Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #4: L.A. Noire

There is something peculiar about a new type of genre in the gaming industry, or one that significantly tweaks an existing category to its liking, that piques our interest as gamers. We like being on the up and up with technology and advances over what we currently have, be it from the Nintendo 3DS and the AR Games advancement (which, admittedly, still blows my feeble mind) or the leaps and bounds that the motion capturing industry has made, albeit in an unorthodox fashion, with the arrival of L.A. Noire.

The intrigue sets in thanks to a beautifully crafted story, where war hero Cole Phelps is coming home from World War II only to battle his personal demons in the face of the physical ones on the streets of 1940s Los Angeles, California. Becoming a beat cop and graduating to detective, you play as Phelps as he moves up (and down) the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, deciphering the identity of petty thieves to serial killers in the bowels of L.A. during its Golden Era.

From the outset, you’re thrust into a murder case where the answers should be blatantly obvious… unless you’re me, as I quickly discovered that I am a dreadful judge of character. I’m fairly certain that you could be holding a bloody knife next to a corpse with stab wounds and I’d be on the fence as to whether or not something fishy was up, at least judging by my initial results in L.A. Noire. Unlike any game before it, L.A. Noire forces you to ditch your good guy (or in this instance, good cop) intentions; it forces you out of your comfort zone. In L.A. Noire, no longer can you merely play through a BioWare-esque experience taking the “good” path carelessly. If you try to be the Rebel Jedi in this one, more often than not you will fail at being a good detective, as you can grill the presumably innocent to unlock new clues to further your investigation. By finding additional leads through these interrogations or grilling, you can access possible correct paths to take when coming to a conclusion in your case. This makes it necessary to be an intuitive enforcer if you are aiming for the proper ending to that particular case, as you will be stuck with your decisions made throughout the process. Indeed, you reap what you sow.

The innovative motion capturing technology allows you to see truly lifelike facial movements from those in question, a real breakthrough for gaming as a whole. There are arguments lingering as to whether or not this route of mocap is the future of the industry, with Heavy Rain’s David Cage calling it a “dead-end” for advancement. Likewise, Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand has stated that due to the sophisticated technology’s restrictions, actors cannot riff off of one another to create better chemistry. In hindsight, the jagged and disconnected fragments seldom stand out in a negative fashion due to the serious light that the game is portrayed in. This tech certainly wouldn’t work for the likes of the character-heavy, banter-laden Uncharted series, but it serves a wonderful purpose in L.A. Noire. As for Cage, let’s color him jealous for no apparent reason; both Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire execute what they set course to accomplish, and both are worthy recommendations.

While the look of the game and its innovative technologies that influence the gameplay will be the thing to suck you in and primarily work as its sticking point, one cannot overlook the world that Team Bondi has successfully brought back to life. A sandbox title is only as good as the world map you’re given to explore in. Everything appears clear and crisp, a movie-esque Los Angeles where it seems impossible for depravity to dwell, turning the landscape into an underground den of criminality beneath its rosy surface.

Much like the world around you in L.A. Noire, the characters appear cut and dry on the exterior until you really dig into their trials and tribulations endured over the course of the war. I struggle with the likelihood that these heroes could come back home to find themselves all intertwined in the same schemes – on both sides of the game, no less – in the same city and all, but I’m willing to suspend my belief based on the fact that the performances and writing are titillating enough to tickle the curiosity of most gamers. There comes a time when we can finally expect stellar storytelling in gaming as a platform, and it’s ushered in by the likes of L.A. Noire and the previously-mentioned Heavy Rain.

L.A. Noire may look as though it panders to the Grand Theft Auto crowd on the surface, but those presumptions are washed away as soon as you begin playing as the opposite side of the seedy underground that GTA marinades in. Slow-paced clue-hunting at crime scenes will lead to non-violent searches at establishments within the game’s beautifully-rendered Los Angeles setting, looking for murder weapons or drug stashes. This is more CSI than GTA for the betterment of the game; after all, if we wanted to play GTA, wouldn’t we simply pop that in? L.A. Noire creates its own identity, one that could be picked out of any line-up.

As we all know, Team Bondi has gone by the wayside as a result of their hard work and craftsmanship on L.A. Noire, which is a huge loss to budding development studios everywhere. The long hours they put into perfecting L.A. Noire were one of the reasons for their downfall. The creative folks who concocted the title will go on to do other projects that will entice the masses, but the studio itself looks as though it will not rise from the ashes. It is a shame that a swansong has to be played this early in the life of a studio, but oh, what a melody it is.

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