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!

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