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L.A. Noire: Good, Not Epic

 

Set in Los Angeles, California during the late 1940′s, L.A. Noire is an open world sleuthing action adventure game that follows the police career of former U.S. Marine, Cole Phelps as he solves a series of seemingly unrelated murders. As the game progresses, Phelps moves through the various sections of the police department discovering a link between events throughout the game. Keeping with the Rockstar method of delivery, L.A. Noire isn’t without material some audiences may find repulsive or objectionable (such as full frontal nudity, sexism, intense graphic violence toward women, racism, etc.). However, the game is intended for mature audiences but doesn’t handle the material appropriately for the setting in all cases.

L.A. Noire seemed like the perfect candidate for developers to take from Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain niche influence and show desperately needed industry progression toward a controllable and emotional cinematic adventure, but didn’t. My initial hopes for L.A. Noire were grand; I looked for the title to take some core concept cues from Heavy Rain by way of compelling storytelling, unannounced critical  decision points, limited operating time-frames, and a control mechanism that barred corrective restarts (working to “perfection” by starting over repeatedly).  What L.A. Noire felt like in the end was a mixture of common pre-existing elements found in most open-world action adventure games, but instead of reliance on the expansive environment, it relied on the dialog choices and ability of players to read facial patterns that ultimately have no bearing on the final outcome. In addition the title also felt like a mixture of The Fugitive, L.A. Confidential, Two Jakes and Red Dead Redemption with a literal facelift. It was a good game worth the effort to make, but it’s not “epic” by any means.


WARNING: This review has some spoilers and reveals the end of the game. A majority of the spoilers don’t reveal the end or how it plays out. Avoid the “Phelps: Why I don’t give a rat’s ass about him” section if you don’t want to know the end.


Games that pay homage to certain styles and topics often become a double-edged sword; by capturing authenticity they lose originality. In this, homage titles take huge risk in becoming too similar to existing formats or becoming so different that considering it a true homage comes with difficulty. L.A. Noire pulls off the developing landscape of Los Angeles, greedy opportunists, pre-reform police, and moral ambiguity of the late 1940′s. It also carried the film noir presentation poorly along the character personalities, but did well in implementing the unique aspect of having to watch suspects to decide how to gain useful information leading to case closure.

The game concepts are marred, unfortunately, by some underdeveloped mechanics and environmental inconsistencies. Random comments from bystanders and pedestrians that do not fit the game setting interrupt an otherwise sparse but appropriate soundtrack; simply walking the streets of L.A. players will repeatedly hear “*** you!” or “I used to be indecisive. Now, I’m not so sure.” I was given the impression that either I missed an inside joke among the citizens of this L.A., or they all suffer from a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome. Truly, these “additions” shows signs of fan service by way of Grand Theft Auto.

Where the film noir aspects were poorly done exist primarily in the “homicide” section of the game. I find it very difficult to believe that Phelps as a person with “better” moral character would allow female murder victims to remain naked. His character seems as one that would ask they body be covered, save for hands and arms (which are the only pertinent parts of the naked bodies in the game), to give the victims some final dignity. At the very least, the coroner and other police officers would have done this much. America has become more modest over time, not less modest and police today will even cover a body in public for privacy and to keep dignity. Noting and harping on the lack of covered bodies isn’t my aversion to nudity, offense at the female form, or  to encourage distance from graphic violence in games – the nudity in L.A. Noire just comes off as serving no purpose other than an immature gratuity; “oh look, boobies! tee hee,” and I would have expected that “mature” material be handled maturely (seems far-fetched, I know).

I would understand if the bodies contained clues on the chest and abdomen, but they didn’t. I would also understand if the bodies seemed to give any  character resolve and duty to justice above their respective job title, but again, they didn’t; one murder seemed as bad as any other murder and though it is understood that Phelps has seen death by degrees and he’s just a cop doing his job, his unchanged attitude helped neither his weak back-story or the playable present. Furthering the oddity of how nudity is handled, the extra-marital relationship between Phelps and Lichtmann is merely displayed via innuendo; there is no outright nudity, exchange of words, not even a light kissing scene – yet murder victims are left naked in a park with with evidence that certain forms of intimate hygiene weren’t common practice fits well? I don’t see it.

L.A. Noire can arguably stand alone from other Rockstar titles on a few facets, but not enough to set itself apart as a flagship title. The base form and structure don’t take risks in the right areas. As a player, I felt comfortable in the game because nearly everything was familiar, but also felt disappointed for the same reason. I have to give pause to whether Rockstar is either too afraid to break completely from Grand Theft Auto formula because the risk may be too great or if they are showing the  symptoms of a “one trick pony.”

The game mechanics are handled rather well. Controlling the characters, save a few odd camera angle moments, are as fluid as the facial animations and I didn’t notice a lot in the way of jerky motions or robotic movements (though a “rail slide” to knock on doors was a bit odd). There are some other issues with the game mechanics, however. Drastic change in tone during investigation break the consistent tone of investigations and give Phelps the characteristics of an individual with bi-polar disorder; Phelps goes from mild mannered cop with a strict sense of duty mixed with self-righteousness to a raging *** whether he can back the accusations or not. This wouldn’t be terrible if the game didn’t present Phelps’ an accusation of “lie” as knee-jerk.

Redundancy in facial “tells” from suspects during investigations and interrogations lull the sequences to a point of mundanity. Over time, players should become acquainted with how to read suspects by paying attention to what they do after making a statement and interviews cut to little more than a glorified game of “paper/rock/scissors.” The trick to interviews is understanding the difference between clues and evidence, going over available evidence,  and asking questions in the right order. From this, the challenge of reading faces unique to each character is removed almost completely.

Phelps as a character is clearly a leader, but he never fills the part in mechanics and doesn’t give the impression that he leads more than superficially;” he’s given responsibility without authority and a leader without authority and all of the responsibility is just a “tool” in anyone’s book. Phelps collects every piece of evidence in the cases he’s involved with, is repeatedly told how to behave, told where to go, and told how to do his job: “Forget a warrant, kick that door in,” “He’s running away, chase him,” “Maybe we should go back and talk to this other guy now.” Yet, the only order Phelps gives to others with any consistency is the optional, “You drive.” When things go badly, Phelps is the guy to carry the blame and punishment (usually being yelled at by the desk captain.) Oddly, regardless of case rank status, Phelps is not demoted for doing poorly on cases and in fact, he gets promoted whether he gets one, two or five stars on cases. Instead, Phelps takes a demotion for cheating on his wife (not for cheating with a person of interest, but just plain old infidelity).

An added feature that is completely useless save for collecting cars, is the ability to commandeer cars. Players will recall Grand Theft Auto and hijacking vehicles to roam the city, though there’s no risk of attracting unwanted attention in L.A. Noire by commandeering vehicles, there’s also no real point in it. For the most part, the populated areas feel like filler; when walking around the streets are full of cars and when driving it’s like everyone stopped driving and started walking (except in chase scenes, then everyone decides it’s time to hang out in the city and walk or drive around).  However, citizens will jump out of the way of an oncoming car would players have difficulty operating any of the vehicles. Conversely, citizens operating vehicles rarely do anything to avoid a collision with the player beyond applying brakes. Players will also find that some of the action sequences where players are chasing a suspect, will have to evade citizen drivers swerving into oncoming traffic for no clear reason. I can only guess that these citizens are scripted to offer a challenge in chasing and apprehending a fleeing suspect. Unfortunately, no reason would make it less annoying and stupid.

My last issue with the mechanics is chronology. There is a lack of time passage in the game. Players know whether it is day or night but not what day of the week or time of the year. The case sets build the idea that weeks and months may pass, perhaps years, but nothing really solidifies a timeline. Perhaps showing some seasonal changes in the environment would help keep the game from feeling like The First 48.

The story of L.A. Noire is shaky at best. Understandably, the story is designed to be taken bits at a time and connect plot points over a series of smaller cases while working toward the overall theme. However, there are many things that don’t seem to fit perfectly in developing any one character. The ability to peek into concurrent events via newspapers give players a sense of the elusive main protagonist in terms of what they’re capable of; it adds to which side of a moral fence they sit, though because the game never washes every character with shades of grey, the newspapers feel like cinematic filler and isn’t a very effective method of story delivery. A better way to have pulled off the concept is to allow Phelps to review case notes and show “what we know so far based on the information obtained.” This would provide players with a reason to pick through the evidence and pay closer attention to how they conduct an investigation.

Between some cases, players are given a cinematic history of Phelps and his men during WWII. Supposedly these flashbacks help tie a motive to the actions and attitudes of characters and events at the end of the game. Phelps is, as discussed, an overachiever with a penchant for “by the book” behaviors to a point that gets results if nothing else. However, the developers seemed to have given Phelps a character flaw for the sake of adding moral ambiguity to an otherwise “straight and narrow” character; he’s self-serving (but who isn’t?).  Even when Phelps has romantic interludes with

Graphics in modern games seldom rely on poly count and color, but texture and lighting; we’re nearing an “end” to the graphics war for the time being (which, in my opinion, is an apparent reason for the industry push to 3D; a technology proxy war). The lighting and textures in L.A. Noire are pretty good. They’re not too different from Red Read Redemption, so in that, the new format didn’t diminish what was learned in the past. Where L.A. Noire truly shines in terms of visuals is the facial animations. The faces animate and show expression with authenticity (albeit a bit of over-acting here and there, but so what…), and it draws the player into an experience of interviewing a person rather than attempting to rationalize motive based on dialog and action.

By now, many have seen the technology interview detailing how faces were captured for the game and what the idea was behind the concept. For those that have not, seek out the video online.

Final Say: Good, Not Epic

 

L.A. Noire should be applauded for the effort to bring a solid detective story to the current generation but condemned for such a number of poorly executed minor concepts, objectively overlooking them is difficult.

On one hand, Rockstar is known for raw violence and to step back from that would disappoint some fans. Rockstar could have followed the cinematic style of the 40′s and left many things to the audiences’ imagination, but modern audiences feel slighted if they can’t “see” the blood, some aren’t smart enough to imagine the depth of the content, and leaving things to imagination is always a risk because it means non-standard interpretation. On-the-other-hand the biggest detriment to the game is that it tries to be many too much to too broad an audience. The games may have done better if developers attempted to be a few big things to everyone or, at the very least, if developers had diverged from the tell-tale GTA formula more. Audiences are left using their imagination but only to fill gaps in game inconsistencies and not intentional gaps in a unified plot and systemic theme that allow players to draw conclusions based on earlier revelations. Perhaps the goal was to produce a title that could appeal to everyone in some way (like Red Dead Redemption), but I believe the approach and execution lacked in too many important ways to suggest any single corrective measure; it’s a great concept worth exploring, and as a first try it is good, but the staying power will come in contrived DLC packs and maybe a sequel involving a different character.

Undoubtedly this is a solid title worth the play and exploration, if for no other reason than to see what doesn’t work – but it hardly deserves the degree of hype floating around. The game isn’t all bad, and there’s a lot to like, though that may not be readily apparent in this review. The effort and concept of interviewing is a massive step forward toward a long and involved type of game that should appeal to many people in the future, especially since most of our social interactions with others occur asymmetrically.  There is almost as much that I really don’t like about this game. And, it isn’t that the flaws were so large, but small and many – and worse, glaringly obvious – so that L.A. Noire literally nearly beats itself to death in the attempt to innovate and forgets what really drives the this type of game: the story and characters.

This isn’t a game that at the end of the year people should still rave about. I expect within a month-and-a-half, “used” shelves will be populated with the title in quantities on par with Black Ops and Red Dead Redemption, making this game consumable, but of little substance beyond proof of concept. I also suspect the sequel will better join existing tech and more focus placed on character and story development.  With Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Eldar Scrolls V: Skyrim, Deus Ex, Guild Wars 2, Uncharted 3, and a handful of other highly anticipated titles yet to appear, L.A. Noire will be remembered but overshadowed. I don’t expect many people will find themselves “okay” with the game; they’ll either like it or they won’t, and if history tells us anything about gaming – that’s not how to win an award or franchise fans but is how you test a market.

 

**SPOILER**

Phelps: Why I don't give a rat's ass about him

Phelps isn’t ever clearly defined as “good” or “bad.” For a game that places emphasis on “moral grey,” it is important to decide which aspects of a person are good and which are bad. When using several characters good and bad need to overlap to present varying degrees or altering perceptions in context to the character and their nature, and to allow characters to compliment each other. L.A. Noire does a poor job of this. If a player is familiar with police work, they’ll point out several instances of violating the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment rights. However, the 1940′s were a time in police history that was a little more than decades away from police reform. Police officers often played to the politicians as personal servants to earn extra income and ultimately served private interest and not the community.

Today, obviously police work in a very different fashion, but L.A. Noire stays true to the gritty grey area that police operated in during the 1940′s. Unfortunately, placing more emphasis on the ambiguity of character morals by attaching them to the common practice of police at the time instead of human nature was a poor method to define contrasting moral values. In the end of the game, players are urged to like Phelps and feel a degree of loss through his final self-less act and words, whether because the players see the few attempts to repair the relationship between Kelso and Phelps by a shared love interest that never really develops beyond the superficial innuendos, or because they’re both working toward an alleged ethical standard shared between them from opposite ends. In either case, I wasn’t left feeling one way or another about Phelps dying and accepted it as “it just was;” I was not impressed by Phelps or his actions in any way because they were made arbitrary by the “one way” finish immediately apparent in the middle of the game and greyed overtones of every game character.

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