Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Xbox 360 - L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire by Rockstar

I usually like Rockstar games that are even somewhat based on the Grand Theft Auto engine. However, in L.A. Noire's case, I need to make an exception.

Story

You're a soldier turned beat cop in Los Angeles (Cole Phelps) who must solve crimes to move up through the police force ranks (i.e. Beat Cop then Rookie Detective to Detective.. etc). So, as you solve more crimes, you progress through through the ranks of the police force.

At first, you think the story is leading somewhere because you are progressing through the ranks of detective. Yet, your player character (beat cop turned detective) makes an unexpected choice about 3/4 of the way through the game which you have no control over. At first, I thought the choice was something you could control. But, you can't. Worse, it's a questionable moral (and career breaking) choice that just makes no sense. I'm guessing they included this part to put you onto the Arson desk (which is apparently a demotion).

At first, I thought the the choice was part of a bigger cover to entrap the dirty cops in the department into revealing their identities. No, it isn't. Then, at the very end, your player character inexplicably dies.

Before Cole Phelps dies, though, your player character basically enrolls a former army buddy turned life insurance investigator unknowingly into playing detective (though he's not a cop). This puts his life in danger while you now play the game as this character. Which is odd that Rockstar decided to switch your player character here. Anyway, after that, thew new character loses his job from the life insurance company and is courted by the DA to become investigator to uncover all the dirty cops. So, all the way through the game, you're playing as Cole Phelps, but now you are inexplicably playing as a new character.

Also, all throughout the game between each level, you see flashbacks of military actions that have nothing to do with the actual gameplay. It was inevitable that they would roll it together at the end, and they somewhat did in the final scenes of the game. But, there were so many dirty cops left that the ending felt hollow and unsatisfying, especially considering the outcome of Cole Phelps.

Basically, the story is convoluted and disjointed. The ending wraps up one thing, but not the entire game. It also doesn't exonerate Cole Phelps in any way.

Gameplay

Witness Interviews and Interrogations

Here's where the game has failed on two fronts. First, the interview process. As you work through clues while interviewing your witnesses, you have three selections to choose during the interview: Accept the statement as Truth (A), Doubt what they are saying (B) and Tell them they are lying (C). If you decide they are lying, then you have to substantiate it with a piece of evidence. Once you make a choice, you don't know if you have chosen correctly until you finish the interview.

And here's where the first failure lies. If you choose a wrong answer type to the witness statements and you want to try to get all of the answers perfect, you have to completely restart the entire assignment from scratch if you choose 'restart'. That could mean playing another 20 minutes gathering clues, visiting other places, etc to get to the point where the witness line of questioning is. The checkpoints are too far between when you start a level and line of questions. This is, at best, frustrating. I should be able to start over just the line of questioning, not the whole level.

I have found that instead of using 'Restart' on the menu, that you should quit the game right where you are. Don't use restart, just quit to the main menu. When you restart, it will start from the most recent game save and you don't have to restart the entire level. Instead, Rockstar should have made it so that if you choose 'restart' that it goes back to the last save rather than the beginning of the entire assignment.

Driving

The second failure is driving around the city. Clearly in Grand Theft Auto, driving around is a big part playing the game. In L.A. Noire, there is absolutely no point to driving at all, unless you count the pointless street crimes which are mostly worthless. Worse, in most cases, when you hit vehicles, things or people, the game basically penalizes you for doing so. So, there's really no fun in driving inside this game. That said, they do offer to let your companion drive which skips the tedious driving scenes. The only real need to drive is for the side missions (when a call comes in over the radio). Otherwise, it's rather pointless to drive.

After the game ends, you can free roam on each level to gather what amounts of small things there are left to get. Frankly, there's really no fun in it. It's much more fun to take diversions during the stories to get things. Doing it all after the game is over is really no fun. Once I've played the story element all the way through, I don't really feel that I want to explore the rest of the game.

Investigating crime scenes

At crime scenes, you are tasked to locate clues. Unfortunately, the game directs you to the clues using queued music and controller shaking. So, when you're on top of a clue it shakes the controller and plays a piano ditty. On top of this, there's an overall music score that plays as long as clues are available. Unfortunately, this part is so directed that you basically can't miss any clues... especially if you use intuition points. Also, the only thing that clues help you is to nail lies during the evidence phase of catching people in a lie.

Locating suspects

Yet another gameplay problem ends up as chasing suspects (either in a car or on foot). Inevitably, one of the two outcomes after finding a suspect is that they run either by car or on foot. So, you're tasked to chase them down. The main problem I have with this part of LA Noire is that it seems to do it with EVERY suspect. Not only is it just unrealistic, it's just stupid to think that every suspect would run. Worse, it seems that the suspects can run far faster than Phelps in every instance (including the fat ones). Catching running suspects is just an exercise in futility. I'd rather just shoot them and be done with it. Worse, though, it only takes two shots (or in some cases one shot) to kill the suspect. So, you can't do that.

If you're doing a car chase, again, their car is far faster than yours. So, you're always just one step behind. Trying to push the car off the road is near impossible. Trying to ram the car doesn't work and while you're driving you can't shoot. So, you just have to chase them until they run themselves off the road (which they will eventually do).

The chases are incredibly stupid, not fun and border on the edge of tedium.. especially after having done it more than twice. If there were an easy way to push the suspect off the road fast, I'd be all over this part. But, there isn't. Instead, the game would have been far more fun to just skip past the chase scenes from the outset and get right to the capture of the suspect which is going to happy anyway.

Graphics

The one thing that is the most stunning of this game is the facial animations. Rockstar has raised the bar with facial graphics animation. So, instead of trying to animate a mesh by stilted mechanics, they capture facial motions using cameras and apply it right to the mesh. I think I understand what they used to accomplish how it looks, and it is mostly amazing. The trouble isn't the facial features, it's the stilted body movements that make the character animation weak. Part of the reason is that they captured the facial animations separately from the body motions. So, when putting these separate elements together, the walking and talking animations still seem stilted and unnatural.

Sound

Nothing spectacular here as for music or voiceover work. It's definitely serviceable. The soundtracks are mostly from the 40s, though. As far as other incidental music, there's not much. Worse, you can't even change the radio station when driving around in the vehicles. Note that what makes the voiceovers work is not the voiceover itself, it's the facial animation.

Overall

I was hoping for more from this game, but the two failures mentioned above dampened me about this game. Even though they do allow you to skip the driving (most times) by having the partner drive, it's still doesn't really resolve the driving issues. When you do have to drive, it's just wasted.

The cases are ok, but mostly boring. Examining the scenes for clues is almost exactly the same in each case. There's nothing surprising. It would have been more fun to find clues randomly at later parts of the game. Someone throws a gun into a bay and in a later crime you happen to find the gun from a previous case, as an example. The cases are far too cut and dried.

The game is somewhat fun to play. But, playing as a cop has major hurdles that Rockstar wasn't able to overcome. That is, being able to run over pedestrians and things. The cases are far too directed with no free roaming aspects until AFTER the game has completed.

Score
  • Sound: 6/10
  • Graphics: 9.5/10
  • Gameplay: 6/10
  • Story: 6/10
  • Bugginess: N/A
  • Controls: 8.5/10
  • Bang-to-buck: 4/10
  • Play Value: $12 (not as fun as GTA)
  • Overall: 6/10 (some good parts, not nearly as fun as GTA, too directed, too many chases)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This game was not meant to be GTA. So, for people that want to run around and shoot people whenever the mood strikes; i'd say Rockstar has that covered with the previous title stated. And the sound? Servicable? Really? Of course the music is from the 40's; the game takes place in 1947! As for the story: sure its a little convoluted; parts are left out to the player/viewer to decide. But that, in my opinion is the mark of a great mystery and good noir storytelling; something games have never tackled before. Especially not on this scale.

commorancy said...

Unfortunately, the game isn't Noire and had very few elements of Filme Noire within. Of any game, both Alan Wake and Heavy Rain play more like Film Noire than L.A. Noire ever hoped to. In fact, the game plays mostly like GTA than any other type game. If Rockstar really wanted to mimic Noire, they needed to start over with a complete new engine.

The fact that it is being compared to GTA is primarily because they used the GTA engine to drive this game. You can't use a prior game engine without expecting to be compared to the game from whence the engine came.

As far as the story, it is convoluted. The trouble with L.A. Noire is that the gameplay and murder investigations actually get in the way of the story telling. In fact, what transpires at the end really almost has nothing to do with the stories (other than the arson stories).

As far as games tackling complex stories like this, there are plenty and I've already mentioned two: Alan Wake and Heavy Rain. Both games had their share of gameplay issues, but the stories were at least cohesive. In addition to these games, two other games come to mind.. The Darkness and F.E.A.R. Both have complex stories involving player characters that unfold better ways than L.A. Noire. Even Halo 3 ODST could be considered a form of Film Noire in the way the flashbacks unfolded the game.

So, yes, there are many games out there with complex and complete stories that unfold the game in a Noire way.

The trouble is, not one game developer has yet figured out a way to marry the story and the gameplay together and still make it all work cohesively. The closest that anyone has come to date is probably Heavy Rain or Shenmue.

commorancy said...

Oh, and to discuss your commentary about the audio. Considering GTA allowing you to change the radio station while driving, yeah, I'd say that L.A. Noire is just serviceable. That means, it works in the context of the game, but mostly the musical content is just absent. There are no musical crescendos when apprehending suspects, no eerie music when creeping around dark alleys and limited use for what music is there.

If you're talking about the voice acting... yes, the voice acting is good, but not perfect. In fact, it goes along with the graphics and animation part. I should have mentioned that there. While the voiceovers are better than some games, it is not better than any previous GTA game.

What makes the voiceovers work in L.A. Noire is not the voiceover itself, it's the facial animation.

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