LA is Confident You Won’t Forget About Chinatown While Being Ruthless and Avoiding the Big Combo of Murder and Mayhem
A video game review of L.A. Noire
By: Lawrence Napoli
Team Bondi and Rockstar have produced a video game that continues to muscle in on Hollywood’s once exclusive hold on cinematic artistry and the suspension of disbelief. L.A. Noire joins a growing list of very popular, financially successful and high quality games that feature a game play interaction that is as far removed from Mario as human beings are from monkeys. Interactive drama is a term more appropriate for games like this and Heavy Rain, Mass Effects 1, 2, (and eventually) 3, Alan Wake, Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas because their combined cinematic qualities are second to the level of personal investment required to simply play which causes a gamer to cease thinking about “getting through a game” and focus on “experiencing the game.” Indeed as hardware and software technology continues to evolve, a person’s ability to experience dramatized simulacra as a form of entertainment is alarming in its ability to substitute for perceiving the real world. However, with Matrix-like fears aside, this artistic form of communication is something that is not to be missed for the shear fact that nothing quite like L.A. Noire has been done before.
Setup and Interface
L.A. Noire is a 3rd person, open world, sandbox game that progresses in a linear fashion which is very reminiscent of the Grand Theft Auto games since their transition to a third person perspective in 3D environments (since GTA 3). In lieu of “levels” or “stages,” advancement in the story mirrors the advancement of the main character, Cole Phelps. The player’s ability to control the criminal investigations Phelps is assigned to is vital to completing the narrative. This game is not an action RPG in the truest sense since killing/arresting "X" number of crooks will not give Phelps better proficiency with firearms or a steadier hand behind the wheel of a car. The experience points that are earned through the completion of cases allows the player to “level up” which unlocks signature vehicles, alternate costumes (that give specific game play advantages) and intuition points that can be redeemed during interrogations as a life-line option from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire to avoid asking the wrong questions and making false allegations. Discovering the various landmarks of an accurately reproduced 1940s Los Angeles will also earn experience points as will the discovery of gold film reels strewn about the geography as additional incentive to tour the town at your leisure.
The level system is counter-intuitive to similar systems used in some of the games I mentioned during the introduction, in that a level 20 character (the max level) does not have an easier time of progressing through the game than a level 1. The reason for this is that the perks via costumes are minimal and one can only store up to 5 intuition points to be used at any time. Of course, using a point frees up an open spot to be filled once again when you reach the next level, so being stingy with your life-lines amounts to a zero sum gain.
Being extremely thorough while investigating crime scenes will allow the player to rely less on intuition and focus on the facts. The game has a default option that causes the controller to vibrate whenever Phelps is near an object that can be examined, which may or may not produce a clue that is relevant to the current case. This option feels like the game is spoon feeding at times, but the total area of a crime scene is not always defined by police tape. The player will be prompted to pick up hundreds of items, but beware that “dusting for prints” is not an option for this game which eliminates the viability of almost half of these items. As evidence is discovered, an automatic “note taking” system updates in Phelps’ investigation pad where the player can review deductions based on the evidence as dictated by the game, especially during interrogations.
Clues can be taken from objects, statements and circumstantial observation. Clues yield talking points that can be asked of key witnesses when the interrogation sequence is triggered. Once that occurs, the player must respond to the various statements by accepting them as true, doubting them or accusing them of lying. For every statement, there can be only 1 correct response from the three options I mentioned. Correct responses gain experience points and progresses the narrative. Failure will result in restarting the investigation from various points, perhaps even from scratch if you really screw up.
If “noire” happens to be in the title of your game, then there better be a healthy dose of plot to give the game play relevance and perspective. L.A. Noire does not disappoint. The player experiences most of the story through the perspective of Cole Phelps, a veteran and an officer of the Pacific Theater during World War II. He returns home to begin a professional life in law enforcement as his “by the book” mentality is tested by the laid back and corrupt lifestyle that has become pervasive to all men of power on the west coast.
As Phelps gets promoted from beat cop to traffic, arson, vice and homicide, the player witnesses the relevance of the various characters that uphold the law and those that get around it. All of the events seem interconnected as only a quality noire tale would suggest. Conspiracy theorists will go gaga over this aspect of the game on principal alone. In between promotions, the player witnesses flashbacks of Phelps’ experience during the war which explains much of his motivations and inspirations.
L.A. Noire is a classic tale of the white knight attempting to do some good in an unholy land that is littered with innocents to be used as cannon fodder by the powerful. This is a concept that appeals to many people, but there is one element to this equation that leaves a curiously bitter taste in one’s mouth: Cole Phelps himself. The character is begrudgingly procedural and even during later parts of the game where certain events occur that should impact his resolve, do so in a very inconsequential manner to the point that no real growth is witnessed. You remember that kid in school that tattled on everybody? Cole Phelps. You know that person from work that kisses up to the boss? Cole Phelps.
Like the real world, naiveté in the fictional world of noire is not only a glaring and unattractive weakness; it can also get you killed. This is the reason why the best protagonists in film noir happen to be anti-heroes. J.J. Gittes played by Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon were charismatic bad boys who knew their way around the block and where to cut corners if they had to. Cole Phelps is quite possibly the worst character type to introduce to this kind of world because he generates little if any sympathy from the player as a shameless opportunist that gets off to his own sterling image. This same character experiment succeeded in L.A. Confidential with Ed Exley played by Guy Pearce because at one point, his character snaps out of his idealism and learns to play the game in order to survive. This never really happens to Phelps as he remains an indignant prick for the entirety of the game.
The level of detail provided to the city of Los Angeles, in addition to the NPCs that comprise the rest of the populace, the vehicles and the interior locations are second to Mass Effect 2 in a third person, 3D environment. Where L.A. Noire has that game outclassed is the facial animation and detail that is consistent during standard game play, but truly shines during the interrogation sequences (the core game play element to L.A. Noire).
Instead of basing the code on manual animations of reverse helmet cameras used by actors during motion capture, Team Bondi and Rockstar generated 3D models by integrating multiple video feeds. This required the actors to do separate takes between body motion and facial animation with the end result yielding exceptionally smooth faces with incredibly realistic mannerisms. Without this level of detail, interrogations would lose their appeal and all manner of challenge. With it, the player truly feels as if he or she is in that room, questioning that witness. It is truly a sight to see.
The soundtrack is appropriate for the period and the voice acting is as impressive as the physical acting as recoded through the modified 3D rendering via video. What was particularly fascinating was the appearance of familiar character actors in various roles throughout L.A. Noire. I’m sure I recognized more, but Brian Krause from Charmed and Greg Grunberg from Heroes were instantly recognizable.
This is another area where L.A. Noire begins to lose major points as a video game. The fact is that navigating Cole Phelps anywhere has about as much grace and precision as driving a tank through a monster truck rally. Once you finally point Phelps in the right direction and get him moving in said direction, lots of luck to you hitting the brakes to take cover from oncoming fire or avoiding blindside clotheslines from corners. If gamers had any complaints about the controls for Grand Theft Auto IV then they will be ready to drown kittens over the basic navigation in L.A. Noire. I sincerely do not care if the physics engine of the momentum system is meant to be realistic; there’s no way that even someone in a dead sprint wouldn’t be able to stop and hit the dirt or jump into cover 90 degrees from their current position. Neither action can be performed in L.A. Noire.
As brilliant as the interrogation sequences are; a fundamental flaw lies in the simplicity of this nature of questioning. It is usually quite easy to tell whether a character is truthful or holding something back, but the real challenge is determining whether to doubt the statement or designate it as a lie. The lie accusation can only be justified by selecting the appropriate clue from the list of collected evidence in the virtual notebook. But if you don’t have that evidence in the first place, guess who just messed up the interrogation? On top of that, the complexities of questioning a witness in real life involve more than determining truth, doubt or lies. I understand the need for a simple system like this because only so much data can be recorded onto blank media, but giving the player more control over options in the dialogue to catch the witness in a lie they just made to the police currently interviewing them by returning to a certain topic would provide an additional route to arriving at the proper destination. This is something that Mass Effect 2 employs with its dialogue windows and perhaps Rockstar should integrate a similar system for the inevitable sequel to this otherwise groundbreaking accomplishment.
If you are a gamer, then you need to play L.A. Noire. If you are a fan of film noir and wish to see it presented in a non-film format in which you have a direct hand in the outcome, you must play L.A. Noire. If all you care about is FPS, Call of Duty and multiplayer then this is not the game for you. Although the static nature of investigation and interrogation can be broken up by the action-focused street crime “mini-cases” that occur at various parts of the city, the overall action in L.A. Noire is minimal. Focusing on the core story cases will facilitate a faster progression, but be warned that investigations tend to become quite repetitive in terms of the types of evidence one is looking for and boredom is inevitable. The last two cases of the game are quite spectacular in terms of a perfect blend of action and investigation. It’s a pity the rest of the game did not share this. There’s no doubt that L.A. Noire will amass impressive sales numbers and be in contention for Game of the Year, but it would honestly take a complete let down from Uncharted 3 in order for L.A. Noire to have a real chance at best of 2011.