[Games] First Thoughts: LA Noire

It’s been enjoyable, my first few hours in the shoes of newly minted detective Cole Phelps, but not quite in the way I was expecting. It seems that Rockstar, having practically invented the 3D sandbox genre, are now defying the expectations heaped upon that market niche by the countless Grand Theft Auto clones that fill it. Sure, LA Noire uses the same basic technology as GTA but like Red Dead Redemption before it, it’s far from being the same game with a new setting.

Sure as Cole you can drive, walk and run around a massive, lifelike city full of pedestrians, motorists and shopkeepers that appear to be minding their own businesses. On the surface, it’s the just the same immersive world as Liberty City, but the game’s structure discourages exploration. You play through cases in a fixed order (save for side missions that are radioed in to you in your car as you travel from destination to destination), and while playing through them your emphasis will always be on solving the current crime, rather then heading off to explore. That instict would seem to be correct as there are far fewer opportunities for off-piste amusement than either GTA IV or Red Dead.

The cinematic style is very 40s film noir.

That said where Team Bondi have seemingly trimmed the fat in terms of extraneous detail, they’ve really put the hours in on the meat of the game. Each case is presented like a mini film-noir thriller from the forties. There are even flashbacks, a moody voiceover and the ability to play through the entire game in black and white should you wish (if you do you’ll miss the beautiful use of saturated forties colour throughout.

It’s all very immersive, and the dialogue and voice acting are both TV-show quality. In fact, it is to TV that my thoughts turn while playing LA Noire’s first few missions. The episodic nature of the game’s linear plot, and the pacing of each episode (largely dialogue-based, but interspersed with one or two set piece car chases or gunfights) is more like a high quality detective show than a traditional game. Rest assured, like Mass Effect, if you don’t want to sit through long in-game sections of dialogue, LA Noire is not the game for you. You’ll spend more time watching that playing, but fortunately the production values are so high that seldom feels like a chore.

Missions are handed out in order, rather than discovered a la GTA.

What does feel slightly odd are two of the game’s central mechanics. As a detective its your job to scour crime scenes for clues and to interrogate suspects. The first is a task that often descends into tedium, with you walking Cole repeatedly around a location waiting for the pad’s vibration to reveal another possible clue to be examined. You’re guided in this by music that only stops when all the clues have been uncovered (this can be turned off for the more hardcore investigator). In truth, impatient players will quickly start using their stock of “intuition points” to reveal the location of every clue on a HUD in the screen’s corner.

Forties LA looks great, as do the game's avatars.

Interrogations are also a little odd. The game’s most original mechanic, you’re required to question suspects and witnesses alike and after each answer can select whether you think they are lying, telling the truth or somewhere in between. Get it wrong and the interviewee will clam up. To judge whether they’re pants are indeed on fire or not you’ll need to use the evidence you gathered from the crime scene, and you’ll have to read their facial expressions, body language and listen carefully to what they say. That task is made all the more entertaining by the simply stunning facial animation engine at work. It really does represent a staggering leap in game avatar technology, and one that I hope Rockstar use in whatever next-gen Grand Theft Auto title they’re currently brewing up  in their development labs. Sadly some of the magic of that new tech is wasted on a the system’s simple nature. I managed to severely upset a fifteen year old rape victim by accusing her of lying. I had evidence to prove that she’d been sexually assaulted, yet she told me she hadn’t been. Surely that was a lie I though as I stabbed the button, I even had her torn panties to back me up, but no – the game insisted I had got that one wrong. Interestingly, you have the option of spending those intuition points to see what everyone else who plays the game has selected, a kind of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire style Ask the Audience feature. When I played just 10% of gamers asked the right question after using that feature. A sure sign that the majority of other LA Noire players found the exchange counterintuitive – and it’s sadly not an isolated example.

So the game has some issues to overcome, but it’s also engrossing. In fact, I’d venture that it will appeal far more to players who enjoyed classic point and click adventure games like Money Island or Beneath a Steel Sky, that fans of GTA’s action packed sandbox mayhem. The game gently prods you in the right direction and encourage thorough, sometimes laborious examination of every item and dialogue option available. Played in the right mood (LA Noire is not a game for quick blasts, each case can take an hour or more to solve) it’s just like settling in for the latest episode of a lushly produced, interactive film noir cop show, and if that sounds like your cup tea, this is the game for you.

Full review coming soon.

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