period…well, they didn’t exactly have a whole lot of genres. The effects aren’t spectacular and even mundane in places, but the rest is so amazing, I almost don’t care.
From the start, the player feels as if the game is split into two distinct parts. The first is very GTA-like and has you driving around and exploring a lively, well painted environment. This is where you can explore, locate collectible items (like film reels and landmarks), drink in the vitality of this thriving metropolis, and field dispatch calls. The latter tasks you with resolving random issues cops typically face on a daily basis; this includes robberies gone wrong, domestic disturbances that flare up violently, and even suicide attempts. Now, in contrast to a Grand Theft Auto, there isn’t as much to do. But this is due to one incontrovertible fact that some miss: L.A. Noire does not rely on this structure.
In truth, the open-ended, free-roaming aspect really isn’t the focus. It’s why this part of the gameplay may feel a little empty, perhaps even devoid of certain necessary pieces. Furthermore, we’re using a mechanic that, while tried-and-true and battle-tested, retains eccentricities that are more glaring in this day and age. Granted, these are familiar shortcomings but they must be mentioned. For instance, the control feels just a touch slow and awkward, and I sometimes got the sense that Team Bondi put too much emphasis on movement physics. It seems too exaggerated. The driving also feels a little loose and yeah, those scripted chase sequences – where no matter what you do, the vehicle you’re chasing follows a set path – are back.
The latter is familiar to all GTA fans and for some, it’s just plain hilarious. For instance, during one canned chase sequence, I managed to push the chased vehicle into a parking lot, where the driver proceeded to drive into a wall over and over again. So I looked away for a minute, turned back, and he had magically disappeared…sadly – and funnily enough – only to reappear in another parking lot across the street, where he got stuck again. Yes, it’s amusing. And when obvious pop-in and other graphical issues rear their ugly heads, you just sort of accept it as part of the standard free-roaming adventure. And maybe it only seems all the more outdated due to the innovative and progressive nature of the rest of the game; the fact of the matter is, the control, in spite of the flaws, is solid and reliable.
And once we move beyond such recognizable quirks, the game shines brightly. The process of being a detective is a complex one that requires patience and intuition (yeah, I’ll get back to that in a minute). You will examine crime scenes, question witnesses, interrogate suspects, and record clues, locations, and people’s information in a handy notebook. You can talk to your partner if you’re feeling a little lost, and the controller will rumble when you’re near a possible clue. Haunting music will also play as you search and it’ll only die out when you’ve found every clue. All of this works very well; the cases are extremely well designed and written.
But it’s the personal part; the interview part that captures the player. This is where we ask a question, listen to the reply, and select Truth, Doubt, or Lie. At first, this seemed to be an awkward and uncertain process but I soon learned that in reality, you really do have to think like a detective. If you’re going to accuse someone of lying, you better have evidence to back it up, so be prepared to go to the notebook. This requires that you keep a close eye on all accumulated clues; you’re constantly thinking about a person’s reply and how it applies to the evidence. The lying is more about what they say, but for Truth and Doubt, their facial animations are important.
Only by analyzing both a person’s reactions and any information you have at your disposal can you hit upon the correct answer. Wandering eyes, facial twists and ticks, and other behavior that might be attributed to nervousness raises doubt in our minds. Truth usually comes with a direct gaze and genuine-sounding responses. Now, this is where the great voice performances come into play- these people are all acting, so all of it is fake. You have to be a good performer to portray genuine feeling; i.e., if the delivery of the lines was ham-handed, all of it would sound suspect. I found this to be a crucial aspect and the game succeeds nicely.
Experience earns you intuition points, which you can spend during your investigation. In a crime scene, you can spend a point to put all the clues on your map and during an interview, you can spend one to either remove a wrong choice or ask the community. You have to be a member of the Rockstar Social Club to do the latter, but it’s sort of like that Phone a Friend option in “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” You might want to save those intuition points for the tougher cases but the purists won’t want to use them at all, as they sort of feel like cheating. Still, it’s a very cool feature and after all, “intuition” is a part of the realistic process.
It isn’t perfect. When selecting Doubt or Lie, Detective Cole Phelps will sometimes get pushy and harsh in a situation that doesn’t call for such a reaction. And there are times when you just can’t decipher a look or a response. But isn’t that part of being a detective? This leads me back to those random crimes in the city; some will claim they can be repetitive or a whole lot of nothing, but again, isn’t this most indicative of the job? The game rewards the patient and observant. You can’t be driving like a maniac; any inflicted damage on the city or its inhabitants will be reflected in a report upon the current case’s conclusion. It’ll also tell you what you might’ve missed. So if you want to be “Valorous,” you have to be – no doubt about it – a public servant.
The worst thing that can be said about L.A. Noire is that it lacks a sense of identity. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It really is half one thing and half another. But even the half that gets some criticism is good, if not great, and the other half is just plain mesmerizing. The writing and dialogue is second-to-none in video games, the detective work is fulfilling and even addicting, the atmosphere and environment is unbelievable, the performances can be downright stunning, and those faces alone warrant a purchase. The control can feel a little sluggish and the driving a little a loose, there are canned chases, and the interview process does have a few kinks, but the end result is a fantastic accomplishment. If we adopt a forward-thinking attitude, it’s this accomplishment that stands apart:
If we consider this new facial animation technology, we recognize that we’re ushering in a new level of humanity in the realm of interactive entertainment. Interpreting faces and body language is what we do every single day. It adds much of the luster that makes us emotional, sensitive creatures. Hence, the possibilities for any game that involves a story are that much broader.
The Good: Facial animation is revolutionary. Voice acting is superb. Immersive environment and atmosphere. Great writing and dialogue. Case solving can be addictive. Solid overall gameplay and presentation.
The Bad: Small graphical problems. Old-fashioned gameplay issues like scripted chases. Control feels a little cumbersome.
The Bad: “Car driving repeatedly into a wall…that’s unfortunate.”
5/19/2011 Ben Dutka