WPR Reviews: LA Noire
The time for writing this review was almost as long as the game’s development time, but finally, here is our review for Rockstar and Team Bondi’s LA Noire, available on Xbox 360 and PS3 and in the fall, PC.
Rockstar have a knack for games with long development times. Red Dead Redemption was first shown in 2005 but it wasn’t until 2009 that we started seeing what the game would eventually become. The same rings true for LA Noire. We saw some brief CGI footage and then for years nothing. Everyone assumed it was vaporware until it was re-revealed in Game Informer during March of last year. So with such a long development time, and questions being raised about the treatment of staff during that time, was the final game worth it?
In LA Noire you play as Cole Phelps, who became a beat cop after fighting in the Pacific Theater. He quickly rises through the police ranks to detective level and the game has you go through four desks of the Police force. You encounter many people through the game’s painstakingly accurate recreation of 1947 LA and as the game is essentially a homage to the Noir genre, everybody has something to hide.
After a few tutorial “cases”, you get your first real case as Cole is first on the scene of a murder outside a shop store. It’s here that you get introduced to all of the game’s mechanics. If I must iterate anything in this whole review, it’s that LA Noire is not GTA 1947 in the slightest. You could argue that the city of Los Angeles is a sandbox but honestly, there’s not much to do in it. There are 40 short side missions that can be found while you are on the job as well as famous landmarks and golden film reels to find, but you can actually spend nearly the entire game not interacting with it. There’s even the option to let your partner drive and skip the journey from one location to another entirely. It’s very linear, which in this case, works completely in the game’s favour. Yes, there’s combat and car chases too, but those are not the main focus of the game. Since I’ve brought them up, the third person shooting combat works well enough. It’s got all of the things you’d expect like wall hugging but there are no inherent problems with it. As for the driving, it’s much better than the floaty feeling in GTA IV. Cars feel responsive and it never feels like they’re out of your control.
In fact, I’d go as far as calling it an adventure game in a modern day skin. It may not be point and click, but all of the elements are there. Before he goes to interview a key witness, Cole stumbles around outside the shop looking for clues. There are a number of items at the crime scene that can be picked up, that are both related and unrelated to your case. Pick up an item and you can manoeuvre it to find important details, like blood, or the model of a handgun. Cole will handily point out if an item has no relevance but you’ll soon tire of picking up a beer bottle or a matchcase. All clues are then added to Cole’s logbook, which is basically the inventory system from every other adventure game.
This part of the investigation process is what makes the game great though. Doing actual “detective” work is encouraged because if you don’t find every clue (the game will play a sound when you have) or go to side locations (in this case, finding the owner of the handgun by using the model number) then you’ll lose out on potential leads, breaking down people in questions and ultimately, in a very game-like feature, your overall rating at the end of a case. It’s very satisfying to call out someone’s lie or finish a case with flying colours after you’ve done the work you didn’t necessarily have to do to progress in the game.
After rummaging about outside, Cole goes inside to interview the witness. In this first case, it tells you how to respond to the witness’s answers but you learn how the interview process plays out from there. If you’re reading this review then you’ve most likely heard about MotionScan, the facial capture technology Team Bondi used for LA Noire. You could dismiss it for being hyped but it really is an amazing piece of technology. I don’t want to sound like I’m making too much hyperbole, but it makes for some of the best character performances I’ve ever seen in a game. On second thought, that does sound like hyperbole. Oh well. Providing you have a good actor and a good script, then it’s truly special to see a performance in game that can actually match something in TV and film.
There’s the obvious things, like a person’s expressions. You can visibly see a character’s emotions when you ask them questions in a way that doesn’t look like a video game. Often their expressions is what are the keys to calling them out if they are lying. At the beginning of the game, it’s obvious, because their eyes are shifting all over the place and their voices are stilted, but by the time you get to the Vice desk, there are really slimy characters who only give subtle hints during their answers and it becomes a test of wits between you as Cole and the potential suspect of a case. The best part of this technology though are these subtle moments. No matter how impressive animation is in current video games, seeing someone make a subtle expression that just couldn’t be captured otherwise is what makes the technology stand out from normal animation. There is a problem though. Surprisingly the game rarely feels like the uncanny valley complex is in play, but as good as the MotionScan technology is, it’s limited by everything else around it, at least on consoles. By this I mean that the textures surrounding someone’s face are still blurry, or that a character’s body doesn’t move quite right or something as simple as hair being flat and plain unrealistic. It’s ambitious and I’d love to see it used in more games in the future, but on current consoles at least it hasn’t yet reached its full potential.
Anyway, back to the game. After questioning a witness, you can respond in three ways. You can either believe they’re telling the truth, doubt them (which is actually thinking that they’re lying but having no evidence) or plain old lying, in which case you need evidence to support it. Make a wrong response and it should change a case, but because ultimately Team Bondi don’t want you to fail, it only means that it takes a little longer to get to the end of a case. Still, there are significant flaws with these interviews and interrogations that break a game that tries so hard to be immersive. The actual responses you can make as Cole are simply too vague, because you have no idea how he’s going to respond. For example, I may doubt the answer someone makes and if I was in that position I’d try to squeeze them some more, but Cole will outright accuse them of murder or an affair or something ridiculous like that if I made the wrong response. There are other moments when you’ll present evidence during an accusation of lying that seems logical to us but in the game’s logic, it isn’t. It can be very frustrating when it feels like the game has cheated you out of a question because you aren’t being completely specific with what it wants. It’s a deep rooted problem in games and is most likely always going to be an issue when a game tries to get this immersive. Still, I think it would have been much better if Team Bondi had adopted the wheel of fortune approach that’s been used in Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol, where you would at least then have some idea about the kind of response Cole might make.
After arresting your suspect, you go back to the station where Police Captain Donnelly tests your interrogation skills so he can make you a detective. He’s a really great character, a high and mighty Catholic who finds it upon himself to bring the sword of justice down on sinners and although you don’t see him too much in the game, he always steals the show when he’s around. You get promoted to Traffic and work with your first real case with your new partner, Stefan Bekowsky. The game starts off strong with some real different cases that are genuinely fun to play and are filled with great writing and characters. I don’t want to say too much about the stories but if you get hooked then you quickly get into that whole mind frame of a 1940s Detective that Team Bondi were probably aiming for in development.
Three cases later and you get promoted to Homicide, where the game’s first major story arc begins. There’s a problem with that previous sentence though, which is three cases. The partners in the game are all well written and in my case, I actually begin to connect with the character. But then just as Cole’s relationship with his Detective partner grows, he’s picked out and promoted with the partner left in the dust. This wouldn’t be a big problem if it wasn’t for the fact that they are then hardly ever seen again. It seemingly feels like a waste of time building these characters up only to then never go back to them once Cole has been promoted. My favourite partner for example is Rusty Galloway, who’s your partner on the Homicide desk. You go through so much as a duo and then once Cole is promoted to Vice, you then only see him again briefly at the end. In fact, it was only when I played a DLC case that I found out what happened to Galloway and Bekowsky after Cole got promoted.
And as much as I liked the character of Rusty Galloway, the Homicide desk is the worst part of the game. The cases are not technically bad, but all of them contain the same elements within them, which makes them very repetitive. Someone’s been murdered, you check the crime scene, find some clues, go question a few people, have a car chase and bring some people in. The Homicide desk is the longest area of the game too and so it soon feels like a drag to get to the end of it. Don’t get me wrong, the last case on this desk is great but I can understand why some people got bored with the game by this point, because you spend about 5 or 6 hours going through cases that just don’t offer much that’s new or different each time. The best comparison I can make is the process which plagued the first Assassin’s Creed game. It’s not as repetitive as that game but some people may certainly tire of it sooner than others.
I’d say it was worth getting through though, because once you get promoted to Vice, the game displays its finest moments. Vice detectives operate in Hollywood and so you start seeing the real seedy people in LA from the “famous” people in the game to the gangsters and bent cops. It’s also at this point that the story comes together. Throughout the game you can find newspapers that show a short scene from a different plot and when you finish each case, there is a flashback to Cole’s days in the Army. At first it doesn’t make much sense but it all begins to connect in Hollywood. Because of the seedy nature, you interact with some real great characters and as I mentioned earlier, it becomes much harder to read people’s facial expressions or break them, because they’re simply much better liars and it’s often harder to provide evidence that contradicts those lies. Still, the game still feels the need to completely hold your hand so that you don’t mess up too badly. After the drag of the Homicide desk, Vice really renews your investment in the world of the game.
Since I just mentioned the seedy characters, I have a complaint to make about the “sandbox” as it were. To me, it just felt very dull and lifeless. This might be because this isn’t Rockstar’s work, it’s Team Bondi’s. When they were Team Soho, they worked on The Getaway and that had the same problem. On the one hand the attention to detail that they put into London in that and Los Angeles in this is seriously impressive and should in theory make the city feel even more alive, but the artistic choices just make it look mundane. That would be the case in reality, but given that this is meant to be a Noir piece, I would have expected the city itself to look more seedy. It hardly rains, most of the game takes place in the daytime and it never feels like there’s someone lurking in the shadows or dangers around every corner and alleyway. As is stands, it’s a good city for a sandbox but not good for the setting of a dark story about the seedy side of 1940s LA. In comparison, Liberty City and the West in GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption perfectly complemented the stories of both of those games.
The main plot device then continues into the Arson desk and the game wraps up with a conclusion that is a little weird story wise but still satisfying enough. There are other problems I had with the game’s story at some points but to go into them would spoil the game. What I will say is that although the game does have its problems, I still really enjoyed it. Adventure games are on a renaissance right now but I’m pleased to see someone take what would otherwise be traditional gameplay mechanics and experiment with them to fit them into this genre. It feels like a bold move to try and modernise adventure games in a way that has both positive and negative consequences. And to be blunt for a moment, it was just refreshing to play something with a setting and story that’s left field. Noir isn’t something that has been heavily tackled in video games, at least in recent years, and if I can play something that isn’t about a white buzz cut Caucasian male who’s fighting some evil and enjoy it then that can only be a good thing. It’s a similar feeling to what I had coming out of Red Dead Redemption. If you can stick with its flaws then you find a thoroughly enjoyable game that to me, is the direction I want to see AAA games go for in the future. I t comes to close to emulating the world of a HBO TV series (the episodic like nature of the cases and all of the goddamn Mad Men actors) or film like LA Confidential but the very nature of the platform on is holding it back until some bring spark finds the solutions to those problems. If those teething problems that faced both LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption are addressed then we could see something really special in a few years. Hopefully you’ll know by now whether this game is for you or not, because I think it’s not for everyone. You only have to look at the mixed opinions after the initial media lovefest to see that.
PS: This game will be good for you if you have a naked corpse fetish.