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L.A. Noire: The Big Snooze

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(Ahoy mateys! Thar be spoilers ahead!)

If you're looking for someone to verbally fellate the game, you can find plenty of that elsewhere...

I am not a Rockstar (R*) devotee, so I do not have a sycophantic streak for their games. I never liked GTA and that alone almost kept me from playing Red Dead Redemption (RDR) (that, and the fact that I generally don't care for westerns). To my delight, RDR turned out to be among the best games I've ever played, with nearly every element impressing the hell out of me. So, based on the strength of RDR, I was intrigued by L.A. Noire - going against the fact that I've always hated crime noir. I figured that if R* could get me to like a western, maybe they'd get me to like noir, too.

I figured wrong.

Where the opening cutscene for RDR is electric, setting the tone of the story and the game, L.A. Noire's is just a banal montage of L.A. life in the 1940s with the typical noir-style gritty-metaphor voiceover and nothing of any real substance to set up the story. We then meander around several trite and predictable cases at 4 different desks and the story's logic and believability begin to fall apart near the end. Cole is not very well fleshed out and is really only 2-dimensional at best. For instance, you can tell by his ring that he’s married, but his family is never shown in the game save for one scene with his wife after his affair has been exposed, so you never get any idea of what he’s like at home. As a policeman, he’s the cardboard cutout of the one honest cop in a city of swine – ho-hum. And then, you don't even get to play Phelps for the whole game, in the last few cases you play as one of Cole’s former war buddies turned insurance investigator, Jack Kelso (who gets promoted to actual governmental authority somewhere off screen between cases) who's even less fleshed-out than Cole. Even Cole's death seemed like a cheap add-on gimmick to try and get the player to garner some kind of emotional connection with the character. I mean, seriously, with the rich and powerful people he'll expose who would kill him for trying, he dies in a flooded sewer? Really?

The gameplay is very limited and in some respects very boring. Maybe it's because I've played RDR so much, but the gunfights are extremely easy. And if you come looking for gang hideouts or ambient challenges like those in RDR, they just aren't here. Instead you get to hunt down 50 gold film reels and 95 different vehicles. Yawn. Hell, there aren't even any of R*'s signature mini-games to while away time with. Other than story cases and street crime sequences, there is literally nothing to do in L.A. except drive around looking at the beautifully detailed city. I think the achievement/trophy to rack up $47,000 in damages in a story case was to give people an excuse to destroy some things, but even that is limited to other cars, park benches and pedestrians. You have more freedom than, say, Heavy Rain, but L.A. Noire still comes off as little more than an interactive movie (and a mediocre one at that).

And speaking of driving around, that lets you listen to the one-and-only radio broadcast for the whole city. KTI runs all sorts of stuff from news to radio plays and runs music to boot. The music isn't bad, but it is a little uninspired. Kinda like someone said, ‘Hey, that song’s from the 40s, throw it in there!’. And one track in particular, 'Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall' by The Ink Spots (featuring Ella Fitzgerald) is already deeply associated with Fallout 3, so it probably wasn't a great idea to include a tune that makes one think about another game entirely. And why aren't there more stations? I figured that one'd be a no-brainer for R*.

And while this may technically be an 'open-world' game, do not be fooled into believing that you will have any kind of freedom (other than to look for boring pick-ups, that is...). Cole cannot even pull his weapon when running around the streets of L.A., so place any thoughts of shooting up the city to rest. The cases themselves have one solution - one - and while you're free to fail in a number of ways, there is still only one correct way to complete each case (also known as, moving the game forward). I found that the clues and accusations tended to be a little mismatched and that made it difficult to actually find the correct path. If you used too much logic to solve a case, you'd miss where the script wanted something else.

And speaking of scripts, some of the street crimes are so over-scripted they are infuriating. For instance, several street crimes involve chasing a suspect in a vehicle. Now the game prompts me to disable the vehicle and my partner even reminds me that I need to stop the car, but try as I might, I can't seem to keep the guy from getting away. In one crime, on my 5th attempt, I knew exactly where the car was going to go, so I drove as fast as I could across the sidewalk and t-boned the thing into a building. The car still wriggled free and the suspect continued on his merry way. So on my 6th attempt, I simply followed the car and, sure enough, it stopped in an alley where the suspect got out, climbed to a roof and awaited his eventual execution by my hand. If this was where this was leading the whole time, why does the game make me think I can stop the vehicle sooner?

The facial animations are indeed spectacular and the subtleties of expression really come through, but then some of the interviewees over-act so much that they drop ‘tells’ very easily. But even then, the line between whether you should accuse someone of lying and simply just doubt them was difficult to determine. And while the faces looked great, it was painfully obvious that the person was staring straight ahead when delivering the lines and being filmed. And then there were the inferior-quality bodies that the faces are attached to. All of this high-end facial animation tacked onto the usual body animation looks really strange. Like a highly detailed and animated mask over the face of a stiff–jointed mannequin. When certain characters tried to smoke, occasionally they’d miss their mouth and one character takes a shot from a glass that almost disappears into his face. So, the integration of this new technology still needs a little work.

One of the biggest irritants, for me, was my idiot partner. He was supposed to help me but ended up being a nuisance more than anything else. He would become stuck in and on environments to the point where I just started leaving him behind. I think with the first update they added the ability to push him out of the way, but when I played on opening day, I had to restart 2 cases because my partner got stuck in a stairwell behind me, blocking my exit. He kept reminding me that we needed to get on with the case, but nothing I could do would get him to budge and let me past. Then, during gunfights, if there was a bottleneck (a doorway, say) and we had to shoot bad guys through it, he would inevitably stand in the doorway taking fire and preventing me from shooting back. The only time he helped was when I got him to drive every place to make sure I solved the cases with 5 stars.

And there are lots of little glitchy things all over the game. The detector for whether or not you can enter a vehicle can, at times, be overly sensitive. To the point that while it seems that the car is parked on an open curb, the game thinks it’s not and so has the characters jogging around the car to try and enter it. A frequent glitch in the ground detail overlay would get confused and would render neighborhood lawns with the trash usually found adorning alleyways. So you could walk up to these pristine, white-picket-fence dream houses and mansions only to find litter in their yards. And the opposite happened occasionally as well, where the tufts of grass, which were supposed to show on someone’s lawn, would appear all over an alleyway. This appeared to be exacerbated by fast-travelling to a location. And vehicles were so ephemeral! There were a number of times when I’d see a vehicle I needed to add to the list and I’d get in front of the car to stop it, but by the time I swung the camera around, the car had already vanished. Vehicles would sometimes appear out of nowhere as well, and would then phase through other vehicles. And while the above might seem nit-picky, I do have to point out that this game was being developed for 7 years(!). I think in that time these little quirks should have been made non-existent, and so R* and Team Bondi shouldn’t be allowed to slide on them.

But then, maybe that’s the thing? Perhaps this game isn’t fully completed to its potential (which is why there’s also no Multiplayer component). Because I think after paying all of these actors to work with this cutting-edge technology, there came a point where something had to be produced, just to recoup some of the millions spent on the development of the game. So it has this bare-bones, pseudo-game quality to it that leaves the whole experience cold and hollow.

Goddamnit, L.A. Noire, why couldn’t you be more like Red Dead Redemption?

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