Friday, May 27, 2011

"L.A. Noire"

No, it's not a scathing critique of an episode of a TV show I purport to love. It's a video game review! L.A. Noire is, of time of writing, basically the "next big thing" and is getting a lot of attention in the game community and elsewhere. It's pretty innovative as they go, combining the popular open-world sandbox gameplay typical of its publisher, Rockstar, with the normally rather niche concept of the detective game. It's set in Los Angeles in 1947 and you play (mostly) as Cole Phelps, an uptight by-the-book detective newly promoted to the ranks after returning home from the Second World War. Over the course of events you work several desks within the police department, investigating Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson cases. You get called out to crime scenes, have to find evidence, interview witnesses and interrogate suspects, and often you'll get involved in shootouts with crooks or car chases with felons hell bent on escaping justice.
It's an interesting game in that unlike most sandboxes you're on the side of law and justice, so while it's certainly possible to drive recklessly and damage public property you are also protecting the public and so you can't just run around killing people in a wanton fashion. Nonetheless the huge world map and its enormous levels of detail greatly enhance the realism and sense of place in the game. You won't find many cars on the road if you're called out to a scene at 4AM, for instance, and you experience a wide variety of weather during various cases. The city has apparently been recreated from thousands of photographs of LA from the period and it certainly seems evident in how incredibly full and devoid of placeholder or repetition the streets are. Similarly, entering buildings reveal clearly lived-in, believable environments with discarded clothing, full drawers, an immense variety of patterns and styles of architecture and products, photographs, paintings and so on. It's obvious that a great deal of care and attention has been put into building this game's setting. Everything is accompanied by a period soundtrack heavily composed of Jazz and scores reminiscent of old-timey films, as well as genuine contemporary songs and programmes on the radio when you're driving any of the game's hundred real cars. In this sense it's an extremely impressive game, and one of the biggest points in its favour is just how very atmospheric the whole thing is. It really feels like 1947 LA, from the fashions and speech patterns to the heavily war-related themes and the numerous nods to broader historical events.
The story can be frustrating at times, however. While the cases themselves are internally quite interesting and can be even moreso when, normally at the end of a desk, cases begin to be linked together into an overarching narrative or in relation to a wider crime spree, there are several strange incidents. Perhaps the most notable of these is the point at which Phelps elects to cheat on his wife with the German femme fatale Elsa. This happens with little to no explanation for why it occurs and is present in the story regardless of the choice of the player. There are implications in the one major scene featuring Phelps and his wife that the trauma of the war has left him in a state where he no longer feels for his wife but we see nothing of his home life and while his hard-assery can be argued as deriving from the guilt he felt as a result of his brutality and ruthlessness during the war it leaves a fair bit to be desired in terms of believable character development. Too much is left to the imagination and it feels rather jarring and incongruous. A similar narrative issue results from the fact that with three cases remaining in the story the player switches to controlling non-police investigator and Phelps' old war rival Jack Kelso. While Kelso himself is an interesting character and playing as him can come as a welcome relief after having to participate in the downfall of the increasingly unlikeable Phelps it feels as if we are alienated from the original structure by the end, almost as if we are playing a different game. Similarly while Phelps and Kelso both fulfil the traditional Noir style, more or less, in being the one or in this case two "good men" in a corrupt world they lack the smoothness and charisma of great Noir protagonists like Philip Marlow or Holly Martins and in Kelso's case we simply don't spend enough time with him to fully get to grips with his character. Nonetheless the minor street crimes which you can help solve during the course of main cases do reinforce the sense of the 'Mean Streets' but again these are not present when playing as Kelso and towards the end of the game the actual detective work seems rather sidelined in favour of action-packed car chases and gunfights. The motion capture and the acting are all very good and work in the favour of enhancing the story and the believability of the world, however, so it's ultimately a bit of a mixed bag. Additionally, the storyline, like many crime dramas, becomes a bit bogged down with names, locations and faces you're supposed to be familiar with across an overarching plot but might start to become confusing if you don't pay detective-like levels of attention to the various persons of interest in the cases. It really doesn't reward a particularly casual approach, although I suppose this is arguably a point in its favour. Nonetheless it can become irritating when the cops all start discussing some case or suspect, sometimes even ones which are part of a backstory in which you yourself were not involved, and you're expected to keep up with what's going on and immediately rush off to question someone about people or events you may have forgotten in the intervening time or not actually experienced firsthand.
I suppose this leads us rather neatly to the gameplay. Apart from the fairly unchallenging task of walking out of the police station at the beginning or your assignment and driving your car wherever you want to go it's essentially divided into three components, which are clue-finding, interrogation and action sequences. Now that I mention it though, the police stations themselves can be annoying, especially when you're dumped into a new one you've never entered before at the start of Vice and Arson desks and are expected to know the way out or where the interrogation rooms are based on squinting at tiny little in-game signs which are not easy to read on a normal low-def TV. Anyway, moving onto the main activity of the game I'll mention the action sequences first as they're not as ubiquitous as the other two components and are arguably less important. Fighting is pretty good, and generally happens with guns. You take cover, lean out of cover to shoot the bad guys and nab weapons from dead enemies. One bothersome element of this is the awkward behaviour of the minimap during gunfights, which shows your enemies as red dots but doesn't seem to orientate in the direction you're pointing so that often you have to judge the position of crooks based on the direction your character is pointing in cover rather than where the camera is facing, which is difficult because the camera likes to give you a nice dynamic side-on of your Hat Man while you're lurking behind crates and concrete columns. Nonetheless you regenerate healthy pretty easily and once you get the hang of it it's pretty fun. Again, it's really just one of those things which requires patience. Fistfights are also quite enjoyable, as you both put up your dukes like you're in a Victorian bareknuckle arena and do the diarrhoea dance until you take a pop at your enemy with your huge manly fists. You can also dodge, which looks pretty bad-ass if executed properly, as well as take out your enemies with a big whack or a headbutt if you've done enough damage. One annoying thing I would mention, however, is that (on the Xbox 360 at least) you have to hold down the left trigger to stay in "Brawl mode" or whatever it is called or otherwise Phelps will stand there like a lemon getting hit. It's pointless since there's nothing else you can really do in the fistfight situations anyway and it can be rather frustrating the first time you enter one as a detective when you haven't been in one since a single incident as a patrolman in the tutorial section of the game several cases earlier and have forgotten what to do.
The much more irritating action element are the car chases. While it's quite cool to hare down the street with no regard for traffic laws while your partner fires a handgun wildly out of the passenger side window and shouts encouragement, let alone permission, for you to ram the fugitive's car keeping everything under control can be quite difficult and the runners seem to have pretty perfect steering until the point where the game elects that the chase has gone too long and has your criminal get hit by a tram or something. For your own part it's easy to gun at top speed after the bad guy, thankfully with a siren you can blare so that civilians get out of your way, and then immediately crash into a tree, barely-visible chain-link fence or inexplicably rock-solid hedge and have to restart the chase from the beginning. Even in a chase you have to be reasonably slow and cautious. I guess it's just another way that the game rewards patience but it can seem like a stretch when, after an enjoyable but inevitably fairly staid investigation, a bit of white-knuckle rubber-burning can seem like a welcome relief yet you still have to tone it down if you don't want to have to repeat the sequence several times to get it right. What's more, if you fail the same action sequence several times the game rather condescendingly asks you whether you'd not feel a lot better if you just skipped the whole thing and moved onto the next cutscene. It's a not entirely subtle way of the game suggesting that you're impatient, uncoordinated or both. That notwithstanding when it does come together it can be pretty fun, and both the same complaints and same compliments can be offered to the on-foot chase sequences. There are also related stealth sections where you have to follow a suspect without drawing attention to yourself and these can be frustrating for similar reasons in that you can't get too close or too far away or cause any ruckus, and while that's all fair enough it'd be a lot more reasonable if suspects didn't somehow notice you running a red light two blocks behind them or adjusting your fedora from your stalker nest behind a parked car at the other end of the street. Again, there are times when the game seems to cross the line from encouraging patience to being fairly arbitrarily fiddly and reliant on trial-and-error tactics to reach the goals.
What about the investigations, then? Well there's clue finding for a start, which normally involves ambling around a crime scene which can be littered with debris, footprints, dead bodies and so on while 'evidence music', often a rapidly repetitive series of low bass notes, plays in the backround. Phelps will look at everything from victims' wounds and the contents of their pockets and wallets to footprints, blood spatters and dropped items to completely unrelated pieces of junk like discarded beer bottles and the decorations in people's houses. Everything with which you can interact is indicated by a musical chime and a vibration of the controller, so while there can be obvious sources of evidence it can also be the case that you end up just brushing up against every solid surface in the room hoping for vibrations until the evidence music stops, indicating that you've found everything there is to find. Of course you can turn these options off so that the game doesn't tell you what's active and what isn't but it doesn't change the fact that you're not really left to draw your own conclusions, which is something I'll discuss further in the interrogation section. It's entirely possible to miss or ignore evidence if you so wish and this can affect the case later but often you can't progress further until you've found everything. There is also one moment, in the final homicide case, which relies on you identifying landmarks using rather literal references from Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" and if you haven't encountered those landmarks in your exploration of LA up to that point, resulting in them not being marked on your map and therefore the corresponding descriptions, or the fact of their mere existence, not being obvious, you literally just have to drive around doing nothing for several minutes until Phelps figures it out for himself.
The problem is that the cases inevitably drive towards a pre-set conclusion, and while sometimes there can be two suspects from which you have to choose the game essentially tells you where to go and what's going on. Of course there are obvious lines of inquiry in a real case but at the same time it can feel like you're just going through the motions, steering Phelps between a series of pre-set incidents with your own impact on how they play out feeling increasingly limited as the game continues. It's not helped by the fact that besides having to choose one suspect or another to charge the only other consequences of a given case are a ranking based on how much evidence you found, how many interrogations you got right and how much you minimized costs to the department. It's all seems rather forced and odd that the game keeps tabs on how much of the evidence you find as some of it is certainly less relevant than others and surely in a real case conclusions could be drawn from a variety of sources. It's not helped by the interrogation system. Every time you question a suspect or witness about an issue pertaining to the case, you have to choose three responses to their answer. You can elect truth, essentially accepting their testimony, doubt it if they seem to be hiding something or are obviously lying, or lie if you have a solid piece of evidence which blatantly disproves their statement. At the end of each interrogation it tells you how many questions you got 'correct'. Am I the only person to whom this doesn't make much sense? How can a question be right or wrong? Often it's very unclear which option you're "meant" to pick or, in the case of lie, which particular piece of evidence of several seemingly relevant ones you should choose. It's not helped by the fact that sometimes when a witness just seems to be holding back and you want to give them a nudge in the right direction and pick doubt Phelps flies off the handle and starts hurling threats and dark insinuations at them. It's also frustrating that people who are doubted when they're telling the truth, for instance, always always become super defensive and are never intimidated or apologetic. Surely a lot of these average joes and young people would be quite scared of police questioning? There's also the fact that if you accuse a suspect of lying they inevitably go "Where's the evidence?" like they're the voice of the game telling you what to do next. They never just get flustered or don't know what to say. It gets even weirder when you pick Truth and it's the wrong choice and witnesses make these weird cryptic remarks about you being naive or that essentially you're doing something incorrectly, and often what 'Truth' actually means becomes pretty fuzzy. Often the only difference between Truth and Doubt is that in the former Phelps is fairly friendly and in the latter he starts chewing the carpet. You often have to judge statements based on facial reactions which are well captured using the motion scan technology employed in the game but even these can be misleading or difficult to read. Again, it encourages patience, although sometimes it can still be irrational or confusing and the 'correct question' can seem very arbitrary.
Ultimately I think L.A. Noire is a step in the right direction. While the detective work itself can feel rather restrictive and limiting at times and the story and characterisation occasionally feel overcomplicated, vague or fractured, it's compelling and incredibly atmospheric and its relative novelty and exciting case narratives cause its good points to generally outweight its more frustrating elements. What it arguably does best is make a very strong and critical message about the aftermath and consequences of war for the individual and I would propose war as really its central theme. In this way if none other it could be recognised as a work of art. Games in the future need to build on this game's aesthetic and intellectual quality with innovative and artistic gameplay and if it's true that a sequel might be in the works we can only hope that something truly phenomenal could be built on these rudimentary yet nonetheless inspiring foundations.

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