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LA Noire

Back in the olden days of Faceplant, my first post was a review of Heavy Rain.  Good game, but I wrote at the time that it was more interactive drama than game.  It felt more akin to watching a movie than playing something most of the time.  It was the only game that I got that feeling with, until I played LA Noire.  Well, parts of LA Noire.  Seeing as how the game comes from Rockstar, the initial impression is that of a GTA style game set in 1940’s Los Angeles, which wouldn’t really be a bad thing.  However, the experience LA Noire crafts is not one of a sandbox game, despite the lovingly detailed recreation of LA.  The meat of the game is laser focused on story, primarily shown through main character Cole Phelp’s interaction with other people and the impressive new facial recognition technology that debuts to the general video gaming public in this game.  Interviewing witnesses and criminals become the highlight because of it.  The interview process really forces you to pay attention to what exactly characters are saying, to a degree that I don’t think most gamers usually do.  The thrill and satisfaction of playing LA Noire will not come from hitting somebody center mass with a shotgun, although that certainly happens more than a few times.  No, the real thrills will come from catching somebody in a lie and knowing you have the perfect piece of evidence to prove it with.  It’s this experience that makes LA Noire worth playing.  It’s a unique experience and a good one, but it actually makes the more traditional “game” elements feel a little bit silly in comparison.  It almost feels like LA Noire is trying to be two games at once and that they both suffer for it.  However, that won’t matter when you’re wrapped up in a case and desperately trying to find your next lead.  It’s not a perfect game, but LA Noire succeeds on a purely absorbing level.  Despite a few flaws, this is a game that should be played.

The game stars actor Aaron Stanton as Cole Phelps.  I normally wouldn’t start with the actor playing somebody in-game, but he is recognizable.  The facial capture technology that went in to making this game lets you actually tell who the actors playing the various roles in the game are.  As a good example I recognized William O’Leary playing a minor character.  Since I had to look up and put a name to the face, O’Leary played Tim’s brother Marty in Home Improvement.  Me being a sitcom dork aside, the real point here is I saw a character IN GAME and thought “hey I know that guy from Home Improvement, I’ll have to look his name up!”  This happens all the time in TV and movies of course, but the fact that in-game footage caused this reaction is a testament to the high quality of facial mapping going on in LA Noire.  It isn’t perfect, some people can still look a little strange sometimes, but it is better than anything previously seen.

Real Aaron Stanton being turned into virtual Cole Phelps.

The game opens with Phelps a low-level cop, in full uniform responding to the whims of detectives and random radio calls.  Phelps has just gotten back from the war (WW2, when the game opens it’s 1945) where he received a silver star for his bravery at Okinawa.  His war hero status and clear penchant for being “a good case man” (well, unless you suck at playing the game) quickly get him promoted to Detective in the traffic division, where he’s out of the blue uni, into a snazzy suit, and investigating much more complicated crimes.  In practice the patrolman cases, of which there are only three of short length, serve as a tutorial on how to play the game.  Investigating crime scenes plays out like an old school adventure game where interactions with objects reveal clues.  Objects can be further examined once picked up which can lead to more finds (opening a pack of matches with the name of a bar on the front will reveal the address on the inside, for example).  All clues found will be logged in Cole’s notebook, easily accessible at any time.  Persons of interest and locations will also be put in the notebook and it basically serves as a database of all the information you’ve collected about a case so far, which is good, because especially for some of the longer cases there can be A LOT of things to keep track of.

The other major part of the game is interviews/interrogations (not everybody you talk too will be a criminal, although that doesn’t mean they don’t have something to hide).  Depending on the clues you’ve discovered so far, a series of questions for any potential witness or criminal will appear in Cole’s notebook.  Select one, Cole asks the question, listens to the response, then you are presented with three options:  Truth, Doubt, or Lie.  It’s up to you as the player to select one.  Truth and doubt work very much like you would expect them too.  Truth is basically good cop, with Cole generally keeping a nice tone and treating the witness as cooperative.  Doubt acts as bad cop, with Cole yelling or making threats to get a person to give up some information.  Lie however works a tad differently.  When you accuse somebody of lying, they’re response always boils down to “Prove it”.  All the clues/evidence you’ve found so far will then be presented in a list and you must choose the piece that will catch them in the lie.  For example, if Cole asks a witness why they were planning on leaving town they may say “I don’t know what you’re talking about I’m not going anywhere”.  A prior clue could be a train ticket in their name, so you could accuse them of lying then use the knowledge of the train ticket as the proof.  This seems very obvious but after the first few cases the phrasing of questions and exact meaning of evidence becomes less cut and dry and very much forces you to think.  As a word of caution for those playing, I found myself using lie too much at first when I should have been just doubting them.  Listen very carefully to a response and check evidence before you choose lie to make sure you can prove or disprove EXACTLY what they said.  The facial technology plays a huge role here as you can tell whether or not somebody is acting nervous such as swallowing, eyes raised, or even staring down and talking quiet.  The face will almost always be a give away on whether or not they told the truth, but it’s up to the evidence and your thinking skills on whether doubt or lie is the best answer.

Scenes like this need to be combed for clues. Pro Tip: Always talk to the coroner, he usually knows a thing or two.

The game also contains a fair amount of action, usually in the form of on foot chases, car chases, fisticuffs, or shoot outs.  The action is actually my biggest problem with LA Noire.  The gameplay of all these elements is fine, if you’ve played any Grand Theft Auto, all of the above control and feel much the same in LA Noire.  The main story cases use these elements sparingly enough that they feel natural.  Cops carry guns for a reason of course, but not every single location you travel to will end with a giant shoot out.  The main story has good action but maintains a somewhat realistic tone in that there’s usually a decent build up time to any of the actiony moments.  However, the side missions, known as “Street Crimes” really took me out of the experience.  The best example is that one of my partners (you get a few different ones throughout the game, I’ll get to that in a second) just got done telling me in a well written conversation about how he hadn’t fired his gun in years.  It was a good moment of a veteran cop telling the younger guy that the potential action their current case might get them in too might be a bit beyond him.  I then hit a side mission where a bunch of crooks were robbing a bank, so of course the only way to deal with them was to pick up shotguns and go in guns blazing until they were all dead, my partner firing away right along side me.  Because it was a side mission and didn’t really “count” toward the main story, no mention was made that the guy who just got done being apprehensive about using his revolver just went full on Die Hard with me in a bank with a pump-action shotgun.  It definitely took me out of the experience.  Despite the fact that it would have been even a less of a traditional game play experience than it already was, I wish Rockstar had done away with the sort of silly (though still fun, I’ll admit) side missions and put that effort into making a few more main story cases.  I understand the need for content, but the street crimes felt painfully out-of-place as compared to slower pace of the main game.

Noire is in the title, expect to get dirty.

I won’t talk much about the story seeing as how LA Noire plays out like a movie, but it definitely holds interest quite well.  Phelps will work his way up the police ranks by working the different desks, with a new partner for each.  Some of the cases are self-contained stories, while others are part of a larger overall story that weaves its way throughout the entire game.  It takes a little bit too long for the threads to even begin making sense in a big picture kind of way though.  Once you start to see the overall story though it will make you want to marathon the last few cases though, so it’s only a minor criticism.  The game has some truly memorable characters as well, from Phelps himself, real estate mogul Leland Monroe (played by John Noble! I freaking love Fringe, was quite excited to see him in this game), or classic Noire siren Elsa Lichtman.  Conspiracies, odd crimes, and quality writing all contribute to make this interactive drama feel worthy of its movie style story telling.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed playing through LA Noire.  Walking around crime scenes and looking for clues doesn’t seem like it would be a very exciting mechanic but the story and presentation surrounding them are done so well that the very slow pace actually serves the game well instead of detracting from it.  The writing is the real star here, despite the presence of faces you know, with the tone and syntax of a 1940’s settings and Film Noire genre almost pitch perfect.  I’ve already started going through the game again with a guide so I can five-star all the cases and I’m yet to be bored even the second time around.  How a case plays out can change dramatically depending on clues you find or information you get a witness to give up.  That isn’t something I’ve experience in a game before.  Much like I said about Heavy Rain a long time ago, LA Noire is a unique experience.  Its slow pace may turn some gamers off, but the rest of us are treated with a memorable gaming experience.

Speaking of Noire in the title, what would this game be without a wicked femme fatale?

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