Tuesday, 27 September 2011

LA Noire Review

As you will no doubt know if you’ve been a member of the gaming community for the last few years or so, the mainstream media has a constant habit of using games as a target for criticism and wild accusations. No-one knows this better than the people at Rockstar Games, whose popular Grand Theft Auto series is accused constantly of warping players’ minds and turning them all into deranged serial killers after an hour of gameplay, to the point that a person can’t bump into someone in the street in the US without FOX News linking it to the fact that it was outside a shop selling a game by Rockstar anymore.
Consider the irony, then, of LA Noire, a game by developers Rockstar and Team Bondi, wherein you play as patrolman-turned-detective Cole Phelps as he fights to rid the streets of all forms of crime and criminality. Of course, what with the game being set in 1940’s California, there’s still a degree of racism and sexism, particularly on the part of Phelps’ partner Roy Earle, to keep the media jackals happy.
The gameplay differs somewhat from previous Rockstar titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, in that, while the game world is a huge, wide-open sandbox, in this case the town of Los Angeles, hence the title, there’s an emphasis on investigation and interrogation, making the game feel somewhat like a more mature, dynamic version of the Ace Attorney series, without the psychic readings and ghosts stabbing people. The gameplay is nicely varied, including investigation, interrogation, cover-based shooting, car chases and fist-fights, all split up between five different areas of the police force.
In the investigation sections, the player controls Phelps as he examines a crime scene, looking for clues, which is done quite intuitively: when Phelps approaches certain objects, the controller will vibrate and the player may press a button to pick up the object and examine it in more detail. Not all objects are relevant, however, which prevents these sections from becoming too easy. There are also options to turn off certain things, including the aforementioned controller vibration, to make them even more of a challenge. These sections are fun for the most part, but occasionally become frustrating when the game won’t let you progress because you haven’t notice an insignificant piece of paper somewhere in the corner of the room.
Interrogation sequences are also fun; these involve questioning suspects or witnesses for more information to aid you in the case. The player selects a line of questioning, and the person responds. The player may then choose to either believe them, accuse them of lying, or present evidence to the contrary. This is where LA Noire’s new face-tracking feature comes into play - the player can examine the facial movements of the character to determine whether they are lying or telling the truth. This is a great new feature and really makes the interrogation sequences rely on skill rather than simply guesswork. Unfortunately, when a character is lying it can sometimes be incredibly easy to tell, as characters shift around and their eyes dart around the room.
The interrogation and investigation sequences affect the direction of the case: depending on how successful the player was when questioning a suspect, the gameplay and story seen in the rest of the case can change. In some cases, the game asks the player to choose between two possible suspects based on clues and information gathered earlier on. However, no matter how badly the player does in these section, it is impossible to fail the case as a result of them, and even in the two cases where the player must decide for themselves who committed the crime, in both cases it turns out to be someone else entirely, as revealed later on.
These sections are broken up by traditional Rockstar action sequences, most frequently fast-paced cover-based shooting, as well as car chases and fist-fights with suspects. These are highly entertaining, but, with some exceptions, such as having to chase a criminal recklessly commandeering a carriage full of civilians, these sections don’t really have a lot of variety within them - the fist-fights in particular are pretty much the same every time. Then again, the individual sections themselves are all different, and never really stop being fun - it’s just that once you’ve punched one murderer in the face, you’ve punched them all.
Unlike the aforementioned interrogation and investigation sequences, the action sequences are possible to fail. However, like in Nintendo games like Super Mario Galaxy 2, if you fail too many times, it’s possible to skip them. However, I don’t recommend this, as most of them, including a memorable sequence where the player is chased by a man in a bulldozer, are a lot of fun.

So, the gameplay, while not perfect, is a lot of fun and is varied enough to keep the player going for the 25 or so hours it take to complete the game, but what about the the story?
As mentioned earlier, the game takes place in 1940’s Los Angeles. The protagonist is detective Cole Phelps, a straight-talking, by-the-books cop who seems determined to make the world a better place. For around the first half of the game, he seems like quite a one-dimensional character, one who hates criminals and is sympathetic towards everyone else - at least until he erupts with rage when a widow can’t remember the exact condition of her late husband’s glasses. Through the second half of the game, though, it is revealed that there is more to him than is initially apparent, and he has a pretty dark past. I don’t wish to spoil the story, but if you’re not a little shocked by any of the later flashbacks to Phelps’ army career, you must be made of rock.
Throughout the game, Phelps interacts with many characters, changing from partner to partner as he moves through different departments of the police. Most of these partners are likable, and provide plenty of banter to keep the player entertained as they drive to their next objective. Like Phelps, they have their own narrative arcs, and more about them is learned throughout the course of the game, including their histories and attitudes towards Phelps.
The story is brilliantly written for the most part, but can sometime get slightly difficult to follow, particularly in the final cases. Furthermore, while the developers have successfully made the majority of characters believable and realistic, mostly avoiding making criminals commit crimes just for the sake of being evil, one part did annoy me. If you wish to avoid spoilers, feel free to skip ahead, but for a while during the game, a series of similar murders are committed. At the end of each case, the last person to have been arrested turns out not to be the killer after all, despite often having piles of evidence to show that they did it. At the end of this storyline, the real killer is revealed. I’m not going to reveal his or her identity here, but absolutely no motive is gven for why they did what they did, and this story arc ends very disappointingly. It really is a shame a shame after spending around 4 cases trying to catch them to have it end in such a way.

Having said that, the rest of the game is extremely well-written, with a number of twists and turns making it comparable to an incredibly long crime movie. If you want a good story, this is the game for you.

The soundtrack is of a good quality, building drama and pace at key points in the game, as well as some old-timey songs on the radio of cars. This helps to build the atmosphere and immersion of the game effectively.
In summary, while LA Noire is not perfect, the story is top-notch, and the gameplay is entertaining and varied. If you’re looking for an immersive, thrilling and dramatic game that will last for dozens of hours, this game come highly recommended.

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