After decades of video gaming, the real good guys with the uniforms and badges finally get their moment to shine! But can they stand up to the vigilantes, anti-heroes, super heroes, undercover cops, crooked cops, and outright criminals that we are used to playing as?
Brain before brawn
Fighting crime isn’t all glamour and excitement. The job of a protector of the peace isn’t all shootouts, car chases, street brawls, damsels in distress, and throwing cars at super villains. There’s a lot of walking around crime scenes and looking at stuff. Figuring out what kind and size of shoe left the prints in the dirt. Reading the brand name of the lipstick of murdered women. Reading the addresses of bars off of matchbooks. Looking up the registered owner of a car with a license plate number provided by a witness. Reading through hotel registries. And accusing people of lying about stuff. It is this element of police work that L.A. Noire tries to capture. The focus of this game is taken away from gun fights, chases, and action scenes, and attempts to highlight the more cerebral elements of police work.
Although the exciting stuff does still happen, this game is a departure for Rockstar games. It puts the player in the role of a police investigator with a badge rather than the hardened criminals, vigilantes, bullies, and antiheroes that we’re used to. The exaggerated fictional cities and over-the-top dark humor have been replaced with a massive and highly detailed (although somewhat anachronistic) reproduction of 1940’s Los Angeles that takes itself much more seriously. The map is pretty large, accurate, and surprisingly densely packed with streets and alleyways. Average roads are multi-lane, sidewalks are decently-sized, and everything has a great sense of scale to it that most city-sandbox games lack. And the game only contains a fraction of the actual city!
One might actually wonder if perhaps the game isn’t a Rockstar game at all. Such a person could then look at the box and see that – well – no. It isn’t really a Rockstar game. It was developed by an Australian company called Team Bondi, and was headed by the same group that brought us The Getaway on the PS2. Rockstar is merely acting as publisher.
Team Bondi has done a fantastic job of using the time period of its setting. The clothing, cars, architecture, language, music, and events all combine to create a very unique look and feel for the game. The graphics seem to have a slight graininess to them which fits excellently with the genre. Much of the story’s narrative focuses on the rise of post-World War II America: the start of the baby-boomer generation and the era of “the American dream.” It even manages to tie in historical events, such as the famous “Black Dahlia” murders to fantastic effect.
Scary faces ... but in a good way!
The real centerpiece of the game, though, is some fancy-pants new facial animation technology that Team Bondi spent years designing many of the game’s features around. To put it simply, the characters look uncanny. The interviews and interrogations that this facial animation technology was specifically designed to allow really do look like we’re talking to a real person with distinct emotions and personality. A friend of mine even described it as “creepy”. The surreal facial animations are accompanied by equally impressive voice work by the cast. My uncle actually had to stare at the game for almost a whole minute during a cutscene before finally deciding that it was a video game, and therefore not worth any further attention.
Crime scene investigation and interviews are the focus of the gameplay. The clue-hunting itself is nothing terrible special. You just walk around until you hear a ding and the controller vibrates, then you look at something and pick it up and rotate it around in your hand. Once you have gathered enough clues, you can interview a witness or interrogate a suspect to gain more information. You have a list of questions to ask, the witness/suspect will answer, and then you have to decide whether they were telling the truth, holding something back (“doubting” them), or outright lying based on what they say and the aforementioned facial expressions. Someone who is not being honest will rarely make eye contact with your character, may suffer from nervous twitches, scratching, swallowing, blinking, biting their lip, and so on.
Searching a crime scene is pretty simple and nothing special. It can be fun to shoo away the onlookers though!
The interview/interrogation system is an interesting mechanic and mostly works pretty well, but it still suffers from some problems and leaves plenty of room for improvement. Telling whether someone is telling the truth or not is usually pretty easy (except with some of the later characters who are really good liars). But trying to decide whether to “doubt” them or accuse them of lying is sometimes not as intuitive as it should be. Basically, you are only supposed to accuse them of lying if you have a specific piece of evidence that contradicts them. But sometimes, the line of questioning subtly shifts during the accusation that the person is lying. You’re original question may not have brought up a topic that you have evidence to contradict, but the accusation that you make after having selected “lie” will sometimes reveal what piece of evidence you need to use. In many of these cases, you might instinctively chose “doubt”, thinking you don’t have the evidence, and then get the question wrong. And you don’t get second chances. You can back out of a lie accusation if you realize you don’t have the evidence, so you can always accuse them of lying, then change to doubting them if you don’t have the evidence. But most people probably won’t think to do that.
The second problem with the interview/interrogation system is that it gives the player instant feedback on whether you got the correct response from the questionee. The game includes an auto-save that is apparently intended to prevent a person from going back to a previous save to “cheat” (much like Heavy Rain). But it doesn’t save immediately after every question, only after you’ve completed the questioning. But it does tell you immediately whether you got the correct response. So if you want to go back and change your answer, all you have to do is reset the game! Sure, you have to wait a few minutes for the game to reload, and you may have to search for evidence again, but it’s much better than restarting the whole case.
I was also a little disappointed that there wasn’t a more sophisticated dialogue system. It is just a series of questions, and you always have the same three responses (truth, doubt, lie). You don’t get to ask counter-questions, answers rarely open up new questions, and you don’t get to choose whether you want to play the “good cop” routine or the “bad cop” routine. So it isn’t really a “flaw” with the game, so I can’t really hold it against L.A. Noire, but I was expecting a bit more.
The interview/interrogation system works well for the most part. In fact, despite a few issues, it is probably the most well-developed and best-implemented mechanic in the game. Every other area of the game displays a certain level of clumsiness in its execution.
Interviews provide immediate feedback as to whether or not you go the correct response from a quesiton.
Gun fights have a workable cover system that allows the player to move in and out of cover fairly seamlessly and effectively. So that’s good. But there is no “duck” or “crouch” button. So if you do need to make a run for it, you’re exposing your whole body. You also can’t come out of cover in a crouch unless the cover is only waist high. The bad guys can pop out from behind a doorway and be in a crouch, but you can’t. Also, enemies don’t react properly to being hit in certain locations. Head shots are instant kills, but every other part of the body reacts exactly the same. You can’t shoot a perp in the hand to disarm them. They just stagger back and then keep shooting. You can’t shoot a fleeing suspect in the leg to slow them down or immobilize them. They just stagger and then keep running.
Oh, and there's action stuff too
Foot chases are a nice addition and feel very “police-like”. But they’re kind of boring. You just hold the “run” button and follow the bad guy, automatically jumping or climbing over obstacles. There’s really nothing else for you to do. You might be able to press a button to tackle the bad guy if you catch up to him, but almost everybody in the game runs at the same speed, so you almost always have to play out a chase till the end of the line.
Car chases are similar. Your partner can shoot the enemy car out the window, and you can try to ram them to push them off the road. But in most cases, they just keep going and you end up spinning out and have to catch back up. You almost always have to follow them to the scripted end of the chase. They’re still fun though!
And now for a Geek-rant:
Where the game really starts to fall into the gutter though, is driving. The traffic control logic in this game is a combination of plain bad design and glitches. I guess everyone in this game was still too used to driving tanks and jeeps through the swamps of the Phillipines and France and didn’t know how to drive in a city. Here’s my list of traffic A.I. issues that I noticed:
- Cars will sometimes sit parked at intersections with green lights forever.
- Cars will stop at intersections with no traffic signals or stop signs – should those be treated like a stop sign? But they don’t just stop and go. They stop and wait and cycle as if there is an imaginary stop light there that I just can’t see. So I have no idea when to cross because I can’t see any light, I either have to wait for parallel traffic to go, or (if there is no parallel traffic) just guess and hope I don’t get T-boned.
- Cars turning left don’t yield to oncoming traffic.
- Cars turning right don’t stop and yield before turning if the light is red.
- Cars come to complete stops in the middle of the road to make a lane change – with no other cars around! At least they use their turn signal…
- When you have your sirens on, people don’t make any effort to pull over if they are stopped at an intersection. They just stop there and block the whole thing. You have to turn the sirens off and wait for them to clear the intersection, then turn the siren back on.
- People have run me off the road while making lane changes on numerous occasions. There’s no excuse for this, since there’s rarely more than 6 cars on screen at a time.
- Sometimes, the people at a green light stay stopped while the cross traffic (with the red light) continues to move. I actually got brutally T-boned because of this glitch. And it wasn’t just a matter of people running red lights, because everybody at the intersection was behaving as if the red light was green and the green light was red – except me, the poor shmuck who got T-boned. Fortunately, this game is just as forgiving when it comes to collisions between vehicles as any other video game with driving…
- Oh, and pedestrians have an irritating habit of jumping towards danger. Including – and especially – your car during chases. They jump right out into the road in front of you. Push up against the wall, you moron!
- Finally, sometimes the traffic lights that I’m looking at simply aren’t illuminated. I can’t tell whether it’s green or red until I’m right up on the intersection and can actually see the cross street lights.
This stuff is absolutely inexcusable! The problem of traffic management has already been effectively solved by Rockstar for its Grand Theft Auto games. How Team Bondi can spend so long developing this game, have it published by the masters of sandbox city gaming themselves (Rockstar), and still not be able to get traffic flow to work correctly is mind-numbing.
... And a little bit more Geek-ranting...
Another issue with driving comes from the few trailing missions that the game forces you to play. We had to expect that these would occur at least a few times in a police investigation game. But these missions always suck in video games! So this isn’t just an issue with L.A. Noire. This problem exists in every driving game.
Games always seem to focus too much on just keeping your distance, when in reality, you usually just keep two or three cars between you and the person you’re tailing. But with the low amount of traffic on the streets, and the condensed size of the city, you usually just end up having to stay a block behind the car you’re tailing and stopping in the middle of the road half a block away while a light is red – often with no traffic between you and the suspect. What? That doesn’t look suspicious? It would be nice to see a game like this in which the city streets are properly scaled, properly crowded with cars, and you can follow people while still following the basic traffic rules like stopping at red lights, not stopping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, and not slaloming through traffic. Game designers: stop putting these missions in your games if you can’t do them right!
Tailing a suspect doesn't work so great when this is the heaviest that traffic ever gets
In an attempt to further immerse the player in the 1940’s setting, the designers took away the “GPS” route display from the min-map. Instead, you can press a button to ask your partner for directions. This is a pretty cool, and thematic change. But it also has issues. The directions your partner gives suck. He just says “turn right”, “turn left”, or “go straight”. So you have to ask at every intersection! It would be nice if they could have programmed the game so that he would give more detailed instructions like “Follow Broadway and turn left onto 1st Street.” But even that wouldn’t really work because there aren’t any street signs with names on them at any of the intersections. There also isn’t even a foldout map! And all the destinations in the game are given by addresses or cross street! So this is the one Rockstar game that most needs a foldout map, and we didn’t get one. At least they gave us a pause menu map (unlike in The Getaway), and you could just use Google maps most of the time.
I also was not thrilled with the vehicle controls. Most prominently, the horn and siren are both activated by clicking the left stick. So if you’re in a car with only a horn, it just honks the horn. If you’re in a car that only has a horn, then obviously it only activates the horn. But if you’re car has a siren, you can only toggle the siren. You can’t use the horn at all! Considering how bad the traffic moves in this game, I want to honk the horn a lot. But all that happens is I turn on the siren, and everybody stops and makes everything worse! What happened to the GTA control of clicking the stick to activate the siren and holding it to honk the horn? GTA even let you use the alternate siren sound as a horn once the sirens are on!
This is another issue that could be excuseable, but it isn’t because there are like six face buttons on the controller that are unused! Why not map the siren to the down directional button? And what about control over headlights and turn signals? Why not map those to the left and right direction buttons since there’s no radio stations to cycle through? Maybe if I could use my turn signals, I wouldn’t get rear ended while making lane changes so often! What about being able to toggle between the police radio and the normal radio? Another message to all game developers: simple controls are nice, but NOT when they take away functionality!
Oh, and the phone icon on the mini-map is way too large. It makes it hard to actually figure out where the phone is, since the icon covers up most of the area of any given room.
What's that, Chief? Somebody's about to get murdered? Well we'll get right on that as soon as we drive all over town picking up collectibles!
The game itself is a very narrative-driven and controlled experience. This is not a “sandbox” game! The game is divided up into discrete missions (called “cases”), each with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. When one case ends, the next begins. This has the advantage of giving definitive stopping points, and allowing the player to complete a case within an hour or two game session and feel like you’ve accomplished something.
These golden film reels are scattered all over town as hidden collectibles. They are hard to find. I only stumbled upon one during my run-through of the game's story
This would be fine if not for the fact that the game also encourages the player to explore on your own. You can find landmarks, solve “street crimes”, locate hidden “golden film reels” of some of the most historic movies ever made, or locate secret cars. All of which provide you with experience that will help you accumulate “intuition points” that can be used to reveal clues or provide hints in interviews. But the game never gives you an opportunity to just go out and look for any of this stuff. You always have an objective, a place to go, something to do. What’s worse, there are moments in the story where you get demoted for poor performance back to being a “street cop”, and they still don’t give you the opportunity to go and complete any of the side content or explore the city at your leisure. Why would you include a “street crime” solving mechanic, write into the story that you get demoted to working “street crimes”, and then not fill in that time by letting the player complete any street crimes they may have missed and explore the side content for the game?
The story itself is fairly well-written and provides plenty of mystery, intrigue, and suspense, and the satisfaction of solving a mystery will keep you coming back for more. It makes excellent use of the time period, tying into important historical events in direct and subtle ways. It deals with very touchy, adult issues head on and doesn’t shy away from anything, including serial murder, drug abuse, fraud, insurance and real estate scams, stalking, rape, and child molestation (and statutory rape). So I have to give credit to Team Bondi for having the guts to make a game and not worry about what the censors will have to say about it. The story is also very long, so you definitely get your money worth in this game. I was irritated that they concealed important information about the main character for the sake of revealing that information as a “plot twist” for dramatic effect. What the hell? I am the character! Why wouldn’t I know about the things he’s doing in his off hours? That seemed like a sloppy story-telling gimmick to me, but everything else about the story is great!
If you think you are going to be offended by dead women's breasts, you might wanna skip this game.
On the other hand, if dead women's breasts get you excited, then there is finally a game for you!
And get yourself some professional help.
It's definitely a game worth playing. But "Game of the Year"? I don't think so.
Now, the litany of complaints that I’ve spent too long talking about might make you think that I hate this game, and that I think it’s a horrible game. But that is not the case at all. I went through this list of complaints because I do like this game, and I want to see more games like this, but I don’t want them to make the same beginner mistakes that Team Bondi made.
I’m already hearing people saying that L.A. Noire is “Game of the Year” material. Red Dead Redemption won that honor in many votes last year (including the Spike TV Video Game Awards), but quite frankly, I think that Red Dead suffered from too many gameplay issues to have won such an honor (*cough* Heavy Rain should’ve won *cough*). Sorry. I think I’ve got something stuck in my throat. Sadly, I feel much the same way about L.A. Noire. The concept is great. The production values are sky-high. The narrative is well-told and compelling enough to have kept me coming back for more for days on end. But looking nice and having a great story isn’t enough. The game still has to be fun to play and has to work. And L.A. Noire provided me with just enough frustration and irritation that I personally don’t believe it deserves to receive the same accolades that Red Dead also unjustly received. Unless the rest of the “Game of the Year” contenders end up being duds. But with games like Portal 2, and The Witcher 2 already on store shelves, and games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Mass Effect 3, and (hopefully/especially) The Last Guardian still on the way, I just can’t see L.A. Noire beating all those on the merit of it’s gameplay alone. That is some pretty stiff competition from some well-established franchises and developers. If L.A. Noire does end up being awarded “Game of the Year” by anybody, it would probably have to be on the grounds that it is the only game on this list that is a new intellectual property, and because it does tread new ground in terms of the kind of stories that games can deliver. In that sense, it is a tremendous success!
It is still a great game with a well-conceived and well-told story. And it is well deserving of being in anybody’s library. L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain set a successful groundwork for what I hope will become a popular new genre of mystery/thriller/investigation games. But considering all the hype surrounding it, the pedigree of Rockstar, and the seven years that the game spent in development, I can’t help but be a little bit disappointed that the game has so many glaring flaws.
Buy L.A. Noire on Amazon.com!