Writing game reviews for the newspaper's Arts section is one of the best parts of my job, but it's often a challenge.
On the one hand, since I'm writing for a different kind of reader I can focus on game elements in which I have a keen interest, including characters, story, and setting (or at least I can most of the time; there's not much in the way of personalities or narrative in games like Gran Turismo 5 or Mario Sports Mix ).
On the other hand, I have only 500 words at my disposal. Fitting everything I have to say about a game into such limited space is often tricky. My first drafts are frequently hundreds of words over count, forcing me to whittle down and condense my critique to its core elements and ideas.
That said, I'm usually pretty satisfied with the end result. I think my recent L.A. Noire review, which you can see here, stands well on its own, especially for mainstream readers who may not have any prior idea what the game is about. However, there's so much to talk about regarding this particular title-which pushes boundaries and is great fun, yet still resides some distance from perfect-that I feel compelled to use this blog to continue the discussion.
Hence, the following list of ten additional things you should know about Rockstar and Team Bondi's moody crime thriller.
1. It requires players to block time in their personal calendars
Many games nowadays seem designed for people with attention deficit disorder. Not L.A. Noire. For starters, it has a much slower and more deliberate pace than most triple-A titles. More importantly, the player's performance depends on his or her ability to pay attention to and later recall clues and discussions. Consequently, it all but demands that you play through at least one full case at a time, and cases typically last about an hour, sometimes longer. In other words, don't start playing unless you have plenty of uninterrupted time to spare.
2. It has an unexpected Who-Wants-to-Be-a-Millionaire? angle
Sign into the Rockstar Social Club (the publisher's online game community) and you'll be able to solicit help from your fellow players by using one of your intuition points-earned by levelling up-to see how other players responded to a suspect's story. It's basically the same as the Ask-the-Audience lifeline in ABC's popular TV game show. We're provided percentages showing how many players believed a suspect, doubted him, or called him a liar. It's certainly not foolproof, and I often preferred to use my intuition points in other ways-such as finding more clues-but it did help me out a couple of times when I hadn't the foggiest idea whether my interviewee was being entirely forthcoming.
3. You'll need to listen carefully, and not just during interrogations
L.A. Noire's gamesmiths have developed clever, organic audio cues to communicate key information. When near an object of interest while searching for clues, players hear two soft chimes (and, optionally, feel their controller rumble) that nearly blend in with the game's low-key crime scene music. If you approach evidence you've already seen, you'll hear only a single chime, indicating you've already checked it out. A brief, sober little jingle plays when all clues have been found, letting us know we can stop searching. It's a great way to unobtrusively meld game cues with the atmosphere.
4. Interviews are fun, but their tone is uneven
Casual dialogue is spot-on. Actors have proper inflection, great timing, and seem natural with each other. Unfortunately, that's not always the case during interrogations. Our hero, Phelps, will switch from being completely congenial to hotly accusatory and back again within a matter of seconds, and his interviewees react appropriately only to his most recent line of questioning. There are times when Phelps will viciously call into question a suspect's veracity and be met with hostility, then part company with a pleasant exchange that shows no sign of the previous animosity. Clearly, nailing tone under such dynamic circumstances is a challenge, but it's still a shame Team Bondi didn't manage a little better.
5. It's an interesting look at investigative procedures prior to the Internet
One of my favourite movies, All the President's Men, provides a fascinating look at the challenges investigative journalists faced prior to the advent of the Internet. L.A. Noire provides a similar glimpse into the very different processes that were in place for detectives gathering information prior to the World Wide Web and mobile phones. Players must search out police phone boxes to call deskbound women and have them go through physical files looking for plate ownership records, visit shops to go through handwritten registries, and frequently trek all the way back to the station or coroner's office to have in-person conversations with colleagues. It bestows a new kind of respect for what people were able to do with the tools at hand.
6. Most clues are Dude-approved
Team Bondi doesn't focus much on obscure evidence. Instead, we scour for the sort of time-honoured clues found by detectives in classic film noir, including matchbooks with bar addresses, dry cleaning ticket stubs, and blank note pads whose most recent messages can be discerned by lightly sweeping with the side of a pencil to reveal text indentations. If it's good enough for Jeff Lebowski, it's good enough for Cole Phelps.
7. Style sometimes trumps control
Team Bondi made some great control decisions designed to further the game's cinematic vibe, most notably the ability to simply point the joystick where you want to move and have Phelps leap over, scale, and climb all obstacles in his path. The ability to twist and turn over evidence and manipulate bodies as we inspect them is useful, too. Sadly, not all of the game's controls are equally engaging. Moving around crime scenes, for example, can be tiresome. Team Bondi went with a very fluid animation style, which looks great but carries the consequence that Phelps finishes each of his strides and takes time to turn. Expect to backtrack frequently, gently nudging the thumbstick to find the prime position to pick up evidence.
8. When in doubt, accuse
Interviews and interrogations are among the most difficult parts of the game. L.A. Noire's MotionScan facial animation technology is unparalleled in the world of games, allowing players to see the subtlest of twitches and eye flickers, but that means we aren't given many broad or obvious facial expression cues. If you can't figure out whether your suspect is telling the truth, your best bet is to simply accuse him of lying. His verbal and physical reaction to the accusation can tell you a lot. Plus, unlike choosing to doubt or believe him, you can back out of your accusation with no penalty. Harsh skepticism is your safest bet.
9. Expect problems with pop-up
The only part of L.A. Noire that flat-out frustrated me is environmental pop-up (when objects seemingly jump into existence right in front of you). It's noticeable only occasionally, but when it rears its ugly head it can be downright debilitating. Once, when I was taking a paddywagon off-road across an empty lot to catch a fleeing suspect, a pile of concrete construction tubes appeared above my car's hood. They actually pushed the car into the ground, submerging it up to its roof. This was the most severe instance, and one of the only times it actually impacted my performance. Still, the game clearly could have done with a little more fine tuning.
10. This Los Angeles is worth exploring
Few virtual worlds are as compelling as L.A. Noire's Los Angeles. Team Bondi claims that 90 per cent of what we see is a perfectly authentic recreation of the period, from individual buildings and back streets all the way down to driver licenses and jewellery layaway tickets. At one point I found myself spending minutes poring over an acutely detailed brochure for a water heater that I can't help but believe was a spot-on replica of an artifect from the era. Short of going to a museum, I can't think of a more compelling way to immerse oneself in mid-20th century America.