L.A. Noire is a game that I’ve tried to keep abreast of. Not to a fan-boy level of obsession, as I’m not one to buy into hype. But rather because it is being developed in Sydney and it’s an original and ambitious concept. So when it came out recently I decided to pick up a PS3 copy of the game and see what Team Bondi – with a lot of help from Rockstar – managed to finally deliver as an end result to what amounts to roughly 8 years (since 2003) of development and at last report, a $50 million budget.
I’ve read a few reviews and took stock of the average Metacritic rating. It’s around 90/100, which is quite good. However, knowing what some of these rabid fan-boy reviewers are like, giving and crediting recent games like Heavy Rain (2010) more than they probably deserve. I wasn’t entirely swayed by the reviews and high ratings. I suspected that what I would find would be how one particular (IGN) reviewer surmised, that this was an ambitious game with some great ideas and enough polish to enjoy, but not for everyone as the action is thin and basic. A flawed game deserving no more than 8.5 out of 10. A score and conclusion I agree with but there is more to it than that and which I will proceed to elaborate upon.
L.A. Noire is kind of the bastard child of Heavy Rain and GTA IV (2008) but set in period 1940s Los Angeles. In other words, an interactive LA Confidential (1997); though some aspects of the concept I suspect were originally meant to be more along the lines of Chinatown (1974) in private-eye tone and dramatic pacing.
The gameplay can be broken up into two areas, a case investigation and suspect / witness interrogation system. Basically, an adventure game in effect as it is story based and quite linear. Then you have the action side of the game, which is pretty much chasing suspects on foot and then arresting them – this will test you as in some cases you’ll wish you could just shoot them, even it if it in the leg. Which then also becomes chasing them in the car and then arresting them – driving mechanics are good, however, other cars have a habit of stopping right in front of you as you scream towards an intersection. And then the odd bit of gunplay which is either shooting suspects in the head to free a hostage, or the infrequent gun battle where you, or partner and maybe some backup cops, shoot it out with some crims. These all usually take less than a minute to complete, is basic and at times clunky, and all heavily on rails for what is on the surface at least an open-world game.
The gameplay to me seems like an utter waste of what should have been a lush period sandbox LA city to play within. But at least I can’t complain about the graphics. I know that some reviewers have done so but you can’t compare an open-world game to a much limited in game-world size shooter. Graphically, they have technically different requirements. L.A. Noire seems on par with other open-world games like GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption (2010) in way of fidelity of the game world. Yes at times there are some graphical bugs but all games have them, especially open-world kind of games. However, the characters is a completely different story.
The technology behind them has a lot of hype to it. Some of it is justified, some of it isn’t. The faces do look good, however, they are hardly what I would call highly detailed compared to comparable techniques like those used in Heavy Rain. Again, different graphical requirements but you could just as easily of used their tech in order to have an effective suspect interrogation system relying on being able to read facial (and body) expressions. Furthermore, though the MotionScan system may remove some of the “uncanny” valley of game characters in way of faces – I still found this alone to be rather uncanny at times – it does nothing for the character bodies. This is something that the Heavy Rain system was much better at, providing a more cohesive believable whole. Basically, only the actor’s head are captured then these are grafted onto rather generic bodies and character animations.
So, head and bodies can rather uncannily NOT match. The bodies can seem to be too thin, and generally, are far less detailed compared to the heads they carry about. The effect, along with some stiff animation – honestly, every male character seems to be walking about with a baseball shoved up their arse – used/shared by all characters, is it becomes very easy to spot this “uncanny” matching of head to body. Well if reminds me of Thunderbirds (1965-66), those puppets with the gigantic heads that are more detailed than the rest of their bodies. Any positive effect of the MotionScan’d heads is undermined by this limitation of the system – a necessity as the game takes place in a resource hungry open-world city; Heavy Rain, does not.
It’s hard not to draw parallels with Heavy Rain – and GTA IV for that matter. Team Bondi could just as easily of made this game in a very similar fashion to Heavy Rain. No open-world environment, all of the game a series of game spaces limited in size and separate to one another. Scenes, to tell a story with. Yes, you miss out on the parts where you can drive around 1940s LA as you follow the clues but, isn’t this a lot of work for what is simply some rather generic and basic driving gameplay? It’s not much of a use of this open world, and out of all that I’ve experienced, this one in particular deserved more ways to experience and interact with it.
Don’t misunderstand me here, in that I know that all open-world games create the illusion of there being more interactivity, more sandbox gameplay, more of a living breathing world to the game than there really is. They all have the same limitations. But in L.A. Noire’s case, due to it’s strong linearity and lack of any form of interaction beyond driving whilst completing a case. Well it’s just so obvious to the audience that the illusion of it being otherwise simply dissipates. This is a real disappointment as this is an opportunity for the player to experience an era, a city and history that is no longer here beyond nostalgic theme bars and restaurants. With some effort they could have created far more ways to interact with this city so as to create the illusion of it being more than a place where the protagonist simply drives from case location to case location.
Anyway, these driving sequences could just as easily of been cut-scenes if you and your partner needed to have a scripted chat to move the story forward, or, a cut-scene shown of something else entirely that Phelps was not directly privy too but related to the case or story. Kinda like those cut-scenes that are triggered by the newspapers that you find which tell parts of the greater story as the game leads up to it’s conclusion. Even the chase on foot sequences didn’t warrant an entire city to be created and seems rather forced – that whole climb the drain-pipe thing just seems highly unlikely that cops in any era had to do much of. You could have had far fewer of these taking place in much smaller game spaces, and better yet, much more interesting game spaces rather than back alleys and across rooftops.
As far L.A. Noire’s crime scene investigation stuff. It seems rather illogical that even by the 1940s that detectives had a complete disregard of fingerprint evidence. As Phelps you manhandle everything with your bare hands. It was something I couldn’t quite shake and undermined the believability for me. Besides that, the find the clues, inspect the objects and build a case based on the evidence. Works well enough. It’s idiot proofed, as the game will keep on going regardless but, still could of done with some finesse. For instance, unless you twist and hold the object in just the right spot, so that the controller rumbles. It won’t zoom in to some distinguishing detail like a serial number. Finding and holding it the right way for it to zoom in, can be a bit of a pain.
Another thing is that when it came to questioning people, you had 3 options: truth, lie and doubt. These aren’t entirely helpful descriptions, in that lie really means “accuse.” And even when you realise that you still have no sense of what direction Phelps will take it in. For example, I know a character is lying, but, do I accuse them of it and try my luck with a bit of evidence jotted down in my notepad to back my case up, or, do I just doubt them and try and call their bluff? You’d think that each one could be a potentially successful strategy to illicit a confession, but as far as L.A. Noire is concerned, only one can be. And there are no re-dos.
Contrast this part of the game to the action gameplay. Well, it’s like all the open world action mechanics from every game released were distilled down to what they all have in common to create the most generic and boring of playing experiences. To top it off, I found the player movement controls clunky, especially in the on foot chase parts, and the targeting system, to be fickle as to what it would and wouldn’t bother to target leaving you in the lurch – number one reason why a part had to be replayed, second being the cover-system. In other words, clunky. Over all, the action gameplay seems tacked on and done very last minute. Almost like they actually had NO action gameplay worth speaking of a year ago.
And the genericness of it, or how at times it comes across as being far too GTA in style, has a lot to do with Rockstar having to step in and provide this as Team Bondi were struggling with it on their own with their illogical attempt to stick to doing everything in game without any kind of HUD – no minimap, no on screen prompts of any kind, not even a progressive HUD in the form of a gradual fade of colour and rising heart beat as an indicator that you are losing health. Any developer, especially a designer, who doesn’t understand such fundamentals of design, understand that no matter how good underlying technology gets interactive systems will always have limitations to work within. Well, it boggles the mind that anyone would trust them with such large sums of money for an original, ambitious and therefore highly risky concept.
It seems like instead of trying to get one form of action gameplay working well, to a point where it is distinct and working well within the rest of the game. They’ve decided to go with a bunch of different forms and hope that there is enough variety that people won’t notice how underwhelming this part of the game is. Like the brawling aspect which seems dated, like it’s a simple copy of another older game’s mechanics.
It reminds me of The Godfather (2006) game in overall style – kinda over the top. However, not as full featured in that the Godfather allowed you to use your environment more. Use objects as weapons by either wielding them or by slamming the other characters into them with various moves. It provided a more rich playing experience as well as a sandbox experience. L.A. Noire, clearly doesn’t with most brawling interactions simply being about mashing the punch button and knowing when to occasionally block and when to finish off with a grab and head-butt. And it all seems rather rigid rather than fluid – if you want to play a good sandbox brawler, or design one, look at The Warriors (2005).
I can see why you’d include it, as it is a very film noir, private-eye kind of action to introduce to the game. But as far as the police portion of the game goes, it seems out of character even with the hints of police brutality being a problem during the period – you never really use it to coerce a confession from a suspect, as it is never given as an option for you to do so. Something that film noir films do have as a theme, and an aspect of the game along with others, that strongly reminded me of LA Confidential. Actually, most of this action gameplay, as well as the whole cop story of the game. Striked me of being a retrofit of an underlying concept so as to make it more along the lines of LA Confidential, and therefore, more commercially palatable for an action gaming audience more used to the “freedom” of violence found in open-world games like GTA IV.
Though it’s not all bad, in that I like the fact that unlike other open-world games, like Mafia (2004) and The Godfather, you as the player cannot unrealistically walk around with an arsenal of weapons. They handled this part fairly well with the player being able to pick up a weapon – and only one weapon at a time – to use in action sequences. I even don’t mind the regenerative health as it fits the style and direction of the game, even if there is room for improvement.
However these action gameplay additions haven’t had enough attention paid to them. The end result simply is that the gameplay is just too easy and out of character to the other side of the game. The two parts of the game don’t seem to compliment one another, as they seem to be different in style, with the action gameplay having the strong vibe of GTA. What they had in the game, was a good starting point for further development in order to make it truly a complete and unique interactive entertainment experience. However, they would need to have been at this point much earlier on in the title’s development.
Something Team Bondi failed to do, which is puzzling, as the game had been in development for so long already… Make sure to read: Part 2!