Monday, January 16, 2012

PC - LA Noire

Kudos to Silverglass
There are several things of which you might accuse me, but being up to date with my reviews is certainly not one of them. As I have previously stated, I've never tried to be Gamespot. I've tried to jot down some of my own thoughts about games as I go along, and if some of you out there enjoy listening to them; score for all of us.

That's also why I published my thoughts about games such as Arkham City, more than a month after its release. Not to mention that I 'reviewed' the ever famous ”7th guest” in the summer of 2011. That's how it rolls, people.

Moving back on track, the newest addition to the chronologically challenged review-pile would be the well-known and most addictive game by Team Bondi; LA Noire.

It just so happens that once in a while, I actually find a game that leaves me with an impression of 'fun'. Not only on my side, but I really feel that whoever sat down and made this had a really great time doing so. I remember how my school teachers used to point out that they could always sense whether an assignment had been written out of pleasure or sour duty, and in a way it's a viable analogy to games. I do think the developers of Noire had a great time and were in fact aware of the fact that executes so many games these days: The devil is in the details. For good or ill.

And details are what LA Noire is all about. Not only in its basic premise, but the entire setting is teeming with it, to such a degree that I'm positive these people did their homework. Thoroughly.

Detective Maynard - Champion of Justice

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. If you're like me, the term 'Noir' is something you've likely stumbled upon countless of times, and yet it's kind of hard to relate to. In its essence it always struck me like any other genre with conventions, rules and clich├ęs that all need to be fulfilled before it can truly claim membership of said group. I suppose it's kind of a diplomatic label, but truth to be told I've never been able to sit down and watch any movie falling under the Noir-term.
In fact, my first real experience with the genre was through the dated game 'Discworld Noir', based on the ever popular books by Mr. Terry Pratchett (to whom we owe so much). In a way, getting introduced to a genre through a parody is not an entirely bad thing, since the cardinal elements are often so emphasized and exaggerated. Although I never made it quite all the way through, I understood Noir often involves murder, rain, cigarettes, lonely blondes singing and internal monologue in the rain. Check.

In that sense I should be prepared for the adventure that is LA Noire (notice the extra 'e').

Optimistic, Cole!
As said, LAN is all about details and the investigation they bring. Ironically, this was one of the reasons why I gave up on Discworld Noir, as the plot became _really_ obscure in the end, and the fact that I was still a novice in English didn't help much either.
I suppose I wanted to give this whole detective thing another go, especially since LAN is set in the 1940'es of the US, and not in a flat world on the top of four elephants, standing on the top of a giant turtle floating through space. Somehow, one would expect mysteries a bit more down to earth.

One important errand is to check out every clue. Including women's panties.
LA was a rough place in 1947. With a busy, bustling city that was ever growing also came a heightened crime rate (Sim City taught me this). Thefts and murders became more common and it was obvious that someone needed to clean up this mess as soon as possible.
Enter Cole Phelps, aspiring paladin and veteran from the war. Cole is the kind of nice cop that is actually in the force because of his ideals and hopes to make the world a better place and you, the player, bought the game to make sure that happens.

Originally you begin as nothing more than a patrolling officer doing the grunt-work. However, due to your impressive initiative on a case, you manage to get a promotion into the higher ranks of the traffic department and notice that car-related cases aren't all that boring as they're made out to be. One of your very first cases, for example, involves a discovered car smeared in blood, with no trace of its owner.

As is evident, there really isn't that much new to this premise. And then again, perhaps. Whereas some older games that played the same piano utilized investigation, the main story would usually lead you to just about the same conclusion and culprit. LAN doesn't exactly work the same way.


Another is reading other people's mail, of course.

Each case tends to begin with a little cut scene showing the crime, followed by a briefing from your captain, who takes great delights making biblical analogies. He immediately sends you towards the crime scene and the basic 3rd person navigation of Noire is pretty much as you know it. Once you arrive on the scene the real detective work begins. You steer Cole around the place, looking for clues, which is represented by a small chiming-sound. And some of them can indeed be deviously well hidden, meaning you'll have to do exactly what you'd expect; comb the place.
Clues are the bread and butter of Noire. It's not unlikely that missing a single clue at a crime scene can have a significant impact on the case later on, as you'll likely miss the opportunity to charge the right man of murder. In other cases it can mean you miss certain locations or witnesses and ultimately getting a really bad rating because you're a bad officer. In this regard, thoroughness is the word. You might pick up a photo in the home of the suspect and put it down, walk away. But in fact, had you slided your mouse slightly to the right and clicked to investigate further, you'd find a hidden message from his lover, concealed behind the picture. Which potentially changes everything. That's how LA Noire rolls.
To add insult to injury, not all clues are necessarily important. Some are plain out irrelevant, which Cole luckily tends to comment, whereas others will force you to think about the possible connection.

As the case goes along, you ultimately partake in a series of mini-games or small challenges. The most notorious and well-known is beyond doubt the interrogation-element. Noire features a very impressive facial-element which you can (and should) utilize to tell whether people are lying. For every statement they utter, it's up to you to be either the good cop and follow up on the statement or be the bad cop and intimidate your way to more information. Finally, you can downright confront them about lying, which requires you to present evidence. It's a really great system in which I've had loads of fun, despite the few issues that really bother me. First, most of the times it really pays to be a jackass. I don't know, maybe it's related to the fact that I'm a psychologist or something, but just about everyone except bartenders seem to be full of shit in Noire. Whenever I was in doubt, I went for the doubt option and it paid off most of the times. In that line of argument, the game and I obviously differ on how to interpret 'doubt'. In some cases, I thought the statement was really thin and a cover up for something and went with doubt. This resulted in Cole basically shouting at the top of his lungs that it was the electrical chair next if he didn't get the truth. Ah well.

Browsing through the house of a stranger is concerningly entertaining in LA Noire

Also, when using evidence it's worth noticing how the game doesn't hand you that much. You always have access to your notebook in which everything is stored, but often in a mere few lines. When confronting people, you sometimes have to remember additional details you've been told earlier about the clue (but never written down). Also, there can be many claims made in just one statement of the suspect, and you only get to hear what part of it is in question once you click ”Lie”. Since you're able to withdraw your accusation, it always seems safe to chose lie and see where it takes you.
That being said, the investigations do become progressively harder and it's tough not to mess one up sooner or later. As they're also the foundation upon which you have to decide whom to pin the murder on, in a multi-suspect case, you often can't help asking yourself whether you got the right guy or not. At least the game is not afraid to let you know when you screw up. Sadly, the game auto saves for you most of the time, so often the only way to remedy your mistake is to replay the case.

This would be a really bad time to forget how to drive, Cole!
But Noire contains plenty of alternative opportunities for fun that will to varying degrees make an impact on your cases. Starting with the obvious chase-scenes you can go either on foot or in car. The former usually involves you holding down the right buttons for an extended period of time, while keeping up with the poor villain trying to get away. Sometimes you're able to fire a warning shot to end it quick, but for the majority you'll make your way across rooftops and parks in a prolonged scene.

Alternatively there is the car. Much to my displeasure, driving a car isn't entirely unavoidable in Noire. When you cruise around the city you often have the option of letting your partner take the wheel, but in a few rare cases (such as car-chase scenes or when you have to tail a suspect) it's up to you. And if you're like me, that's usually reaaaallly bad news for the citizens of LA.
You're able to inflict a LOT of damage when driving. To the environment, the pedestrians and even your own car. I tend not to be picky and just about hammer everything coming in my way. Whether it's related to the fact that I don't own a driver's license, I am not sure. But if it is, I'd say it's just as well. The problem is that the damage caused pretty much detracts from your final case-score, and you don't have to smash up all that much before the stars are ticking out. I suppose I eventually didn't give a damn about it and smashed things as I went along. I'll have to admit, though; the amount of laughter I had from running over pedestrians with my partner screaming next to me...didn't seem entirely (psychologically) healthy.

I'll have to admit, this was often the state of my car. I really suck at driving.

That being said, there is a lot of fun to be had with the car-chase scenes. Less fulfilling is the shoot outs which happily don't take place all that much. There is nothing new under the sun here. You take cover and make snapshots at your enemy from there till either of you lay down. Same counts for fist fights, which are basically rock'em sock'em robots.

Should you develop a fetish for any of these things, Noire features the opportunity to side quest and take up small assignments other than the main quest. The world map is pretty huge and there are plenty of things to see around the city, including hidden and faster vehicles (so I could run over even more people) and landmarks. It's entirely viable to just drive around for a while, taking in the scenery.

This doesn't pertain to the case!
Pretty much everything I've mentioned so far are pure forces of the game that all made me like it more and more. But it wouldn't really be complete without some of the issues that ticked me off.

A great element of Noire is the fact that even though the individual cases are different there is also an overall story binding them together. On the downside is the fact that they aren't that well connected. In one case a housewife and mother was killed, and I chose to throw her husband in the slammer, since several things were pointing at his guilt. On the other hand was a local (admitted; creepy) drifter as a suspect, and once I let him go the game (and my in game boss) was shouting at me for several minutes. Starting from the next case, I was immediately praised on how awesome a detective I was and how much good I'd done... so yeah.

Also, Noire contains a lot of missions. 26, I've been led to believe, if you buy the DLC-version on Steam (which you should). That's a lot of cases, but I can't help feel that some of them get some repetitive elements. Not that they suffer from cookie-cutter impressions, but you tend to remember a handful of them that made an impression, whereas others are really forgettable.

If in doubt, it's usually safe to just call bullshit on everything you're told.
It's also worth mentioning that the PC-version seems to really suffer for some people, and most point out the poor conversion from console to computer. I'm not one to point fingers or identify problems, but I'll admit I had to fight and tweak things a lot to get Noire running with an acceptable speed. The central issue seems to be the game running extremely slow and laggy, even on very modern computers. There seem to be a variety of fixes, but among the most efficient are either adding the following command to the startup section in options: -str -npd +jobs_numThreads 0

OR, alternatively (which helped me immensely) turn off windows error logging. I have no idea why that is, but it worked. On the graphical side it isn't exactly bad but then again, not impressive aside from the facial expressions. It's even possible to play it in pure black and white for the feeling. I love the voice over and the music, it fits extremely well into the theme.


However, once you get it running these issues are certainly very minor and only take away little fun from an otherwise truly impressive and great game.I've always said there is such a long distance between good investigation games today, and if you feel you've walked for way too long, you should make a stop at Noire.
It might be a while before we see something alike it again, sadly.

Verdict:
9/10

+
Sucks you in and makes you feel like a true crime fighter in the LA 1940'es.
Completing a case and throwing the right guy in jail is really fulfilling.
Car-chases are a load of fun.
Impressive interrogation-elements.
Isn't afraid to require that the player uses his friggin brain.
Great and appropriate music.
A feeling that the developers did their research.
Several cases will make sure you aren't bored in the near future.

-
Slim continuity between the result of cases
Poor conversion to the PC
Whereas faces are great, body animations aren't impressive

Is it worth the money?
Even at its current no-sale price; definitely yes!

Will I play it again?
It's true that some cases might lose some of their initial punch, once you've played through them. But I definitely will give it another go, in some time when I've forgotten most of them.

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