Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: "L.A. Noire"

The City of Angels
review for L.A. Noire (Xbox 360), 1 player action/adventure, out now

Go Australia! After 2K Australia made the critically acclaimed and damn awesome original Bioshock, I was pretty sure that Australia was the greatest video-game creating superpower on the planet. Up next, of course, was L.A. Noire by Team Bondi, a Sydney-based studio working on what was sure to be an innovative cop drama filled with adult suspense, murder, and mystery. Four boring un-Australian years later and L.A. Noire has actually been released. Developed by Team Bondi, sure, but under the wing of Rockstar, the people behind Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. So, here's L.A. Noire, a shitty action sandbox.

...not really, of course. The perplexedly misspelt L.A. Noire is, as was always planned, a gritty, adult-oriented crime drama set in 1940s Los Angeles, with heavy doses of grime, suspense, murder, and taking liberal cues from the film noir genre, naturally. Having not watched any film noir, I can't say for certain how well L.A. Noire works as a noir drama. Some people have assured me that it does noir really, really well, nailing the tone down to a tee, while others have said that it completely fails at noir by, for example, having scenes set in broad daylight. I can't say. I can say, however, that whatever tone L.A. Noire is trying to set, I like what it's done. It's dark, it's surprisingly realistic, and it suits the detective crime story it's telling. That's all it every had to do, film noir influences aside.

The story revolves around fresh-faced beat cop Cole Phelps, who, very early in the game, is promoted to the rank of detective. A morally just police officer dedicated to his work and upholding the fabric of society, Phelps is a unique character in, not only Rockstar's back catalogue of gun-toting anti-heroes, but perhaps in the action genre of gaming today. I mean, needless to say Phelps is also a deeply flawed human being, a realistically flawed human being at that, as is Rockstar tradition, but that on the surface he's just a copper trying to get by is a breath of fresh air in a rather stagnating action-sandbox genre. Cole Phelps is most of what drives L.A. Noire to be the success that it is.

Part of what makes Cole Phelps and the rest of the cast - and, perhaps, the whole narrative - as compelling as they are, is the proprietary facial and full-body animation system MotionScan. To cut straight to the chase and skip all the technical hubbub, all you really need to know is that every aspect of the actor's performance - their facial expressions, their hand gestures, every little tick and squint and twitch, is captured by MotionScan. So everything you see in the game, rendered in real-time, is the full performance of the actor. That this hasn't been done before is boggling, because it works so well. The technology is incredibly astounding, and works to create what are no doubt the most realistic human beings in videogames. I did have some worries that the game would sink into the uncanny valley due to putting human faces over computer-generated puppets, but it rarely does. It mostly works to make every performance believable as hell.

This isn't to say that this realism extends to the rest of the game world. The majority of the human cast and the indoor "sets" (they're sets) are incredibly polished, moreso than some games are nowadays, and are incredible as a result. Once you get behind the wheel of a car, however, something starts to itch at you. Not the cars themselves - they handle, in almost opposite of Rockstar's established tradition with Grand Theft Auto IV, really well. I only really crashed or spun out one of these painfully beautiful 1940s cars when either I wanted to crash or spin out, or if I wasn't paying attention to the road. The cars are fine. But you'll notice that Los Angeles, while being a really well-rendered city, feels... empty. Really, really empty. There's plenty of traffic, but there are maybe three or four pedestrians on screen at any one time. This isn't even an engine limitation, because there are shoot-outs with up to twenty bad-guys and the game runs just fine. Whatever the case is, the streets of LA feel... wrong. So, so wrong. Not wrong enough to be a deal-breaker, and probably as good as most average open-world games. But with the spectacular technology and polish on display in the human faces and set-pieces and acting and set design, it really goes to make the empty, uninteresting world stick out like the sore thumb it is.

Also, the gameplay - despite being better than some sludge on offer today - never reaches the dizzy heights the technology on display would promise. The shooting, for example, is ripped straight from Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption - which is fine, because it works really well, but that's hardly a point in the game's favour. The driving is really enjoyable, but as I mentioned above, the world is mostly empty. Some scenes involve Cole having to walk around an area scanning for clues, in an almost point-and-click adventure style, which certainly grounds the player in Cole's workboots, but isn't a lot of fun.

Then there's the interrogations, which - despite being somewhat broken - are the best part of the game. There's something so satisfying about being able to comb through your notepad of evidence, presenting it to your suspect, watching them twist and turn under the weight of your conviction and then send them off to court. Also, it was the point in which the facial animation made me genuinely emotionally involved - when I accidentally wrongly convicted a suspect, I felt bad, and not just in a "oh man I have to replay the mission now" way. I felt crushingly horrible in a "oh god, I'm a bad person and a shit detective" kind of way. It's not incredible, but it's the most unique part of the game and some will argue that it is provably broken. I don't care. I gave Duke Nukem Forever an 8/10, goddamnit.

Don't mistake my "this Los Angeles is empty" rant for "this game has no atmosphere," because it does has an atmosphere. It's masterfully paced, incredibly well-realised and fleshed out. Some of this "noir" story lacks grit, and some of the LA streets lack human realism, but for the majority of the time, L.A. Noire draws you in better than any Rockstar-approved game ever has in the past. It's engrossing, engaging, and utterly immersive, and once you start a case (the game is divided into "cases," like chapters), you will not want to put the controller down until you've seen it through to a conclusion. The most masterful elements at play here are the acting and the storytelling, but even with the slightly middling gameplay, L.A. Noire manages to mix everything together into a staggeringly coherent package. Combining action, detective work, and cutscenes doesn't work the majority of times, so it's a massive tick in the game's favour that Team Bondi has pulled off these separate elements without it ever becoming jarring for the player. It's a smooth ride as well as an engaging one.

Going back to "the world feels empty," though. The main story is incredible and totally the meat of the game, but just like in the abysmally woeful Mafia II, the open-world is something of a farce. The progression is more or less strictly linear. Unlike Mafia II, you actually can engage in side-quests. If you're driving a policecar or detective vehicle, you can report in for street crimes. They are small, but very entertaining, and usually consist of a chase or shoot-out linked by small cutscenes. They're varied, and they're somewhat infrequent, but there still aren't a lot of them. There are only 40 of them, and they only pop up in certain places, which is pretty lacking really for an open world. There are no time trials across the city, no escort missions, just mini-cases. I mean, they're great, and they add to the game. And the main story is huge - I've only just reached the last desk, "Arson" (there are four in total - Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson, plus the tutorial levels where you play as a beat cop, which you can swap back and forth between to replay story missions), and I'm at something like 20 hours on my gameplay clock. That is a lot of gameplay, and between finding collectibles (eurgh), hidden cars, and completing the leftover street crimes, there is a lot of content in this game. So, I guess you just want to know if this game is worth playing.

Yes. It's not perfect, but it's unique as hell, and unlike Duke Nukem Forever in which your tastes must meet the requirements or else you'll have a massive barrier to enjoyment, this is a game which I'd suggest anyone of age must pick up. At the least, rent it. It's slick, it's polished, the technology is nerdgasm worthy and the story is so well-told it makes me feel good about where gaming is going as a medium. That's what this game is - a cornerstone in gaming history. It's the first of its kind, the melding of real-life actors in believable virtual forms, combined with an engrossing and a bloody brilliant story with a fantastic script and gameplay you'll WANT to play. This is one of few games that I totally would say - yeah, it's a must-buy. Play L.A. Noire because there's nothing else like it on the market today, and Team Bondi and Rockstar deserve cred for what is almost definitely going to be Game of the Year on a lot of people's lists.

Can't get enough of Andy? Remember to check out his new series of Let's Play videos, starting with Portal, over at the Andy Plays Games Youtube Channel! Watch Andy play games, talk about games, and suck at games. You just might enrich the experience that is your life while you're at it, too.