Reviews After The Hype: L.A. NoireAugust 3, 2011
When games are first released, they become victims of their own hype. A highly-anticipated game that didn’t quite deliver ends up being the worst game ever. Conversely, a game that exceeds expectations in any way seems to be hailed as the most amazing thing to happen to video games. It’s only when we get some distance from that hype that we can start to see the games as they are. That is my goal with these reviews. These are my Reviews After The Hype.
It was a sweltering summer night in the City of Angels, the kind that made a man wish for a cold beer and a working fan in his office. I went over to my window and held the blinds open with my finger. Even though it was getting late, and even though the pavement still felt like a griddle in this heat wave, I could see people going about their business. I thought about my days as a cop on the beat and was thankful that I didn’t have to be down there, dealing with the drunks, the vagrants, and the violent. I was a private detective now, and tailing a cheating spouse beat the hell out of inspecting murder scenes. That life was behind me. And that’s when she walked in. All legs and poise in a black dress that would have been conservative if it had been worn by any other dame. She said her name was Lenore, and for a moment I was transfixed by her eyes, crystal blue pools of radiance. Then I began to look closer, and realized that Lenore was not everything she appeared to be. I saw the wrinkles that she had tried to conceal, noticed the gray in her hair. From a distance she was still a looker, no doubt about it. But get close to Lenore and the façade began to fracture.
L.A. Noire is a perfect example of a game that makes an incredible first impression that begins to fade as the game goes on. From the mood-setting title and selection screens, I was put right into the proper mindset to enjoy this open world detective story set in 1947 Los Angeles. This game simply oozes atmosphere and presentation, and it would be difficult for all but the most cynical to not be impressed by this game at first look. Team Bondi has crafted an impeccable replication of ’40s L.A., thanks to meticulous detail and research into the city itself, eerily realistic character models, and a soundtrack that matches each moment in the game with a perfect tone.
Person of Interest
You play as Cole Phelps, a decorated hero of World War II that has recently returned home and become a member of the LAPD. Your tutorial will see you controlling Phelps as a normal beat cop, but you’ll quickly be promoted to detective. The game is broken down into different “desks”, beginning with Traffic and progressing through Homicide, Vice, and Arson. While there’s an overarching story, the desks tend to be pretty separate and contained. Phelps will be given a new partner and captain in each section of the game, and your experience will vary depending on your feelings of these characters. Personally, I found most of the main characters (Cole most of all) to be a bit on the bland side. There are some notable exceptions, but it should be pointed out that this isn’t a Rockstar developed game, and the depth of character we’ve come to expect from Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption is not present here.
This lack of character is the source of my main gripe with L.A. Noire, and I’d like to get it out of the way before I gush over the elements that are so right with this game. Cole Phelps comes across as a bland, boring person. He’s the quintessential White Knight, and while that is something to be lauded, the way he tends to react to other people and go about his business is confusing and shallow. He seems to have contempt for all of his partners from the get-go, and for a majority of the game he is closed off to everyone, including the player. His backstory is told through flashbacks to the war, but these paint him in an even less favorable light. We rarely see Phelps when he’s off duty, and these moments do nothing to give us insight into his character or motivations. This is exacerbated during the admittedly excellent interrogation sections (more on that later), where his temper will swing wildly from calm and understanding to combative and accusatory. At the 5 hour mark, I told a friend that I didn’t know if I was supposed to like Cole Phelps. Now that I’ve finished the game and taken almost a week to think about it I honestly still don’t know if I was supposed to like him. I can’t say that I did, and if I was supposed to feel empathy for this character then I’d say that Team Bondi failed in that respect.
CSI stands for Crime Scene Interesting
Where they didn’t fail is in the investigation and interrogation aspects of the game, which make up the bulk of the 20 hour adventure. Pretty much all of your cases will involve a dead body at a crime scene, and it’s your duty to inspect the area thoroughly. If you’ve spent any time at all watching police procedural shows you’ll likely have a good idea of what you need to check out when you get to the crime scene, but the devil is in the details, and that’s where the real work begins, and also where the game gets a little arbitrary. Your controller will vibrate when close to something that can be examined, and a chime will play. If it’s something important, you’ll be prompted to inspect it closer, which gets a little intrusive for the gamer that likes to figure things out on his or her own. Of course, only having the game react when you are near a clue would make things too easy, so there are all manner of red herrings strewn about. This leads to some slightly annoying moments where Cole will kneel down to inspect a bottle, only to decide it is nothing. I honestly don’t know how this could have been done differently, but it makes inspecting the crime scenes more tedious than I would have liked, compounded by the fact that Cole moves mechanically, and has a difficult time with turning around or navigating corners.
Gathering clues will lead you to various persons of interest, and this is where the game shines. You’ll of course get to question witnesses on the scene, but the most satisfying bits are when you’re in that interview room at the precinct and you’re grilling a suspect. This is done by listening carefully to what the POI has to say and checking it against your evidence and what you already know. Body language also plays a big part here, helped immensely by the amazing tech that went into this game. The facial animation in L.A. Noire has to be seen to be believed, and it’s quite a bit ahead of what has been done in the past, making last year’s Heavy Rain seem quaint by comparison. After one of your questions is answered, you will have to decide if you think the suspect is telling the truth, lying, or if you doubt them. Doubting them seems like the more moderate approach, but this is where Cole’s character steps on things, as he will usually launch into a very angry accusation, even with people that clearly have nothing to do with the crime. If you suspect the person of lying, you’ll need to back it up with evidence. This is where the real challenge comes in, as it can be difficult to know exactly which piece of evidence you’ll need, or if you even have it in your notebook. I discovered during the course of my play- through that, as much as I love a good detective story, I make a simply awful flatfoot.
The X-Uncanny Valley?
I can’t stress enough what a technical achievement Team Bondi has with L.A. Noire. The performance capture technology used here is far beyond what the best in the business have done before, and I honestly don’t think this game would have succeeded without it. So much of the interrogation hinges on being able to read people’s emotions and, while the actors tend to play things a little too “big” sometimes, it is impressive, nonetheless. Being able to detect those sly smiles or nervous eyes is key to this game, and it is pulled off with aplomb. Sadly, while the characters of L.A. Noire are so close to escaping the ubiquitous Uncanny Valley from the neck up, the neck down is an entirely different story. The body animations, especially the hands, tend to look robotic and unconvincing, which brings down the performance of the characters as a whole. It would look fine in any other game, but paired up with such photo-realistic faces, these minor animation problems are put under a microscope. Fortunately, these characters are put into a highly detailed backdrop, so any niggling issues I may have had with the way they animate are mitigated by this stunning depiction of Los Angeles. Walking around landmarks like Union Station in 1947 is a real treat, and as a person that has only been to L.A. a few times it was amazing to travel to places that I knew pretty well. This is easily one of the best cities to be crafted for an open world game.
Less is more
All that is fine and good, but I came to a point in the game where I felt like I had had enough of L.A. Noire and wanted it to end. The only problem was that I was only at the halfway point. While it is a very special gaming experience to do those first cases, find clues, ask questions, and chase the suspects, it becomes very repetitive by the 10 hour mark. As interesting as the cases are, they start to follow a very predictable flow, and I almost knew what was coming next, before the game led me there. You’ll also be able to respond to random police calls, and these also start strong before becoming tired. I loved the feeling of flipping the siren on, racing to respond to a shooting in progress and then taking down the perps. But it always seemed like these “random” calls would pop up on the opposite side of town from where I was, leading to a painfully long drive. And there was something odd about the enormously high body count that would pile up in these missions. I know that it’s a game and there needs to be action, but L.A. Noire would have benefited by having about 50% less shootouts.
If L.A. Noire had ended at that halfway point, I may have given it a 4.5. As it is, the game wore out its welcome with repetition, an unlikeable protagonist, and a story that never really pays off. I appreciate a game that offers a lot of content for the money, but in this case, I feel that a little bit of Noire goes a long way. I’d love to see a sequel some time (Chicago Noire, anyone?), but if that happens I think Team Bondi needs to learn how to close the deal on a good story and know how to quit when they’re ahead.