Friday, June 17, 2011

"may the cat eat him and the cat be eaten by the devil..."

By Russel D McLean

I am of a generation that grew up with computer games. I remember convincing my parents that buying a Spectrum +2 was the ideal learning tool, when all I wanted was to play Manic Miner. I remember spending hours learning how to program simple adventure games because… well, I’m really not sure why but it seemed a great idea at the time.

These days, of course, I’m a bit more out of touch than most. I am a casual gamer. I don’t like punishing difficulty levels. I like smooth games that reward you while offering a feeling of challenge. I also like games that work to involve you in their world. The best games tell stories, at their heart. Which is why I loved adventure games; they were not just about challenges but about story and character.

My favourite game of the past few years is BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM which had the perfect difficulty level settings and managed to provide gameplay, plot and action in one. It was literally like being able to control the comic books you read as a kid. Hugely exciting and brilliantly done. It was remarkable to play a game that was so immersive, with nothing to pull you out of the experience and none of the usual amateurish attempts at “acting” or “scripting” that seem to be pumped out in so many mainstream games.

Which is a roundabout way of me setting up to talk LA NOIRE, the latest from Rockstar Games (who, I am led to believe had their humble origins here in Dundee) which places you slap bang in the midst of a 1940’s LA playing a police detective in the LAPD who’s not only about to try and solve some heinous crimes, but may just get involved a giant conspiracy that will rock the city to its core.

Oh, and you’ll solve the Black Dahlia case, too.

What strikes immediately about LA Noire is the detail of the game design. The fashions, the feel of the city, everything is note perfect, as much loving recreation as homeage. And yes an element of cliché comes into play, but its so loving, its very welcome indeed.

Gameplay is intriguing and deceptively simple. Most games go for the action and given Rockatr’s background with free-roaming “sandbox” games where you can waste hours between plot points and for casual gamers (like me) this eventually becomes frustrating as you trudge from one place on the map to another with sometimes very little idea as to what you’re doing or why. LA NOIRE is plot based, and you will be guided, but since the plot and acting are so good you won’t care. Much of the time you will drive (mostly obeying the rules of the road, and loving the chance to take in some of that period detail) to designated crime scenes. Upon arrival you’ll search for clues (the controller buzzes when you near one), evaluate their usefulness and use them to build a picture of what happened. You’ll interrogate suspects. Accuse someone of lying and you’ll have to rely on that chain of evidence you’ve been building to show precisely why they’re lying. Doubt them and you’ll be basing your attitude on how you read a suspect’s body language and tone.

Yeah, you read that right. There’s a reason I love this game, and its because they got some real actors and real scripts to work in the game. Because the advancewment on the player is linked directly to how believeable the actors are. Blow your reading of a suspects body language and they’ll give you bad information. And bad information can lead to your boss chewing you out when you screw up a case. Trust me when I say that the chewing out is not pretty and you’ll be wincing when it happens.

LA Noire, according to its creators is roughly equivalent to two series of a TV drama. That’s about right, and accordingly the game is divided into episode-like cases. You’ll work through four detective desks until the final twists and all your skills will be honed and tested by each desk.

Its great fun, and to add to the action, you will spend time shooting, chasing down and generally kicking the crap out of bad guys as the game varies its mechanics to stop you getting bored with the same puzzles over and over.

One action sequence early on impresses, taking place on a massive movie set that’s in danger of collapsing. By the end I was gasping for breath and utterly delighted.

To be fair, after the showstopping finale to your time on homicide, the game seems to slow for a while to the point that I worried about it picking up. But those middle act blues don’t last long and soon you’re caught up again. Because, boss, it’s the story that matters here and as with any good noir book or film, you’re hooked on the characters and place –invested in them.

Which leads to some small problems. A late last act POV switcheroo almost derails the game completely and would never be allowed in a book or movie unless the editors were idiots. But the bravado of the project and the ultimate necessity of this switch more than make up for it. And one puzzle in particular harks back to the free-roaming boredom of GTA etc. But all of these are petty complaints.

With a cast nicked direct from MAD MEN and other quality dramas (you’ll start to say… “isn’t that?” whenever someone appears in game) and a script that’s boldly confident and well above the usual slapdash cuscenes, LA NOIRE is like no other game played before. Its gradient difficulty level means that it might be too easy for veteran gamers, but for someone like me its perfectly pitched. I died more than once but never did I want to take the Xbox and chuck it out the window.

If you’re a crime fan and have a console that’ll play this, go buy LA NOIRE, now. If you don’t have a console find somehow who does, let them buy it and then find a way for them to allow you to spend time along in their living room pretending to be a 1940’s homicide detective.

You’ll thank me for it.


Sarah Tokeley said...

This was a beautiful game to look at. I'm a pc gamer rather than console but I sat and watched my other half play this (while telling him who was lyin' and who was truthin'). I did have a bash at driving, but umm, I cost the city few dollars!

All I'd add to your review is that if you don't play, you can still get plenty out of watching.

Steven T. said...

And I think Jonathan Santlofer has edited a collection of short stories connected with this game - Megan Abbott is in it. Pretty sure...

Librarian D.O.A. said...

You make it sound pretty good. Have you played the Max Payne games? Is it like that or anything else? Alan Wake?

Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, but why the e in Noire?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

GAD said...

LA Noire. Loved it to bits, played it twice and shall play it again! I have also watched several YouTubers playing it and that's how I found this page, I'm watching Tetra Ninja's walkthrough and the captain has just offered Phelps the chance to interrogate the suspect,saying, "May he be eaten by a cat and may the cat be eaten by the devil." Obviously meaning he's a bad B and deserves everything he gets. I googled the expression to see what came up and this post is the 3rd hit. I'm glad I read it.