If games are to advance in a similar trajectory as the film industry's finest works, L.A. Noire will be remembered as the genesis of mainstream cinematic success in interactive form. Marrying believable, memorable actors with a strong narrative that takes player actions into consideration, this 1940s gumshoe serial drama is a cornerstone for the game industry.
Much has been said of the game's facial animations, which volley the uncanny valley with relative ease. Characters evoke emotion with the flick of an eye or the shuffling of a lip, a phenomenon not present in previous character-driven game stories. Should future big-budget games incorporate a version of Team Bondi's tech, we'll be seeing actors lined up on the red carpet for Best Actor in an Interactive Work at the Academy Awards within the next 10 years.
The incorporation of this technical achievement into the title's actual mechanics, however, is an impressive feat. As Cole Phelps, players must consider each shred of previously collected evidence when interrogating suspects. Shifty or nervous ticks in their face may indicate their statement isn't entirely truthful—or an outright fabrication. In order to advance, the player has to analyze a person's face—an actual face—and keep the character's situation, testimony, and background into account. It manifests a remarkable tension during case investigations that likely wouldn't be possible with previous facial replication techniques. Imagine playing through your favorite television character drama using L.A. Noire's engine: high stakes decision making in Battlestar Galactica or negotiating with the sly, distrustful residents of Deadwood would be remarkable candidates for this scenario.
L.A. Noire suffers some unfortunate shortcomings. The realistic faces cast a negative light on the rest of the character animations, which were captured separately from the close-up work. This discrepancy reveals visual oddities during medium-range shots, as a character's face sometimes appears to be floating directly over the front of his skull and not attached to it. Body parts on secondary characters look bland and mannequin-like by comparison, a failure only apparent because of the success of the faces. These random but prevalent occurrences have a startling impact on player immersion in the game—it's like a smooth, quiet country drive that's suddenly plagued by potholes.
Keeping a player's involvement within such a rich and interesting game world is important to any title, but L.A. Noire often succeeds in making you feel like a real hotshot detective. Whereas other games rely upon the player to make precision movements during action sequences, L.A. Noire issues a slight handicap. While chasing a suspect around a corner and up a fire escape, steering Cole through hairpin turns without losing speed becomes the responsibility of the computer without forcefully jerking control from the hands of the player. Thus, the frantic pace of the pursuit is sustained and the cinematic vision preserved. Let's face it—Jack Bauer never lost a suspect because he took a corner too wide and ran into the corner of a wall, getting his face momentarily stuck within the barrier. Think of it as the third-person action/adventure equivalent of Halo's subtle auto-aim system—except it doesn't pertain to vehicles.
Already quite unwieldy to control, adding high-speed chases and gun-toting mobsters to automobile segments sometimes results in anticlimactic and mission-ending collisions. If the same on-foot "auto-aim" method was incorporated into high-speed pursuits these numerous procedures would result in Cole demonstrating his prowess behind the wheel, complimenting his already impressive dexterity while on his feet.
L.A. Noire's investigation mechanics appear novel and empowering during the exploratory stages of Phelp's casework, but peeking behind the veil reveals an easily exploitable and formulaic progression system. Once you realize you can simply sprint through the crime scenes, listening for the "you're going the right way" audio cue and feeling for the accompanying vibration, the new car smell of L.A. Noire wears off in a hurry. Though it's certainly not the preferred method of completing a case, returning to the slow-paced, methodical crawl through crime scenes feels like a time-wasting chore in comparison. Keeping the player focused on the importance of details within case notes and clues may yield a higher difficulty curve, but future L.A. Noire cases or sequels would benefit from a more freeform and involved trail of evidence.
L.A. Noire is a game that screams for the next console generation. Texture pop-in, low-resolution minor models, and unsightly pixilation at long draw distances could be fixed by beefier internal hardware. Should Rockstar release a PC port, I expect many of these issues to be resolved by a capable machine. However, L.A. Noire's technical shortcomings don't impact its status as a prominent template for future story-driven titles—and the next iterations of the game itself.
By Sage Knox
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*