Everyone and their cousin Fred have weighed in on L.A. Noire, and I thought it best to give a more in-depth look at the game now that the smoke has cleared.
You have probably heard the basic premise of Rockstar’s latest interactive movie-game: As L.A.P.D. detective Cole Phelps, you sleuth and gumshoe your way around golden age Los Angeles, solving crimes, leaning on witnesses, chasing down hoods, and rising the ranks. And yes, you probably heard about the astonishing new facial graphics by Team Bondi and how this new feature is vital to ferreting out lies and leads for your investigations.
But where did Rockstar cut corners? Well, in the same places as usual, I’m afraid. Let’s break it down in categories:
A game’s immersive tale is always where I start. Contrary to popular belief, the story is what should make a game most interactive. And since this is the game that boasts Hollywood-worthy scripting and performance, one would expect the story to shine.
It wasn’t spectacular. Someone in charge of the narrative could not decide between one-shot episodes (revolving around individual crimes) or an ongoing plot involving corruption and intrigue. So, they decided to weave the two together by forcing macguffins, shoehorning in some split-second character development, and outright stealing devices from a rather good movie called L.A. Confidential.
I never got the chance to grow attached to Cole Phelps because I saw no real development. Oh, and Rockstar should really cut back on a very obvious crutch of theirs (MINOR SPOILERS HERE, PEOPLE. CUT TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID): When the main character has run out of steam, has been sidetracked, or just can’t continue, Rockstar simply shifts the hapless player over to another lead character. In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston died in a hail of gunfire, so we had to play as his braying ass of a son for the remainder of the game. Now, in L.A. Noire, Phelps is booted to the low-ranking Arson Desk in order to keep him away from a conspiracy. This is a good twist in the game that is wasted when the player must start playing as Jack Kelso, mere insurance investigator and all-around piss-pot. Sorry, but if the story can’t be contained to one playable character, change it. I don’t want to trade in my shiny new detective just when I got used to him, especially if I’m getting a backfiring Volvo in return.
Another lazy and unnecessary inclusion to the story is the cutscene of every victim getting stalked and killed before I get my investigation. This caused me to roll my eyes and mutter to myself like a real homicide detective, “Well, now I know the killer is a man of small to medium build and I know what the weapon was and the time of day she was killed. Thanks, cutscene. I thought I was gonna hafta search for clues, or some such crap.” This wouldn’t be so bad if the game was mainly a shooter, but the investigation stories are the driving focus, so I feel cheated by simple laziness.
To summarize (after all, I could write an entire article about this dense of a story), I found the individual cases exciting and immersive enough to keep playing. I was very disappointed with the over-arching plot. So, I’ll call it a draw, no points for or against.
Everyone loved the Team Bondi facial graphics in this game. They were new, impressive, and actually used with a purpose. Big thumbs up from me. I just wish the rest of the graphics could have gotten the same care and attention. When I played long enough, it didn’t seem to distract me, but right away I felt jarred by the photo-realism of actors’ faces superimposed on very stiff, garden variety motion-capture bodies. It was like taking an episode of The Sopranos from the necks up and layering it on top of the graphics from Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, which wasn’t bad at all but does seem lazy by comparison.
The city looks very specifically textured and appropriately active. NPCs in the street are dynamic and independent of the player and car damage is very specific. I can’t help but mention that all of this was very impressive three years ago when Grand Theft Auto IV came out, and this new game was probably easier to accomplish the same goal because of the pastel coloration, smaller virtual community, and less-detailed scenery.
One small note, and I’m not even sure this belongs in graphics discussion, but here it goes: When Cole gets into a fight, or a chase, or some situation where a man’s fedora would be knocked off his melon, it happens. Cole loses his hat and it looks so realistic and natural that it helps to sell the realism of this pulp novel. When it first happened, I got concerned that I lost my hat permanently and that the game had glitched. Then I walked up to my hat, helplessly, and Cole simply picked it up and plopped it back on his head. This doesn’t sound very remarkable, I know, but it was a simple detail that scored faith points from me as a player. I could rest easy knowing that my ever-present fedora could be swept away but would realistically return to me. And this didn’t happen in a static animation complete with a scripted one-liner. I very fluidly controlled Cole through the whole process of walking over, picking up the hat, and putting it back on. Sometimes it really is the little things.
I thought the majority of the graphics were good, but not great. The facial graphics won me over, though, and just like in hockey, the hat trick earns respect. That’s a big plus one for L.A. Noire.
Ooooh, boy. This was the big discussion for me. This game had great “investigation” devices like free-roaming the location for clues, referring to evidence to trap a suspect in a lie, and the notebook menu worked seamlessly to help me along without giving me the answer completely. There were problems: clues were too easy to find thanks to controller-vibrations when I walked over one. The interrogations had ambiguous choices for me to make (I decide to believe the statement, doubt it, or call it out as a lie. But what if I believe the statement is partially true? Should I believe it, or doubt it?). To be frank, I’ve played very similar games that handled the investigation gameplay better, but with shoddy graphics. But a Rockstar game has to be taken more seriously by gamers than a CSI or Law and Order game. Sad.
L.A. Noire isn’t just a mystery puzzle, though. Here lies the rub, bub. There are also car chases, foot chases, shootouts, and stealthy games of cat and mouse. And all of these are just plain mediocre. Shooting is the same Rage engine third-person affair with a bollocks cover system. Yep, same from GTA IV, same from Red Dead. Driving gameplay was clearly the lowest priority, which sucks so hard considering the gargantuan amount of driving that is required. All cars in the game maneuver too sensitively and are top-heavy. Traffic in the game is just terrible. In GTA IV, traffic was an obstacle to surmount; in L.A. Noire traffic is a nuisance that gets in your way at ALL times. Not just when it is least convenient (it does that), not just when you are trying to correct a steering error (it does that), but at ALL TIMES. Tailing suspects in stealth mode (both in-car and out) is frustrating. While the Assassin’s Creed games have perfected the blend-in mechanics, L.A. Noire included two useless choices for blending. They are useless because by the time you get into the proper position, your subject is around a corner.
Bottom line, I applaud the developers for trying to seamlessly integrate three or four different game genres into one genre-busting extravaganza. I mourn the fact that L.A. Noire doesn’t bust through genre borders so much as it hitchhikes and limps between them. Four bad fields of gameplay and one decent one do not make a kickass “something-for-everyone.” Additional demerits for recycling from GTA IV gameplay…again. This is a firm stance for me: one point against.
I’ll just wrap the smaller issues into one focus. The actors’ performances were pretty damn good for a game, aka not very bad for a film. I firmly blame the scriptwriters for Cole wildly switching between mild-mannered and pit bull, and I’d like to see more of Aaron Stanton. Some great stuff came from character actors like Greg Grunberg and Michael McGrady.
I should comment on a few limitations of the software that I found quaint. First off, there are three discs. This game comes on three discs, like a Playstation One game from 1997. More sophisticated games than L.A. Noire can fit on a single disc, so…what gives?
On top of that, the Free Roam mode is splintered into increments based on your progress through the story mode, and these increments happen to be separated by the discs. Did I mention that Free Roam can only be accessed from the main menu, as opposed to the traditional system (always in Free Roam, start a story mission by traveling to the start point)? That kind of takes a player out of the interactive immersion. It’s things like this that kept me from feeling like I was Phelps, or even feeling anything for Phelps.
Speaking of which, glitches and bugs galore! Several times I had to restart an entire investigation because my character just couldn’t run past that idiot bystander who stopped for a smoke. Games can infuriate me, and that’s okay. It just means that the media got an emotional response from me. But when a tech worker gets paid more than I do and his failure to catch a glitch is what infuriates me, we have a consumer-to-producer problem.
Some serious problems with this game could have been easily avoided if only developers could curb their need to make games cinematic with a capital C. If more focus went into L.A. Noire as a game instead of a good marketing trailer, it might be better remembered than it will be. As it stands, what could have been my favorite game yet…isn’t. But for all my bitching, it’s still pretty good.
If we tally up my arbitrary scoring, we get a vague sense that I really liked aspects of this game, even if it didn’t follow through on the implied awesomeness attached. I expect groundbreaking stuff from Rockstar because they bandy about that reputation in between blockbuster games. This game was fun, and I’m glad I played it, but L.A. Noire is not close to groundbreaking. It is more than mundane, but less than thrilling. I say, give it a try. If you aren’t interested by the end of the first two hours, you will not enjoy the rest. Really, it all comes down to a matter of taste.
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