Wednesday, May 25, 2011

L.A. Noire - A Case Well Worth Solving

As someone who appreciates older movies, I was intrigued by the idea of a game where you could go around as a detective in the 40's and solve various cases. This became a reality when I first heard of L.A. Noire, a game that seemed to have a lot of promise as it was from Rockstar, a company noted for creating an enjoyable experience in their games. Developed by Team Bondi, L.A. Noire was also intriguing in that they attempted to use new technologies to accurately recreate a 40's Los Angeles and give it the atmosphere of Film Noir. After a couple of delays, I still waited patiently for the release of the game, filling my time by reading up on what they were going to do for it. When I finally got my hands on it, I started playing it in all of the free time I could get. After about 18 hours of play, I can say that while the game isn't completely perfect, it was very difficult to walk away from.

The story follows Cole Phelps, a former World War II veteran who joins the ranks of the LAPD. He begins as a Patrol officer, but he shows he is worth his salt and gets to handle cases for Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson. At the same time, he must unravel a web of intrigue and deceit all while discovering the true difference between cop and criminal. Just like the plot of a true Film Noir, this line is blurred to the point where he eventually discovers that there is hardly any distinction between a marine soldier and a police officer other than the uniform. I really don't wish to give anything away about the game's story since it is peppered with plot twists, but I can say that there is a fantastically written overarching story connecting all of the cases together in a very big way.

The cases themselves are well-crafted and draw elements from cases in real life, including the unsolved Black Dahlia murder among others. It was amazing to see how they could take cases from the real world and infuse them with cases created for the game or even alter the real ones in a way that perfectly fits the narrative. The cases get more difficult to solve as they go on, especially the Arson cases where it is harder to find evidence, but that is really the fun of it all. The difficulty curve is gradual enough to give you a challenge as well as a good sense of familiarity each time, which is a really good way to exercise the mind when you have to constantly put the pieces together.

Cole Phelps, like all of the major characters, is written very well and very realistically. He is a man who wants to do his job and uphold the law, but at the same time he finds out that there is a limit to what a man can do in his shoes. What helps this is the fact that his voice suits him perfectly, enforcing the illusion that he is a real human being. In fact, I could not find a single flaw in the acting for any of the characters, even the minor ones, period. The difference between this game and any other game title is that Team Bondi used a new technology that would allow them to take the actual actors and map their movements and facial expressions, using them as the model for the characters while lending their amazing voice talents to fit them.

This new technology aids the meat of the game, the interrogations. When you ask a question during an interrogation, you can confirm that what they say is the truth, doubt their statement, or call them out for lying. When you do accuse them of lying, you had better back it up with hard evidence, but fortunately you can back out of it if you feel what you have isn't sufficient enough. It is normally possible to figure them out by looking at their facial animations, and a lot of the time there are obvious tells when they are lying. It's interesting to note though that it is actually harder to determine when someone is telling the truth, since the suspect is occasionally very confident with their own lie. A lot of the time it comes down to doubting or lying anyway, so that makes it even harder to uncover the truth.

If the player is having a hard time searching for clues or interrogating people, or if they are just plain stumped, there are a few handy fail safes in place to ease the process. You can ask your partner for help to figure out where to go next and you can look at your notebook at any time you need it to help narrow your options down and keep track of all of your evidence. But the biggest gameplay mechanic is a lifeline known as Intuition Points. Using an Intuition Point, which you collect by leveling up, can be used to locate all clues in a crime scene, take away one answer in an interrogation, or see what the community picked and make a decision based on that. I tried my hardest not to use them so I could prove to myself that I had good deductive skills, but I found myself using them on occasion to figure out the correct flow of a conversation.

The setting of L.A. Noire is in 1940's Los Angeles, and as far as I can tell, it is recreated near flawlessly. The environment is rendered down to the tiniest detail so every building is unique. Only rarely did I experience popup graphics, which is a pretty good sign for an Open World game. One of the few things I noted was the fact that the set from Intolerance was in the game despite that fact that it was burned down in 1919, but I will admit that it does make for a great backdrop for some of the action that happens during one of the cases. Still, it was fun to get to see famous landmarks like the Grauman's Chinese and Egyptian theaters from back then, among other places like the Keystone movie lot and the aforementioned Intolerance set.

While this game is superb, that does not mean that it is exempt from having its own share of flaws. While 1940's L.A. is very large and there are 50 landmarks to discover, there isn't much need to memorize them, as your minimap while driving is more than enough to get you to your destination and you can just get your partner to drive you there for you to save time. There also isn't very much incentive to explore the city due to the fact that the collectibles, hidden cars and golden film reels for some of Hollywood's most famous movies, don't enhance the game in any way except to say that you have them. The controls are also done pretty well and respond great, but it can be a bit of a pain during platforming segments such as scaling the L.A. Public Library or chasing a suspect on the Intolerance set.

At the same time, playing multiple cases in a single sitting can make them look very formulaic, making it sometimes feel as if you are just going through the motions. However, this is easily remedied by playing the game in bursts of a couple cases at a time, like what I ended up doing. I also enjoyed the Street Crime that would come up on occasion, but even then there were some that I ended up not enjoying all that much. The gunfights, melee, and chase sequences were also integrated very well into the game and serve as good breaks in the drama, but it seems like there could have been a couple more of those every now and then since they don't occur too often in the main story. It is also possible to skip action sequences if you screw up too many times, which I very rarely took advantage of.

One other thing to note is that if you screw up a case, it will continue on despite this and even allow you an alternate path to the end, but you will overall beat the case no matter what. You are also graded at the end of each case and even get the option to try them again from the main menu at a later time, which gives the game a bit more replay value. However, the game doesn't alter the story if you do something differently than intended, making the game more linear than other games of the genre. This isn't really a bad thing, as it helps to enhance the atmosphere of the game being like a movie. Also, a couple of story elements seem a little rushed, mainly a sudden romance for Cole and a rather abrupt ending, although this doesn't take too much away from it overall.

While L.A. Noire does have its flaws, it's a very well polished game to the point where these don't seem to bring the game down very much, if at all. The game is methodically slow, but that helps you feel more like a real life detective in a Film Noir setting. With an exceptional story and some of the best acting I've seen in a game as of late, it's hard to not recommend other gamers to give it a shot, especially if they have played a Rockstar game before. If you haven't been interested in Film Noir before, you may very well be after playing this game.

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