Review: LA Noire

It’s rare that a game is designed around a new technology in the way LA Noire was.

A few years into the game’s development, which actually dates back to 2004, Team Bondi began researching more meticulous facial animation solutions. They eventually partnered with an Australian tech-company named Depth Analysis whose MotionScan 3D motion capture system would provide Bondi’s project with the unparalleled facial animation which it enjoys.

The LA Noire that eventually emerged from this very long development is essentially a modern take on the classic adventure game.

As war hero Cole Phelps you’ll climb the ranks of the LAPD in a faithfully recreated 1940s Los Angeles. The game is separated by desks (traffic, homicide, vice and arson) each with a handful of cases and their own self-contained stories.

The game does, however, tell a broader narrative. Phelps is unrelentingly virtuous, a fact that has led to some very painful experiences. His seemingly unstoppable drive to succeed and do good and the effects this has on the people around him are the center point of the game’s story.

The facial animations are the star here. Never before has a game had the opportunity to present emotion this directly through anything but its script. The ability to reproduce human emotions produces some alarming experiences thanks to the performances by the game’s numerous actors.

Anger is particularly affecting. Piss off a suspect or superior and the tongue-lashing you’ll receive is  intense. But it’s not the threats being hurled your way that do the job, it’s the look on the person’s face. It’s something entirely new and special.

Something tells me this guy isn't telling the truth...

While Team Bondi and Rockstar have seen fit to stuff the game with shoot outs and chases, it’s undeniable that the standout feature is the interrogation sequences. Mechanically they boil down to a rigid guessing game, but the experience of actually cornering a suspect, the slight hum of strings building into a harmonious wall of aural tension with each correct response,  and finally nailing him (or her) with a piece of evidence is elating and addictive.

The interrogations only work because the facial animations are as detailed as they are. Suspects and witnesses that are lying will occasionally look away or contort their faces, giving subliminal clues as to their indiscretions. Unfortunately it’s often too obvious that they’re lying. Many of the interrogations are reduced to choosing between two of the system’s three options, lie and doubt (you’ll hardly ever touch the truth button).

The difference between those two is a bit tough to wrap your head around at first. Choosing lie means you’ll also need to provide evidence that contradicts the interviewees’ statements. Doubt just means you think they’re lying and will lead to Phelps pressing them on the matter. If  you called their bluff correctly, you’ll be rewarded with some new information.

Unfortunately the investigation system has some drawbacks. You’re only ever given a single chance at answering any one question correctly. Miss it and you’ll likely miss a bit of evidence. No matter how poor your interrogations skills are, however, you’ll never be stopped from finishing a case because of mistakes. While this one and done style of questioning creates a valuable sense of consequence for your mistakes it ends up feeling a bit unfair.

The game actually scores you at the end of each case, assigning a ranking based on number of correct response, clues found and property damage. This gamey assessment of an otherwise entirely ungamey system only heightens the sense of failure the player receives when blundering up an investigation. This was a game designed to be played with mistakes and consequences in tow, but assessing player performance leads to player inferiority. If you’re the kind of person that wants to collect every bit and max-out every stat, you will undoubtedly be quitting the game and reloading after every wrong answer and that’s unfortunate.

Aside from the use of facial animation, LA Noire’s greatest achievement is it’s construction of atmosphere. It combines strong art design and a brilliant noire appropriate score and script to evoke all the right filmic influences.

Just look at that lighting.

Unfortunately, while well reproduced, the city of Los Angeles is actually one of the game’s duller aspects. It’s just kind of boring.

There’s not much to do beyond a few dozen sidequests, which are essentially crime vignettes. The population is sparse and its ambient dialogue is painfully bad. “Isn’t that the cop that solved the big case and got promoted!?” asked a citizen on at least a dozen occasions.

The city just feels dead, reactive only to Phelps’ presence. I’m curious as to when this open world element was introduced into the game’s design. It comes off as something that was there from the beginning, but focus shifted from crafting a detailed and reactive city to implementing the new animation technology. The result is a city that’s beautifully rendered but missing the little details that bring it to life. It feels like an afterthought. Thankfully fast travel is well provided.

What moments in the game that do depend on the open world are squandered. One lengthy sequence, for example, involves a scavenger hunt around the city’s landmarks. You’re provided with a hint as to the whereabouts of the next clue and expected to figure out which of the predetermined landmarks to head to next. This could have been a wonderful combination of the open world and adventure game elements, but instead  it’s reduced to driving around the city waiting for Phelps to piece together the solution on his own. Unless you’re well aware of LA landmarks, the player has absolutely no involvement in this process and it’s a real shame.

LA Noire is in no way an excellent game. The shooting is serviceable at best, the driving annoyingly squirrelly and even just walking around is occasionally a chore. The open world is uninteresting and adds little to the game outside of some novelty.

LA Noire is, however, an important game. It’s unflinchingly adult, touching on topics such as racism, misogyny and rape without a hint of immaturity or humor. The facial animation is not just a gimmick. It produces a new way to play and interact with games that Team Bondi was wise to mold their opus around.

Regardless of its many problems LA Noire is a must play.

For transparency’s sake: I played LA Noire, from start to finish, on the Playstation 3. 

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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