Thursday, June 30, 2011

LA Noire: Shining light or black as night?

LA Noire, an investigate-em-up from developer giants Rockstar, is a brand new intellectual property and is said to be unlike anything we’ve ever played before. For the most part this is true, though it’s far from perfect.

You play Cole Phelps, a decorated war hero, who returns to LA to right the wrongs of war and clean up the streets. Starting as an officer in the LAPD, you follow Coles’ career up to detective and work cases for various desks (Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson). On each desk you get a partner and they’re not always happy to be working with you.

So, how thrilling can being a detective really be? The answer is mostly, but not always. Searching crime scenes for clues is fun but slow paced and methodical and very reminiscent of old point-and-click adventure games. Similarly, the interrogations offer little in terms of excitement but are branching puzzle elements were you must decide if a person is lying or not based on their facial twitches and eye contact.

This leads me to the main selling point of the game, a new technology called MotionScan. This system uses 32 HD cameras to record the facial expressions of actors from every angle. The result is perfectly captured animations on screen and accurate digital recreations of actors that are so good that you find yourself saying “Hey, isn’t that the guy from Heroes?” throughout the game.

Action junkies will be pleased to hear these downtime sections are dispersed with high paced sequences involving both car and foot chases, gunplay and old fashion fisticuffs. At times, these feel like they HAD to be written to provide an extra 10 minutes of gameplay, but they break up the progress significantly enough to not bother you.

The games size is something to awe but also contempt. Reaching approximately 8 square miles, the map has been recreated using aerial photos taken over the 50 year career of Robert Spence. So good is recreation that you can navigate it using a route planner. The downside of the gargantuan gameworld is the distances to drive. Over a total of 12 hours game time, I spent no less than 2 hours behind the wheel of a car. Of course, this can be skipped entirely by making your partner drive. The massive nature of the game can be quantified by simply noting that it takes THREE discs on the Xbox 360.

My main concern with LA Noire is that I am not a trained detective. At times, the links you must make between a lie and piece of evidence are so obscure that only a genius would make the correlation. I felt that it was in the games nature to have you fail first before trying again in a different tactic rather than helping you genuinely solve some cases. One such example is the murder of a woman; you have two suspects with overwhelming evidence against both, the husband and a hobo. If you convict the husband you get a 3 star rating and telling off and if you convict the hobo its champers and 5 stars for you.

It’s the style of the game that will keep you playing. Everything is presented perfectly. You feel like you’re taking part in a genuine film noire. You can even play in crisp black and white (though if you do, you miss out on the beautiful colouring of the city).

The plot, that doesn’t really kick in until half way through the game, is a hive of intrigue, not only for the supporting characters, but also for Phelps. Little cut scenes showing his back-story appear after most cases and slowly reveal that he is not exactly the golden boy he first appears to be.

There in lies the truth about LA Noire. It should have been a film (or a series of films). Infinitely more entertaining to watch someone else played than controlling yourself but none the less a great effort to tackle the frankly lacklustre state of today’s gaming quality. No doubt a sequel will be in the works and hopefully it will tackle the issues presented here head on and provide an experience a little more refined.

In answer to my title question, this game is neither. It’s one of the many shades of grey that appear between black and white. But, like Heavy Rain, it is a great example that developers are not afraid to try something new, and not just churn out endless gimmicky nonsense.

What did you think of the game? What would you like to see in an LA Noire sequel? Leave a comment below and let me know!

2011 Gaming

This subject is massively important to me. I have been playing games since a relatively young age and watching films even before that. I’ve watched the progression in technology catapult the gaming industry from something geeks and nerds did in dimly lit rooms to the dizzying heights of full mainstream attention. Similarly, movies are constantly evolving with new techniques and state-of-the-art special FX which even appear to be 3D.

I find it genuinely exciting to be part of the era where storytelling is pushing beyond the veils of the silver screen and interactive experiences are becoming ever more realistic. But should we be careful? There are politicians that tell us we’ve gone too far, that realism is desensitising the masses and clouding people’s sense of right and wrong.

Across the course of my blog I will cover individual games and films and my thoughts on them. I’d also like to explore some of the political and health issues that arise when discussing the industry as a whole. I hope to provide good information that everyone will find interesting and maybe even inspire a few people to play/see some things they wouldn’t ordinarily try.

Top 5 anticipated for 2011
The coming year is going to be an exciting time for gamers. There are a host of massive sequels releasing as well as some new franchises coming to light. In fact, 2011 may just be the toughest Game-of-the-Year decision yet! Here are my top 5 games to look out for:

Mass Effect 3
The previous two instalments were both epic games, with ME2 receiving GotY 2010 from many sources. ME3 looks set to continue the RPG Action gameplay of the rest of the trilogy whilst expanding on all the great elements of ME2. Of course, those that have played the previous titles will be able to use their saves to carry over all their choices, but this time around newcomers will be able run though an interactive comic to make all the major plot decisions. Release date TBC.

Batman: Arkham City
The original Batman: Arkham Asylum took the gaming world by storm. Created by Rocksteady, it was evident from the start that they were batman fans. Some have called it the best Batman game ever created. Gameplay was a great mix of stealth action, fight sequences, epic boss battles and detective work. Arkham City follows on the story line, seeing the asylum expanding. This will lead to a lot more outdoor Batmaning across wider areas. It’s almost a guarantee this will be super polished and every inch as good as the last. Available from 21/10/11.

Battlefield 3
Battlefield has a long standing pedigree of massive online action with an emphasis on vehicular warfare rather than fast paced action you might see in Call of Duty. Previous console iterations have been a haven for those who prefer tactical thinking and teamwork based action. A new graphics engine has been built for this game, as well as fresh sound recordings. Release date TBC

L.A. Noire
From the creators of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire is a fresh IP that looks set to shake up the standard ‘go here, do this, speak to them’ format that has been Rockstars’ bread and butter for many years. There will be a greater emphasis on figuring out your own cases with detective work and chasing down criminals in the 1940’s setting. Get your hands on it 30/05/11.

Portal 2
The original Portal was released as part of The Orange Box collection, which contained Half Life 2. Gameplay consists of a puzzle game that lets you place portals around the environment to complete various objectives. Although it started out easy, the learning curve ramped up very quickly and became mind boggling. Portal 2 is a stand alone title that expands on the concept to increase the over all length of play from 6 hours to a full sized game. Add to the mix a coop mode (four portals at once!) and a wealth of new features and you’ve got yourself a massive reason to get excited for the April 21st release date.

These five titles have my taste buds tingling (and my wallet screaming) and I shall no doubt be breaking my vow of not buying brand new games on day 1 for most, if not all, of them!

Of course, there are plenty of excellent games coming out this year that didn’t quite make my list (Eldar Scrolls V, Operation Flashpoint Red River, Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3). What games are you most looking forward to? Do you have a top 5 of your own?