Tech News on G4
'L.A. Noire', an authentic tribute
June 14, 2011
By John Powell - G4 Canada
"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is just one of them."
Seedy villains feeding like rats on the life blood of the city. Flawed heroes haunted by tragedy. Femme fatales who are just as dangerous as they are beautiful. With all of its elements of mystery, intrigue and betrayal, film noir is one of the most celebrated and enduring storytelling genres.
Rising to popularity in the early 1940s, the stylish crime dramas launched the careers of such famous stars as Raymond Burr, Richard Widmark, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. As popular today as they were back then, film noir and all of its dark, sinister goodness has stood the test of time.
Even though it might represent the biggest and broadest departure for Rockstar Games, 'L.A. Noire' and the genre it represents, have more in common with the rebel developer, publisher than one might think. Infamous for the 'Grand Theft Auto' series, Rockstar is all too familiar with how to tell a moody crime story with authentic characters and captivating missions.
Created by Australian independent third-party game developer, Team Bondi, 'L.A. Noire' chronicles the career of Los Angeles police officer Cole Phelps as he rises up through the ranks to become a police detective. If Phelps sounds familiar, that's because he is voiced by 'Mad Men' regular Aaron Staton, who plays Ken Cosgrove on the series. Phelps is one of the most memorable video game characters since Rockstar's own, John Marston ('Red Dead Redemption') bursts upon the scene. As Phelps, you are assigned to investigate grisly murder case after grisly murder case. Some of the cases are open and shut, once you have gathered enough evidence that is. Others are complicated and compounded by false leads and red herrings.
Having played through everything from Infocom titles such as 'Deadline' and 'Suspect' to Sierra On-Line's 'Gabriel Knight' and 'Police Quest' series, right up to 'Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney' on the DS, I was curious as to how the cases in 'L.A. Noire' would stack up. To make the game more palatable for a mainstream audience, the mysteries are not all that difficult to puzzle out. You don't really get that thrill of achievement as you did with holistic mystery title, like those mentioned above. Each of Noire's cases follows the same format. Once assigned a case, you speed off the scene of the crime where you can interview the supervising officers, witnesses and search for clues.
Gathering clues, the cornerstone of good detective work, is a bit of a letdown. Through the use of sound cues, you uncover the clues by walking around and casually stumbling across them when the chimes go off. There's no real thinking to be done. Once you have the items in hand, you can turn them this way and that to reveal more information about them, like an important inscription or marking that may be crucial to the case.
All the information relating to a case is recorded automatically in your handy dandy police notebook. Everything from destinations to full dialogue transcripts are available for you to review at any time. The notebook is also used to plot out travel destinations and referred to during interrogations.
Besides hunting down leads and uncovering clues - which can result in foot, car chases and even shootouts - the other skill you will call upon is the ability to interrogate a suspect. To create such realistic and intricate facial expressions, Team Bondi used Depth Analysis's MotionScan technology which records actors by using 32 cameras to capture facial expressions from every angle. You will have never seen such as expressive faces as you will in 'L.A. Noire'.
As you pose your questions to suspects, witnesses or interested parties, they will react with facial expressions and gestures which sometimes gives away their emotional state, whether they are fearful, confused or downright mad. The purpose of the interrogations is to match the reactions with the clues you have in order to get at the truth of what happened and why. If you are successful, you will walk away with more answers than questions.
The way in which Cole Phelps' career is structured might throw players for a loop. Without giving too much away, for the first half, many of the cases are linked together with a common thread. When those cases conclude with a devious "scavenger hunt" around the city which requires you to answer some very clever riddles, you have played out the climax of his story. Although the game continues on once this major plotline concludes, everything afterwards feels almost like an add-on or bonus content. Bondi's thinking may have been some gamers might become tired of the ritualistic flow of the game and decided to give them a payoff sooner rather than later. That's understandable. However, for those of us who stick it out, we are made to feel as if we are still hanging around the party after all the presents have been opened and the cake has been eaten.
If you wish to take a break and explore the city, there are a host of side missions available. Driving around in a police vehicle, you will be alerted to crimes in progress that you can choose to respond to or not. You wouldn't be doing yourself a favour if you skipped out on these as even though they are quite short. The missions do involve cool scenarios such as shootouts with bank robbers, chasing fleeing criminals in your car or over rooftops. There are also landmarks and cars to collect, discover too, if you are into that sort of thing to score achievements.
Be forewarned. Although 'L.A. Noire' is from the makers of Grand Theft Auto, you cannot start raising hell in the City of Angels, as many of us troublemakers like to when we are bored and want to push the boundaries. You are only permitted to use your firearm when necessary, otherwise it is inaccessible. Cars don't explode when you crash into them or shoot them full of holes. Besides sprinting into them and knocking them over, you cannot shoot, punch or run over any of the citizens. You are a cop and must conduct yourself accordingly. That means no messing around. Darn.
Like last year's 'Red Dead Redemption', the highlights of 'L.A. Noire' are the atmosphere and the music. Composed by Andrew Hale, the soundtrack which includes 1940s songs by The Real Tuesday Weld, really sets the mood. Driving around in your cruiser listening to Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong hammers home the fact that you are in a different time and place but it would have been nice if as in Grand Theft Auto you could change songs or turn off the radio, if you wish to. The lighting and colour palate work in conjunction with the music to take us back in time to an era many of us have only read about. The attention to detail from the advertisements you see, to the cars driven, the clothes worn, to the city itself, is astonishing. Team Bondi has really done their homework here presenting as authentic experience as possible.
As a gamer and a journalist, I really like the direction Rockstar is taking their brand. No longer are they thought of as just the rebel makers of GTA. 'Red Dead Redemption' and now 'L.A. Noire' have risen to become influential franchises on their own with anticipated sequels in the works. They are really expanding their scope and developing some solid, reliable franchises. 'L.A. Noire' will not be everyone's cup of tea. Like last year's 'Alan Wake', the gameplay format is very, very cyclical. Those who recognize the value of the genre and are looking for something that breaks the GTA mold, 'L.A. Noire' is just the ticket.
About G4 in Canada
G4 Canada (formerly TechTV Canada) launched in September 2001. G4 is the one and only television station that is plugged into every dimension of games, gear, gadgets and gigabytes. Owned Rogers Media Inc., the channel airs more than 24 original series. G4 is available on digital cable and satellite. For more information, see www.g4tv.ca.