Wednesday, 8 June 2011

LA Noire : Some Thoughts

The main thing about LA Noire is that it works. Team Bondi have succesfully crafted a game based on being a police officer in 1940's LA and managed to channel films such as The Big Sleep through to LA Confidential while doing so. The linear story-telling and acting are spot-on and the tone is as consistent as possible throughout, except for a couple of pretty major exceptions.

The two central mechanics of the game are pretty simple. One is more-or-less wandering round a specific area waiting for you controller to buzz. In point-n-click adventures, the genre LA Noire is probably closest to, this was called "pixel hunting", moving your pointer over the screen waiting for it to change to a hand. Some of the found objects are then very small puzzle in their own right which, when solved, can lead to further clues. Despite it's simplicity the animation and the voiceovers when you find a new clue really sell this. The vast majority of clues are in obvious places and if you watch your non-controlable partner he often goes to where each clue is in turn.

Once you have everything then the music stops, really, and it's time to talk to the suspects.

And here is the selling point. Rockstar/Team Bondi will tell you that they have improved facial animation enough that complex emotions can be displayed by a computer generated actor. They exaggerate. That's not to say it isn't incredibly well done, it is. The mechanic of the interview section is is thus: the interviewee talks and you have to decide whether they tell the truth or lie or you just plain doubt them. If they don't fidget, then it's probably the truth, if they do fidget then doubt them and if you've found something that just plain contradicts what they've said call them a dirty damn liar.

The "tells" are all oversold, but this game really isn't too interested in subtlety. It has a story it wants to tell and it will tell it. Halfway through the Murder section you will probably realise there's a repeated factor in all of the murders that your "best detective ever" refuses to notice.

This is interactive fiction telling, but the writer wants to have a beginning, a middle and an end and you are strapped in to this story whether you like it or not. As I said the story is well told, but you feel like a little more influence over the outcome would have been appropriate.

It also happens that LA Noire is an open-world game. Team Bondi have recreated large parts of some parts of LA. You can drive around and steal cars and find films and badges and landmarks and other make-work. LAs there and it's as pretty as any other game. It's almost entirely meaningless in terms of what the game itself is trying to do. There are eight million stories in the Naked City. Team Bondi are only telling around 25 of them with and extra 40 vignettes. The rest of LA is there to chase or be chased in. It seems wasteful, I hope they find a way to use it again.

At the end of every "Casefile" there's a big shootout. Apparently Team Bondi were more influenced by LA Confidential than Double Indemnity. Every single shootout feels out of place. They were making this great neo-noir and all of a sudden the spirit of Clint Eastwood shows up.

The shootouts are there because gamers expect them, I suppose, and, well, Bogart did shoot a few fellows in his day, but that was usually one shot, close up. The sections aren't particularly long but it feels like your reward playing a game that wants to add an emotional aspect to games is to be stuck in a particularly mediocre third person shooter.

So, not a failure, then, by any means but occasionally hobbled by, what?, a failure of nerve? Pandering to what gamers expect and will pay for rather than letting the product stand for itself? Maybe it'll be neglected now and be reappraised as a true masterpiece many years later...

No comments: