Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two games in one

L.A. Noire is the latest game from Rockstar Games and Team Bondi. You play as Cole Phelps a decorated war hero from WWII trying to overcome some haunting events during a battle in Okinawa. The story unfolds as you move from a Beat Patrol officer to Traffic detective, up to Homicide, then Vice and finally pushed back down as an Arson detective. Without spoiling any more than that progression I will simply say that the story and especially the end, was one of the most satisfying narratives I've played in a long time. I love pulp fiction. I love noir crime novels. This game really hits that sweet spot for me. Rich characters, and an ever deepening, engrossing story that makes up for some of the less than perfect game mechanics.

Unlike other R* games this is very much two divergent games in one.
First off there is the traditional R* open world sandbox game play. You can drive around and just explore the 1947 version of L.A., find hidden golden film canisters (sadly no clip from any of the films), find historic landmarks, and stop street crimes. The street crimes are quick distractions meant to fill out the experience from the second type of game play (more on this in a moment). Street crimes range from car chases, foot chases, and shootouts. Characters from the main story litter the street crimes and are a nice way to fully flesh out and tie the two styles of game play together. R* has always been able to create rich worlds with lots of unique characters and deviant ways to distract from the main story. Playing as a Police Detective however forces you to play as straight as possible and keeps the world from being fully taken advantage of. For as richly detailed as the sandbox world is, once you've completed finding all of the hidden objects the world becomes boring fairly quickly.

Fortunately the second type of game play is where the game truly shines. Of course concept of the game is to examine crime scenes, collect evidence and interrogate suspects to solve the various crimes. What makes the game really shine is strong story and character interactions. During interviews you are given options to believe a suspect (Truth), doubt what they are saying (Doubt), or flat out call them a liar (Lie). The concept is sound but flawed. If you choose Lie as an option you must have the appropriate evidence to back up your claim. The biggest point of failure with the game is the interview concept. At times when you pick any of the options your character will end up at times almost verbally assaulting the character which breaks up the pace of the interview. That is my biggest gripe with the game.

Visually the facial character models can't be beat. After watching trailers and game footage from other upcoming games (Uncharted 3) I can't help but feel that the facial animation in U3 feels completely last gen after spending so much time with LA Noire.

The music is moody and really helps to build the noir feel. Like Red Dead Redemption, the soundtrack is available for separate purchase but sadly doesn't include some of the best in-game music sequences. I enjoy the original score composed for this game but wish there was a better way to listen to the licensed music while driving through the city. To me the best licensed music is actually the radio shows popular during the game setting. The other music reminds me too much of the tracks that loop in Fallout 3 and New Vegas (not a bad thing but they are still too similar).

One other mark that can be taken as good or bad is the game is very easy. Combat is peppered through the missions but if you aren't good at that style of game, the particular section can be skipped (after dying a few times). During interviews, if you botch an interview and the suspect won't talk any further, your partner will glean information elsewhere to help move the story along. Failure is an option but it doesn't stop the progress of the story. This is new to most games. Sadly it also isn't handled in the best manner. I'm reminded during moments of failure of the Price is Right sad trombone. The game points out your failure with sound queues but continues to tell the story. I would prefer to not have my nose rubbed in my failure by a lame sound queue. Rather give me the summation at the end of the mission (which is very telling in what objectives you missed) and let me play that case over again to see if I can get a better outcome. I've replayed several missions at this point over again and question what really differentiates a failure ending with a "correct--good" ending.

Overall this is a game that should be experienced. There are some really fantastic moments with character interactions and development. The overarching story is well plotted with plenty of twists and call backs to early character interactions. Plenty of stuff to do (and a good amount of DLC casework still to come). The interview process is a nice touch (when you pick the right choice), the stories are well developed and the overall atmosphere is fantastic. It's not my absolute favorite game I've played this year, but it is definitely one that I keep coming back to.

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