The L.A. Noire Journal: Day 1

It was my birthday last week, and I requested and received the only game out right now that I thought might be worth owning rather than merely giving a rent.

L.A. Noire is being heralded as a shining star for Rockstar, a blend of incredible technology and unique gameplay that’s different than anything we’ve seen before. Deciding to see for myself if these claims are true, I’ve set out to beat the game over the course of the next X amount of days, reverting back to my old “journal” style installments as I do so. You may remember these from some longer titles I’ve reviewed in the past, and it’s actually my favorite way to talk about games as your experience with them often changes as you go.

It’s the end of day one, I’m a few hours in and already 7 missions through the 21 that make up the story. The game is one of three discs, but with only 21 total missions, I’m wondering if they start to get longer, or if they just need a ton of space for all the dialogue and cutscenes in the game. I’m guessing the latter.

You play as Cole Phelps, the exact opposite of a traditional Rockstar hero like Niko Belic. Phelps is a war hero turned cop who is determined to be the only honest officer in 1940s LA. He wants to rise in the ranks of the police force, and to do so he has to get promoted through the departments. I believe there are three; traffic, vice and homicide. I just finished up my final traffic case, and have now made it into homicide where I expect things to get hairier.

“I think this might be a clue.”

The game is more or less split in two. There’s the typical drive, run and shoot aspects we’ve found in any Grand Theft Auto title, and there are the far slower paced segments that differentiate the game from those that have come before it. These sequences have Cole inspecting crime scenes or places of interest, looking for clues to connect the dots on the case. They also have him interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects where you have to tell if they’re lying to you or not.

How one might do that is a valid question. Video game graphics have been getting better, but hardly any in-game renderings are detailed enough where you can actually tell someone’s lying by their facial expression. But here lies the technological breakthrough that is the core of this entire game.

Rockstar has developed a new facial recognition and capture technology similar to that used in Avatar. But it works for video game characters, creating realistic expressions never before seen in a game. It works so well, the actors playing and voicing the parts are often easily recognizable, or at least placeable, especially of course Aaron Staton, the Mad Men supporting cast member turned hero cop in this game.

The technology really is truly astounding, and I hope to see it in not only future Rockstar titles, as I’m sure we will, but also in ALL video games, as it would really move the medium forward by leaps and bounds.

The effect is both breathtaking and bonechilling.

Too often though, L.A. Noire seems to me like a tech demo, and less of an actual game. The sequences where Cole sifts through random items to find clues can be tedious. You don’t feel smart if you discover something useful, you feel lucky, and you’ll drive yourself crazy looking for that one last clue that a musical cue tells you is still there as you pick up the same pieces of useless crap over and over again.

Equally tedious is the interview process. When talking to Persons of Interest (POIs), you have three options, truth, doubt or lie. Truth is obvious, you believe they are being straightfoward with you, but it’s often the wrong answer. Doubt is you saying you know they’re lying, but don’t have hard evidence to back it up. Lie you must have something on hand that you can actually use to prove they’re in the wrong.

Sometimes this is fun, like when you catch them in a really obvious falsehood, but most of the time, you’ll want to reach for your power button so you can reload and try again. I did that at first, but it got old quickly as I missed things time and time again and I just gave up.

Each character is supposed to have “tells” that give them away. I found this relatively easy to detect at the beginning of the game (people look straight = true, people look away = lying), but even with the minute facial expressions the game can capture, it can often be hard to guess correctly as you can’t always tell what expression each character is actually exhibiting. Was that a polite smile or a hint of a sneer? An eye roll or a blink? And the problem is, you only have one go at each person for the most part, and by the time you figure them out, you’ve already missed half your questions. It can be particularly hard to distinguish between when you’re supposed to say lie or doubt, as both have them telling falsehoods, and sometimes you won’t realize that A) you have evidence you could have used against them or B) you DON’T have evidence you NEED to use against them when they’re lying.

“I ain’t sayin’ another word.” I want to punch you…so badly.

Stranger still, even failing miserably in both evidence gathering or interviewing seems to have very little effect on the outcome of the case. As long as you find a few very basic clues or get a few fundamental admissions, you’ll see the end of the case, and the only difference is the path you take to get there, and what ranking you get at the end, a stat that I don’t think has any real meaning.

The action portions of the game are meant to balance out these dialog and inspection sequences, but so far at least, they’re the most barebones sorts of missions I’ve ever seen from Rockstar. There’s cover, you hide behind it, you shoot at people who pop up, sometimes you run cars off the road or chase people, but it all feels like stripped down versions of missions you’ve done in previous Rockstar games. There’s not even a gun select option, as you’re stuck with whatever you’re holding, one gun at a time. There’s no ammo counter, hell, I don’t even think there’s a reload button. I get that they’re going for realism, but it just feels incredibly stripped down compared to past titles.

I’m going to save some stuff for next time, but my overall impression thus far is that the technology is very cool, and though the fundamental idea behind the game seems innovative, it’s not actually very fun in practice. Looking for clues and getting right answers seems like a lot more luck than skill, and there doesn’t seem to be that great of a punishment or reward for succeeding or failing in those aspects of the game.

Perhaps this will change as I progress, and that’s why we have more journals to go.