Saturday, May 28, 2011

REVIEW - L.A. Noire.

Pleasure in L.A. Noire comes from its setting. Its interesting characters of reasonable (and sometimes impressive) depth. It comes in the tourist-y thrill of cruising around mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles in a gigantic, swooping Caddy, and getting caught up in the righteous indignation of pursuing the terrible crimes that populate it.

Unfortunately, it's just not that fun to actually play. It's fun to see. It's beautiful - regularly fun to watch, often very interesting and occasionally emotionally involving. The experience it provides is singular, but I find myself struggling to point out any really enjoyable gameplay.

To a degree, that's okay - presentation goes a very, very long way with me. A game with mediocre gameplay and inspired presentation can still succeed - I guess my problem with L.A. Noire is simply that I didn't have much fun with it.

I do enjoy the driving, at least. Getting behind the wheel of a two-ton boat and nailing a perfect e-brake turn at 90MPH is particularly satisfying, given that the game penalizes you for every pedestrian car you ding and ever parking meter you flatten. Likewise, zooming around late-40s Los Angeles in gorgeous, curvy old cars in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect is a visually stunning treat.

It's troubling that the most enjoyment I get out of the gameplay is when I play it in a fashion the title discourages. The more fun you try to have with the driving, the lower your score at the end of each case will be.

Elsewhere, there's midline-level enjoyment to be had when L.A. Noire tries its hand at action. There are rote on-foot chase events, bare-bones, stilted fisticuffs and simple cover-based shooting - the gunplay ripped wholesale from Red Dead Redemption, minus the Dead Eye mechanic.

What (slightly) elevates this by-the-numbers action is the fact that each example is backed up by a heaping helping of context. The action is always while in pursuit of a character with a name and a bit of history within the story - someone you care about catching or stopping - which makes it feel more worthwhile.

L.A. Noire separates itself from action fare - and almost every other high-profile game - with its detective work. Each case has you combing over crime scenes in search of clues, and this neatly recalls the heyday of point-and-click adventure games. It's simple, and pleasing in that old-school way - but again, what saves it from mediocrity is the context of the story you're piecing together, and how these discoveries pay off as you try to see justice done.

The other half of the adventure-style gaming is interviewing witnesses and suspects, and this is where L.A. Noire both spectacularly succeeds and fails - occasionally falling flat on its face.

The cornerstone of these interviews - the foundation on which the entire game is built, in fact - is the presentation. It's up to you to notice the minutiae of an actor's performance to tell if they're lying or not, and you are presented with a choice - accept that they're telling you the 'truth', cast 'doubt' on their statement, or prove that they're 'lying' by selecting the appropriate evidence.

These sequences are both thoroughly involving and incredibly frustrating.

It's not hard to call it when someone is telling you the truth, but if you suspect them of being the least bit shifty, things become a real headache. If you know they're lying about being at the rail yard last night, accuse them of such and choose appropriate evidence, you may just get burned as the game wanted you to press more gently with 'doubt.'

If the game, in this case, wanted you to choose 'lie', that doesn't mean you've actually made the right selection - the game may have needed you to present the other piece of evidence that proves they were at the rail yard.

Either way, once you screw it up (and you will), that question is forever marked with an X and lost to you.

It should be noted that the arbitrary failure these sequences impose wouldn't be nearly as annoying if the player wasn't so emotionally invested in the outcome - but we are - and that's what makes it bearable. The largely excellent presentation and wisely reserved narrative makes you want to succeed at all the by-the-numbers action and frustrating adventuring.

L.A. Noire's writers know, more than anything, how to take their time. I'll often take a game to task for bludgeoning the player with overbearing exposition and unrestrained dialogue, but Noire employs a light, practiced hand at storytelling.

The protagonist, who at first seems to be an irritatingly perfect golden boy is, over time, revealed to be a deeply flawed, scarred and most importantly human character - much more interesting than John Marston or Niko Bellic, if less entertaining. Often the satellite characters are given similar relatable humanity, though the major villains are largely and disappointingly two-dimensional.

While the writing is well above-par (save for the occasional bits that should have been cut in interviews), the performances of the cast are absolutely incredible.

Where most successfully cinematic games are populated by experienced voice actors, L.A. Noire's groundbreaking performance capture required a cast with experience on film or stage. In Noire's technique, an actor's facial performance is digitally captured and precisely reproduced within the game.

Thanks to the experience and sizable talent of the cast, this means every line of dialogue is masterfully delivered, while the facial animation isn't animation at all - it's an actor's performance, untimely twitches, blinks and all.

It also means that we end up with these spectacularly realistic faces moving strangely atop bodies that sometimes seem as marionettes. When the in-game character turns their head to speak to someone, or notice something, it's obvious that the captured face - which was required to stay still during the process - did not.

It's very unsettling, but when it works (which is often) it's astonishing, and thoroughly draws the player into the game's world. We're fascinated by these characters. We hate these villains. We want to see this thing through to the end - and that is why we accept the gameplay.

Despite all the complaints I've leveled at it above, L.A. Noire is a resounding success in terms of overall presentation, and recreating an era. Los Angeles as found in the game is almost obscenely huge - one frankly wonders if they needed to make it so big - and incredibly detailed.

Fashions, music, cars and radio play are all period-accurate (personally, I love the shock value of hearing advertisements for cigarettes), and one truly gets the sense of a world teetering dangerously on a philosophical edge, veiled by American moral authority following the second World War. It's always a treat for games like Assassin's Creed or The Saboteur to transport us to a critical place and period in history, but L.A. Noire's scope and attention to detail blow its contemporaries out of the water.

It is a graphically exemplary title, with presentation that borders on perfect. The remarkable technology of its performance capture, the amazing work of its actors, the painstakingly recreated setting and the wonderful script all make L.A. Noire a deeply engrossing experience - one that gets under your skin, and draws you in.

I've been all over the place, here - to the point that I wonder if I'm angry at L.A. Noire for some reason. Is it because the game forced me to accuse men I was sure were innocent of murder, and sent them to jail (repeatedly)? Is it because it's so damned different, with its totally linear progression and frustrating interrogations, but so samey with its action?

Perhaps it's because one would think a game that looks so perfect would be more perfect. I wanted L.A. Noire to have not just good action, but thrilling. I wanted to navigate its beautiful interrogations with similarly beautiful, elegant mechanics - but that's not what it offers.

Noire gets huge points for striking out on its own path, but its only real triumph are the performances of its cast, its excellent presentation and its thoughtful, reserved approach to storytelling which does a real whammy on the player. I care about its characters and I want to solve the hell out of its cases - I just also wanted to enjoy myself while doing it.

It is exceptional in ways we don't often see - and that alone makes it remarkable, and worthy of attention. It's worth your time if you simply hunger for something different.

If you want something unique, engaging or simply beautiful and often emotionally affecting, this is it. Well, this and Heavy Rain. If you want a game that's a pleasure to play, look elsewhere. There is much more fun to be had than on the seedy streets of postwar L.A.

-excellent presentation and a great sense of style
-late-40s L.A. is expertly recreated
-drive sweet, curvy old cars in fun chases
-the cast is uniformly fantastic and the facial performance capture is, honestly, incredible
-(mostly) intelligent, reserved writing
-a very involving story
-when the interviews work, they really work
-Cole Phelps is much more interesting than your standard open-world protagonist
-awesome hats - and I love the way Cole will scoop his back on if it gets knocked off, and you return to it. Nice touch.

-simple, thoughtless shooting
-boring fisticuffs
-boring foot chases
-frustrating interviews
-there's nothing to do in L.A. aside from fighting crime

-the fact that the facial capture was done separately from the motion capture makes it seem like you've got a real head on a marionette body. It freaks me out
-travel, meet interesting people, and accuse them of murders they didn't commit
-man, that ending pissed me off
-it's a sandbox game that doesn't want you to play

L.A. Noire is a gorgeous, ambitious, involving title. Look to it for an interesting, gripping experience - but look elsewhere for fun.

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