Friday 20 May 2011

Today's Review: L.A. Noire

When Rockstar release a game, it's pretty much expected to cause a buzz nowadays. Their last two major releases, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, have been critically acclaimed for their deep size, storylines and graphical quality. So when Rockstar announced the release of L.A. Noire there was enough to be excited about that it was a film noir style game based in 1940s L.A.

Then some gameplay got revealed. Everyone was blown away again. L.A. Noire uses a new type of facial scanning technology, that literally puts the actor into a game. No longer do they just lend their voices, but each and every smirk, eyebrow lift arm movement to their on-screen character. This is where the crux of the game lies, and it's a very intriguing spin that has never been explored to this extent in a video game before.

If you love Rockstar games solely for your ability to go on a rampage and murder innocents and policemen alike, then you might want to rethink what you're picking up L.A. Noire for. You play as a cop this time, working your way up through the LAPD, taking on different cases over several departments. Sure, you can free-roam around the massive city, taking cars and hitting pedestrians if you like, but you politely ask people for their cars instead of punching them in the face, and running someone over pretty much just gives you some text saying "That was naughty, we'll tell you off later".

L.A. Noire is essentially what you'd get if you took GTA, removed all the mindless violence and stuck a Phoenix Wright game in its place. If you're not familiar with Phoenix Wright, it's a DS game series in which you explore crime scenes, find evidence, and present said evidence in court to disprove testimonies and find the right perpetrator for the crime. I've constantly been reminded of Phoenix Wright as I've been working my way through L.A. Noire, and since I love those games it's no bad thing. But L.A. Noire takes it so much further. Instead of just reading testimonies and presenting clear evidence for contradictions, you have to examine every character's facial expressions, body movements, and tone of voice, and get the option to either accept what they say as truth, push a little harder, or go all out and tell them they're lying, with the corroborating evidence.

Throughout the first few cases, I became a little disillusioned with this system. There's a grace period after they're talking in which the person sits and exhibits behaviour. It seemed if they looked straight at you, they were telling the truth. If they looked away a little, they needed a little push, and if they were not looking at all they were most likely lying. Easy peasy, I thought. My Psychology degree is worth something after all. But then I got a bit further and found it a lot tougher. You have to really examine everyone as they're talking, take into account the situation they're in, and only then can you make a properly informed choice.

But don't think that blindly guessing will get you through okay. If you accuse a suspect of something they didn't do, they can get angry, which could lead to them not providing you with a clue you could need to find the real perp. If you don't find enough evidence or get the right information out of people, you can get a very shitty case rating and a bollocking from your superior. It's possible to miss whole scenes, or get different ones altogether. For example, in once case I managed to head off some thugs raiding an apartment and give them what for, but the next time I played they'd left by the time I got there. In another I was chasing a cab through the streets via information I was getting over police radio. Of course, I crashed my car beyond repair and lost the trail, but after restarting I didn't get a lead on the cab at all, and it turns out it was important to really getting to the root of the case. One suspect ran and got charged, but a friend of mine never saw im running at all. It seems like multiple playthroughs are required to really get the most of how the cases pan out.

I'm probably just less than halfway through the game, and so far most cases seem quite unconnected, apart from a potential serial killer. But old people's names are starting to crop up, so it seems that everything will come together through underlying plot points to deliver a kick ass second half. I don't think that's too much to ask either. This is Rockstar, and the story lines of GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption were just as engrossing, with all the recurring characters and twists and turns of an awesomely written 40 hour movie.

In this respect, L.A. Noire isn't without its faults. Sure, the character work is amazing, the idle banter in driving scenes is as great as always. But in the end it plays out a little too much like a movie. You get your case, go to a place, find some things, talk to someone, and repeat until you finish the case. The evidence collecting is basically walking around and pressing a button when your controller vibrates, and the interrogation is listening to someone talk and then pressing a button. There's not too much playability involved in the story so far, apart from the odd car chase and driving scenes, and you can even get your partner to just drive you places automatically. But hey, Heavy Rain was all about pressing some buttons now and again, and that was an awesome game. And with the Rockstar team behind L.A. Noire they really make up for the lack of action by really pulling you into the story. Instead of being a boring experience like it sounds, it's actually really refreshing having to think and observe your way through a game instead of shooting blindly.

But for the impatient among us, there are added Street Crime missions to break up the story. You can answer various radio transmissions to shoot down a petty criminal with a gun or chase someone through the city streets. I haven't taken too many of these missions so far as they tend to contribute to the collateral damage that can affect my case rating, but mostly these are a bit unfulfilling. You go somewhere, shoot someone, call in someone to take away the body and have a sad look on your face, which makes me think things could have gone differently. Every time I tried to take someone alive though, they just pistol whipped me in the face when I got close. Death it is for you then buddy.

So yeah, L.A. Noire is awesome. So far. And I haven't even experienced the potential I'm sure the story has. So I'm going to carry on playing with it now. There's evidence to be found, even if the game makes me pick up twice as much rubbish per crime scene than actual clues. "Hmm, this empty bottle could be important. Oh wait, it's not. Just like the other ten I've picked up are not."

My rating: 5/5

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