Monday, May 23, 2011

Quick Impressions: LA Noire (PS3)

LA Noire has been a long time coming. First announced around 2007 as a PS3 exclusive title, this groundbreaking game has very little in common with most games from Rockstar or popular blockbuster titles. Thematically and gameplay-wise, LA Noire has much more in common with a cult favourite, Capcom's Ace Attorney series. With it's impressive facial motion capture tech and Rockstar's track record, how does the game stand up?

Spoiler alert - As a detective mystery game, there might be some spoilers. I've only covered the first few cases. However, I'll also touch briefly on Phoenix Wright, Heavy Rain and GTA4 (not in major spoiler sense, but you should be aware of these games and what they're about.

One of the big features of LA Noire has been their motion capturing technology, and it only partially succeed. True to their claim, facial expressions are absolutely fantastic, capturing every minuet detail. However, the game also suffers because of this feature: Other animations such as body movements don't match up to facial expressions, often leaving a feeling of heads pasted on body effect; hair doesn't animate (which is probably why everyone wears hats); camera angle and focus isn't done in a way to suggest depth, often leaving the game feel like it's green-screened badly; texture details on faces also feel lacking, giving all characters a "cel-shaded" look that doesn't quite feel right. The game occasionally jumps across the uncanny valley, especially with concentrated close up shots of character faces, but more often than not, scenes falls back into a creepy, weird, animatronic feel. LA Noire is probably the best attempt yet, and while it falls short, you have to feel impressed by the tech. (Yes, there are drawbacks, but I guess that's not that important, especially in this game)

Perhaps more interesting with LA Noire's game design is it's take on gameplay. Let's start with the con: Team Bondi and Rockstar probably knew that no matter how they try, there will be fans of games like GTA and Red Dead that will come over and expect another open world romp, so it wasn't a surprise to see that the open world in LA Noire, nor was it a surprise to see the side missions feel directly lifted from a GTA game. However, the open world feels somewhat tacked on and pointless, and more importantly, the side missions has a "been there, done that" feel. While the open world is huge, the fact that you're playing a cop immediately translates to a minimal sandbox experience: any negative interactions with the world, and you're immediately punished; even thought this is realistic, it's not necessary the same type of fun people would have expected in an open world. The side missions, on the other hand, suffers from the clunky controls (running and shooting is mapped to the same button? MADNESS) that gets the job done most of the time. While it's merely competent, I was often asking myself, "why aren't I playing GTA instead if I wanted this gameplay?"

However, the investigative/detective part of LA Noire makes up for all it's shortcomings. While the puzzles and item searches will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played any Phoenix Wright or older adventure games, it's the interrogation that sets the game apart. Observing the witness/suspect's reaction, facial animation and tone of voice goes a long way in selling the drama (and a much better, more feasible way than Phoenix Wright's text based word hunt) The decisions and choices seems to be much more deliberate here too, unlike Heavy Rain, where you can possibly sit there and agonize for the right answer forever, flip flopping back and forth between two choices. You'll feel like you messed up because of reflex in Heavy Rain, you'll feel like an idiot who wasn't thinking when you mess up in LA Noire.

One interesting observation about the game though, is that on paper, there is no "fail". (I'm going to ignore the side missions where you die, or chase scenes where you mess upon). In this sense, this game plays very much like most adventure games, but even then most still have a failure condition once you mess up too many times. (In Phoenix Wright, raising the wrong objection too many times in a trial would be fail) In here, it seems that you can be the worse detective and still proceed in the story: the only meaningful result is your case score. Maybe in later chapters I won't get promoted, but that isn't the case just yet.

I'll probably check in later once I'm "done" with the game.


  1. To be fair, without spoiling too much, most of Heavy Rain is unfailable as well; they just give you the illusion of you doing something intense and life threatening, when really your actions don't mean all that much.

  2. My understanding with Heavy Rain is that there eventually will be critical decisions that will change the course of the game. Right now, it seems like LA Noire isn't even going to punish me for crude decisions.