Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The True Definition of a Mature Game... The L.A. Noire Review

Note: The gameplay videos may contain spoilers, so watch at your own risk!

It is pretty easy to judge mature rated video games especially in today's society. They are judged by the content they have from violence, gore, use of profanity, and so on, which basically describes a normal first-person shooter. Games never really take advantage of the mature rating going beyond just content alone and actually take overall tone into consideration. Rockstar Games is no stranger to games that have the mature rating with the infamous Grand Theft Auto franchise and last year's outstanding Red Dead Redemption. With developer Team Bondi, L.A. Noire is a different beast unlike those games. Usually in a GTA game, you play as an anti-hero with the ability to cause havoc at the city. L.A. Noire flips the script as you play as someone protecting the law being the good guy. This is quite a turn for a Rockstar game considering how their open world experiences continue to evolve more than just a playground to mess around in. I wondered how Rockstar would tackle the good side of law enforcement, which makes L.A. Noire an interesting game for them to get involved with.

The protagonist you play as in L.A. Noire is Cole Phelps, a war hero turned detective in 1940s Los Angeles. Throughout the game, you'll experience his rise through the ranks of the LAPD from just a normal policeman to a top detective. It does a good job of progression of these ranks as you solve cases that involve hit and runs, homicide, illegal distribution of drugs, and arson. Cole is usually accompanied by a partner in each of these desks that have the cases. He is one of those guys that would take the necessary steps to get the clues he wants to solve cases while his partners tend to be there for the ride. The storyline starts all simple as Cole solves various cases, but in between beating these cases, there are World War II flashbacks about Cole's experience along with other characters. These flashbacks will eventually come full circle later on the game making the story have a sense of a big picture. That big picture, however, ends up a little disappointing when certain events feel very questionable.

The focal point of L.A. Noire is the detective work rather than going to places shooting bad guys. This is a different change of pace for open-world games as you search for clues at crime scenes and drive off to various locales discovered from those clues to get closer to charging the suspect responsible. Clue finding has been brilliantly designed in a clever way by both visual and audio cues. Markers have been placed for evidence in some cases as chimes kick in when you're near them. Music plays a big role in these scenes as well as finding all the necessary clues in a room or a crime scene ends the music, so Team Bondi did a remarkable job with that.

Interviewing and interrogating is the meat of the detective work along with providing the most intense moments of the game as Cole asks witnesses and possible suspects questions relating to the crime. They are either telling the truth, being doubtful, or flat out lying. One way you can tell they are doing either those things is by their body language, which is where is the amazing facial animations kick in. The facial animations all characters have in L.A. Noire are unlike anything I have seen ever in a game to the point they are real. You can tell by their face how they answered your question if they're looking around, scared, etc. If you're lying, you need the appropriate evidence to back your claim up. Even this whole system has some issues as it can be a challenge to tell the difference of claiming they're telling the truth or doubtful. There is an intuition point system to ease the interviewing process as you can spend a point per question for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-like lifelines such as eliminating a wrong answer and asking the community as it shows a percentage of the used answers from consoles hooked up online. Usually asking the community feels like a gimmie especially now that the game is out for a week already as the right answer is easily narrowed down with this lifeline. When things click and go your way especially charging the right suspect, it is such a satisfying moment to see them break down trying to sneak themselves out of a charge. After completing cases, you are rated up to five stars how well you solved the case from nailing the questions correctly and finding all the clues. Even if you miss clues or questions, it is not the end of the world as it will be a little more difficult to charge the right suspect.

While the game is set in an open world that screams Grand Theft Auto, it is not actually a playground to go crazy especially as a detective. The rules are flipped around since you're playing as someone on the good side of law enforcement. You can't cause much of a ruckus as you would in a GTA game running into cars, people, and damaging property as it affects over case rating. For once, I feel like I have to follow the street signs even though you can speed off as long as you're careful doing it. Of course, the police siren helps on making other drivers pull off to the side easing your drive especially in heated chase scenes during cases. Even though L.A. Noire is mostly about the detective work, there are still side missions spread throughout Los Angeles to complete. These side missions are mostly street crimes that will involve melee brawls, gun fights and chases by foot or car. There isn't a variety of them, so they tend to get repetitive at times.

Besides all the policework, L.A. Noire controls like any other open-world Rockstar game that has been out on this generation of consoles. Driving and shooting feel similar to GTA, so they're not bad. Sure, the shooting could of been better when compared to other third-person games, but you can do worst than the cover system and auto-aim here. Your partner's AI does a good job of helping out in moments like these since they tend to have get in trouble and help out during car chases when they shoot the tires. However, your partner can get stuck at times in spots to the point you'll leave them behind and they'll somehow reset to where you're at later on. Things on foot feels great and simple as you never run out of stamina running and its easy to vault over objects since there is no jump button. Traditionally with open world games by Rockstar, there are collectibles everywhere in Los Angeles if you want to 100% L.A. Noire from locating landmarks, finding film reels (this game's version of the hidden packages), and driving all the vehicles. Even after you beat the game, the replay value is still there especially having the option to replay cases over again, free roaming to find the collectibles, and downloadable cases such as "The Naked City" and the PS3 exclusive "Consul's Case" (that's not available since the Playstation Store is still not back up as of this time).

Graphically, L.A. Noire looks pretty sharp for an open world game. The engine used in Rockstar's past games is in here, but as in most games like this, there will be pop-in issues at times, which doesn't really distract the overall experience. The facial animations I mentioned earlier are amazing as I hope other games implement this technology, but the maintaining the balance for the whole body is not up there yet. Team Bondi also did an amazing job nailing the 1940s Los Angeles setting right in terms of atmosphere and tone. There are recognizable landmarks present in this city that are still around today, so its crazy to see places like the Mann Chinese Theatre and Union Station in their 1940s incarnations. Sound-wise, it is a top notch effort by the developers from the audio cues during the cases, the amazing voice acting from a star-studded cast (well if you watched Mad Men, you'll recognize a lot of people in this game). Especially with the realistic facial animations, it feels like you're watching a R-rated movie about that time period. Characters feel believable especially Cole and they recorded a lot of lines as chatter is happening everywhere. I specifically enjoyed the chatter between Cole and his partners during driving trips in cases.

L.A. Noire is another outstanding yet flawed experience by Rockstar as they're willing to push the open world genre in different ways. It is definitely a different change of pace for an open world game considering how much more adventure is in it even though there are still action-filled moments at some points. The detective work is done brilliantly well as the interviews/interrogations provide some of the most intense moments in gaming so far this year just by how emotional the characters can be. The facial animations are indeed breathtaking as it is unlike you have never seen before in games till now. The game uses audio pretty well too from the awesome voice acting and music cues during cases. The story could of been better especially when it comes around to the big picture because it seems rushed how things go full circle at the end. People can also have a hard time nailing the cases perfectly, which can take numerous replays to get everything right. It is remarkable to see the mature rating being pushed to its full potential in terms of atmosphere and tone because this is a game definitely intended for adults. Rockstar has another hit in their hands and despite its flaws, L.A. Noire is the true definition of a real, mature game.

Score = 9/10

  • 1940s Los Angeles setting done right in atmosphere and tone
  • Detective work, yet challenging, is designed brilliantly well
  • Facial animations are indeed that breathtaking to the point of being real
  • Great use of audio from the top notch voice acting and musical cues
  • Story could of been better especially later on the game when things come together for "the big picture."
  • Slight graphical issues like pop-in (expected in open world games) and people getting stuck in spots.
  • The detective work can be challenging if you have a hard time determining if witnesses/suspects are telling the truth, being doubtful, or lying.
  • Repetitive side missions