You could split the world in two. Easily. I’d suggest doing it this way: those who know that video games are interactive and those who believe games can be like films. Why such an odd partitioning of our great society? Well, because LA Noire is trying to fit into both, the confused little soul.
Games are not films. This is the first rule of interactive entertainment; it’s a simple rule but still overlooked by many who dabble in the game-making business. From John Woo to the Wachowski Brothers, via the bloke who made the game Fahrenheit, linear narrative experts have struggled with their brilliant story not fitting into a structure where the viewer could make a thousand different choices.
History has taught us this lesson; it’s not from the mouths of bitter gamers… OK, it’s from there as well. Hollywood hot shots with their weak grasp of what games are, I can understand, but Rockstar? Really? Yes, the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, of Red Dead Redemption, the masters of sandbox games, are having a go and failing, albeit gracefully, at the game/film mutant crossbreed too.
Oh, Rockstar, with LA Noire you spawned a child of neither world; an enigma, a laughable attempt, and, yes, a technical marvel too. I mean, it looks really, really good but it does whiff of ‘trying too hard’.
LA Noire can be summed up like this: GTA in 1947. Cool. Rockstar should be applauded for pushing the GTA format so far, for a game featuring an upstanding citizen as the protagonist encouraging non-violent actions. Bravo. Sincerely. Driving around in classic American cars in an authentically recreated LA, it’s fantastic. Some of those tyre screeching, pedestrian dodging moments have been my favourite in gaming.
However, LA Noire can also be summed up like this: GTA with a jarring and sluggish story mode in 1947. This free choice badge it’s inherited from GTA is an illusion; concluding one particular case involves arresting one of two men who are both clearly innocent. Nasty people, but innocent of the crime you’re investigating. You have to arrest one guy, nothing allows you to let both go and continue investigating. This whole debacle jars the pace of LA Noire and is a little confusing until you realise how linear the story actually is.
Oh yeah, the story. It’s, like, a big part of the game. You’re an LAPD cop. A bloody good one, too. Incorruptible, loyal, strict, logical; Cole Phelps is, well, he’s a lot like Guy Pierce in LA Confidential.
You’re dropped into the life of this ex Marine officer, shaken by his time fighting ‘Japs’ in the Pacific but driven to be really good at policing. For some reason. That particular character trait felt ungrounded, like it was… Oh, I see, it’s just so we aren’t encouraged to kill everyone in front of us during the game. Clever but restrictive; the game has the audacity to decide when you can use your gun.
Phelps starts taking on cases and, because we’re him and this is a video game, he solves them all, one by one, and slowly gets promoted. We meet colourful characters, inspect crime scenes, interview suspects, sometimes charge them. You know, exactly the kind of traditional police work you see on TV.
Which brings me to the super-dooper new technology used in LA Noire: yay! The actors were all filmed doing their lines, so every nuance of facial movement makes its way onto the characters of LA Noir to great effect.
It has its moments, faces can shine and it does lend well to the idea that learning lies from truth is a skill you have to learn yourself, at home, on your sofa. Still, these moments are shattered when faces tick in and out of different animations. Heads often look detached and over-acted.
The gaming fans amongst you may struggle to recognise lies from half-truths as the actors’ varying facial skills are displayed before you in ‘lie mode’ or ‘truth mode’. These slightly soulless computer people, drifting in and out of the Uncanny Valley, lose any remaining shred of humanity in their body movements though; stiff as a board, all of them.
Eventually, the plot thickens and the gameplay thins out, cut scenes increase in number and, ultimately, you finish the story and it ends. I won’t spoil anything here but, well, it’s underwhelming. A massive pity.
There’s nothing wrong with games being influenced by movies; look, style, setting, character, it’s all perfect for the plucking. Rockstar thrived on this with the GTA series because, as gamers, we make our own little movie each time we play. OK, not ones with Kubrick-like direction or hair-raising driving by Gene Hackman but still movie-like and fun. Thank film for those little experiences, games fans. And thank Rockstar for understanding how to put them into a game.
Story is different. In a game, story has to unfold within the gameplay, use little to no cut scenes and, above all else, not reduce the gameplay to pressing one button. Example of bad story integration: Enter The Matrix. Example of brilliant story integration: Bioshock.
Example of an underwhelming middle-ground born from good intentions but ultimately doesn’t succeed in making a game like a film: LA Noire. The story is often predictable and, while LA Noire does manage to push the story along using elements of gameplay, like discerning when someone is lying or not, they’re increasingly stifling moments of gameplay because there are right and wrong outcomes.
LA Noire isn’t the multi-choiced, real-world, cop-em-up we were led to believe. It is a beautiful and sporadically absorbing gumshoe detective novel, with bloody deaths, rapists, child molesters, arsonists and a big fat police-corruption conspiracy. It’s definitely not for the feint-hearted.
However, it’s not the genre-busting, film-inspired evolution in gaming Rockstar, or most of the press, would like to believe it is.