L.A. Noire had gathered its fair share of attention leading up to its release.
Published by the creators of Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire absolutely fits the bill for what constitutes a modern Rockstar game. It has a large open map with plenty to explore, and the developers at Team Bondi have evidently been blessed with an abundance of financial backing since the production values, as expected from any game under the Rockstar label, are visibly high. Possibly the most notable thing about this game is the addition of detailed facial animations which promised to provide the game with an added level of depth and realism that has often been missing from other games. The question on everyone’s lips coming up to launch was whether this “gimmick” would provide anything more than simple aesthetic value to the overall experience. Whilst Creative Director Brendan McNamara has the rather decent 2003 release of The Getaway to his name, L.A. Noire is actually the first release from Team Bondi as a studio, so questions had been raised over just how good this game was going to be.
Now that L.A. Noire has been released, its level of accomplishment is clear. Graphically, it’s excellent. The tone of 1940s Los Angeles is wonderfully recaptured in the film noir style with superb attention to detail, both visually and audibly. The problem I have with this game, however, is not with its aesthetic. While the game looks absolutely gorgeous, and following on from that initial wow-factor of the detailed facial animations (which I will get back to later), the game is actually rather boring to play. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not a particularly enjoyable one either, and it only gets more tedious as the game moves forward. Character movement is clunky at times, and it can be hard to position your character, and by extension yourself, so that you can pick up those small objects that the game consistently requires you to in order to conduct your investigations. This issue is a nuisance more than anything else, and when you consider that a significant bulk of the game is made up with these rather dull interactions, it’s not long before it pollutes the excitement of even the most optimistic of players.
How these interactions play out is through picking up small, seemingly inanimate objects that litter crime scenes, followed by an inspection of each item completed by tilting the analog stick to look them over for small clues which may, or may not, be present. These observations and clues are stored in a notebook which the protagonist, Los Angeles police detective Cole Phelps, takes out whilst conducting investigations and interviews with possible culprits and/or witnesses. It’s your typical detective movie kinda thing, but interactive – which sounds like a great mix, and initially feels great and original, but it quickly becomes stale.
It should be noted at this point that in terms of acting this game is a real gem. It would not be remiss to say that in this regard L.A. Noire sets the standard for games moving forward. Team Bondi clearly knew they were onto something with these facial animations, and it feels like the majority of the game’s hefty budget was spent on getting this motion capture mechanic to work. This “MotionScan” technology, as it’s named, is the best part of the game, making use of those lifelike facial animations in order to throw your investigations and add real depth to your detective work. The developers have really managed to integrate this technology into the game well so as to make it feel like more than just a gimmick. It provides a new level of interaction and gameplay, and it’s honestly hard to go back to playing something without this technology after it has been seen and used like it has here.
The usefulness and productivity of these animations is evident through the game’s makeup, since the gameplay itself hinges on its exacting implementation. During investigations it’s up to the player to determine whether the interviewee is lying, holding something back, or telling the truth. Chosen responses affect your investigation, and your response must be asserted by the information you have managed to gleam through dialogue and objects, or through close reading of visible cues in the faces of your potential conspirators, ultimately deciding whether the case gets effectively solved or not, or even just affirming how the whole thing plays out. Looking for evidence to back up your assertions is imperative since accusing a witness or suspect of something without proof can lead to some worrying, but often interesting, exchanges. It’s not all about what’s said and heard through conversation, since purposefully visible displays of emotion such as worry, fear, or anger are often the most important signs of all.
This animation is so accurate that it changes the way the game is played entirely and makes it a far deeper experience than it initially seems on the surface. The problem here, I think, is that players, such as myself, have not really been trained to play games in this way; it’s never been done to this level before, and we’re all so used to seeing those dead, lifeless eyes of video game characters that it’s not only disconcerting to see something done this realistically, but it can also take a while for this process of gameplay to really sink in. Initially, I found myself quite confused and making what would later appear as incredibly stupid assertions, leading me to the conclusion that my poker-face skills were simply not up to scratch. This gets easier with time, but just as you start to get to grips with the game’s system, it begins to get tedious since these exchanges seem to work in repetitive circles and particular patterns begin to emerge.
It often feels like by focusing so hard on this one element of the game, the developers simply ran out of time to flesh out other aspects of the game. This is no Grand Theft Auto, or Red Dead Redemption, since there is very little action to speak of. Instead, the main focus lies within these small detective stories that you, as the player, must solve. The story is pretty interesting, albeit a little predictable at times, and if narrative development is something you desire in a game’s focus then you won’t be disappointed. Any action that does take place, however, is heavily scripted and implemented only, it seems, to forward the narrative agenda.
But, L.A. Noire is not supposed to be like those other games. This is a game all about solving mysteries and crimes set in post-war 1940s Los Angeles at a time in which crime and corruption were at an alarming high. The feel of 1940s L.A. is breathtaking, and the look and size of the reconstructed city is a thing to behold. Noticeable landmarks are scattered around the city which are appreciated even if the city is not a direct replica of real-world Los Angeles, but it adds an extra level of depth to players wanting to be submerged with the game’s world. The dark streets at night accompanied by vivid lighting, late night mist, and an era-specific soundtrack help to escalate the feel of the game to even greater heights.
But, in the end, it’s the gameplay that lets L.A. Noire down. This game makes you a detective, and unlike movies or books where the monotonous everyday transactions of life can be circumvented in favour of those interesting moments that we all crave and likely never witness in reality, L.A. Noire not only gives you it all, but seems to focus on the mundane. Unfortunately, these moments are no more fun to play in a game than they are to do in real life, even if they’re masked within a mysterious narrative. But L.A. Noire certainly has its merits, and where it shines it does so brightly. There are elements in this game that really make it stand out, it’s just a shame that it is so repetitive to play because the ideas behind it all are really quite intriguing. The lingering feeling is one of disappointment, and the game feels like a missed opportunity more than anything else, since it’s easy to imagine just how good it could have been had it received a little more care and thought into the overall experience.