By Noct 39 Comments
Just about finished playing through LA Noire, and I've absolutely loved the experience. It's pretty obvious based on the reception the game had that there will be follow-ups; I for one would love to see that happen, but only if they can make it a MUCH more robust experience next time.
According to Wikipedia, LA Noire development started sometime between 2004 and 2007; I'm not entirely clear on what happened there or when they actually started writing any code, but it's painfully obvious to see that it is a severely dated game. Usually when a game evolves over that lengthy a time-frame, the toll is taken on the visuals, and surprisingly, this is not a place where LA Noire comes up short in the least. The graphics aren't anything breathtaking, but they are certainly nothing to scoff at either. The environments don't have the same level of detail and polish that a newer game in the "genre" does (Mafia 2), but they get the job done, and never really do anything to show their age. The facial animation (which was a lauded selling point for this game) is just fantastic, and the character modeling is some of the best we have ever seen. They aren't the highest poly-models out there, but the facial detail is just amazing, and never before in a game have I completely recognized as many actors as I did in this title.
No, the trouble with this game's age come in its clunky, dated mechanics, and the insane amount of restrictions lay on the player throughout the experience. The truth there painfully is that this game would have felt a little dated in 2007, so playing it in 2011 has an even larger contrast to how we expect games to play today.
For starters, the control is wonky. Real wonky. I'm actually reminded a lot playing it of much earlier games in the sandbox genre from systems past. The Getaway and Driver 3 come to mind, and that's not a really friendly comparison... The movement can even give flashbacks to Resident Evil on occasion, in that feeling of never having a fine-touch to your character's placement in the environment. Often times during L.A.N. I had to circle an area I was trying to target on foot a few times before it would trigger that I was on the right spot. (A fine-touch analog movement to the left stick could do a lot to help this situation.)
This clunky control carries over to just about every aspect of the game unfortunately. Driving feels more like trying to steer a yacht then a car, and just taking a corner becomes somewhat of a chore, particularly anytime you a moving at a good clip and have to weave through some traffic. Navigating indoor environments on foot doesn't fare much better, and I spent more time walking into objects and slamming into walls then I did actually investigating clues.
The game is completely playable using the dated, molasses-covered control scheme, but it definitely holds the title back, and gives it a much older and less polished vibe then I expect from a release of this magnitude in 2011.
Unfortunately though, the real trouble in L.A.N. come in the fact that every single action you take in the game has been decided upon before you even get a chance to screw it up or add your own personal flair to the proceedings, and this is where the game truly comes across feeling like a last-gen (or even older) experience.
I'm not going to harp on the linearity of the game, as that is a design choice, and not a negative one in my opinion. Well, at least when it comes to the main story and how it progresses. I understand that this game has a strong narrative, and it pushing the player along a determined path to a final outcome here, and that is just fine with me. No, the problems come in when you realize that every minute detail along the way has already been decided for you as well.
First is the most glaring omission; the whole god-cop, bad-cop Avenue... LAN is obviously, noir, and with that should come a strong overall idea that there is black and white, good and bad, and with these moral choices, also ambiguity, grey-areas, etc... This is at times alluded to in the game, but the user is never allowed to explore it. You are a good cop, end of story. This is the most damaging choice the developers made in my opinion, and the one that makes the entire game feel like more of an interactive movie then an actual living breathing story and world.
The opportunities to allow the user to make choices just stare you in the face during the entire game, and they never release the shackles on you enough to explore it. For example, every call you go on, be they side-quests or part of the main timeline, knows how it's going to end before you even start it. Some cases will have you chasing the perp down on foot and tackling him, others will place you into a firefight where the mission will not end until the "bad guy" is dead. This forces the player to live by the moral code the game insists upon, at not only does it shatter the immersion level, at times it actually turns it into a guessing game that you can end up eating a bullet over if you aren't paying enough attention.
On multiple occasions, you will chase down an offender only to have them start firing on you. Your character will pull his gun, and you are (usually) allowed to return fire as you see fit, but the game already has a predefined outcome for this fight, and if you don't follow it, you'll usually end up dead. Sometimes they are intending you to chase the perp down and arrest him, other times they want you to just execute him, and unless I missed some obvious indicator of which was which, there was no way to know what they were expecting you to do. On more than one occasion I ran around a car or barricade to encounter the perp face-to-face, only to have no option available to me other then taking a shotgun blast to the chest and starting over again. Why there isn't an arrest option on all cases is just a mind-boggling question...
In the same vein, during other cases it appears that you are being given free-reign to just spray bullets at an enemy, but then at the end of the fight you're expected to arrest them. This generally happens during the (excellent) car-chase segments, and it totally destroys the immersion and flow of the game when it happens. For example, you start questioning a suspect, only to have them flee out the back of the building and head for a waiting car. For some reason, despite the level of crime they may have perpetrated, you suddenly have free reign to have a massive shootout on crowded streets while chasing them in your cruiser. Your partner will rain gunfire down on their car as you do everything in your power to slam them off the road; often times ending with you giving their car a solid nudge and sending it flipping through the air until it finally lands in a pile of un-drivable debris. Everything seems like its going great, and you hop out of your car to finish the fight. Your character draws his gun, and it looks like you're going to be able to decide what to do next... and then a cut scene kicks in showing you pointing your gun at the waiting perp. Why?
At this point after playing GTA, Saints Row, and the like, I'm expecting to be able to either ya know, shoot the guy I've been in a gun-fight with for ten minutes, or maybe even be given the option of wounding him and going for the arrest. Sadly, none of these options are available; you just sit and watch as the game decided how this is going to end for you. I realize in some cases that it is Jermaine to the story, and you may need to question the assailant as a witness, but why not give me the option to screw that up? Maybe if I killed the guy, I would lose a valuable piece of evidence and not be able to solve that case... Situations like this are rampant in the game, and they keep it from being the truly interactive crime-drama it could be.
The inability to decide an enemy's fate is not only disappointing, but at times it just doesn't make any sense at all. Why I have the right to gun down certain people and not others is bizarre, and at times seems to actually hurt the integrity of the main character. Simply put, you should be able to choose who lives or dies in these sequences, and the game should have varying outcomes depending on how you reacted. What brings these issues even further to the forefront is that the game gives you the impression that you are being given options, but none of it really makes any difference to how the game plays out.
For example, you can totally screw up a case, mess up every interrogation, and more-then-likely put the wrong guy in jail based on the evidence... and yet, the game doesn't really seem to care. You may get chewed out by the chief, but you'll still move on to the next case as if nothing bad has happened. On top of that, the game even shows you stats for the damage you did during your investigation. A tally of the damage done to cars, to the city as a whole, and the innocent people you may have injured on the street is given at the completion of each case, only again, it doesn't really seem to make any difference one way or the other... Why give me this information if it isn't going to have any bearing on the game?
Lastly, on top of it not giving you any breathing room on your morality or actions, the investigations themselves feel like the most hand-holding part of the entire game, and since they are the bread and butter, it's the most painful issue. Investigating a crime-scene always plays out exactly the same way. You enter a location, and then clunk around in it waiting for the controller to vibrate telling you you're near an object you can interact with. You then (clumsily) handle each object and wait for another vibration to tell you if it's a worth-while clue or not. Once you have found everything, the dramatic background music fades out.
So, let’s break this down for a moment... The engine automatically tells me when I'm standing near ANY object I can pick up, holding said object instantly tells me whether or not it’s an important piece of information, and the music tells me when I've found every worthwhile object on the scene... So, the ONLY way you could miss a clue would be to get tired of waddling around looking for vibrating objects and leave a scene before the music fades. While I like that there is the ability to leave the scene without all the information, they practically slap you in the face to make sure it doesn't happen.
If you're going to be this cookie-cutter about the entire experience, you may as well just show a cut scene for this stuff and focus on the action for the meat of the game, which is definitely not the case here. I very much enjoyed the illusion that I was investigating these crimes, but it's all just make-believe at that point. I'm pretending that I might not find anything, and I'm pretending that I'm deciding what is fluff and what is hard-evidence, but really, I'm not doing any of those things, and it's disappointing.
At the end of the day though, this game proves that this is an exciting, untapped genre that could be a fantastic experience if it was fleshed out more and allowed the user more room to have fun, and frankly, fail at what it is giving you to do. The developers have already stated publicly that they intend this to be a franchise, and I wholeheartedly hope that turns out to be the case. There is some excellent potential in the game just waiting to come out.