Calling all Psychics – Crystal Balls and LA Noire

Posted on 17/06/2011

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LA Noire, developed by the Australian Team Bondi in cooperation with Rockstar is a strange and oftentimes very disappointing beast. It’s a pretty game. It features a huge, seemingly open game world, filled to the brim with detail. A finely recreated version of 1940s Los Angeles.

It’s a big surprise that an AAA title like this would feel so flat and mis-designed. With Rockstar behind it, it’s less of a surprise however, that the action scenes feel a lot like the game’s actual title was GTA San Andreas 1947. The action feels servicable. But inheriting the same flaws other games using the same engine did.

It’s the new parts, the ones Team Bondi shoved so much promise into the years before the game’s release, that ultimately make LA Noire fall apart. Yes, the facial animations are outstandingly well captured. Yes, the voice acting is indeed stellar. But the actual mechanics don’t play very well. This is a detective game about interrogations. Yet there is no way to soften up the suspects before going in for the big questions. Each topic has exactly one right and two absolutely wrong options in approaching. A suspect is lying and the player plays “doubt” since the evidence isn’t spot-on-strong? Wrong choice. A suspect says something rather ambiguous? Could be right? Could be doubtable? At some point in the game, the player has to start developing a sense of precognition to push the right buttons.

The rigidity of the interrogation system doesn’t make it fun to play with. A dialog system like Mass Effect employed would have been a lot better.
Another matter the game handles poorly is feedback. Whenever a player picks a right or wrong option in the interrogation, a “right” or “wrong” chime plays, giving immediate, direct, unquestionable feedback on whether the right or wrong option was taken. When every clue of a scene is found, another chime plays, and the “investigation” music stops, leaving the player without the shadow of a doubt that every last piece of evidence has been found.

On top of it all there are some cases in which no right suspect CAN be found. That protagonist Phelps has his doubts about the case in question only comes up in the subsequent mission, if at all. Some cases suddenly end without all options or locations explored, leaving the player bereft of any true satisfaction.

What’s most distracting to me are some of the fail states the game uses. There are quite a lot of chase scenes, on foot and by car. If the player looses sight of the suspect, it’s game over and the chase starts anew. So far, so traditionally GTA. Yet in one mission, the character puts out an APB to find a certain taxi. Which is a fun little mechanic in and on itself. So Team Bondi had this mechanic in the game, but used it only in one mission. I keep wondering, why not use THIS as a fail state instead of forcing the player to reload? Keep the player in the game as long as possible. Keep the flow alive.

Ultimately, that’s LA Noire’s biggest shortcoming. Very rigid, very binary and by that very traditional fail states spoiling what fun could be had with a very promising setting in a gourgeously rendered game.
Which doesn’t mean however that there is no fun to be had in the game. I just caught myself again and again wishing the game would allow something else, do something different from what it actually does.

So in the end, LA Noire remains a bold conceptual game with a high level of technical finesse that is hampered by it’s huge shortcomings in mechanical design. And with that I’m barely touching on the various instances of ludo-narrative dissonance the game evokes. Maybe another time.

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