This week, Zero Punctuation reviews L.A. Confiden... err sorry L.A. Noire.
Do you remember a time when video games weren't all about bold new shotgun-based interior design techniques, those intellectual days of the point-and-click adventure when games were comfortable about testing the players' skills beyond the ability to line up a set of crosshairs with the softest and gushiest regions of a shouting murderer? Don't you long for the days when you'd methodically track your mouse pointer across every pixel on the screen to find more inventory items to run around rubbing on every interactive object in the game in the hope of finding a way onto the one solitary thread of logic that was about as straightforward as a cow's digestive system?
No? Good. 'Cause neither does Rockstar. Here's L.A. Noire, their latest cover-based shooting, car-driving sandbox.
Not really, of course. L.A. Noire is an adventure game for the new age. The days of the methodical mouse pointer pixel hunting are over, my friend! Now it's the age of methodically tramping back and forth across a crime scene waiting for your controller to shake. And then doing some cover-based shooting.
L.A. Noire tells the story of Cole Phelps, an experiment crime-solving robot named after the fuel on which his internal boiler runs. Cole PH31-P5's firm grasp of robot logic and inability to be shaken by naked, sliced-up tarts makes him a natural crime scene investigator, but he does have problems with emotions. Whenever he's called upon to shout down a grieving widower, he always looks like anger is a concept he's only ever heard about from improperly inserted punch-cards. Anyway, through the course of this ridiculously long game, Cole's flawless computerized mind allows him to hop back and forth between four different departments of the police like a flawless, computerized whore.
Cole is best equated to Guy Pearce's character from the film L.A. Confidential. And while you're equating, you might as well equate a few other things from that film, too, like the setting, time period, large chunks of the plot, police department containing more assholes than a donkey in an iron maiden, and both of them start with the letters "L.A.", which I don't think can be a coincidence.
Before I go on, I will say that I find L.A. Noire encouraging, if nothing else, in that it emphasizes story and puzzles. It has shooty and chase sequences, in case you only loan your brain from the Exchange and Mart, and they're blighted by the usual Rockstar issues in that moving on foot feels like driving a car and driving a car feels like there's another, heavier car tied to the roof rack, but if you cock them up too much the game goes "Oh, for fuck's sake, just skip it. But you better do extra-special good on those puzzles, 'cause I can't get off otherwise."
Investigation begins with scouring the crime scenes for clues. Now obviously the designers hit the issue that you can't make every item in the crime scene examinable, or some players will spend hours sifting through cigarette butts. But you can't just make the important clues interactable, because PH31-P5 isn't supposed to be a psychic robot. So the compromise is that every now and again Cole will be walking around a crime scene and get momentarily really fucking excited about a discarded fag packet or a spoon until he can hold it up to his face and satisfy himself that it's not the legendary Rizla of Christ.
After this jolly Easter egg hunt, the puzzle then comes into it when you interrogate Johnny Suspect or Barbara Witness. You bring up topics, they reply, and you decide whether to believe them, doubt them, or present proof that they're lying. Trouble is, this is the Alpha Protocol problem of ambiguity. It's not clear if "Doubt" means to raise a single disbelieving robot eyebrow or start accusing them of masterminding the Cuban missile crisis. For example, in one of the very first cases, I find a car crash victim's spectacles that clearly state they are old and been recently repaired, but his wife said he just got a brand-new pair, so I said she was lying, whereupon PH31-P5 activated his "wild accusation" circuits and accused her of secretly being Mrs. Hitler.
Gameplay hot tip: always accuse them of lying first, because if they aren't you'll have the option of backing out, but if they are they'll always say something like "I bet you haven't got a single shred of evidence that I'm married to Hitler," which will provide an incredibly massive hint to present the Hitler marriage certificate you found earlier. I like to think that it's in character; PH31-P5 never quite grasped that good cop / bad cop is supposed to employ two individuals.
Mind you, it's not exactly a brain melt to deduce whether someone's lying or not. This is the inherent problem when you tell your mo-cap actor "look like you're lying, and I know you're acting and therefore lying all the time so this time exaggerate it," so of course they're going to spin their eyes like fruit machines and shift around like someone's trying to work an ant farm up their bum.
The much-touted realistic facial animation is indeed very impressive. You can often very clearly recognize the real-world actor who did the mo-cap, such as TV's Greg Grunberg. But while the faces are very realistic and well-animated, somewhat less attention has been afforded to the bodies, with the usual game problem of weird-looking joints and cardboard clothes. So a rather eerie effect is created, and some characters look like Gerry Anderson finally snapped and starting taping the decapitated heads of jobbing TV actors to his Captain Scarlet puppets.
The game doesn't have the same Bizarro logic as its adventure game ancestors - no combs have to be combined with shoelaces to form makeshift grappling hooks - but it employs a Bizarro logic all of its own, because even if you fuck up, the game still has to contrive ways to keep the trail from going cold. At one point, a recently stabbed corpse has a movie ticket in their hand which is apparently supposed to translate to "the suspect is in that movie theater right now having a shootout with gangsters." At another point, I had to pick one of two suspects to finger, and both their cases seemed flimsy as fuck, but the game yelled at me for five minutes straight for picking the wrong one and gave me a bad rating. Very next case, we discover it was actually another guy and I was right to think the cases were flimsy. And the game didn't even have the decency to apologize.
L.A. Noire is still encouraging but has definitely lost faith in itself by the end. See, I'd have thought an appropriate final boss for a game like this would be a ten-step interrogation with someone with a really hard-to-spot tell, like their ears wobble or their nipples go hard. But no, the game just ends with an action sequence where you run around sewer tunnels blasting gangsters with a flamethrower. Wait, what? That's fucking absurd! That's like defeating Hitler at the end of Wolfenstein 3D by challenging him at Pictionary.
A loose cannon but he gets results: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I had never heard of the word 'Noir' having an E on the end, but if Wikipedia says it's alright who am I to get uppity
Coal PH31-P5 now available for children's parties