L.A. Noire Review
publisher: Rockstar Games
developer: Team Bondi
|ESRB rating: M
release date: May 17, 11
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The video games industry has a cruel tendency toward stagnation. Games become cookie cutter copies of one another, and what features are novel and fun quickly become tired, clich' and boring. It can be depressing (I'll say it can. - Vader), and the influence this has on the industry is nothing short of poison. Titles become the white noise of an endless sea of rip-offs, sequels and other jerks on the intellectual teat. L.A. Noire is not one of those games. L.A. Noire is the opposite. L.A. Noire is probably going to win artistic achievement award after artistic achievement award. What I'm saying is, this will be one of the most widely talked about titles for years, and you owe it to yourself to experience this tour de force. L.A. Noire will change how stories are told in video games, elevating character interaction from simple choices on a dialogue tree to something closer to theater.
L.A. Noire puts you in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a young upstart in the LAPD. You follow Cole's rise through the ranks of the police force, solving case by case, with each case being the mission to accomplish in order to advance. You solve the cases by collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects slowly piecing the information gleaned into a coherent picture of what happened. Then you have to go apprehend the relevant people, or if they are unwilling to come quietly, subdue them. Along the way you may get calls to respond to other crimes in progress, and get to take a bit of a detour.
The gameplay is similar to Grand Theft Auto, largely because the same engine was used, but outside of driving around in a sandbox city and getting to shoot people, the gameplay similarities end (although at times L.A. Noire feels like a commentary on GTA). The story is of the same quality that we've come to expect from Rockstar, an involved and complex yarn about the more terrible parts of the human condition. The storytelling is something new entirely.
What, no smile?
Ah, the crib of my dreams.
What has probably been the most talked about feature of this game, and likely what cost the most to develop and implement, is the facial animation system. The way this changes the player's interaction with the game is astonishing. At a certain point it does feel like you are looking at a human face, just an animated one. Strangely, this seems to avoid the uncanny valley.
From a technical perspective, everything else lives in the shadow of this facial animation system. While the game looks fantastic, especially the old cars and the authenticity of 1947 Downtown Los Angeles, and the game sounds fantastic, from the voice acting, to the sound effects, to the music, all of this pales in comparison to the fantastic facial animation system. It has allowed actors to bring the characters to life, allowing the characters in L.A. Noire to feel much closer to actual people.
As a result the story for L.A. Noire is largely character driven, and the animated characters themselves are, possibly for the first time ever in a video game, actually acting. Having to determine whether or not someone is lying can be difficult at first, and can easily result in blown cases, although the game does allow for additional police work if you happen to screw up some interviews (like tailing a suspect if they won't come clean). For all of its frustrations, this part of the game is a fascinating exercise in psychology, especially since you cannot explicitly call someone out on lying without the appropriate evidence.
The evidence finding is similar to an old school point-and-click adventure game; you walk around and press A when a noise happens and the controller vibrates. Then you check out an in-game object to determine if it is a clue or not by manipulating it with one of the thumb sticks until the controller vibrates again. You have a notebook that automatically records everything. Strangely this evidence gathering is kind of cathartic. It's very methodical and calming, and since the game stops the music when you've gathered all of the relevant clues, don't waste time looking for additional clues that aren't there.
The cases themselves are often winding, twisting yarns that only get longer and more complex as the game goes on. The game never gets stale, and each case has its own quirks. As opposed to GTA where I liked to drive around all the time, and usually did like one mission per hour of game time, the cases sucked me along, and I felt compelled to keep investigating. Of course, while driving around there are calls from dispatch to sort out crimes in progress, and these provide a nice break from thinking about a case, and allow the player to have some immediate gratification in terms of shooting people or driving fast. You still can drive around aimlessly, trying to drive all of the different cars, and solving crimes in progress once you've solved all of the cases in a particular set.
One of the reasons the story doesn't get stale is that all of the cases are just sub-chapters in the various branches Cole Phelps serves in as he rises through the ranks of the LAPD. You start out on patrol, work your way to traffic, then through homicide, then onto vice, and finally arson. At any point you can replay older cases, which is handy especially if you're a perfectionist and want to get every question right, collect all the clues, and manage to avoid causing any property damage. There are things to collect too, in each case, which also serves to make going back worthwhile.
L.A. Noire is less like a conventional video game, and more like interactive fiction. It immerses the player like a great novel does. I've already replayed missions just because I liked the way they played out, and I'm nowhere close to finished with the game. It's one of the finest games I've played in years, and hopefully will move storytelling forward in the industry to where legitimate acting is intrinsic to the performance.
Transcends all expectations for the medium by introducing theatrical elements never seen before;
A few control frustrations, all easily resolved through more experience with the game.