Film Noire excellence in video game form.
Let's get this perfectly straight, LA Noire is NO GTA. Even though it is developed by the same prolific developer, LA Noire could not be more different- for example, you are not able to draw your weapon unless the game dictates it and gone are the days of committing vehicular manslaughter. This game in its core, is an adventure game with Free-Roaming elements. Like GTA and its plethora of imitator, this game has a sprawling open city for you to cruise in but don’t expect to be pulling out your gun and recreating the St. Valentine’s day massacre when ever you feel like it. Instead, this game focuses on good clean police work, with evidence collecting and extracting information out of Person of Interests through both clever deduction and aggressive intimidation.
The setting of 1940s LA is perfect for the titular Noire style as it presents a booming urban jungle filled with post-WWII opportunities for both triumph and tragedy. Like the canon of film noir this game is heavily based on, it’s a world where there is no chivalrous knight, it a world where anyone and everyone has their own agenda. Even the “Good Guys” are more concerned with hitting the headlines and getting confessions than concern with petty inconveniences such as thorough investigation.
The main character Cole Phelps is a straight laced LAPD detective and a war hero of the Okinawan campaign. He is a far cry from the anti-heroes and scoundrels that anchor most of Rockstar's games, and a great contrast to the atmosphere of corruption, paranoia, and opportunism. He's a war hero and do-gooder who believe, perhaps naively, that he can actually help clean up his city. But like almost everyone else in the game, even Cole has secrets to hide. Throughout the game Cole would be forced to deal with crooked cops, mobsters and corrupt businessmen, this is where the excellent writing and character design of LA Noire shines. Cole is only human and the excellent dialogue in the game actually shows it, from his lecturing of a fellow police officer for drinking on the job to standing by and watching a fellow cop berate an African American doorman for “putting his hands on him” while merely showing his displeasure but not doing anything to stop it. This shows that Cole talks a good talk but those holier than thou speeches cease in the face of his peers as his inability to handle social pressure leads to this contradictory behaviour. It's this complex personality that makes LA Noire stand out from the myriad of other adventure games.
Rockstar has made a painstakingly accurate and detailed city of LA with many of its iconic landmarks such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the classic Egyptian theatre. You would find yourself cruising down Figueroa and the famous Hollywood Boulevard or resolving a shootout at the city's classic Egyptian Theater. LA Noire’s storyline actually made reference to some of the era’s most prolific headlines such as the Black Dahlia Murder, the inclusion of infamous mobster Micky Cohen in the main storyline benefits the game’s immersion tremendously due to the decades of cultural mystique that have built up around them, giving a great sense of authenticity to the whole avaricious affair.
The game's episodic structure is effective precisely because you're playing by police rules, and Phelps is such a straight laced and By The Book kind of detective, It would be utterly out of character if he could kill random citizens and get into shootouts with the VERY same police officers that he works with and in fact, you can't even draw your gun unless you're placed in a situation where you absolutely need to, such as to put down a gang of armed bank robbers. I am happy that such limits are set in this free-roaming world, these limits are there because of the exact role Cole in playing(there is even a warning “bubble” whenever you come close to running over innocent civilian under the wheels of your Chevy) and actually helps maintain immersion. There seems to be an awareness of those limits in the design too since you're not actually required to drive to each new destination; you can set a map waypoint and have your partner drive, it is a smart way to mask the fast travel system within the context of the environment. Since you're never in the car for more than a few minutes at once, I found myself doing almost all the driving myself just to take in the city's sights, and because the game does a good job of masking its load times with the driving sequences, making for a more seamless experience. Driving around during a case also gives you the chance to unlock new Los Angeles landmarks and respond to petty street crimes called out over police dispatch.
In the very heart of LA Noire is the investigation and sleuthing. The game is structured in a way in which you would always know what to do next. After being handed a case, you would need to drive to the crime scene, hunt down clues and follow any leads that are revealed. For instance, one of the first homicide cases has you investigating a murdered woman with profanities written all over her dead naked body. As Phelps, you must canvas the scene and identify relevant evidence. When you're out looking for clues you'll get single notes from the piano and stand-up bass indicating there's more evidence to be found and controller rumble draws your attention. You find a trail of footprints which eventually leads to identifying it to be left by a size 8 shoe. Upon further investigation of the crime scene, you find a globe which requires you to align the continents together. Upon completing the puzzle, the Bamba Club name pops up, that gives you a lead to follow. Both clues are jotted into Phelps’ notebook, your most important piece of equipment.
One thing you will notice as you search a crime area is that Team Bondi is clearly hot on accessibility. When you first arrive, a crime scene will tend to be raw, allowing you to pick through the evidence. Run into a dead end, though, and you can ask your partner for advice, usually in an irritated tone of voice. After a while other officers will kneel down in front of important clues, nudging your eye towards it. Finally, yellow markers are put next to crucial pieces of evidence ala CSI style. Phelps is the hero, but he can’t solve a case without the advice of the coroner on scene or the helpful voice of dispatch at the end of a telephone, supplying addresses and other essential information.
Then there's the game's most talked about questioning/interrogation system. This is where you ask questions (or demand answers) from suspects or another person of interest then have to determine whether they're telling you the truth or not, and if necessary, present some kind of evidence to expose their lies. Yes, it's very similar to the Phoenix Wright series. In the absence of the right evidence, you have to look at their faces and body language, and also try to get inside their heads and think about their motives, to get the right "answer." There is only one right answer to each question, which will probably put some people off, and I'd agree this would be a damnable offense if failing to catch a suspect in a lie triggered some kind of failure or restart. But instead you'll merely miss out on some piece of information and be required to make up for it in some other way, which changes the course of your investigation and gives each case a dynamic flow. If you, like me, are the sort of person who exhausted every single dialog choice in Mass Effect, you'll eat this stuff up and wish there were more of it.
The chance of missing information isn't unique to the conversations. The most important thing to know about the investigations in L.A. Noire is that there's a relatively high degree of variability in the way a case plays out. You can't "fail" a case, you would always conclude it by nabbing someone, making an arrest is more important to most of these cops than discovering the truth (even if that someone isn't actually the right person.) But the route you take to get there depends on all kinds of factors such as if you managed to retrieve a certain piece of evidence to what order you chose to visit a list of locations on your notebook. I went back and played several cases again (the game lets you do this easily from a cases menu) and found several clues I had missed earlier, which allowed me to construct a stronger line of questioning and solve the cases with more clarity than the first time around. A couple of times, I completed cases without even visiting every location or talking to every suspect, since I'd already gathered enough evidence to build a case against the perpetrator. It's ironic that the worse you perform, the more content you'll potentially see, but this flexibility helped me feel like I was doing my own casework instead of following a single, rigid "correct" path through each case.
The game stays true to its title, doing just about everything it can to evoke the noir classics from the period that inspired it. That ranges from the font used to present each case's title to the fact that you can play the entire game in black and white(which is extremely cool and improves the overall aesthetics), which enables the sort of harsh contrast you would expect from the genre. The orchestra score feels completely in tune the setting and atmosphere, and there's a great musical aspect to the investigations as well. And the game pulls no punches at all. The seedy underside of Los Angeles is an ugly, ugly place: racism, misogyny, rape, pedophilia, mutilation, infidelity, betrayal, and a truckload of grisly corpses (that you'll get up close and personal with) are just some of the elements that underpin the game's cases. It definitely earns its mature rating.
L.A. Noire is a bold release, because it defies the expectations not just for the type of game Rockstar usually releases, but also for the type of game that receives this degree of care and proficiency in its execution. The world already has enough open-world action games, but a game which marries that open world to such a methodical style of gameplay, with a budget this big, is a rare thing indeed.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Written by Kenny Chen Kangyi
Article syndicated from POPCulture Online
© POPCulture Online 2011