Review by Crofty
"Finally, a narrative that doesn't patronise me"
The facial animation is fantastic. There, I've said it and got it out of the way already. I'm not trying to detract from its masterful implementation, of course, but it's clearly the most obvious and distinct aspect of LA Noire so you'll already be aware of it at this point. All I can say is that it's fantastic, and that I fully appreciate it, but there's more pressing matters of the game to discuss, so let's get to it.
I followed LA Noire's development pretty closely during the year leading up to release, and I only tend to have such anticipation for games I foresee great potential in. The setting of the game during 1940s America, a story that goes above and beyond what games usually aim for, and the prospect of playing detective had me very excited. By and large its fair to say the game achieves a good level of what I sought, but not without a lot of serious issues along the way.
The first thing I have to start on, as I often do when discussing games using this GTA-style formula, is the combat. It's not actually relevant to a huge extent, since the game will try to avoid using it too frequently, but it's telling that for even as brief as it is, it's still completely rubbish. Like GTA and Red Dead Redemption, you have the typical -- and damnable -- auto-targeting approach which immediately mitigates most fun you can have with basic aiming. You can turn off this option, but doing so makes it feel even worse since the game clearly isn't designed with free-aim in mind. Then of course you have the fundamental flaws with controls on the whole, whereby basic movement is ridiculously clunky and the process of using cover and navigating feels laughably sluggish.
Past the combat though, few things else are as bad. I mean, the technical display of LA Noire is less than favourable, with flutters of frame rate dip, texture-loading issues, and a general roughness to the visual merit of the game. Say what you will about Mafia II, but at least 2K Czech achieved a fairly impressive open-world environment without too many sacrifices, so clearly it's a possible goal to achieve for Team Bondi. As for vehicle use, I'll be polite and say that, at best, it's competent. But because these aspects are more redeemable than the combat, it's still entirely possible to find some appreciation for how the game looks, and for driving around in the convincingly-authentic 90+ vehicles available.
Perhaps the main appeal for me was the idea of an atmosphere of 1940s LA that I could fully absorb and appreciate, and then knowing that there'd be a convincing, intelligent and impressive narrative to give me reason to remain in this virtual space. This is where things get a little tricky though, because in one way LA Noire is somewhat of a failure as a piece of story-telling, yet in another way it has one of the best and most impressive narratives in the history of gaming.
See, the game starts with good intentions and a story that becomes more intriguing as you complete more cases. There's newspapers scattered about, and flashbacks of the protagonist's past in World War II which help give you something to gnaw on when some cases deviate from anything relevant (which you would expect; not all cases will be linked to the main story, after all). But at certain points plot-holes, lame coincidences, and the plain lazy "we're running out of time here, let's do this" design mentality seep through. In one of the later cases, for example, you uncover a piece of evidence that has no reason to exist what-so-ever, but is so massive and huge that it completely broke the illusion of the experience for me.
With that in mind, if LA Noire were a film it would be praised for the strong characters and performances, and for the ambition of the director, but ultimately criticised for a ruined plot. Weird thing though - the fact I'm saying "if LA Noire were a film" is actually one of the biggest praises I've ever given a game, because honestly, there are so few games out there that have a narrative anywhere near what I would deem film-level.
What makes it this way is purely down to Team Bondi having the confidence that they could do this type of setting justice, but also having faith that gamers aren't as generally idiotic as people -- actually me myself, for one -- think. This isn't a game filled with unnecessary violence, explosions, space-marines, sex, swords, magic, guns, multi-player, perks, and so on. It's a game set in 1940s LA about a detective solving cases. Aside from short bursts of chasing criminals, and shoot-outs, it's actually rather slow-paced and subtle, both in gameplay and narrative.
When I initiated my first "proper" case it felt like I was playing more of an adventure game than anything else, really. I slowly walked about, picking up items to examine, before then casually driving to my next lead and asking residents for information. I get jibes by my partner while I'm driving to the murder victim's last known residence, appreciating the depth of his sardonic and corrupt personality, and wondering whether this will go over the head of most gamers (it's more than what they're use to with modern games, after all).
Seems my misgiving about gamers was ill-placed though (the game has sold extremely well), and Team Bondi's faith staid true. They've shown that it's entirely possible to treat gamers as intelligent people by making a game such as LA Noire, but also that you can do so while still making a tidy profit. Hopefully there's a message there for other developers too scared to try anything else, but for now it's Team Bondi that deserve the credit for taking the chance.
This would probably be a good place to end the review, but there's still a couple of other areas I want to cover before I stop hitting the keys. It's at this point, then, that I come back to my opening words, since it's the questioning/interrogations I want to highlight now. There's no denying that the initial feeling you get when correctly deducting whether someone is lying or not, based on facial expressions in a game, is a special event, but that feeling soon dissipates.
Once the novelty wears off, questioning suspects becomes less about whether you know they're lying or not, and more about choosing the right response. If you select 'Doubt' you will try and gain information through, for example, an aggressive tone since you lack any actual evidence to prove otherwise; choosing 'Lie' will allow you to supply evidence to contradict a person's deceit; finally, 'Truth' is the easiest and least problematic of the trio. The problem occurs when you think you have logical reasoning behind choosing Lie or Doubt, but the game doesn't see it; you may think you have proof that someone is lying that would make sense in real-life, but since the game is pre-determined for a certain response it will just deem you wrong. Furthermore, the game doesn't give you an idea of what your character -- Cole Phelps -- will say should you choose an option, which can lead to entirely unexpected results when the words come out of his mouth. To mitigate this there is Social Club options available, but that's not something that can be relied upon when you're determined you know the answer, only to find out the game thinks something completely different. Don't get me wrong - I can take it when I'm genuinely incorrect, but when it's because the game fails to see basic logic then it's at that point I feel cheated and frustrated.
Finally, the last thing I want to highlight about LA Noire is the sound. Usually it's easy to gloss over this aspect in reviews since, let's be frank, as long as it's there in games then we'll go along with it. However, when a game does it well I do like to point it out, and LA Noire does it very well indeed. It would be a pretty bad show if Team Bondi went to all that effort for facial animation only to have bad voice acting and sound, yet that isn't the case at all; the sound is just as impressive. But what really does it is the soundtrack, which features both music of the time, and original music recorded for the game. The music plays an integral part of a section, whether you're searching for clues around a dead woman's house, or chasing a criminal over the rooftops. I was wholly appreciative of the music once I finished the game; it's something I remember prominently.
I have no issues in saying that I've had a great amount of enjoyment from LA Noire, and now have a great deal of appreciation for it and its developer Team Bondi. My personal adoration for the game doesn't blind me to its obvious flaws, however, since it does suffer heavily in areas where it really shouldn't. Clunky controls and sloppy technical performance aren't really acceptable, especially when they detract from a (mostly) intelligent and intriguing story, backed by fully realised and genuinely interesting characters.
I had ideas of what the game would be as I followed its development, and I have to admit that it does hit most of what I wanted, it's just that it does so in a less impressive fashion. If Team Bondi can clearly see the areas where the game is lacking and try to mend those we could see something truly astonishing in future, but for now be content that we at least have a game like LA Noire.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 06/22/11
Game Release: L.A. Noire (EU, 05/20/11)
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