Tuesday, 21 June 2011

LA Noire: Worth Writing Home About?

This is the first Worth Writing Home About?. It's a review series focusing on innovation and subjectivity, and you can read more on the scoring here.

Granted, my crime scene investigation technique is somewhat esoteric. It's not like you see Jessica Fletcher doing a lap of the room before zigzagging back tot he door, all the while ignoring the witnesses while she frantically hammers X just in case that one innocuous looking book is in some way relevant to the case. (I kid, of course: books are never important in LA Noire. You know, apart from that one time). Anyway, it works for me.

It turns out LA Noire is not the game I was expecting it to be when I placed it No.1 in last year's Most Anticipated (really should get the new one of those sorted). In every respect it is far worse than I could have imagined - save for the important one.

My overwhelming impression of LA Noire is that a bunch of indies got to make their dream adventure game with a GTA budget, half of which they threw at facial animation, the rest of which they turned into a delicious though nutritionally bereft soufflé. Truth is, of course, that Team Bondai was founded by ex-The Getaway guy, Brendan McNamara, and that in all likelihood the adventure game trappings came some time after the 'GTA: 1940s' blueprint was in place. Thank god they did.

This game is amazingly shoddy
I'm shocked too. We've all heard that the shooting and driving are rubbish. It amazes me that studios still believe providing a successful open world means literally that: drawing a city and leaving the player to his devices. Truth is that GTA or Baldur's Gate succeed by populating their worlds with interesting, dynamic and believable elements. LA Noire joins the likes of Thief: Deadly Shadows in developing a large and expensive open world that merely functions as a pretty yet long-winded loading screen.

The rest of the problems include: tedious crime scene investigation that harks back to the pixel-hunting of early Point & Clicks, rough animation and general presentation, and the belief that the best way to reward players for 15 hours of painstaking interrogation and puzzle solving is with a sewer level and a flamethrower. Seriously. Of course, the fact that there are so many borderline-insulting, school-boy mistakes would perhaps be less apparent if not for the GTA comparisons, and the groundbreaking semi-success of the game's all-important interrogations.

Interrogations & MotionScan
MotionScan is incredible.

That deserved its own paragraph. It's rare technology in games excites me that much, but truly delivering expressive facial performances is something that stands to turn interactive story telling on its head.

By comparison to the tech, Team Bondi's interrogation gameplay around it seems - like the rest of the game - somewhat flawed; and that's difficult to say because LA Noire's interrogations have been some of the most engaging, thought-provoking and audience-pleasing moments I've had with games in some time. When it works - when you're not relying on evidence and when the character isn't entirely hamming it up - it works.

But then the still-learning-the-ropes design slips back in. Doubting someone is used for when you have no evidence but you think they're lying; but it's also used for when someone's telling the truth but not the whole truth. And it can't be used for when someone's lying and you've got evidence to prove it. But then using evidence at all is trial and error in the worst point & click tradition: logical combinations don't make sense, and the right answer is sometimes bizarre. The only difference between this and 20 years ago is that now we're punished for trying something that's wrong.

In an upcoming interview with SpaceChem's Zach Barth we discuss why his dynamic puzzle solving is so much more engaging than challenges with prescribed solutions. LA Noire exposes the problem no less.

The story doesn't help
The over-arching one, that is. So often in games I'm enjoying the setting and the character, happy inhabiting his life believably; and then someone asks me to go save the world and things spiral into the extraordinary, and therefore the plain familiar. LA Noire's strongest cases are early on, where you're dealing with beaten wives, framings and hit & runs, without any of the city-wide corruption plotting the team thought was necessary for it to be considered a 'story'. This emphasis actively damages the gameplay throughout in a bunch of ways. I don't think it spoils anything to say that it's made very clear early on that many of the people you're arresting have been framed by a bigger villain, and that your naming the perpetrator is meaningless. Towards the final quarter of the game this becomes a bigger issue when that interrogation mechanic - frankly the only system still holding its head above the water - is entirely thrown out in favour of shoot ups and more pixel-hunting.

There's also the open homage to traditional film noire and - more explicitly - LA Confidential. Playing in B&W is a (sensibly) rare experience that works well here should you choose to turn it on, and it's certainly this that adds more atmosphere than the blank-faced world and the almost-blank-slate-if-he-wasn't-such-a-twat central character, Phelps.

Making the case
So this has been a largely negative write up for a game that's engaged me more than most. I find it bizarre and almost satisfying that - while by no means bad - such an overall average game, with so little of the familiar AAA bombast, can sell so well. I'm happy it has, because it's not so much this game that excites me as it is the DLC and the sequel.

The current iteration of the series does nothing more than steal focus from the real dramatic centre piece: the individual tales of love, adultery and jealousy that have been sourced from genuine period records; the ways in which you can interact with and manipulate these stories and characters; and the thrill of being a 1940s detective whose last resort is his sidearm. That this element holds so much promise is why it's so hard to stomach the mistakes that hold it back.

The production values, the uncomfortable interrogation logic, the narrative balance - these are things that will be fixed in time.

La Noire is a bizarrely pedestrian experience, but its radical facial animation technology and interrogation gameplay make it an essential and engaging interactive drama whose ripples we'll be seeing for some time.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 2 out of 2



    Suspect: What you got to prove I was at the crime scene?

    Phelps: Er, sorry, I think I made a mistake.

    What are your impressions of LA Noire?

  2. Totally agree, It's fairly easy to read some of the suspects, but then it turns almost imposible to decide what dialogue choice to use... Wait, thats the problem!: you dont get dialogue choices, just three options: -Truth -Doubt -Lie, and they can be either a logical statement or sharp guess that brings the suspect down, or a flat out berserk acussation that transforms the interview into a psychiatric hospital where you are the madman and the suspect is the doctor treating you like a fool to calm you down. The problem is you dont know what good (mad)man Phelps is going to say: You see the suspect is lying, but you dont have the evidence so you -Doubt him, this resulting in a ramdom guess by phelps and the laugh of the suspect regarding said guess. So you pick up truth, but it turns out he (obviously) was lying, so you get scolded again. You reload yet another time and try the only option left, -Lie, knowing you dont have a single proof of the response of the suspect, but then, our "detective" makes a wild turn in the conversation transforming the response of the suspect in other that you have proof of... Complicated,right? Let me make up an exaple for you:

    You have one dead woman that was half-buried by someone, a note from a drug dealer telling her to keep her mouth shut, a weapon, lets say a gun for exaple, and you're curently interrogating the husband of said woman as a rutinary process:
    Phelps: What where you doing last night?
    Husband: (looks right) I... I was here watching tv (looks up) ...Thats all I was doing (looks left)...
    Now you make a choice: -Doubt
    Phelps: I know you did it! you had an argument with her, so you shot her down with this gun and buried her in the hills!
    Husband: Of course detective, right after I killed my neighbour for not having the same political convictions as me. Are you serious?
    Then you reload and make the choice -Lie:
    Phelps: I think you killed her because she was going to betray you. We know she was into drug business and im sure you are too.
    Husband: Do you have any proof of that?
    You then show him the note, you win. Absurd right? You didnt even prove he wasnt in his chair watching tv, you just proved the woman was in drug business,wich was blatantly obvious from the beginning. Well this case is made up but the game has a lot of cases like these, to the point that you will be afraid to chose an option because you know it will be up to pure sheer luck if you succeed. And this isnt a one time thing, its the main piece of the gameplay, you will be facing this over and over and over.