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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1, 2011

Los Angeles in Black




LA NoireOK. It seems that not only has Sir Dhahii neglected to update the website as he claimed he would, he is actually assisting me with this blog. As I may have mentioned elsewhere (Twitter, Twatter or Phacebuck), he was playing a video game, with the rather unimaginative title of "LA Noire" ...

Normally, I skulk off to do something else once the Xbox takes over the main TV at Mung HQ ... but this game actually caught my attention: it felt as though something was going to happen ...

So I continued watching. And within half an hour I was ... participating.

Now, anyone who is actually interested in such things can read reviews elsewhere. Fine, I don't give a shit. But let me tell you about what happened within 2 hours: it became quite boring.

Universally (it seems) this game has the highest applause, and will no doubt receive the most tacky golden awards the industry can throw at it.

However, both Sir Dhahii and myself felt the need to disagree.

Before any "regular" readers roll their eyes (or eye) because they think it's just me being me, stop: this is as close to a normal review as I might give you. Why? Because I think the opinion needs expressed properly. So here it is. And yes, there are SPOILERS (I have to put that in Bold CAPS, apparently, Sir Dhahii tells me) so if you don't want to know too much about the content of the game, just fuck off now.

  1. The graphics are excellent.
  2. The recreation of Los Angeles circa 1947 is also excellent.
  3. The recreation of the fashions, car designs, and other paraphernalia of the era is also excellent.
  4. The choice of music, as well as the commissioned score (by Andrew Hale): you guessed: excellent.
  5. The much-touted facial expressions of the characters: yup, excellent.

And that's where excellence ends. Why?

Because the Noire of "LA Noire" is purely cinematic. It often feels as though the scriptwriters had never read a book in their lives, let alone a whole James Ellroy novel. Considering that Rockstar have a short story collection assembled to promote the game, featuring the likes of Lawrence Block (not that I'm a fan by any means, although I met him once upon a time in a dark and rather sinister crime fiction store), you would expect a high quality of narrative and storyline, not to mention great dialogue ... No. The dialogue is poor, and in some cases almost non-sequential, and at times almost 100% out of character. There is one particularly grating moment when your detective (Cole Phelps - a shit name, as it happens) moves from being a reasonable soul whilst interviewing an old granny-like landlady to a slavering demon and calling the poor old dear a "hag". And often this would happen. Fine if you'd made a bad choice in some way, but no: this was the "correct" choice for that particular "conundrum".

Because clue-finding was generally much too easy. For most of the homicide cases, for example, you just checked out the body, then moved around the little evidence markers that were laid out. Doing that usually found everything you needed. And the vibration mode was annoyingly insulting to boot. Sir Dhahii turned that off very quickly. If he hadn't, I think he would have shaved a full half-hour off his total playing time. I personally find it amusing to hear apparently knowledgeable and experienced reviewers praising this feature. But really, it wasn't usually needed. The cases were so cliched, you knew what to look for within seconds of arriving at a scene. [NB: It has been pointed out that I don't explain this properly. So here it is: when you are investigating a scene, whether a crime scene, or a location of a suspect, etc, when you approach a clue, there is a little tinkling of piano and the game controller vibrates. Which basically means the clue is revealed to you. There are items that do not pertain to the case, as it happens. But "Cole" tells you, rather than you having to figure out the relevance for yourself. For example, there were a LOT of hairbrushes. But not once was a hairbrush relevant. Which I personally found a bit disappointing. However, this is just another instance of "hand-holding" as far as i am concerned. To say that this "feature" prevents you wasting time is true, but it also prevents you from having to THINK.]

Because the interrogation options are too minimal. Yes, you have three choices per question asked: Truth, Doubt and Lie. That's it. Before long, you've figured out the formula: straight face + no incriminating evidence = truth; "restless" face + no evidence = Doubt; "restless" face + evidence = lie. And just in case you're a bit uncertain when accusing someone of lying, the accused will say something like "Ha! I'd like to see you prove that" - meaning you have evidence in there somewhere (or should have, unless you are actually blind, deaf, dumb, and without any limbs, or indeed, a brain). If there is no evidence, their response will be different, usually taking the form of belittlement and extreme impatience with the irritating Detective Phelps. It's much too easy. And a real waste of a feature that made the game almost special. Sir Dhahii went further, saying that an old FMV title from the 90s would have done the same job. He referred to Ripper and Black Dahlia in particular.

Because the "difficult" parts were too easy. In one case, you have been presented with a series of clues in the form of excerpts of poetry. Solve one poetic conundrum, and you'd go to a location where you would find another. Firstly, the poetic clues were too vague to be truly useful. Hence Sir Dhahii went from the first most likely place to the next. A bit of searching, and nothing there, on to the next. Nope. Cole Phelps suddenly figures it out all by himself. That's right. The game TELLS YOU THE ANSWER. WHAT THE FUCK!?!?! Yes, Team Bondi or Rockstar or both: they assume you are a moron. Very quickly, the joy of "being a detective" was stripped away. Why? Because SOLVING the case is supposed to be the whole point, is it not???

Because the story is linear. As in STRAIGHT LINE. No digression, no accidentals. The whole thing is mapped out, and obviously assumes that the story they have to tell is interesting enough on its own. No, it isn't. It's a pale version of James Ellroy. This is LA Grise ... As a result, you never actually have to do anything outside the direction of your departmental chief. You and your partner are assigned a case. That is all you need to do. This was shockingly disappointing. In any good thriller of this type, you find things that matter in seemingly unrelated cases. But every case you are assigned is pretty much related. Why? Because it's "the main story". SPOILERS HERE: For instance: part of the story concerns Army Surplus morphine. You are given cases that relate to this, and that is all ye need ever know about it. Given that this stuff has made its way onto the streets (apparently), it seems weird that in the "non-story" incidents, you never encounter it. Yes, there are characters that reappear. But in terms of story development (or actual character development) nothing really happens. Further, it is an insult to the intelligence. It becomes more than obvious during the homicide cases that you're dealing with a serial killer. But you don't get the chance to argue or prove this. You go along with the story, Cole being a semi-gullible dolt, doing exactly what he's told. BORING!!! I would have liked to see him tell the chief to go fuck himself, throw his badge and gun at him, leave, buy a gun of his own from a pawn shop and use his contacts to get info and so forth until he could shoot the bastard in the face. But that kind of thing is never an option in LA Noire. Cole is a dick, and behaves suitably dickishly. AT NO POINT IN LA NOIRE DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN MAKE A DECISION THAT WILL AFFECT THE OUTCOME OF THE STORY. No-one will die because of your actions, thus changing the course or dynamic of the game; no-one will be wrongly arrested, and therefore affect events later; there are NO FORKING PATHS - there is ONLY ONE WAY THROUGH. And sadly, that way is pretty close to being absolutely boring. And further: I have read some remarks that say things about the depth of the story, and about how this isn't GTA, so you can't expect this or that. To all that I say Fuck-knobs-with-shit-smeared-sweetcorn-under-the-foreskin. This is a NOIRE: the whole thing is supposed to be about existential conflict in the face of moral choices. But choices don't feature here. There are only definite solutions that further the "story" from its beginning to its predictable end.

Because driving cars sucks my arsehole clean. The cars look great, but ALL drive like dogs with no legs on tracks of glue. Meanwhile, you're supposed to chase villain types who somehow manage to make the most difficult corners without error. However, chase them for long enough, and stay close enough, they'll eventually crash. Almost always. Again, an example of hand-holding.

Because it's too short. Now, this is Sir Dhahii's opinion, not mine. He could actually have put up with yet more of this. I could not. However, for those who care, he had this to say: "compared with Red Dead Redemption or GTA 4, this is a very small game indeed." He said more, but we'll keep that for the next bit ...

Because there's almost nothing to do in LA in 1947. Except be a detective with a stick up his ass. Yes, this was what Sir Dhahii meant by "shortness" in the game, mostly: there's only detective work to do (in that predestinarian fashion described above). No pool halls. No bowling alleys. No illegal boxing matches to bet on. No seedy drinking dens to go and drown your sorrows (and perhaps pick up a few snippets of info that might prove useful at a later stage of the game). Not even a DONUT SHOP. Which, to be frank, is unforgivable. Even if it's not authentic. It should be there. Or at least the ability to buy coffee. According to Sir Dhahii: "Red Dead and GTA were stuffed with pointless things to do. In GTA there were video games within the video game. In Red Dead you had Poker and Blackjack. You could go hunting. You could go treasure hunting. You could do a lot of random stuff, and maybe even get a kick out of it, and sometimes - like hunting - it would help you get further in the game as the rewards were useful. In LA Noire, you have golden reels to find, and can "discover" landmarks. Unimaginative probably is the word here." I would probably agree if I knew what he was talking about. In fact, both of those games sound more interesting already ...

Because Cole Phelps is a bell-end (thank you, Charlie Brooker). Yes, you have to go through this whole game as an asshole. This character is the kind of guy who goes to church and thinks that gives him a license to treat anyone who doesn't with contempt. He's a careerist. He's boring. And you really learn to hate him more and more as the game goes on. But wait! He is flawed, in the grand tradition of Noire fiction! Like fuck he is. He's an accountant who got in the wrong job line. His "backstory" underlines what an asshole he is (and the exposition of that backstory does little but irritate, and coupled with the "stories behind the news" when you click on a newspaper, feel like an effort to make a movie rather than an actual detective game). And Cole's manner throughout the game underlines it too. SPOILER: But wait! There is a HUGE moment in the game when a moral choice is made by Cole, and it changes the whole game. Yep, that's true. Cole fucks a German Cabaret Dope Addict. Which is BAD because Cole is ... MARRIED!!!! OK, I'm probably not getting across to you how ridiculous this is. Let me break it down for you: You are allegedly in control of this character (you're not, really, as I've pointed out already - he'll even tell you answers you don't ask for), but despite the exposition at the start (where you briefly see his wife) and maybe a couple of mentions and another fleeting appearance, she's not exactly "present" throughout the game; Cole never talks about her, really. And we never see the pair of them having a conversation, or even an implied blowjob being given while poor old Cole unloads the burdens of a hard working day on a hard case. Nothing. And suddenly, he takes off, and has an "affair" with some crooning Marlene Dietrich hophead. Which, by the way, is also a barely implied feature of the story. But lo! It becomes a full-blown plot point, and causes you to get demoted. Your marital infidelity leads to your Downfall. With that capital D. You become a pariah. Now I must admit that both Sir Dhahii and I cried "not fair" in unison because Cole was set up ... yet, really it was "not fair" because we had no say in this. Or rather, Sir Dhahii didn't, as it was his game, so to speak. This major moral issue was imposed on the character. No build-up, no backstory to help you understand it. Considering how much "help" there is during the gameplay, a little bit of "help" in terms of character development, a little bit of something to show how Cole Phelps's character arc led to the point where he would choose to fuck a heroin addict in his adulterous ambition would have been useful. But no, nothing so sensible as that. It really leaves you feeling robbed of control. It would have been better if the player could make choices that triggered DIFFERENT reasons for his downfall, if that downfall was so essential to the "plot".

Because you magically change characters towards the end. Yes, without warning, you become a different character towards the end of the game. And what makes this worse is the fact that he is infinitely more likable than that Phelps bastard you've been stuck with for the previous 7 hours or so. And what makes this worse is the fact that you feel certain by the end that there will be a sequel, and the Mr Kelso you have become will be the protagonist. For the brief period of time where Kelso was the main focus, the game's appeal was increased dramatically. You actually felt like Kelso could have been a character taken directly from a Noire piece.

I think I might actually hate this game. And not because it is so bad, but because it is so disappointing. It has so many features that are right, it really hurts when you see everything that has gone wrong. Obviously, the technology is partly to blame. There IS a lot of dialogue in there, and audio uses a lot of disk space. LA Noire apparently fills a Blu-Ray disk, and takes 3 DVDs on the XBox. And it has been said that two "desks" of cases were left out of the game (presumably due to size constraints). Whether these emerge as downloadable content at a later stage remains to be seen, but presumably they will weigh in at around 3.5Gb each. But then again, WHY would you want more of this tripe? We're probably talking about a maximum of another 2.5 to 3 hours of gameplay time. And that gameplay will not be an improvement on what has already been.

Clearly, a truly absorbing detective game is a long way off. A mechanism to allow the player to assemble information and make connections would be important in such a game. At no point were you suddenly surprised to learn that a character you thought had been telling the truth had in fact been lying (instead you discover that you've incorrectly convicted a number of characters for murders they didn't commit - which was OBVIOUS, by the way - yet they didn't exactly protest as an innocent man might. But this is because they were "flawed" or "corrupt" in themselves: a Communistic Anarchist. A pedophile. And so on. These people deserved to be convicted for murder, the game's logic would seem to say, even in one case where the evidence seemed to suggest that another suspect was more likely to be guilty. And in that case, if you chose the more likely suspect, your chief kicked your ass for it. You were told in no uncertain terms that your choice was WRONG. But suddenly, everything is alright again, and the game carries on as if nothing "wrong" ever happened. If you had been given the means to assess the evidence of cases as a whole rather than case by case, you would have quickly been moving along a different path (assuming you weren't a moron). And this is often the problem with crime fiction and film as a whole, anyway: the "clever" parts are rarely as clever as the author(s) think(s). Dan Brown being the classic example. Herr Brown offers the most vacuous "clues" as though they were somehow intricately woven riddles when the opposite is true. They are only clever in the mind of Dan Brown. The same applies to the story creators of LA Noire. The part where you chase a serial killer who has left "clues" across the city does little but underline how stupid the killer actually is. And the fact that you chase these in a single "mission" is particularly grating. Much better if these had been sown throughout the story at least, rather than piled together at once. But the sheer vagueness of the "riddles" makes them tedious at best. I could go on. But I'm bored with writing this down now.

To summarize LA Noire:

Poorly told story inflicted upon the gamer in a shoddily constructed gameplay mechanism that is almost universally overlooked because the facial motion capture is pretty good. This is detective work for dummies. Avoid this game if you have an iota of intelligence, because all you will be is disappointed. In this case, I would actually recommend you read LA Confidential by James Ellroy instead, or even watch the movie. Worst case scenario: listen to the Mungolian Jet Set.


The Mungolian Web Gnome comments (1)



COMMENTS


[ posted by Homunculus, June 01, 2011 11:08 ]

Received a direct message via Twatter. It basically said I disliked the game because the name "Cole Phelps" reminded me of Cheryl Cole. Surprisingly, I had not made that connection. Now I have. That really wasn't much a of a defense.


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