Thursday, May 19, 2011

"(I Always Kill) The Things I Love"

The title of this post is one of the main songs for the new game, L.A. Noire. I just finished the main storyline and while I have yet to really finish up all the side quests, or street crimes as they're known as in this game, I still wanna put down what I think while it's still fresh in my head. This game literally just came out a few days ago so I know there's still a lot of people who haven't finished it. This is a review post but I'm gonna try to avoid spoilers where I can.

One more disclaimer before I get to it: my brain skips around a lot, get used to it.

I'm typing this out as I have the soundtrack going in the background, like a boss. Before I get to the game itself, I want to praise the music. I'm not a huge jazz buff, but I'm not against it either. The music team for this game is great. While I'm not sure if car radios were even around in the late 40's, I'm not complaining with having period music play while I drive around the city of "angels". The aforementioned song in the title is probably my favorite track. It's a newly written and performed song just for this game and you should listen to it or just buy the soundtrack. Anyway, onto the game.

This information is anywhere, but in the game you play as WWII hero, Cole Phelps. He's one of LAPD's few "honest cops". Right from the get-go you learn pretty fast that Cole is a stickler for the rules and likes doing things by the book. I don't hold that against him by any means; it's nice having a protagonist that's a straight arrow once and awhile. Lately in games we see a lot of anti-heroes and damaged goods. Ok well, without going into details Cole isn't 100% pure, but hey he's human. There's also other characters in the game... a lot of other characters. They range from your partners, bosses, victims, suspects, witnesses, etc. All of them were face captured and all of them have the amazing facial animation from the trailers. 

It's not often a game comes around waving around a new technology card without it feeling too much like a gimmick. Shooters tend to do this a lot, promising something ground-breaking but in the end it's still just a shooter. In this game, when you're interviewing people you have to read their faces. Yes, these people are paid actors who are probably told to accentuate certain movements like shifty eyes but it's still amazing tech that doesn't involve me dancing in front of my TV. The tech is so good, and these performances are so real that sometimes the immersion gets to you.

I could go on for a long time about why I enjoy this game but I don't really have enough time for that as I have work in the morning and would rather not be in zombie mode all day. For now, I'll cover a few issues I want to point out.

This is not Grand Theft Auto. On some levels, it feels like it because here you have a very large recreation of 1940's Los Angeles but by following the story, you only ever see a small portion of notable landmarks. The way the game is doesn't lend itself well to exploration. You can go hunt down all the film reels and hidden cars but so what? You get some shiny trophy unlocks and build up the car library. Police vehicles are the only ones you have access to a police radio and the siren. Other cars may go faster, but driving like a dumbass can severely affect your rating at the end of each case if you run over a lot of people or smash into other cars repeatedly. On the other hand though, the city is very well done. It's not as impressive as Liberty City in GTA4 but then again, L.A. in 1947 wasn't that impressive. It's a great recreation of a city after the war booming with growth.

Another thing I want to point out is the repetitive gameplay. A typical case begins with going to a crime scene, looking for clues, and talking to people. After that, you go talk to some more people, look for some more clues and hopefully by the end of the investigation, someone gets arrested or shot. This happens over a dozen times across five desks in the LAPD. There's some action in this game in the form of pursuing fleeing suspects and car chases but the point I'm trying to bring up is that the draw of this game isn't the visceral action. (On that note, I hate it when people describe a game as being visceral.) The game is fun when you're piecing together all the little parts of a puzzle and getting that vital tidbit of information from the person you're putting the squeeze on. It's that excitement of trying to figure out who the culprit is that really gets me. Pair that up with the facial tech I mentioned and you got a cocktail for awesome.

Speaking of awesome, I'd like to touch on my favorite desk: homicide. I know I said I'd avoid spoilers, but for this I can't really avoid it. Why do I like tackling cases about dead people? Well, that's because there's a lot of cases that relate to Betty Short. Right now I'm taking a class focused on film noir and we had recently finished reading The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (which by the way is a great read) and watching the '06 film of the same name. As fun as it is unraveling Rockstar's plot, there's just something a little more fun about dealing with murders based on a murder that remains unsovled to this day. Frequent references are made to the Dahlia case and I remember one part where you hear some reporter who asks the cops on scene, "Any news about the Dahlia?", it kinda made me grin.

One final thing I want to mention is that the game doesn't really play out that quickly so I foresee a lot of people turning their nose up and walking away. I can definitely see that this is not a game for everyone. The last few Rockstar games have really played themselves up as mainstream triple-A titles. Part of that is because they deserve some of the praise, the rest of that is the almighty hype machine. This game however, doesn't feel like a mainstream title that everyone universally loves and adores. It certainly feels more like a niche game. For me at least, it's a jazzy adventure filled with murder, corruption, and an overarching conspiracy I'll not soon forget.

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