Rockstar has their formula down. They’ve been building greek tragedies in a sandbox for years and they’ve polished that pearl quite nicely. GTA IV showed us some new things, Red Dead Redemption brought them to the next level, but L.A. Noire is the sweet culmination of all that hard work. I’ve been a Rockstar fan since I memorized the weapons codes for GTA III on Venice’s Playstation, I even played a little top-down GTA II with my senior year roommate. But looking back it’s almost unfair to make comparisons. The story telling has come so far it makes the likes of Vice City and San Andreas seem cheesy. But let’s face it. They were cheesy. Remember the Scarface homage in Vice City? Or watching Sammy L. driving that fire truck off the bridge in San Andreas? It was fun, but boy was it awful. Fast forward 10 years to L.A. Noire. Here we have a story that lives up to the genre. A gritty murder mystery full of corruption and Colt .45s that keeps you on your toes to the end. I seems Rockstar needed to team up with Sony’s men down under to bring it all together.
It’s amazing to see the evolution. GTA III was Rockstar’s first 3D sandbox game and it was nothing short of a home run. It quickly defined the genre and spawned wannabes like True Crime: Streets of L.A., Saints Row, and Crackdown and these games introduced innovations in their own right, but Rockstar has consistently moved the style forward. Vice City, aside from being the first GTA game with motorcycles, boats, and helicopters, made a strong attempt to develop a storyline, albeit through relying excessively on movies. San Andreas pushed us quite a bit farther along by introducing the largest game world in sandbox history complete with fixed wing aircraft and, finally, the ability to swim. It’s failed attempt at making the world more immersive by allowing the player to adjust his character’s figure through eating and exercise was proof of Rockstar’s willingness to experiment. But where San Andreas was truly innovated was in its setting. GTA games traditionally focused on locales in specific time periods dating back to GTA II’s 1960’s London, but never had they used very specific historical events to shape the story. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the climax of the game coincided with a reenactment of the L.A. Riots.
An important part of that immersion is the music, beginning with Vice City. The 1980’s themed Miami Vice game was the first sandbox to feature chart topping period music. San Andreas gave me an appreciation for gangsta rap. L.A. Noire also includes a selection of 1940’s standards, but as a cop the focus is on the shortwave traffic and so there is but one station. I was surprised by the number of artists and songs I recognized. I even have a few of the Dizzy Gillespie tunes on a CD. While the game is lacking the GTA staple Lazlo, we do hear full episodes of the Jack Benny program and others. I actually sat in my car near a suspect’s apartment so I could hear the end of a Jack Benny.
Rockstar finally updated its graphics engine for the next-gen consoles with the release of GTA IV and along with it came a new focus on realism. It’s still called Liberty City but the only reason you wouldn’t think you were in New York was because the radio kept reminding you. For the first week I played the game I felt I really and truly was living in Brooklyn. Of course, I’ve never actually lived in Brooklyn so I can’t say what that’s like. But I have been there and that’s what impressed me the most about GTA IV. They may not have recreated an exact replica of New York, but they did manage to boil it down into a perfect representation. Liberty City is the very essence of New York, mostly her bad side, but there is enough good sprinkled in to make me fall in love with that urban jungle all over again.
The story of Niko Belic is full of the hyperbolic caricatures the likes of which have been gracing Rockstar games for years. They seemed to follow the code of offending everyone in order to offend no one. Still, Niko like CJ before him was making a half-hearted attempt at playing the good guy. But GTA’s character flaws were about to fall by the wayside with Red Dead Redemption. To be honest, I never played Red Dead Revolver, so I can’t speak to the quality of its storytelling. But in Read Dead Redemption we have some of the most believable characters in a Rockstar sandbox available at the time of its release. Unlike Nikko, who I always felt was just some bum who secretly enjoyed the excuse to run into a warehouse full of gangsters armed with an M16 and a rocket launcher, John Marston seems to truly regret the many horrible things he has done in his life. He even meets a regular Joe or two along the way. With plenty of stark raving lunatics mixed in of course.
While GTA IV was set in a slightly dystopian future “what if 9-11 happened again” scenario, RDR returns to the mildly historical by showing us a West that is quickly becoming tame. Invading zombies excluded, of course. Marston becomes a character worthy of Shakespeare as the game progresses. He represents the honest man tainted by the world around him as he is forced to perform ever more heinous acts in the name of saving his family. And yet, the end some how falls short of a story worthy of the Globe theater. Fortunately Rockstar wasn’t finished.
All this hard practice and rousing success combined with a good head start from Team Bondi paved the way for L.A. Noire. Rockstar continues its irreverence towards all things sacred by poking holes in the image of a white and shining America rising from the ashes of World War II through what will be for many an introduction into the classic noir genre of the late 40’s and early 50’s. While the Red Dead series took on the Spaghetti Western, L.A. Noire goes black and white with a gritty crime drama that pits rival soldiers against each other. What amazed me was the depth of each of the characters. Cole Phelps may come off as a straight shooting Dick Tracy and Jack Kelso may seem like an insubordinate hard-headed bum but they each become so much more than that. Rockstar goes beyond its theme of destroying our heroes by filling them full of flaws and brings us real people with real motivations and all the complications that come with those motivations.
The ending left me wanting a bit more, and yet after an hour or two of contemplation I realize it fits perfectly. I’m left saddened and contemplative. It’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s Homer’s not-so-triumphant return. Once again Rockstar has grown up. The story is no longer delivered on the blade of an axe sharpened by cliché but instead it’s presented in precision scalpel cuts to the most vital of veins. And the audience will roar with applause until they are fully drained.
The trouble is, the greatest story in the world will never see the light of day without good execution. What brings out the smooth story telling is the polished game mechanics. I remember a mission in Vice City in which I was chasing someone on the docks of a Marina. I had to run on a narrow section of planks and hope I didn’t fall in the water, which meant instant death. Poor Tommy Vercetti hopped around like a madman and inevitably leaped into the ocean to his death on a number of occasions. Fast forward to Red Dead Redemption and we find Mr. Marston awkwardly trying to climb fences while his horse leaps off cliffs because it can’t make a smooth corner. L.A. Noire introduces a mechanic that now seems like the most natural thing in the world. I first noticed it while chasing a suspect up a fire escape. All I had to do was point up and Cole knew to run from staircase to staircase climbing ever higher before scrambling up a ladder easy peasy. Then, when chasing a guy on an abandoned Hollywood set he made a sharp turn at the top of some stairs and I followed him smooth as ever just by continuing to run forward. It’s this little touch and a few others that make the game so smooth, so immersive, it’s mind-blowing. Of course you’re not likely to notice these changes, such is their designed subtlety, but they make the game, none the less.
One could argue that these changes and the lack of time spent away from the cases driving around the city takes away this games sandbox status, but I disagree. L.A. Noire is cleaner and more refined because the clunky sandbox elements have been reigned in and smoothed over. You can still drive wherever you want in town and Rockstar’s traditional collectibles force you to. Especially the 95 different driveable vehicles.
I’ve built this thing up to be something grand and beautiful, but don’t get me wrong, the game is deeply flawed. The most celebrated innovation in the game is the facial recognition software used to record the expressions of the voice actors in an effort to provide a realistic reliance on facial expressions to determine whether or not a person of interest is lying during an interview. I don’t see what the fuss is about. It took me a fair amount of time to work out the catch, which SPOILER ALERT is simply, if they don’t keep eye contact they’re not giving you the straight dope. END SPOILER ALERT You don’t need fancy software for that. The software does capture the faces perfectly. Elrood mentioned recognizing a guy from Fringe and a minor character from Home Improvement and I immediately spotted Greg Grunberg from Heroes, he even tried to plant thoughts when I realized he was lying. So the characters look a million times better than Nikko and Marston’s wife, so what? When you do think someone is lying you absolutely must back that up with solid evidence and I found it unreasonably difficult to work out when I had sufficient evidence and what the evidence was. I could find every last scrap of a clue and completely bomb every interview, and in at least one case I did just that. It frustrated me to the point that I had to take a break from the game. Which to be honest I needed to do anyway. My beard was starting to get in the way of the controller. But the magic allure of the game ensure a brief hiatus.
But awkward game mechanics aside, L.A. Noire’s greatest shortcoming is in living up to the genre from which it has swiped its moniker. Sure, the story is sufficiently noir. But it takes more than that. Just ask one of my personal favorite parodies, Tracer Bullet. The Noir art style is all about strong black and white contrast and gritty realism. Think the last scene of Casablanca. A dark shadow across Bogart’s face cast by that sweet Trilby he always wears. The deep black shadows and bright white highlights control the mood and emphasize important story points. L.A. Noire is a full color game by default. That’s not so bad, it’s a 21st century game after all and it’s trying to appeal to the masses. But the black and white option is awful. It’s nothing more than a grayscale conversion. In some instances the game attempts to highlight clues with a bright desk lamp but it just looks silly. I stepped into a bowling alley that looked pretty cool. The lighting was hazy because of all the cigarette smoke and the neon glowed bright, but the killer was the interview rooms. No matter how dark I set the game’s brightness I couldn’t get it to look right. The suspect’s face should be bathed in a spotlight and it should be impossible to tell what is behind him. I wanna make the guy sweat and see him do it. I know Rockstar knows what it’s suppose to look like because the main menu looks fantastic as do the crime cut scenes at the beginning of each case. So what gives?
While Portal 2 is still the best game I’ve played this year, L.A. Noire is far and away the best Rockstar game I’ve ever played, which means it’s the best sandbox game I’ve ever played. It makes me very curious to know where they will take my favorite genre next. Also, on a side note, did any one else feel like they were headed for Toon Town ever time they drove into the tunnel on North Broadway?