Highly anticipated and utilizing vaguely disturbing facial capture technology, L.A Noire has been developed by Team Bondi in association with Rockstar, universally lauded for having some pretty kick ass games under their belt. So I was interested to see what this newest offering would…offer.
You play as Cole Phelps, a decorated World War 2 hero and now a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. He’s talented (or you’re talented) and so he quickly moves up the ranks, and as he does, he begins to uncover the entrenched corruption within the city, a corruption that links in uncomfortably with his past. It’s a narrative driven detective story at its heart and it does engrossing story very well. You’re tasked with uncovering clues and accusing those responsible of a variety of crimes, each coming under a distinct heading depending on what rank you hold within the LAPD: Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson . You get promoted into each one of these departments over the course of the game.
Set in the iconic 1940s Los Angeles, L.A Noire really does break some new ground in many respects. The facial animation is of course the first thing you notice; it is incredible, the emotion is as true as if you were standing in front of a real person. You can see every twitch, every blink and every side glance. It’s awesome and adds a whole new dimension of immersion. It’s not entirely perfect though; the overall look can be a tad flat. It’s a little obvious at this stage that it basically consists of a facial recording pasted on a mesh because you notice that the more prominent features like eyes, ears and mouths are a little on the flat side. All we need to do now is incorporate the the fantastic rendering of, for example, Commander Shepard’s face in Mass Effect 2 with the mind-blowing emotional range of this game. But for whatL.A Noire is, the facial animation is amazing and serves its purpose admirably.
However, it doesn’t truly portray the range of human emotions that it promised. When you’re interviewing someone, you’ll ask them a question and it’s only after they have finished talking that are you really able to see if they’re lying, because they’ll start to shift their gaze or bite their lips. It’s not quite true to the way that real people lie, as no-one waits until the end of their sentence to look shifty or innocent. But if you really think about it, this is the only way it could work because all of us Average Joes would struggle with this whole game if it was totally true to life. Because some people are very, very good at lying, and without visible signs, this game would be a massive fail, with no-one able to get anything right. So even though in a few (most certainly not all) cases, it can be a tad obvious, it doesn’t detract too greatly from the awesome impact of the emotions you’re seeing displayed on screen and the nerve-wrecking interrogations, where you’re tasked with deciding if this person is telling the truth, lying (for which you need evidence) or you doubt them.It’s a very new set of game mechanics. The combination of crime scene investigation and lie detection is really exciting and finally lets you take the proactive analytical role instead of sitting there screaming: “IT’S HIM!! HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT HE’S LYING?” At your disposal you have a note book that will contain every piece of evidence you pick up, all the people of interest in the case and the locations you have been to relating to that case, as well as the ones to visit next. It’s a very comprehensive list and you’ll often find yourself going over it to review some evidence and get the facts clear in your mind before you face your suspects. Although the book will be a record of the evidence, it’ll only give you a brief overview so it’s always worth looking at any clue in detail yourself; don’t skip over any documents or pieces of paper you find because you assume it’ll just go in your note book, you need to read them thoroughly.
Being the double X chromosome oddity that I am, I thought detecting lies would be a cake walk – I’m pretty good at real life emotion detection. But, and it’s a big one, I sucked ass at first. For the first few cases, I was incorrectly accusing people left, right and centre. It takes a little while to get into it so try not to be disheartened at the fact you’re not getting 100% of the questions correct. I’m a pain-in-the-arse gaming perfectionist and I’ll be the first to put my hands up and say that I’ve quit a fair few times so that I could start the interrogation again. Unfortunately, there’s no way to save between interrogations so if you’re questioning more than one person and then you quit because you totally buggered it up, you’re going to have to start from the first interrogations. Sigh. Story of my life.
However, there is a rank system and going up a rank can earn intuition points. You can use these at a crime scene or during investigations to either show you all the clues or to remove one option from ‘truth’, ‘doubt’ or ‘lie’ selection. You can only use one per question so you have to be very frugal in their usage, as you can only have a maximum of 5 at any one time. You can earn ‘XP’ so to speak by attending to street crimes, completing a main story investigation or finding new landmarks in L.A. Street crimes can be a little uninspiring though, as they’re merely random occurrences so once you’ve completed them, you hear no more about them, they’re just places to earn rank points and gain achievements from. They seem to consist of barmy old men shooting LAPD officers, which is just plain stupid. If you want to get away with something, you don’t shoot an officer! Jeez. Anyone who isn’t part of the main story is a fail criminal. Or a fail-iminal. Or not.
One thing to note is that L.A Noire is not a sandbox game. And it makes that plainly obvious. Yes, the cityscapes and environments are gloriously and sharply rendered and yes, there are a few crime-related side quests but this is not a world that is meant to be searched for hours on end. Especially as driving the car in this game is the single most painful experience known to man. This game wouldn’t work as a sandbox. Murder investigations are by their very nature, linear. There is a natural progression to them. It would be no good if they presented us with a body somewhere up north and then we had to trundle along, questioning NPCs and finding clues on the other side of town. Your enjoyment of this game will increase tenfold providing you go into it knowing you’re not going to be exploring the town all that much. But the main story line itself is enough to keep you hooked.
In each department of the LAPD in which you work, you’re given a partner and they all manage to encompass various levels of douchebaggery, Roy Earle being the greatest douchebag of all, mostly because of his awful pink-sleeved suit. They don’t have all that much input into the case, you’re really the pack horse of this whole operation. The only use I had for my partner is chauffer but thank the holy lord that he’s there for that! I hate driving the damned car. It’s about as fun as punching myself in the face. It handles like a bloated walrus and car chases can quickly become hugely frustrating. Although, I concede that once I actually learned to break instead of attempting to bomb around corners bonnet planting walls, it was bearable, sometimes even becoming ‘fun’. The great thing aboutL.A Noire though is that the interrogations are far more nerve wracking than any chase or shoot out. You can feel the gravity of what you’re doing and the fact that the case hinges on you getting it right. It’s a pretty new feeling to experience while playing a game.
You’d think, as a game, it may lose its spark after you’ve collected loads of clues and questioned the living bejeesus out of loads of shady people but actually, it still manages to stay fresh and exciting. Every time a new call came in for a dead body, I’d get a little thrill of excitement as I set about finding clues. Crime scenes don’t differ much but any repetitiveness is counteracted by where it leads. Each crime scene and each clue leads somewhere different; teaches you something new; opens another dirty window on the advent calendar of corruption or leads me to create other such terrible metaphors.
I suppose being such a fan of the traditional games, where your input can really shape the character, makes L.A Noire a hard pill to swallow for me, even though I’ve enjoyed the game immensely. Cole Phelps is Cole Phelps and there is nothing you can do to change that. He’ll make bad decisions in his life and it’s not your fault but it’s not your doing either and it feels quite out of your control. I do find it a little odd to have so little overall input in the characters and the running of the story but I have to say that the shiny new mechanics and strong narrative are able to make up for its slightly un-interactive nature.
And the story is engrossing. At first, things feel quite random; cases seem isolated and disjointed but very soon the whole sordid thread starts to unravel and you learn that nothing is untouched by corruption. The story manages to make you feel both clever and powerless. You’re finding the clues, interrogating people perfectly, but the overall picture is far bigger than you ever could have imagined. It’s all rather thrilling. It’s only when I completed the game and the credits started rolling did I sit back in my seat and unclench everything. The last two hours were especially emotionally investing with an incredibly dark atmosphere. It was very well done.
All in all, L.A Noire is something you have to try; it’s one of those pivotal games that will start something wonderful in the world of game animation. I loved it but it’s not perfect. It errs a little too far on the side of ‘interactive movie’ for my liking but the story is incredibly strong and exciting, full of twists and turns and the crime scene investigation aspect kept me hooked. I can see how this might divide gamers; one side believing it’s the greatest thing since free money while the other believing it to be too rigid and repetitive but for me it struck a very enjoyable balance and I highly recommend it.
I just want my face in a game now, please, someone make this happen. I don’t care what I am, I’ll play Crack Whore 14 if need be. I just want someone to scan my face like that so I can be in a game, it’s amazing! No doubt we’ll see this awesome technology again very soon, and for a first foray into it, L.A Noire has performed admirably.