12 Months, 12 Games: January – LA Noire

In 2018 I came to the realisation I had completed very few games during the course of the year, which in turn prompted a decision should I continue to write about gaming I should probably play and complete more video games. An expensive proposition but thankfully one possible with a backlog spanning decades. So I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.

LA Noire

Developer: Team Bondi

Release Date: May 2011

Finished: January 2019

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Released in 2011 to critical acclaim, LA Noire is seen quite rightly, as a pioneer and innovator in the presentation and representation of facial animation in the gaming artistic medium. A component utilised in a highly effective manner as your central protagonist detective character is tasked with solving various criminal cases across a variety of divisions and departments in the Los Angeles Police Department. Inspired by the film noir methodology prevalent in cinematography of that era, the atmosphere shown is a wonderfully rich and unique playable experience with a distinctive soundtrack and general sound quality a notable highlight for me personally. The graphical prowess remains to this day in my opinion, one of the greatest shown in any gaming medium, still the inspection of a dead body within the game world a genuinely disturbing experience given the motion capture of the bodies.  But, despite its many deserved acclaim for the past 8 years I have had neither the motivation, predication or desire to see this game through to completion, humbled not by an especially tough or challenging menace or threat but quite simply the games narrative structure that contrasted with the more open methodology of its open world peers. In retrospect and with the advantage of hindsight I can look back now on some of my preconceptions around this title and accept they were perhaps only artificial constructions or misidentified structures impeding my progress.

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My preconceptions and optimism for this game were based almost entirely on the open world structures experienced in its historical peers of Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto Four, whilst developed more internally than LA Noire, certainly can be seen as a more closely associated game given the same publishing studio and the genesis of the publisher in both its design and execution. Both these preceding titles presented a loose, open world structure that whilst maintaining and using a narrative structure in its presentation was far more, relaxed and less confined in how and when you chose to progress. Should you so wish, having completed one chapter or another you were then free to venture forth into the wilds of Liberty City or New Mexico and explore these creative environments in your own time with no great drive beyond a base curiosity to see the narrative progress. In contrast, the somewhat more rigid and almost formulaic structure presented in LA Noire had a detrimental impact on my willingness to devote any great time or attention to this title, the world of Los Angeles despite certain similarities to that of Grand Theft Auto was at both times conflicting with an abundance of detail pertaining to the particular case but also quiet and lacking in atmosphere and activity besides the vehicles and individuals that reside in the city. But I was determined to persevere and bring my investigations to a conclusion.

 

To provide a brief summary, the game casts you as a rising detective in the LAPD who after resolving a tutorial mission that introduces you to the games mechanics and controls then see’s your progression through various departments from traffic to homicide and beyond resolving structured cases that span the City of Angels before its finale which see’s you drawn into the conspiracy that corrupts the city. The innovative aspect of the title without question lies in the motion and facial capture technology that was ground breaking for its day and still in my opinion has a remarkable impact in bringing you into the game world. Without a doubt there is a certain detachment and de censoring that takes places when you play any form of game or software on a regular impact, the concept of accountability for your actions may be worryingly traced back at a future date to the role gaming had on removing the notion and responsibility of causality for your actions. Perhaps driven by technology, or to say the restriction of technology where by shooting an enemy or killing a person within a game has no great moralistic impact or detriment to your progress mainly because in truth they are but a piece of coding with no real repercussions for your actions, the detail of those disposable opponents often a blurred mess or a repeated character model. One of the great features of LA Noire and also its most impactful for me was the motion capture of the bodies when you were undertaking your investigations and the very real, physical effect this had on me when playing this ‘game’. Because, the bodies looked so life-like and your interaction with them closely resembled how you would touch and handle another person there was a level of resonance and connectivity beyond anything I had experienced before and to this date with more modern titles and releases.

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Upon review and completion of this title I perhaps can now look back and reflect upon my preconceptions and initial resentment towards those restrictions felt many years ago. In contrast, despite its more fluid and open world methodology despite a grandiose level of content and interaction, the worlds of Liberty City and San Andreas can often feel empty, shallow shells, populated for the moment but you come away feeling that if you tug just a little too much on the strings, peek behind the curtain to borrow a euphemism you will see the world beyond and the artificial nature of the game. Much of the enjoyment of the series is obtained from the irrelevant humour and satirical nature of the worlds inhibited, a creator and publisher shining a light on the tropes of gaming and challenging your expectations wherever possible, in contrast there was something quite refreshing to explore a more straight-faced world and environment from this publisher that whilst itself an homage to a certain aesthetic style certainly had some impactful moments. Whilst there was a certain level of restriction in your gameplay as a result each case for the most part populated the world with believable and real characters, in contrast to the more cartoonish individuals encountered within Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption those in LA had a complexity that was genuinely interesting to encounter. In the pursuit of justice, putting the clues together, travelling to locations to interview witnesses and ultimately coming to a resolution with each case allow moments of accomplishment not felt with its elder legacy games. In effect, a tighter and stricter structure to the game allows a more detailed experience, each homicide case for example whilst part of an overarching plot brought to a satisfying conclusion.

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It was towards the end of the game when working in the arson division that I came to realise the scope and structure of the story, what initially presents itself as singular cases with a vague overarching plot now pushed to the foreground resulting in a bloody conclusion in its final chapter and case. The decision to switch the main investigator in the final chapters was an interesting choice but I never really found the personality of Phelps especially endearing and so switching to Kelso towards the end wasn’t to great a sacrifice to make. I enjoyed aspects of the plot and did appreciate ultimately how interwoven the different elements were, and largely that not all the villains of the piece were arrested or taken down, perhaps a greater completion rate would have produced an alternate take on this but for now I was satisfied with a more grounded, real ending where not everyone wins or loses, in this respect the game delivered for me on the narrative front over and above any other recent game from the Publisher. There in lay some of the frustration that deterred me for such a long time in completing this title, whether this was noted or commented on in reviews after all these years I wouldn’t care to comment or explore. Having now experienced the game in its entirety I can come away with a solid, well written title, perhaps edging more towards a software release championing style over substance but well written and presented and certainly grateful to have completed and enjoyed for myself.

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What issues remain, unfortunately exacerbated by the passage of time, are more prominent and pronounced, the combat is terribly weak, restricted and limited thankfully to small occasions as and when the plot requires but the necessity of the genre and style mean your character will engage in physical altercations and the use of fire arms is ever-present. Both of which are poorly implemented, they were a difficult mechanic to grasp and use originally and sadly remain a weak element of the gameplay, effectively rudimentary quick time events as you use a combination of strikes and avoidance to take down your suspect. In truth where possible it is far more efficient and progressive to shoot and kill your fleeing criminal than have to engage in a tedious physical altercation. Again, perhaps a satirical nod to the genre but I’d more readily believe just a poorly worked fighting structure built into the game. The shooting mechanics are almost identical to those found in Grand Theft Auto Four and despite being cast as a detective in the police department predominantly your main firearm is your side arm with only occasional use of shotguns and heavier weaponry when the plot calls for it. Unfairly contrasting to Red Dead Redemption 2 and its inventory system as shown in movies of the time would it have been so difficult for example to have a selection of weaponry in the trunk of you car to provide a moment of levity or catharsis as and when required. Although this would have conflicted with the tone of the narrative. But the same issues remain and as such makes a slight mockery of the fact your main detective is a war veteran but struggles on the streets of Los Angeles.

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The overwhelming sensation I take from this experience is the question whether this would have been better suited as a different style of game or executed with a different methodology. The best aspects of it, the crime scene investigation, narrative, music the various chase and driving mechanics were incredibly fun to play in the loosest sense of the word but ultimately as an open world game to bring Los Angeles to life did require creating an open world environment that outside of the missions felt largely empty and lifeless despite the presence of the cars and non playable characters walking around. Those connected to the relevant mission or case file in contrast felt varied and interesting, more so than any recent Grand Theft Auto title which for me was an astonishing realisation to take away given the gap in time between releases. In addition the balance certainly felt skewed, with a far greater emphasis on detective work and exploration in the earlier chapters whilst towards the end the final case files were wrapped up relatively quickly with minimal imput from the main investigator. In truth, it felt somewhat rushed or a cheap way to finish the game relying almost entirely on movies to resolve the overarching plot. Which in turn goes back to the question whether this narrative and story was best suited to an open world game or would have sufficed in a Noire inspired animated film of some sort as an alternative for example. Arguably I would posture given its merits and strengths remain its detective and crime scene moments restricting the explorable environment to these areas alone could have resulted in something special. The interwoven second world war back story was interesting and certainly added a personal aspect to the plot that was otherwise somewhat disconnected but again as the main aspects were only revealed towards the end it felt like a misdirection or twist in the story for complexity sake. Arguably the clues were there but it changed the nature of the story from being an investigatory detective on the periphery to an integral aspect of the plot without ever being truly involved.

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Other mechanics do work however, implemented on and expanded from its other more well-known games. The side missions, here presented as emergency calls are more small-scale, choreographed set pieces set within a confined location but each presented as its own dynamic event. Even to this day, whilst exploring other open world games in the pursuit of the main story you do tend to avoid these missions after a while purely because of the general repetitive nature of the tangents but also to pursue the main narrative. This accusation cannot be levelled towards LA Noire so when a radio call comes through there is a temptation to respond and should you do you are rewards with varying missions and quests to complete, from a domestic shooter to a full-scale bank robbery, each designed and staged separately creating an enjoyably fun experience. The driving and chase mechanics, whilst a little weak in the implementation are also quite fun, chasing a criminal across rooftops, up and down pipes and ladders before apprehending the fleeing perpetrator gives you a great sense of satisfaction. Equally a car chase between period cars as you attempt to shoot the tires out or alternatively damage the car by impacting it in its rear wheels is entertaining, and that’s before  you mention the chase music that intensifies and plays as you drive. The game, for me has a rich and varied soundtrack that echoes the film genre it is portraying, using familiar musical queues during your investigations that do provide an element of a crutch to ensure you uncover as many clues as possible to find but also always fitting and in keeping with the quest. Does this then perhaps suggest this game is ultimately style over substance? a fair point to level towards the title and ultimately I’ve come away with a greater appreciation of the genre and accepted my original impressions of the weak playing mechanics are largely justified. Equally however where I was previously deterred based on the somewhat isolated nature of your first case feels, this sensation was abolished towards the end as the narrative came together in a satisfying conclusion.

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4 thoughts on “12 Months, 12 Games: January – LA Noire

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