Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My thoughts on L.A. Noire

Just the logo lets you know this game is a wonderful homage to classic hard-boiled  films... and not much else.

As of this blog post I have yet to finish L.A. Noire and with the way I feel about the game and what I've heard about the ending I really don't see myself finishing it anytime soon.

L.A. Noire is boring. It's a game that is hardly a game. There is no challenge, there is no winning and there is no losing. The game will move on without you because your input and decisions as a player are not significant in the game's story. The game is not a total loss because, yes, the story is believable, the acting is magnificent for a video-game of any kind and the world always feels alive. The game is overflowing in personality and it's never boring to look at but this does not compensate the fact that all you ever do is look. You never really get the satisfaction that comes from making correct choices and forming your own path.

The game is comprised of inspecting crime scenes, from murder to drug abuse to arson, and then following up these investigations with interviews of various suspects and/or persons of interest. The games biggest flaws come through in these investigations. You ask a person a series of questions and based on the impressive facial behaviors of the character you are then made to determine whether they are lying, telling the truth or you can doubt them if it's somewhere in the middle. Not only does this process become incredibly robotic but after the first few cases you start to notice that everyones face seems to turn to the same default "they're looking away they must be hiding something" and "they are stone-faced as fuck they must be telling the truth". I understand you can only do so much with video game characters but the game doesn't even try to challenge you most of the time. I spent the majority of interviews mashing doubt. Actually having a contradicting piece of evidence to then point out a blatant lie is a rare occurrence. The type of careful observation gameplay that I love in games like Phoenix Wright would work amazingly in a game like L.A. Noire but every investigation is left in grey areas of missing gaps of clues.

In interactive mystery games like Phoenix Wright you are forced to locate all the clues and speak to all the right people before you can progress with the story. L.A. Noire lets you miss out on as many clues and conversations as you possibly can and will allow you to wrap up a case. It's a great idea from a developer and player standpoint that a player is allowed to decide when he is satisfied with what he has found but then the game will take that and fuck you over because it allowed you to not be prepared. Which brings up the point that it doesn't even matter if you're not prepared. You can walk into an interview and get every question wrong due to a lack of evidence or just out of poor judgment and walk out with maybe a slightly different conversation with the Chief. But does the game take a different path as a consequence of your poor detective work? Nope, the world just keeps on moving like if you're the greatest cop there ever was.

A colorful and believable cast of characters are one of the games winning features.
So if you can't form your own path and your actions don't matter then it starts to become difficult to see the dividing line between a game and a movie. When Heavy Rain was nearing it's release it was getting a lot of flak for the same reasons I am criticizing L.A. Noire for. Where's the player interaction? It's just an interactive movie. But there is a massive fundamental difference between the two games. Heavy Rain is comprised of a vast amount of altering routes that the story can branch off to based on your decisions. It actually is a fully interactive experience. Your choices matter and there are consequences or benefits from these decisions. That is an example of a great game with amazing atmosphere centered around the story, characters and the world that still manages to fit the player into the equation.

L.A. Noire also suffers from an incredible lack of challenge. Since there is no losing you often find yourself just pressing buttons until you find yourself driving from point A to point B or at a cutscene. Looking for clues takes no effort whatsoever and you have nothing to go on so you sort of just walk around pressing the action button over and over. (I feel like I must mention that I turned off the chimes that alerts you when a clue is nearby to make it somewhat harder for myself.) At no point do I ever feel successful about finding a clue because it's never based on skill but pure luck or the game will just throw it at you.

When I first started playing L.A. Noire I was very excited at what I was seeing. The characters seemed so real, the city was colorful and large in scope and had incredible detail and I felt that my decisions for the first few cases were actually based around the right or wrong decisions I had made. After a couple of cases, particularly when I made it into Homicide, I quickly began to realize the game was getting away from me. I was missing out on clues answering questions wrong and the game was knowingly forcing me to choose the wrong perpetrator. The fun of the game had gone.

Ultimately, I feel that L.A. Noire pulls in mechanics from several games and only some of them just barely work. If some aspects of exploring crime scenes had been fine-tuned and if investigations were more dependent on successfully analyzing clues and information this could have been a much better game. Something to take into consideration is that this is Team Bondi's first game. And for their first game this is quite an ambitious title but due to misleading marketing tactics people were expecting an open-world crime scene extravaganza on the level of Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV. Many would then come to feel duped by the time they realized this game bears almost no similarity to those titles, myself included. So perhaps now that Team Bondi has- I hope- listened to the reaction to their first game they will take criticism into account and L.A. Noire 2 may be the incredible game we were all expecting the first time around.