Monday, April 9, 2012

Review Time: L.A. Noire in the Crosshairs

Welcome to the second installment of Review Time.  In the last review, I covered World of Warcraft Cataclysm.  Now the first beneficiary of my break from Azeroth comes into the limelight: L.A. Noire.

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Initially announced in 2004, the initial project from Team Bondi (under the Rockstar Games umbrella) took seven years to finally hit the market and it did so with a ton of marketing and fanfare.  Groundbreaking technology for video game graphics plus a unique story and setting concept put this project on track as a "Game of the Year" contender for 2011.

However, anybody who sincerely believes this is anywhere close to the Game of the Year is overlooking some serious flaws and drawbacks.  Revolutionary in some regards, yes.  But also so many inexcusable errors for a game in development for a whopping seven years.

For the small handful of readers who may not know or may have forgotten the ad campaign about this game from a year ago, L.A. Noire is a crime drama game set in a film noir style that fits the game's 1940's setting.  The main character is Cole Phelps, a war hero who has come back from the war to become a detective in the L.A.P.D.  As with many of the popular detective or crime investigation shows on television in the past decade, the story is fraught with crime, moral issues, sexuality, and twists.

However, it is that story which ends up being one of the biggest weaknesses of the game.  The game is set in an episodic style with a series of cases that take roughly an hour to 90 minutes to solve, with flashbacks from Cole's previous life in the war mixed in between every mission to reveal story details that become relevant to the main storyline.  It becomes clear in these flashbacks that Cole Phelps is a war hero in name only, as his Silver Star was awarded for being stunned into shock and hiding in a foxhole to survive the Battle of Okinawa.

Many of the soldiers in Cole's unit end up being minor players in the main story, and the distaste most of them have for Cole is clear.  This story gains a lot of traction in the first half or 2/3 of the game, leading a player to expect a good payoff.  Cole becomes a rising star in the L.A.P.D. after successfully solving a few cases as the Patrol Desk and the Traffic Desk.  The game hits a high point at the Homicide Desk where five murders lead to five innocent men being put to jail before the real culprit is tracked down in a mission that feels a lot like the movie Die Hard With A Vengeance.  Although puzzling out the locations to go next was relatively annoying with no help from the game, playing around with the map finally leads to the abandoned church catacombs where the murderer is put to justice.



Then the personalities of the war flashbacks begin to show up more in the main storyline as former Marines are being killed off by the mob to slow an Army Surplus morphine influx into the local drug trade.  Phelps is uncovering the Army Surplus plot and putting away mob members successfully on the Vice Desk before being undermined by his corrupt partner Roy Earle.  Earle, who apparently introduced Phelps to local German jazz singer Elsa Lichtmann on a Burglary Desk that got cut from the final game during development, reveals that Cole is having an extramarital affair with Elsa, leading to his public reputation being tarnished and a demotion to the Arson Desk.

The Arson Desk ends up being a perfect place for Cole Phelps to sniff out the arson/corruption of a home building association that is in cahoots with Earle and other corrupt L.A.P.D. officials, as well as scamming insurance companies for major payoffs.  But in this process, the story takes some terrible turns that make the development seem far more rushed than it was.

First, the entire Elsa storyline comes out of nowhere and falls flat.  Without the previous introduction of Elsa by Roy Earle made clear in the final game, it becomes difficult to understand why Cole becomes attached to this strange German singer.  Furthermore, the supposedly emotional confrontation between Cole and his wife is completely rendered meaningless by not even really revealing that he even had a wife and kids before the affair.  What could have been a good twist just turns into a head-scratcher with little effect.

Second, the main story then jumps the shark for most of the remainder by having the player play as Jack Kelso, an insurance man who led Phelps during the war and gets convinced by Phelps to help him out.  Although Phelps is limited in what he can do by the circumstances, that is a weak excuse for essentially changing the protagonist at the critical juncture of the game.  If anybody has read the Mission Earth series of books by L. Ron Hubbard, you will understand what a horrible mistake this type of writing is.  Changing main character protagonists is a risky business, and Phelps to Kelso is not justified by how the story plays out.

Third, the story ends with an unsatisfactory thud.  An arsonist who was partially driven crazy by Phelps's actions in Okinawa (who ordered him to burn out Japanese soldiers in a cave, that turned out to be a hospital for Japanese civilians) ends up being the final boss and Kelso takes him out to save Elsa.  As rain makes water rise in the sewers where Kelso and Phelps take out the arsonist, Phelps helps Elsa and Kelso to safety while sacrificing himself.  Other than Kelso, none of the major players in the Marine story survive and the corrupt cops win the day as Phelps dies with his information.  I'm OK with an unhappy ending for the protagonist, but the weakly written conclusion to these combining storylines is a huge disappointment after investing 20+ hours in the game.

 

Another weakness is the game play itself, which is repetitive and terribly slow at points.  Too many suspects run and force chase scenes that get old after about the third one.  Car chases are annoying because it is too easy to get stuck on obstacles, and foot chases usually end in a cheesy fighting system that is underused and boring (press X a lot...).  And then there's investigating crime scenes, which is a special slice of hell.  You basically walk around an area seemingly endlessly picking up useless items and the occasional relevant evidence for way too long at most crime scenes.  This is just filler basically, as the detective work is truly putting together the evidence and working interrogations.

Of the game play elements, interrogations are by far the most effective part of the game.  Thanks in large part to the Motion Sense technology that used 32 cameras to present the most realistic actor face captures ever used in a video game, interrogations really provide a chance to look a suspect or witness in the eye and determine their credibility.  I have learned that either I did not see the pattern the developers expected me to see, or I'm just really bad at reading people.  That was OK though, as I enjoyed the challenge and attempting to read behind the lifelike facial expressions.

The world in which the game is set is a true representation of L.A. in the late 1940's.  The developers allegedly spent nearly two years simply researching to make the setting accurate, and the details show nicely.  That being said, the world is way too large by a factor of two or three for a game of this scope.  The drives back and forth for miles across the city between destinations turn out to be nothing but annoying filler, and it happens too much.  Although you can set the partner to autodrive to get to the next destination nearly instantaneously, this does not excuse the poor design choice that led the world to be oversized.  It is hard to ever get a solid grip on the L.A. world thanks to how big it is.

So even though the setting is beautifully rendered using state-of-the-art technology, the sandbox fails to give cohesiveness like other game worlds.  Perhaps the goal of lifelike Los Angeles was driven by the same desire of open-world type gaming that offers a ton of little filler missions whenever you hop in a car.  On the whole, the filler rmissions I completed were not worth the time wasted on them, as they did not advance the story or give more detail in much of a meaningful manner.

One interesting tidbit is that the game can be played in black and white, which makes the game feel even more like a noir film.  I preferred the colored version of the world, but the black and white version was sharp for what it was. 

The small bits of action are limited to the awful repetitive chase scenes described above, a handful of shootouts, and the cheesy hand fighting scenes.  The shootouts are fairly easy for those like me who are not FPS afficianados, but they are so satisfying because they happen so infrequently.  The highlight of the action probably comes in the Church Catacombs at the end of the Murder desk, as only good cover and shoot skills will take down the serial killer.



So on the whole, a game that took seven years to develop clearly spent too much time playing with the background and facial rendering technologies and research on making an oversized realistic representation of Los Angeles.  There is simply not much actual game play here, and the game play that is in L.A. Noire is dreadfully repetitive and slow.  The story jumps the shark and falls completely flat after a great build-up, leaving players no real motivation to play DLC or to hope for a sequel.

These are inexplicable errors for a game in development this long.  You cannot deny the prettiness and groundbreaking nature of the visuals in the game, but you also cannot deny the absolute lack of satisfying and varied game play.  Development time and money were not spent wisely on this project, and that is highly unfortunate.  What could have been a game changer instead becomes just another mediocre video game.

Let's hope that if the series continues, the next installment adds more game play and a better story.

Grade: C-

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I also note that the complete lack of desire to ever play L.A. Noire again led me to do something I had never done: trade games back in to GameStop.  Combining L.A. Noire, Portal 2, a double trade-in value weekend, my pro membership (10% more trade-in, 10% off used games), and my annual buy two get one free coupon, I ended up picking up Batman Arkham City, Skyrim, and Mass Effect 3 ofr about 23 bucks apiece.  Not bad, not bad at all.

But now my game queue is backed up to high hell.  Here's the current list, in rough order of my priority: Mass Effect 2, Dark Souls, Starcraft 2 campaign, Skyrim, Batman AC, Crusader Kings, Mass Effect 3, Zelda Twilight Princess, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Holy smokes...I'm the opposite of Todd at No High Scores.  Too many games to play!

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