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.

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*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.)

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