L.A. Noire and what comes next

For a 3-day weekend, I didn’t get a tremendous amount of gaming happening.  I did finish Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, which is to say that I finished all the stages and unlocked a fair amount of extras.  And I did a bit more Dirt 3, including some of the amazingly fun multiplayer – the Zombie mode, or whatever it’s called, is incredibly fun.  But I ultimately spent the most time getting back into L.A. Noire.

I was emailing back and forth with a friend about it.  He had been asking when I was going to be online in Dirt 3, and I’d told him I was almost done with L.A. Noire and that I’d be all over Dirt 3 once I’d finished the last few cases.  And so then he asked:

So now that you are most of the way through [the game] and well into the development of the over-arching story, are you loving it?

And I responded:

I don’t know that I’m loving it.  I’m enjoying it, certainly, and I am appreciative of what it is and what it took to make it.  But for all it does to immerse you in the world, it does a thousand other small, subtle things that totally throw you out and reminds you that it is a game.  The interrogations, in particular, are so beholden to a particular, specific formula that you almost wonder why they bothered with the facial animation tech in the first place.  And there’s been lots of times where my own brain is ahead of Cole Phelps’ brain, and so he never asks the questions that I want to ask.  Part of this is because of those newspapers – I don’t know if you’ve been diligent in picking them up, but they’ve been telegraphing where the overall story is headed – so much so that it almost broke the game for me at several points.

I should also confess that I’ve been using a walkthrough for the last few missions, because I hate getting questions wrong.  Does that take all the challenge out of the game?  Yes, pretty much; I’d been doing great in terms of clue gathering, and I’ve been having my partner do all the driving since it’s impossible for me to not crash into a thousand cars and lampposts and pedestrians just going around the corner.  The sandbox element feels totally unnecessary and not particularly interesting, either – certainly not in the way that it worked for RDR and GTA.

Now, look – I’ll be the first person to acknowledge that using walkthroughs, especially in a game like L.A. Noire, essentially defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place, even if the walkthrough in question doesn’t actually spoil the story, but rather simply gives you all the right answers to the interrogations.  I’ve been saying ever since the beginning that the interrogations are the most problematic part of L.A. Noire, and judging from all the podcasts I’ve listened to, I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Like I said above, the essential problem with the interrogations is that once you get past the astoundingly good facial animation, you are left with a very basic template that never, ever changes or deviates, and so whatever immersion you might have had in the animation is ripped out from under you as soon as it’s time to react.  Let’s say that you ask the Person of Interest a question.  The POI will say something in response to your question, and then immediately start acting, usually betraying everything that they just saidThey’ll forcefully say “There’s absolutely no goddamned way that I could’ve murdered that person,” and then as soon as they stop talking they’ll immediately start twitching and grinding their teeth, and if you think they’re lying they’ll suddenly get brazen and say “Well why don’t you prove it, flatfoot!”   Let’s leave aside the obvious observation that real conversations never work like this, and let’s also leave side the weird disconnect in the player character’s attitudes when confronting a lie (gently) and being doubtful (flying off the handle).  The main problem that I’ve been having is that I never seem to be able to ask the questions that I want to ask.  Either my own personal brain is ahead of the game, or else I’m on a path that’s utterly disconnected from the correct line of questioning.  And when I’m actually asking the right questions, I’m still generally 50/50 when it comes to confronting a lie with what I believe is the right piece of corroborating evidence.

That’s mostly my problem, I suppose.  But the fact that lots of other people are having problems with it leads me to believe that maybe it isn’t just my fault.

The last thing in my email, though, is part of the larger problem I have with the game – that the sandbox element feels unnecessary.  I totally get that having a real post-war L.A. is an incredible achievement, and I really truly wish that I could spend more time exploring it.  Problem is, there’s really no incentive to do so; the side missions feel obligatory (most of them are 20 second shoot-outs) and the hidden collectibles are so well hidden that I wouldn’t even know about them if I hadn’t been told they were there.  The one side thing that I’ve been diligent about collecting is the newspapers, and even then, they’ve revealed so much of the backstory that I almost feel like I know too much – for example, the events that mark the transition from Ad Vice to Arson were more or less telegraphed in one particular newspaper that was almost impossible to ignore, which more or less ruined the surprise.

But there’s a solution to this problem.  In fact, there’s a solution to most of the problems I have with L.A. Noire, and it’s a solution that would make L.A. Noire 2 better for everybody.  And it’s a solution that seems kinda obvious, so much so that I have to wonder if the developers knew it also, but had spent so long working on what they’d already come up with that to switch gears would cause more problems than it would solve.

The solution:  your player character in L.A. Noire 2 is a private detective.  Here’s 4 quick reasons why that works:

1.  Suddenly, the sandbox makes sense.  A private detective can run around L.A. and do things – he can go to the fights, he can gamble at the tracks, he can explore – he’s not beholden to the law in the same way a police officer is, especially a golden boy like Cole Phelps.

2.  Similarly, the side missions could be more varied.  The photography missions alone would be more interesting than the shoot-outs we’re currently working with.

3.  A private eye fits the noir mold a thousand times more than a police officer.  He can be darker, he can be mysterious, he can be drunk, he can wear his regret on his sleeves.  Cole Phelps is more of an automaton than a living, breathing person – and while there might be a good, as yet unrevealed reason why that is, a private eye is more interesting right from the get-go.

4.  I’m guessing that a private eye’s interrogations wouldn’t be as formalized as a police officer’s interrogations, but that would certainly make them a hell of a lot more interesting and varied.

I appreciate that L.A. Noire’s current set-up works, in a certain way – the progression of Cole’s career is broken into desks, which also vary up the cases and put him in different situations.  It’s just that it never feels as gritty or as dirty as it could.  I’m not saying that a future L.A. Noire game has to be like GTA – it’s just that it has the potential to be so much more than it already is.

Weekend preview: BBQ edition

1.  I downloaded The Witcher 2 yesterday, in a moment of weakness.  (As it happens, I downloaded it right when the 1.1 patch was coming out, which meant that I ended up downloading the whole thing twice.)  I gave it a very quick 5 minute look, just to see it.  And you know what?  The reviewers weren’t kidding around – this game doesn’t explain anything.  I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and no idea how to do anything.  At a certain point the game told me about meditating before battle, and how to pull up the meditation menu.  OK, but the menu is just filled with runes, without any explanation as to what the runes mean, or why I need to meditate.  The game’s gotten too many great reviews for me to dismiss it so quickly, but when a game makes such a horrendous first impression, what the hell are you supposed to do?

2.  Spent a number of hours powering through Lego Pirates of the Caribbean; I finished the 3rd movie yesterday before powering off.  I’ve played a lot of Lego games – not all of them, but certainly most of them – and Pirates is pretty good, I guess.  Certainly it’s the prettiest.  But it’s also locked up on my 360 more than a few times – Lego games in general tend to do that, but Pirates is the worst offender by far.  I haven’t seen the 4th movie yet and so I’m not sure what enjoyment I’m going to get out of playing the 4th movie, especially since the cutscene shorthand really only makes sense if you know what the scenes are referring to.  Still, it’s fun enough, I suppose, and Lego Jack Sparrow is a sight (and sound!) to behold.

3.  I’m a few races into my 2nd season in Dirt 3.  I’ve been starting to mess around with the assists; I turned all of them off yesterday for a few races, and found that I had a much easier time staying on the road (although the cars felt a lot heavier and stiffer).  I don’t hate the Gymkhana events the way other people do; I’m not very good at them, but they’re certainly a pleasant enough diversion and you don’t have to try terribly hard in order to pass each event and move on to the next thing.  My only real complaint is that one of the announcers has an overtly “dude” vibe and likes to call me “amigo” and I kinda want to punch him in the face, repeatedly.

4.  With all this going on, I’ve kinda put L.A. Noire on hold, and this worries me a bit because I’m afraid that if I wait too much longer, I’m never going to go back.  And that would be a shame.  I’ve certainly cooled off on it a little bit, but it’s still a remarkably unique experience and I’d very much like to see where it goes.

You’re not going to be coming here for your E3 needs, I know, but I’ll be offering up some opinions just the same.  I’m not entirely sure how this year’s edition is going to pan out.  Last year’s had some clear themes – motion control and 3D – and I suppose that the bulk of the media attention this year will be focused on the new Nintendo console and Sony’s new handheld.  2011’s release calendar doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprises – we all know what’s coming at this point – so my personal focus will be on what’s coming up in 2012.

Have a wonderful 3-day weekend, everyone.  Stay safe!  And I’ll most likely be on XBL Saturday night, if you want to get something going.

WIPTW: anniversary edition

This past weekend was my 7-year anniversary with the wife, so you can probably surmise that there wasn’t a tremendous amount of videogame time to be had.  Still, I managed to finish the Homicide desk in L.A. Noire, and the wife and I knocked out the first level of Lego Pirates of the Caribbean in co-op.

Let me get the Lego game out of the way – it’s quite good, as far as Lego games go, and it doesn’t seem to radically change the tried-and-true formula.  Certainly it’s very good looking.  My main problem with it, after about 20 minutes of gameplay, is the co-op camera.  I’ve not really done much co-op in other Lego games, so I’m not sure how the camera compares, but the co-op camera in Pirates is fucking ridiculous.  I appreciate what it’s trying to do, but it’s incredibly distracting and ultra-sensitive when it doesn’t need to be, and if anything it causes more harm than good.

My wife isn’t a gamer, as she’ll readily admit.  But she knows I am, obviously, and I try my darnedest to either (a) keep my gaming time from intruding on her TV time, or (b) keep her engaged with what I’m doing.  We’ve played Rock Band together, which is fun, and we recently completed the Portal 2 co-op campaign together, which was wonderful.  (She wrote about her experience here.)  I’d very much like to keep playing Lego Pirates with her, but that camera will need to be dealt with.

As to L.A. Noire… well, as I said before, I finished the Homicide desk very late on Saturday, and the wife helped me a bit with the interrogations.  It’s hard to talk about what I want to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, but I’m going to work under the presumption that if you’re reading this, you probably don’t care.  In any event, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

**********SPOILERS BELOW************

Let me say, firstly, that I’m enjoying L.A. Noire immensely.  I’m not totally 100% in love with it, but it should be noted that it’s a fantastic technical achievement, and I must salute Rockstar, Take Two and Team Bondi for taking such a bold, experimental risk.

I’ve read a bunch of complaints from players and reviewers (this Kotaku piece in particular) about how the game isn’t open enough; you don’t really have much to do in this meticulously-designed city when you’re not in the mood to crack a case.  I guess I understand that, but I think that’s their own fault for expecting the game to be something it never claimed to be.  If anything, I think that the open-world element feels a bit shoe-horned in; it’s not really all that necessary, and considering that you can fast-travel from location to location anyway, it can be downright irrelevant.  I generally ignore radio dispatches when I’m working a case, and I haven’t really done any exploring beyond figuring out the map system and simply trying to get from point A to point B.  Considering how much collateral damage I incur when I drive, I prefer fast-travelling, frankly.

If I have any real complaints at this stage in the game, it’s that, well, for all of its valiant attempts at immersion and cinematic presentation, it can still feel very game-y in spots, especially in the interrogation sequences.  I’ve gotten a little bit better at them since my first write-up, but I’ve still never gotten all of them right in a case.  The irony, of course, is that the conclusion of the Homicide desk story arc pretty much renders all the previous interrogations irrelevant anyway.  I suppose it’s a neat twist if you didn’t see it coming, but I knew something was off, and as soon as I’d heard mention of a temp bartender in one of the later cases (after already meeting one towards the beginning of the arc – and a “temp bartender” is somewhat eye-catching to begin with), I started getting ideas that would soon be confirmed.

That story arc has some other significant plot holes, too, that don’t really hold up under scrutiny, the main one being that it just seems a bit too contrived that the serial killer could find that many women to murder with husbands that easy to frame.

More to the point, though, it makes me less inclined to replay those missions in an effort to 5-star all the cases since I know I’m going to be putting the wrong people away every time.

**********END SPOILERS**************

Tomorrow comes the arrival of Dirt 3, which I’m tremendously excited about.  It’s been too long since I’ve played a good driving game.

this shouldn’t be necessary

This site might be called “Shouts From the Couch,” but I haven’t truly been angry, like shouting-level angry, in a long time.   I might get ornery from time to time, but I’m in my mid-30s, and being ornery sorta comes with the territory.  But the essential point I’m driving towards is that at this point in my life, I feel like I shouldn’t have to put up with the stuff that annoys me, and so I don’t.  If this means that I’m missing out on something important, then so be it; it’s my life, and I’d rather spend my time (and my money) on stuff that doesn’t drive me crazy.

This is partly why I don’t do a lot of online multiplayer – or, rather, why I don’t go online with people that I don’t know.  I’m a lot more competitive than I care to admit, and I hate losing; that’s on me.  But some 13-year-old kid calling me a faggot because he shot me in the face with a shotgun before I could shoot him in the face with a shotgun – that’s on him, and it makes my blood pressure boil just thinking about it.  This is also why I tend to stay out of comment sections on gaming websites; there can be – not all the time, of course, but it happens enough – there can be a level of ignorance and casual racism/sexism/hate-ism found there that simply can’t be ignored unless you stay away from it altogether.

And what pisses me off about this the most is that it’s this particular level of bullshit that tends to define the community as a whole.  None of my friends do this; none of my favorite writers do this; the gaming sites I visit crack down on this as much as they can.   But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much money the Child’s Play charity raises; it just takes one homophobic, racist asshole in a Halo match or a comment section to spoil the party for everyone.

And if I seem to be taking this a little personally, well, it’s because it is personal.  I happen to have a very good friend who inadvertently blew up the internet a little bit yesterday, and it wasn’t even her fault.  All she was doing was giving a video review on L.A. Noire for Gamespot.  It’s a well-written, informative review, and she did an excellent job translating the written word into the video review.  There’s no controversy in that, right?  The fact that she’s transgender is totally incidental and has nothing to do with anything, except that a bunch of idiots kept writing ignorant and hateful and totally stupid comments, and that’s the part of the story that took on a life of its own and ended up on Kotaku.

She is a much better writer than I, and she has her own response to the story here.

Hate is hate, and ignorance is ignorance.  She did not choose to become transgender; nobody chooses that, in the same way that nobody chooses to be gay or straight or black or white.  You are what you are.  And considering how much bullshit she’s had to put up with even before she became a professional games writer – I mean, nobody in their right mind would choose to live a life that invited such ignorance and hatred.   I don’t want to speak for her, but it seems to me that all she wants to do is to be happy and live the life that she wants to live.   She’s not inviting anything.  That doesn’t require anything from anybody else.  The people that were offended by her video review – that’s on them.  That’s their problem.  And while a great deal of the GS community rushed to her defense and shut those assholes up, it still reflects poorly on the community as a whole.

I don’t really know what to do about this.  I’m not sure that my friend does, either.  She didn’t sign up for this job in order to be a spokesperson for the transgender community; she signed up for this job because she’s been passionate about videogames for her entire life, and she got hired because she’s an excellent writer and knows her stuff and she makes the gaming press better as a result.  If we as the community can’t deal with her sexuality, which is something that is totally irrelevant to her actual job, then we don’t deserve her.  And I think we would suffer as a result.

L.A. Noire – first impressions

According to Rockstar’s Social Club, I’m 3 cases into L.A. Noire; that includes the tutorial stuff that leads off the game.  So maybe narrow that down to 2 real, full-length cases, combining all the different gameplay elements:  evidence collecting, witness interviews, and interrogations.* I’ve hunted down 2 hidden cars, found 1 landmark (without meaning to), and I think I’m up to level 5.

It’s an incredible experience, is the short version.  It feels, in many ways, like the natural evolution of the classic adventure game – you explore environments and objects, you converse with a colorful cast of characters, you’re essentially solving puzzles.  There are comparisons to be made to other games – Phoenix Wright, Heavy Rain – but this still feels very much like its own thing.

It most certainly is not Grand Theft Auto 1947, and that’s to be applauded.  It’s an open world in the sense that you can drive around and explore, but you don’t get your missions from random people on the street, and you can’t cause wonton destruction on a whim.  The detail of the world – the little that I’ve seen of it, at any rate – is amazing.  You’ll want to take your time and take it all in, rather than zooming by and blowing things up.

The much-ballyhooed facial animation is, in a word, stunning.  Jaw-dropping.  It’s so good, in fact, that it has a tendency to work against itself at times; it’s very clear that these incredible faces are attached to normal, video-game bodies.  Most of the time, this isn’t that big a deal – when you’re interviewing someone and trying to determine if they’re lying or not, almost 99% of the time they’re sitting down, behind a desk or table.  But when you’re walking around (or chasing someone), the animation feels canned – and this is only noticeable because the facial animation is in a different class entirely.

It also brings up a somewhat disconcerting point, which is that – at least in the early going, when everything is purposefully exaggerated in order to emphasize how to play the game – the animation is so good that it ends up revealing the actor acting, as opposed to the character reacting.  Again, I understand that in these first few cases, everybody’s probably being told by the director to really emphasize their emotional state, but it’s a little jarring and unintentionally, weirdly meta.  The dialogue is somewhat stilted to fit the period, and none of the lines are delivered in any sort of naturalistic way.  (And I’m probably hyper-aware of this particular bit because Stephen Merchant’s performance as Portal 2’s Wheatley is possibly the best example of what a naturalistic approach should be.  To wit:  it sounds like a real person talking, instead of someone reading words off of a script.)

This last bit dovetails into the question of whether this technology has a viable future in the videogame industry.  I have absolutely no idea how expensive it is to produce, but it’s clearly the best option out there by far, and as videogames get more and more complex (and attract more A-list talent), one could see this technology really taking off (especially in stuff like, say, Mass Effect).  But it also means that videogame scripts can’t be as terrible and generic as they currently are, because a disinterested actor will produce an especially disinterested performance.  The biggest thing holding videogames back – and certainly the main quality that separates the truly great games from the pretty good ones – is the quality of the script.  The best voice acting (and facial animation) in the world can’t disguise terrible dialogue.

Lastly, I wish the mini-map was a little better at telling you how to get to your chosen destination.

__________________

*I botched some of the questions in the second case (the one involving an abandoned car by the railway) but still got it resolved – I think I’m going to play it again, just to make sure I understand the technical difference between “Doubt” and “Lie” in the interrogations.  (It seems to me that the main difference between the two is that if you think someone is lying but don’t have any evidence to back it up, you select “Doubt”.  It’s a minor semantics issue; I feel like “Doubt” is too passive a description when faced with an obvious liar, but didn’t understand what it actually meant in literal gameplay terms until the game clearly told me that I’d made a mistake.)

dusting off

Sorry, again, for the hiatus.  Couldn’t be helped.

A quick rundown of the last few weeks:

1.  Finished Mortal Kombat‘s story mode, albeit on Beginner difficulty.  Shao Kahn is a jerk.  It really is a fantastic game, and I really wish I was better at fighting games – or even really just gave a crap about the genre in general, because it’s an incredible experience and a great value.

2.  Did as much damage with Virtua Tennis 4 as I was willing to do.  It would be difficult to choose between VT4 and Top Spin 4 in terms of value, but if we’re just talking about the actual tennis, Top Spin cleans up and it’s not even close.

3.  Put about an hour into Motorstorm Apocalypse, in spite of the PSN being down.  Big fat “meh”, is all I have to say.  I’d rather play Split/Second – which I ended up doing, at least for a little while.

4.  Bought too many iPhone games:

  • 100 Rogues (a rogue-like which was free for a day; haven’t touched it)
  • Falling Fred (free; meh)
  • Frisbee (free; meh)
  • Coin Drop (.99; would rather play Peggle)
  • Gears (beautiful, but got difficult very fast)

Still haven’t finished Sword & Sworcery; got hung up on a boss fight and haven’t come back to it, which is stupid.

5.  Tonight is all about L.A. Noire; impressions will happen tomorrow.

Weekend recap: so much blood

My stated intentions last week were, to be sure, a bit vague; with Tiger 12 out of the house and out of my life I had nothing solid to commit to besides finally sinking my teeth into Sword & Sworcery for the iPhone.  Steam had nothing I wanted for sale.  I had a bizarre urge to play GTA4 on the PC, but somewhere between last summer and now they installed some SecuROM bullshit and I couldn’t get my perfectly valid and paid-for copy to open correctly.

I did spend some time – not a lot, but enough – with Mortal Kombat, which arrived via Gamefly on Saturday.  I’m no fighting game enthusiast – it’s the genre I suck at the most, besides real-time strategy – but even I must concede that this is the most complete package ever put on disc.  And it genuinely seems to want me to get better at it.  I dove right in to the Story mode, which is completely insane but very well done, I must admit.  After a few chapters, though, I realized that the enemies were getting tougher and I wasn’t getting any better, and I probably needed to try some tutorials and dive into the Challenge Tower.  I can’t say that my game has improved at all, but I think I understand it a bit easier.  It’s certainly very accessible, in a way that Street Fighter 4 wasn’t.  I’ve been debating whether or not to keep it; I don’t know if I’ll ever be any good at it, but I can’t deny that it’s pretty goddamned fun.

But ultimately the weekend belonged to Sword & Sworcery, which is, on the one hand, a very slow action/adventure game, but on the other hand is an incredibly immersive and atmospheric experience with one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard.  (Seriously – I even bought the soundtrack.)  The game doesn’t really have a lot of depth, but I’m not sure that’s really the point; it’s just a remarkable experience.