A case of good cop, bad cop

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There are two things to review, really, when sitting down to talk about Rockstar’s latest foray into historically-based sandbox gameing, L.A. Noire. The first is the revolutionary MotionScan technology, in which actors movements are captured by a series of cameras in a video recording studio and digitally projected onto in-game characters’ faces. The second is the actual game itself, which is a kind of mirror-image Grand Theft Auto. In that game, you’re a nihilistic criminal awarded points for murder and destruction. In L.A. Noire, you’re a straight-up police officer and points are deducted for crashing your car or harming citizens. The question is, does the face capture serve the game or not? After all, the technology will surely have gone to waste if it’s all in service of a completely uninteresting and disengaging experience.

The facial capture technology in LA Noire is nothing short of magnificent. For a long time, now, games have suffered from the effects of a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley, in which computer-generated characters become steadily more unsettling the closer they are to resembling actual humans. Those who’ve played Bethesda’s masterful Oblivion and Fallout series will be familiar with this – eerie characters engage you in fixed conversation holding a rigid, unflinching gaze like they’ve been just emerged from some kind of Lovecraftian cult brainwashing session. The solution, then, is to hire professional actors to do the parts instead. It’s not like games haven’t attempted stuff like this before – in the early 90s there was a brief series of so-called interactive movie games like Deadelus Encounter that tried to import performance through pre-recorded scenes into the game itself, but the effect was jarring and schizophrenic. L.A. Noire, in contrast, seamlessly blends performances from big names such as Mad Men’s Aaron Staton (playing lead detective Cole Phelps) to create a cinematic experience reminiscent of last year’s dark whodunnit epic Heavy Rain.

The game play itself is less revolutionary, often becoming formulaic, even tedious at times. Most of the early missions have you attending a crime scene, search for clues and then question two or three witnesses, eventually giving chase to the person who committed the crime and throwing them in the slammer once you catch them. This is fun for the most part, but working through four or five story lines that differ in largely superficial ways with less attention paid to any wider, enveloping narrative does become a bit boring and it takes a while for L.A. Noire’s story to pick up the pace. Furthermore, whilst the idea of ruffling through suspects’ houses and murder scenes to search for clues sounds great on paper, in practise you’ll find yourself trying to cover every square inch of an area rapidly tapping the action button in order to leave no stone unturned. This button-mashing detracts from the feeling of immersion somewhat, harking back to the less elegant moments of the point and click adventure games which had players walking around using every item against every other item to advance the storyline. It feels very unnatural and the bizarre decision to include clues which are completely pointless (like beer bottles and cigarette packets) makes what should be an integral and vibrant part of the game feel like a chore.

The comparison with point and click games isn’t entirely negative, though. In fact, playing through L.A. Noire I was increasingly reminded of some of the better adventure games of the 90s, games like Bladerunner and Discworld Noir. The sense of piecing together clues to try and arrive at a logical conclusion to a task coupled with dialogue-heavy game play – elements which made those games so great, is still present. Thankfully, as well, some of the more absurd lateral thinking elements that made those games so frustrating has been removed. Missions can be worked out using clear, rational thought and careful questioning of suspects.

The interview sections are L.A. Noire’s cause célèbre designed to show off exactly what MotionScan can do. The theory goes that players are supposed to use their well-honed social skills to be able to tell whether they wish to believe a character, doubt their truthfulness or present them with evidence that they’re lying. In reality, there are much more than three options police officers can take when interrogating witnesses, but still the effect works remarkably well and in this reviewer’s opinion these are the moments where L.A. Noire really shines and becomes the game that makes it stand out from the standard fast-paced action games like Killzone 3 and Dead Space 2. The biggest criticism I can think of the interrogation scenes came when playing this game with a friend and I was asked “can you not do anything like good cop/bad cop?” The Truth/Doubt/Lie system in L.A. Noire means that there is only one correct way to get the right answers out of witnesses during interrogation. This seems like a step backwards from the recent trends in gaming which seek to give players control over the storyline and present multiple ways to arrive at a correct answer. Including a strategic element to interrogations and an open-endedness may have made L.A. Noire a classic, as opposed to just a great game.

In short, L.A. Noire is in parts highly original, interesting, fun and engaging. There is enough in this game to highly recommend a purchase to anybody who’s still on the fence about whether or not to pick up a copy. It’s flawed and by no means the revolutionary classic that some of the publicity would suggest, but involving enough to warrant a play-through to the end. The story lines are decent, the performances excellent and there’s much to love. Ultimately, however, it feels that there is still much more that could be done with MotionScan technology.

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