First things first – let me say that LA Noire is an enjoyable experience with a gripping plot. I had a lot of fun playing through it. That said, as a piece of interactive gaming, it falls short in a couple of key areas.
LA Noire is a Rockstar game at heart. It uses the same engine and open-world mechanic that made the Grand Theft Auto games so rich and lasting. But you have to understand why GTA games ‘work’. Sure, they have a vast map area to explore, but the key to longevity and fun comes from the missions and objectives that it has you do. During the course of a GTA game, you work for different people located around different areas of the map. Each phase of the game helps you get familiar with a part of the map. Other ‘side-missions’ are designed well too – again, because they take advantage of your environment.
Like GTA, LA Noire has a huge map to explore. But the point is, none of the cases you have to solve involve exploring any of it. You just go from crime scene to various locations until you close up the case. Yes, there are things like hidden cars to find if you so wish, thereby allowing you to explore the map further, but why should you bother? Unless you’re someone who likes to tick everything off a list, there is absolutely no value in the game to finding anything ‘hidden’, in that you gain no advantage by doing so.
Driving from location to location is fun at first. You soak up all that 1940s LA atmosphere and enjoy the erratic yet sluggish handling of the classic vehicles. But very, very quickly, it gets boring and I found myself skipping all the journeys after not very long (thankfully it gives you the option to do so).
All of this leads me back to the title of this article. Heavy Rain – the PS3 exclusive released last year – was a revolutionary mystery solving interactive movie-like experience. It based its gameplay on a variety of context-sensitive QTEs (quick-time events). You know: press the correct button when it flashes on screen and sometimes choose from different actions/responses to situations.
Heavy Rain’s gameplay had its criticisms too, but it knew what it was. The game was totally linear in that it popped you in different scenes according to the story. The problem with LA Noire is that, at its core, it is a mystery solving, linear interactive story just as Heavy Rain was. But rather than accept this fact and optimise the gameplay experience to focus just on the things you can do in each scene, they had to give you the illusion of an open world sandbox type game, which it is most certainly not. As a result of this, the crime solving, clue gathering scenes which make up most of the game are so one-dimensional in gameplay terms that it is unbelievable. Walk around a room or area, wait for the controller to vibrate and press X. Rinse and repeat until the music stops so you know you’ve found all the clues. Then move on to the next area.
The compelling plot is what holds the thing together, but without that, the game would be a joke. Also, most of the locales you visit (especially in the homicide portion of the game) are so similar that it’s unbelievable. If Team Bondi had canned the whole open map and spent that development time on making each scene unique and fun to play, the game might just have been a classic.
Other than clue finding, the other main game mechanic in LA Noire is performing interrogations on suspects and witnesses. The big draw to this feature, and indeed, the thing that makes it all possible is the amazing facial motion capture system. For the first time in a game, faces look believable and lifelike. The acting is also excellent, and this helps to immerse you in the plot and characters further. LA Noire has definitely raised the bar on facial animation, and I hope that more story-driven games will use the technology in future.
With that said, it is unfortunate that the interrogations are repetitive and give you the same three options each time: Truth, Doubt and Lie. The idea is that the subject can either tell the truth or lie/withhold information. If you have proof they are lying, you select ‘Lie’ and choose the piece of evidence that is relevant. If you have no proof but don’t trust them, you’d select ‘Doubt’.
Unfortunately, the 3 options are limiting. Shifty eyes mean that the subject is probably lying, and apart from the odd few difficult suspects, it’s usually fairly easy to tell. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll get it right! As Yahtzee explains in his excellent Zero Punctuation review of the game, the problem is that the options are completely ambiguous. Sometimes you know that the guy is lying and have loads of evidence against him, but selecting the wrong one will have the game shoot you down like the loser it thinks you are. Other times, you might feel that part of their statement is inaccurate so you choose Doubt, only to have your character go completely schizophrenic with accusations. In reality, there could be more than one right answer, but the game is quick to make it clear that there is only one correct path. Not that it makes a whole lot of difference if you get things wrong anyway – the game still progresses quite normally.
This is another area where LA Noire could have learnt from Heavy Rain. I appreciate that it may be more difficult from a development point of view, but having situation specific responses a la those found in RPGs would really have made interrogation more interesting and given the acting a real chance to shine through. If they’d removed all the peripheral rubbish and stuck to making the core gameplay a bit better, it may not have been much of an extra development burden.
They might also have been able to make the game longer. At about 12 or 13 hours, it really doesn’t compare to other Rockstar games that use the same open world mechanic. But it is at heart a different game to GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption, and so they shouldn’t really be compared. That’s why I think that they should have approached the game more like Heavy Rain, and less like a cookie-cutter Rockstar title (hell, they already stole a trademark plot device from it). Maybe it would have elevated LA Noire from a decent game to an all-time great.