The Vengeful Polyglot

First Impressions of L.A. Noire

Posted on: May 23, 2011

First off, this was not a game I ever figured I’d be playing (or watching Matteo play, as it were). What little I had heard of it seemed to say it was a typical Rockstar game, with a lot of shooting and twitchy nonsense that I tend to fail at. Matteo was interested, though, so I looked into it and saw some write ups claiming it was more like a grown-up Phoenix Wright than GTA. I really didn’t like the latter, but I’m a big fan of the former, not to mention my avowed love of Stephen King, silly forensics shows, and horror fiction.

The more I investigated, the more intrigued I became; not only was the portrayal of the time period supposed to be brilliant and accurate, but Rockstar also employed/outsourced advanced facial-mapping techniques to create faces that could be “read” in order to determine truth or lie during interrogations. Sounded pretty uncanny valley, but it also sounded pretty interesting, so when Matteo brought it over this weekend we played through the first few cases.

This obviously won’t be an exhaustive review, because I doubt I’ll finish the game myself, but here are my first impressions of the it. The game is kind of a bear, with somewhat vague direction and huge scope. My initial feeling is that it’s not for everyone (possibly myself included). Hopefully, this can give  an idea of the general state of the first few levels because, well, no one wants to spend $60 figuring out they don’t even like a game right off the bat.

 

Story

This game was billed as having an intriguing storyline, among other things. I think it does, assuming you enjoy the dated-detective-story genre otherwise. The writing is a bit hackneyed, but in a believable sort of way (think The Shadow and old-time-y radio mysteries). The intro monologue runs a bit long and it’s kind of redundant, but overall the story seems pretty solid. You play as Cole Phelps (no relation to Michael, we assume), an LAPD officer rising through the ranks in 1947. The game isn’t a true sandbox, like GTA. There is a progression to the cases you take on, and some of the beginning sections seem pretty damn linear (though these could serve as mostly tutorial, and the game could open up past that). It does keep up with the Rockstar trend as far as scope — the map is seriously intimidating, and when you’re driving around you’re apt to believe the claim that they recreated LA perfectly.

The one aspect of the story which kind of rubbed me the wrong way was the dubious legality of some of the police actions. We’re expected to believe the Phelps is fundamentally a “good” cop who plays by the rules and wants to do the right thing, but sometimes it seems a bit… off. Now, I certainly don’t count myself as a legal expert, and I don’t know anything about 1947 so far as the evolution of our codes since then, but I would kind of think there would still be some protection against warrantless search and seizure. I’m also not sure what counts as probable cause in murder cases, so it could be that I’m just missing something. Maybe the reason this bothered me is because I know just little enough about warrants to think about them but not know if one is required. Either way, some of Phelps’ actions seem a bit weird for the “good guy.” (Badgering a Jewish suspect about Yom Kippur to get his confession is one, though I guess we’re supposed to buy most suspect treatment assuming it turns out the guy is guilty in the end.)

Legality aside, the cases are fairly interesting, and the dialogue isn’t offensive. If I were to make a broad “con,” I’d have to say there may be too many cutscenes. These might get a bit boring for players wanting to get back to the action. I personally tend to like the inclusion of extra story elements. Whether the story elements are clear is a separate issue; there were some mixing issues (at least on my TV) which made the music way too loud in comparison to the dialogue, and it is sometimes difficult (particularly in flashbacks) to visually determine which guy is Phelps. One of these is fixable through the options menu, though, and the other is usually clarified by ensuing narration or conversation.

 

Ambiance

If the story stands up on its own, the ambiance must be dancing around by now. The look and feel of the time period is captured excellently, though not, I think, entirely accurately. This isn’t to say there were historical inaccuracies left and right (there were probably some, but I didn’t catch any myself), but rather that I think the developers took some really great artistic license with the design. The real 1947 didn’t have quite so many nods to film noir, I think, but I certainly enjoy them here. The color palette and just the style is very well suited to the time. A bit gritty, a bit washed out, jazzy music. I believe it, which is harder to do than you’d think. For times as “distant” from us as 1947 is now, often we believe a caricature better than a representation of the real thing; we hold an idealized concept in mind that has little to do with the truth.

Since the developers put time into reconstructing realistic traffic patterns, I expected to want to kill my fellow drivers less. After determining that we didn’t need to obey traffic lights (we were a bit worried we might have to, and in retrospect that seems really funny), we went around speeding everywhere and geez, you’d think they could have put slightly more effort into the pathing AI. Pedestrians, too. Just really awkward, I think, though perhaps my expectations are too high. When my partner got stuck behind a door in a bar, though, I was pretty unimpressed.

As seedy and grotesque as I was told by friends to expect the cases to be, I was really kind of disappointed. I guess once you’ve seen the actual crime photos of the Black Dahlia, the pixel representation just isn’t going to be that shocking. The blood wasn’t too believable and I really just didn’t find any of the bodies gross. This is a plus if you’re squeamish, but I was really expecting to be squicked so I guess it was a letdown from my expectations. I honestly don’t think Xbox 360 graphics are good enough to be super gross, at least not with models of this quality. It’s not that they look bad, but they’re definitely not hyper-realistic. I wouldn’t let the expectation that it’ll be yucky keep you away. I don’t think it’s any worse than GTA, which was blah as far as violence is concerned.

 

Guidance

One of the bigger problems we ran into was erroneous tutorial information. There’s a particular instance I remember where you’re chasing down a suspect and at this point they let you know how to shoot while on the move. Since these things are generally only introduced when needed, and we didn’t seem to be catching up to the guy just running after him, we tried to shoot him to incapacitate him. Insta-fail for that mission. Why would you ever say “Press this button to shoot!” before you actually want the player to use that feature, especially in an “action” sequence? That was pretty funny. The use of the term “incapacitate” is also extra vague here. There’s a hostage situation at one point and you need to “incapacitate” the suspect before he shoots the hostage and, being gun shy, Matteo aimed at the guy’s gun hand. Turns out that was not the right move, I guess we were just supposed the kill the guy. Really, really vague, and rather frustrating to the user. The introduction to your techniques just isn’t that solid, and not everything is so intuitive that you can go without.

The hints for where “clues” are (the sparkle and controller vibration) are nice, and I appreciate the ability to really look through a bunch of objects, but by the 15th totally irrelevant beer bottle we grabbed just because the controller rumbled, I was missing the scale of Phoenix Wright investigations a bit. It’s cool to be able to look for things, but please don’t force me to pick up stuff I don’t care about. It’s also really difficult, at least at the start, to tell when you’ve completely finished an investigation, so we found ourselves going around and around rooms just waiting for the thing to quit buzzing so we could move on. I’m sure when you’re more used to the mechanics it becomes a lot easier to figure these things out, but I still think they could have been initially presented a bit more smoothly.

 

Mechanics

As far as controls go, there isn’t anything too innovative here (there is especially nothing innovative about how much I suck at driving virtual cars). The real draw here is the interview mechanic. While badgering witnesses has been so famously and hilariously tackled in Phoenix Wright, L.A. Noire takes it to a different level. Real actors (I wish I knew enough about the industry to figure out why this seems like such a big deal instead of the norm) were motion-captured in order to create faces realistic enough for the player to “read” during questioning sessions. While speaking with these “persons of interest,” every so often the player will be prompted to decide whether the preceding statements were truthful (the three choices: truth, doubt, and lie, the last of which requires that you present evidence which somehow contradicts the testimony). There is also an intuition mechanic which acts kind of like the three lifelines from Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

The first and most immediate consequence of all of this effort is, “Woah, I just read that guys lips!” The speech is really, terrifically well-matched to the facial motion. It is a little uncanny valley, but not as much as I expected; the mapping is well done, I just don’t think they faces are necessarily as shockingly lifelike as the hype led me to believe. Combining that with the kind-of-awkward body animations makes for a somewhat trippy experience walking down the street. You’d think putting that much effort into making the faces look good wouldn’t be wasted by plopping a really well-structured head on Gumby’s body. There are trade-offs, though, in making any part of a game truly shine, and I certainly don’t think the rest of the game is terribly animated. It’s just that there’s some amount of disconnect between the quality of the top 1/8 and the rest.

The other thing you learn is, at least for me, is that, well… it doesn’t work. Matteo and I would sit there going, “She looked way off to the side, she’s got to be lying!” Fail, not lying. “Oh, well, I think he’s lying but we’ve got no proof… doubt?” Swing-an’a-miss. “I think this is probably inarguable…” Apparently, not. I appreciate what they tried to do, but I just don’t think they hit the mark. Maybe with a binary condition, without the murkiness of what they mean by “doubt” (it’s kind of like “incapacitate” above), you’d be able to narrow it down, but at least as far as we’ve gotten it’s just frustrating. We’re wrong most of the time, and restarting everything because you screwed up gets old fast. We eventually resorted to looking up a walkthrough, always a last resort. I just didn’t quite get close enough to real.

 

Summary

Overall, I think L.A. Noire is an interesting title, at least so far. I know I’m a bit of a Negative Nancy about little things, but generally it’s a solid release with some interesting design choices. An interesting mechanic (though I didn’t find it to be terribly useful) and a great period setting. I’m not sure I’ll continue to play it because of the frustration factor, but I know it’s probably right up some people’s alley. My impression is overall favorable, and I’m glad that they took the chances they took.

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1 Response to "First Impressions of L.A. Noire"

AE says no GTA, but this one sounds okay.

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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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