tiistai 27. syyskuuta 2011

REVIEW - L.A. Noire (2011)

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure
RELEASED: May 2011
DEVELOPER(S): Rockstar Leeds (PC), Team Bondi
PUBLISHER(S): Rockstar Games

The debut title of Australian game developers Team Bondi took an unparalleled seven years to make. It has been hailed as one of the most dramatic and cinematically stunning games of all time, which is no wonder since it was mostly developed under the advisory and supervision of the masters of modern video game storytelling - Rockstar Games. It's called L.A. Noire, and it takes us players back in time to Los Angeles of the 40's, where we strap on the boots of a newly appointed, highly intelligent detective of the L.A.P.D.. The game is far from a traditional action game, instead it's a series of mysteries, in which your intuition very often is a far more lethal weapon than your pistol. I've been waiting to get this game in my hands for years. Perhaps L.A. Noire doesn't quite live up to the hype, or the fabled name of its publisher, which always raises the bar of expectations a little too high nowadays - but it is a great, mostly well written and well presented game, and a unique experience die-hard mystery fans will love.

The dark side of the badge

Aaron Staton : Det. Cole Phelps
Gil McKinney : Jack Kelso
Michael McGrady : Det. Finbarr "Rusty" Galloway
Adam John Harrington : Det. Roy Earle
Sean McGowan : Det. Stefan Bekowsky
Keith Szarabajka : Det. Herschel Biggs
Erika Heynatz : Elsa Lichtmann
John Noble : Leland Monroe
Peter Blomquist : Dr. Harlan Fontaine
Andy Umberger : Dr. Malcolm Carruthers

Los Angeles, 1947. Former Marine and World War II veteran Cole Phelps goes from an L.A.P.D. patrolman struggling to get noticed to a highly distinguished detective in record time after playing a pivotal part in solving a well-publicized first degree murder. As Phelps slowly makes his way to the top of the L.A.P.D. food chain, he realizes he is one of the few decent lawmen in a city overrun by organized crime and corruption; just the tool the police department needs for improving their status in the press.

Rockstar Games is the Konami of this generation. Of course Konami's still very much around, but the quality of their games has varied by a substantial lot during the last decade in comparison to the 8- and 16-bit eras when eight out of ten games stamped with "Konami" were guaranteed to blow your mind. Rockstar Games revolutionized sandbox action to the point of getting imitated by just about every damn developer out there - some have succeeded in their endeavors, but Rockstar has seen no real competition in the field of sandbox games since the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001. For the first time in years, Rockstar agreed to publish a game made by someone other than themselves - and it's not a sandbox game, really. There are some elements of a classic sandbox in it, such as freedom to roam the city and go on the hunt for collectables, and do side missions, but officially, there's always an ongoing, brain teasing investigation that you must focus on above all else, and which often downright requires you to ease up on your trigger finger or the pedal of your car. Every mistake you make counts to your case report and case-specific reputation. You can steal - or rather borrow - cars for police business, but regardless of the hurry you are in, you are sworn to serve and protect the citizens of L.A.. You can't even draw your gun without good reason. You are a good cop - you don't have a say in it. Still want to play the game? If your answer is "yes", even a reluctant one, I can vouch for L.A. Noire. You've made the right choice. But, I must also come clean with it: it's a tad disappointing.

Cole's first murder case... it's not really his, though.
He's just a nosey bastard.
Despite being a very unique action title from the get-go in every possible way, perhaps the most intriguing hooks of L.A. Noire are found from its setting, atmosphere and design. Unlike games developed by Rockstar themselves, L.A. Noire isn't all fiction. First of all, most of Cole's cases are based on entries in actual police archives from the 40's, most notably the Black Dahlia murder which is the beautiful centerpiece of the Homicide chapter of the game. Also, the Los Angeles infrastructure in the game is very real; it's a genuine, digital recreation of the City of Angels, based on actual aerial photography. Team Bondi and Rockstar obviously worked very hard to create an authentic 40's atmosphere, and they totally nailed it in every single detail noticeable by the common man. The atmosphere is what makes the game so addictive from the start, even if turns out a little repetitive game with an admittedly slow beginning.

The cinematic style of L.A. Noire is kind of hard to compare to any TV show or series of movies, although it clearly progresses like one. L.A. Confidential is an obvious influence to the whole backdrop of the game and the development of the main plot, but it's just one movie - the game needs more than that to go on. It has some perhaps subtle references to tense, pre-Psycho Hitchcock thrillers such as Vertigo - the music, Cole's clothing and the many chases across rooftops, to be precise. Obviously I'm seeing a lot of C.S.I. here. Columbo might be an influence (rest in peace, Peter Falk), but in that show the mystery was handled very differently - we knew the perpetrator's identity with a positive certainty the whole time, so it wasn't really a mystery. The show's gimmick was Lt. Frank Columbo's brilliant mind - it was always exciting to see how this downtrodden son of a bitch that dressed like a hobo managed to catch the perfect killer, and on what possible grounds. As strange as it may seem, the style of the game somewhat reminds me of House M.D. as well. Quite a lot, actually. Even after all this pointless reminisce of some of the crown jewels of TV and movie history, I'm not saying L.A. Noire wouldn't be original at all. Let's analyze the game's story and its development for a brief moment before finally getting to its most important qualities.

Cole's journal, the Bible of all things suspicious.
Like I said, the writers at Rockstar Games are the masters of modern video game storytelling. Of course, they didn't work on this game directly at all, but they made damn sure Team Bondi knew what they were doing. After all, Rockstar does pay attention to what they slap their logo on to these days - they've got a reputation to hang on to, although that awesome reputation would certainly not be lost with the release of just one bad game. Last year's Red Dead Redemption was an outstanding game with an even more outstanding story noted by many critics - me included - as one of the greatest stories ever told in a video game, and it's no surprise at all that L.A. Noire was made to issue a challenge to the ballad of John Marston. Although it might seem inconsistent at first due to including mostly unrelated cases and portraying your character just going through the motions, L.A. Noire does have a very intricate backbone - it just takes a lengthy while to really present itself, and by the time it does, you'll have forgotten most of the clues to the story that were given in the beginning of the game. The story's written well, but its tempo is somewhat off and confusing. The big conclusion practically forces us to replay a game that really isn't from the most replayable end, step by step instead of just going back to some specific cases. Cole Phelps really doesn't strike me as too loveable. He's arrogant, bossy, loud and naive. To put it simply, annoying. Most of the other characters are like great ideas from Rockstar drawers that just never fit into their own games of mayhemic destruction - phenomenal. My favourite's the straightforward, somewhat mysterious Jack Kelso, who would've gotten my vote in the hunt for the starring role instead of the whiny Phelps.

Let's talk about some more phenomenal things about this game: the graphics. The guys working at the department of motion capture technology including facial expressions and lip-syncing - I would so love to land a big, wet, juicy French kiss on all of their pieholes. I mean, God DAMN! Speaking of French, I thought Heavy Rain looked awesome. While Heavy Rain did look better in general, which is no wonder since it was far from a game of this size and it was essentially an interactive movie, even it didn't have characters and all-out character design that were this realistic. As today's fad dictates, all of L.A. Noire's central and major supporting characters are modelled after their voice actors. Although most of them are relatively unknown, there are some familiar names on the HUGE list - and L.A. Noire is the first unlicensed game in which I've nearly yelled out something like "that's Matt from Heroes!". Or "that's Dead Meat from Hot Shots!!". Or "that's the crazy guy at the cafe from Mulholland Dr.!". By watching the game, at the very least the interrogation sequences which are all about observing the characters' faces, from a certain distance, you wouldn't even tell the difference between a game and a movie. General movement looks kinda stiff, but I'm not going to nitpick when there's this much graphical effort involved in some very central elements of the game, and the proportions of our lil' playground they know as the City of Angels should also be taken into serious consideration.

The brief licensed part of the soundtrack consists of carefully remixed 40's jazz classics by Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday among others, but most of the in-game music is written by the multi-influenced Andrew and Simon Hale. It's a balanced mix of suspense music and some more jazz. In addition, we have a few songs by the modern jazz outfit The Real Tuesday Weld, and sung by Propaganda vocalist Claudia Brücken, playing in some key scenes. The car radio almost never gets old, since it balances between all the music in the game, as well as some genuine excerpts from the Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy shows.

Cause of death: a huge fucking hammer to the
skull. Any more questions?
It's still got Rockstar's logo on it, so you know exactly what to expect from the voiceover work. It's time for me to quit beating around the bush and come out straight with it: it's PERFECT, just as in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption before it. I'm not as good with names as I am with faces, and I know there are a lot of other people like me out there, so the best way to go for a round of spot with this game is to play it. Ever since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas broke the barrier, exceptionally explicit language has become standard for games. Well, no game has gone as far as L.A. Noire, ever, not on that or any other front. It's all straight up with this game - the cruel reality of life. Brutal imagery that bows down to no one, from naked, brutalized female bodies to victims of ugly, self-inflicted overdose. Very vocal takes on racism, politics, warfare, necrophilia, child abuse and all other taboos of yesteryear. Completely shameless use of authentic terminology. Harsh words that ring very true. Rockstar keeps pushing the envelope - or helping someone else push it for them. Rockstar Games - the honest choice.

If you are one for stubborn comparison, you could say L.A. Noire is like any Grand Theft Auto game - without the freedom to on for hours without doing one storyline mission, and the perspective being that of a person from the opposite side of the law. The games have the same extremely simplified nutshell: your primary mission is to rise to the top of your appointed food chain. As Cole Phelps, you start the game as an ambitious patrolman who has a tendency to stick his nose where it doesn't belong, but that extra work of his spawns results. About an hour into the game, you're promoted to detective. By solving strings of crimes, that are sometimes directly related to each other such as the Homicide cases, you get transferred from unit to unit - Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and finally, Arson. Regardless of your area of expertise and jurisdiction, most cases involve a murder of some degree, or at least an attempted one. All the while you're out investigating, random crimes happen on the street. You can play the role of the hero and solve these crimes in the midst of your primary case up to a certain limit, if you want more action and EXP points than what the game itself can provide. You can also search for rare vehicles, or go out to see the sights and spot a few L.A. landmarks. But, the crimes do not solve themselves.

After changing your patrol uniform to a tacky leisure suit, most investigations that are not that crucial to Cole's own personal storyline, start operating according to a certain formula. You drive to the crime scene, search for clues and evidence, examine the possible (and likely) dead body found over there, make a few calls, talk to a few people, and interrogate suspects. Usually there's an action sequence or two thrown in for good measure, such as a fist fight, shootout or chase (by either car or foot). Here's the interesting part: you don't have to do the action sequences at all. If you fail three times, the game actually prompts you to skip the sequence and carry on with the narrative. How about that? Why didn't they come up with something like this in the days of Journey to Silius? "Can't beat the boss? Poor thing! Want to skip to the next level?" Seriously, this option watered the game down quite a bit for me the first time I saw it given to me. I never skipped one action sequence in the game, of course I didn't - it's not the way to play a game. However, the game can be very glitchy at its worst, and the controls aren't perfect - I could've done it on those grounds in a few missions.

Conjuring up evidence is the sole key to success.
The magic of L.A. Noire lies in the effective use of evidence and the delicate interrogation of suspects or informants, but it's not all there. First of all, many cases are no-brainers from the absolute start - they're not really mysteries, they're just about squeezing out a confession from the sloppy idiot you've known to be the perp from the very start. Getting a confession is extremely hard - cornering even the most likely suspect with the most likely evidence doesn't always work. OK, so I'm at this weasel's little gambling den and find a basketful of morphine in one of his slot machines. His wandering eyes tell me that he's full of bullshit right off the bat, and he says I can't prove he has anything to do with the drugs. Can't I? One of his personal machines is full of those drugs, and he's obviously trying to fuck with me. The obvious answer: ...NO, I can't prove it. Not enough hard evidence. There's just one particular, correct piece of evidence coupled with each question, so accusing anyone of lying in this game is very hazardous. Doubting them in the case their faces tell stories is usually safer, but it won't get you very far in this game if you don't bust a downright lie every now and then. Although it has ways of constantly pissing you off and even if it gets just as repetitive as the whole game rather quickly, the interrogation system is very cool and unique as a mere idea. We've come a long way from 24 - The Game.

Intuition points usually make things a little easier for you, but you must work for them. Intuition points are used on crime scenes, and during interrogations, and you get one each time you level up. EXP is gained from everything in this game: every sequence, every unlocked item, be it a landmark or a new vehicle, and every case including the street crimes. On crime scenes, you can mark every important clue on the minimap at the price of one IP. During interrogations, you can play a little game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - the "Catch a Bad Guy" edition. Literally. Using one IP either lets you remove a wrong response (Truth / Doubt / Lie), or ask the community, which in this case is the Rockstar Social Club. That's right, by keeping your console online while playing L.A. Noire, you can hack into the answers of all registered users of the Social Club. First, before you make your decision of using the option, the game tells you how many players found the right answer by asking the community. After choosing to trust the Club, the genie of the Social Club grants your wish and shows the percentage of users for each answer. You can then decide for yourself whether you want to have faith in the masses, or be a total contrarian, which usually is the way to failure. Remember, though, that you still need evidence to back up your direct accusations, and the IP does not point you to the right evidence during interrogations and interviews - it only gives you a direction.

The option to go out and solve street crimes - which range from robberies to having to deal with jumpers to regular Joes waving guns on the street in broad daylight - is good, but they are often announced via police radio at the worst possible moments, and they're usually taking place as far away from your primary destination as they possibly can. "Any units in the vicinity"... "vicinity" is a term used very loosely. You can make your partner drive if you want to skip travelling between destinations relevant to the main case, but you'll have to drive to the scenes of the street crimes yourself. If you get stuck on doing these, you'll be in for an endless round trip.

I know it seems I've only bashed the gameplay thus far, but L.A. Noire has strong attraction, which lies in subtleties beyond all of its quirks and problems. For example, the magnificent script. However, once again I find myself turning to its dark side: severe inconsistency. First, the game is wholly driven by the cases, then suddenly by the characters. Phelps, the annoying bastard he is, becomes the center of attention as the game progresses; some light is shed on his past as well as his connections to certain key characters spoken of and seen on the side. The flashbacks and newsflashes in which they appear are very important to the ultimate outcome of the game, but it takes a lengthy while for this fact to become apparent. 'Til that moment, they fail to truly captivate the player - they feel like they're going nowhere with these, like they've just been added in for artistic values only. I'm skipping ahead a little bit, but I must say that after the epic mystery which is the Black Dahlia murder case, the game begins to revolve more around Phelps himself and his cases become less exciting - they deal with arson, insurance fraud and organized crime, mostly. After beating the game and witnessing its conclusion, I understood why the delicate and multi-layered mystery of the Black Dahlia was not made Phelps' final case. What I don't understand, however, is why they even bothered to put a case of this caliber in the middle of the game and went on to make Phelps a drug cop with notably more irrelevant and boring strings of cases on his hands, with his backstory and personal issues stealing the focus from true, increasingly challenging detective work for most of the game's later half. I would've gone for some more balance. It's like they wrote a script and then accidentally mixed the pages, finally coming up with a practically great, fascinating story, that misses out on pace and the general order of things.

I dare say we've come a long way from the
briefings in Police Quest.
It takes around 25 hours to complete the game to 100%. Considering that the game is not a full-blown sandbox game, I'd say that's a quite fair length to it. After finishing the game, you can replay any single case, or go back to the streets of L.A. in a very strange form of a free roam mode surprisingly called "Streets of L.A." All squads you've been in have their own Streets mode, and having this weird system really hurts the desire to go for the 100% mark. Let's say you had already solved something like nine out of ten street crimes while on, say, Traffic duty. You grew tired of driving from one end of L.A. to another, just to bust a lowly street thug in under ten seconds and then struggled to get back on track with your case. You absolutely can go for filling the gaps by playing Streets... but if your quest is to solve each and every street crime in the game, I've got bad news for you. You need to replay all of the street crimes you've already nailed while you were in that particular squad before you can take on the missing one. Hell if I remember which squad I was in when I missed ONE SINGLE STREET CRIME on purpose! I guess I'll just have to keep hacking 'til I hit it, then! It really doesn't work too well, the whole Streets mode I mean, since even the hidden packages are divided between the five different L.A.P.D. units. They could've given us a traditional free roam mode quite easily, I reckon.

I said before that L.A. Noire isn't too replayable in its entirety, and to answer the usual question why is very simple: it's a series of "mysteries" - another term used loosely. Solve the mystery (which really isn't too hard in most cases), you're usually done with the game. The obvious point of comparison here is Heavy Rain, in which every single one of your decisions counted to make your progress, as well as the end result, very different than last time around. Of course your progress in L.A. Noire is very much up to your decisions and detective work as well, but the only things they really have effect on are the case reports ranked from one to five. You often have a choice between two different suspects, but the end result is always the same - even if you get roasted by your superior after a false conviction and end up with a crappy rating, in the next case your previous actions have close to no effect on your total track record or your superior's impressed take on you. Plus, there's only one possible ending to the whole thing. Plus, it's not as unpredictable as it was probably intended to be. See it for yourself, and reflect on it for a while.

Enter Trophies and Achievements for a notable boost in replay value. Since L.A. Noire doesn't have a multiplayer mode - there's simply no point to one whatsoever - it luckily misses out on the scourge of the rewards of modern gaming which were very present in Rockstar's previous two masterpieces, online exclusives. A quick glance through the list of Trophies reveals a surprisingly sensical list I could find myself intrigued going for if I had enough time on my hands. Nailing 100% completion, getting five stars from each case, achieving certain tricky goals in specific interview and interrogation sessions, using every gun and non-fatal trick in the book on criminals at least once, etc. etc. Very cool stuff, none of it's absolutely too much to ask in the end. This is how these lists should be compiled - prompting the player to fully complete the game with a thankful smile on his face and not make him go blasting weapon X on enemies times X, or by intentionally fucking up a case as bad as he can, just to mention a couple of quick examples of usually bad ideas for Trophies.

It could've - and should've - been better with all it had going for it, all the way from its original announcement, but in the end L.A. Noire has cinematic values that are extremely hard to compete with. Despite the occasionally really bad action controls and quirky, dull pace, for the most part it is also a good, addictive game most definitely worth a lengthy try - after all, its best and most balanced parts take a few hours to kick in.

SOUND : 9.8


GameRankings: 88.23% (PS3), 87.60% (X360)

Team Bondi and Rockstar Games got into a serious dispute after the game's release for various reasons, which resulted in the two companies severing all ties to each other. Rockstar Games owns the L.A. Noire trademark, therefore the PC version of the game is being developed by Rockstar Leeds instead of Team Bondi.

2 kommenttia:

  1. Recent news says this will be coming out for the PC soon. I look forward to playing it when it does :) A number of the problems you have with the game i've heard before, but I guess it is just so rare to see a quasi-adventure style game anymore that I think it would be fun to play a game in that genre again. I have a friend who used to be in the police force who is really looking forward to the games' PC release.

  2. Yes it is, in November, I believe. I think the game is closest to perfect for the PC out of all Rockstar games. Since the version's developed by Rockstar themselves, I also predict it'll be somewhat different and more refined.

    Simply put, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the PC version puts the console version to shame.