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LA Noire: Gameplay impressions

27 May 11

One week in and I'm about half way through the Xbox 360 version of Rockstar's LA Noire. While I love the game to bits, I'm not sure it deserves the sort of accolades it's currently receiving.

LA Noire is not GTA and, to the credit of publisher Rockstar and developer Team Bondi, it was never intended to be. To understand what makes LA Noire tick we need to unravel the game's genealogy. First we have publisher Rockstar and its obvious link to the fabulous crim-sim series, Grand Theft Auto. LA Noire has guns, cars and a dirty big city for you to play with but that is as far as the similarity goes. Next, we have the game's developer, Aussie outfit Team Bondi, set up by Brendan McNamara and previously of Sony’s UK Team Soho, the studio responsible for PS2 hit The Getaway.

It is with The Getaway, that that LA Noire shares most of its gameplay and its missteps. The Getaway provided players with an accurate pseudo-recreation of central London at a time when such large scale sandboxes were still in their infancy. A familiar city with familiar cars and a cracking Guy Richie-inspired plot had me sold on the game when it was released in late 2002. My main criticisms at the time were the car handling and the somewhat clunky character animations. Jumping forward to 2011, I can level the same criticisms at LA Noire.

For the last year, the gaming press has been drip-fed information about LA Noire, a hard-boiled detective game set in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood. We've seen how Team Bondi created an amazing image capture technology to perfectly recreate the subtle nuances of actors' facial movements. The resulting animations are so realistic that players are able to 'read' the characters' performances to tell if they are lying or not. LA Noire has been heralded as the Next Big Thing in video gaming. There is no doubt that the facial capture is impressive, but it serves to highlight just how far we really are from 'realism' in games. In years to come the likes of LA Noire won't be held up as technical marvels, they will be seen as the first steps on a long, rocky road to truly realistic character portrayals in video games.

So, why do I feel that the main selling point in LA Noire, accurate facial animation, is also its main failing? Well, it's a variation on the classic uncanny valley scenario. We, as humans, are attuned to spot reality when we see it; we've been seeing it every day from the moment we first opened our eyes. Whilst we appreciate the stylised and/or outlandish, be it a Tom and Jerry cartoon or an impressionist painting, we know it isn't real. Looking at the Grand Theft Auto video game series - no matter what the Worried Mothers of America say - it is about as realistic as a Loony Toon cartoon; an environment where hoodlums and nightclub hosts get to fly helicopters and planes, taking on the law enforcement of a whole city. It is over the top, tongue-in-cheek stuff and it works. We don’t care that the folks don’t look real or that the physics are a little off. In a stark contrast to GTA, LA Noire is a deadly serious affair: where astoundingly photo-real faces overact emotion atop stiff puppet-like torsos; where cars can be driven off twenty foot drops without injury, and where a single bullet to the foot will send you to the morgue. Team Bondi's seemingly singular pursuit of facial animation realism serves to illustrate just how absurd and jarringly unrealistic the rest of the game world is.

The protagonists of GTA may be nasty little villains, but they are at least likable. LA Noire’s lead, Cole Phelps, is an odd and somewhat puzzling character. At the stage I'm currently at in-game, his motivation still isn't clear. At times he seems too perfect and at other times too driven - as if prepared to step on anyone to achieve his personal goals. I don’t like him. Cole’s habit of flying off the handle suggests he consumes rather too much coffee or has a bad case of Aspergers Syndrome.

Cole calling the homely old landlady a "nosey old hag” wouldn’t win any customer service awards, I can tell you. Curled my toes, it did. In fact, the outburst was so noteworthy that even Cole’s boorish partner commented on his lack of social skills. It is jarring moments like this that no amount of technical wizardry can cover up. People just don’t act in this way in real life, Team Bondi - even in Australia.

Team Bondi have also fallen into a classic sandbox game pitfall; the creation of a very detailed, very big and very clever city with very little going on. Superficially it is all here, trams are going up and down the street in a very authentic fashion - just don’t expect to ride on one. It’s the same with a beautiful recreation of Angels Flight, an inclined railway in the Bunker Hill district of downtown LA.

If this was GTA, they would be more than just eye candy; you’d be able to use them. Similar criticism was also levelled at Mafia 2 on release, which features a period setting very similar to LA Noire.

When not driving around gun preps or abusing old ladies, Cole is investigating crime scenes. As Cole walks up to something interesting he can pick it up and examine it. It works, but it really isn't anything more that an update of the tried and tested point-and-click adventure games of yesteryear. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not exactly original.

LA Noire is very easy to get on with, sometimes too easy. The developers have tried to ease players into the gameplay in such a manner that at times you wonder if you are just playing out a pre-scripted drama, as was the case with the PS3’s Heavy Rain. As the game progresses the training wheels are slowly removed and players get to think for themselves a bit more. The story is everything and that is really what propels the experience from good to very good. The film noire mission intros are fantastically well done and I'd even go so far as to recommend that players switch
the game to black and white mode in order to truly experience the noire visual style. LA Noire will be one of the better games that you play this year, but it should - and could - have been so much more.

L.A. Noire Screenshot
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