Monday, June 23, 2014

L.A. Noire Sucks: "More Like L.A. Bore"

L.A. Noire showed a lot of potential back in 2011. Going down its list of features, we have: a unique setting and theme, based around 1940s Los Angeles in a film noir-inspired detective story; a finely-detailed open world to explore, complete with side-missions; an emphasis on old-school adventure-style crime scene investigations; and never-before-seen facial animation technology allowing for realistic interrogations. This game had a lot to be excited about, and all of the pre-release hype and post-release praise had me quite eager to play it. But, as is seemingly always the case with such critically-hyped games, I found it incredibly disappointing and overrated.

L.A. Noire is one of the most expensive games ever made, and it shows. An astonishing amount of research went into accurately recreating 1947 Los Angeles, right down to traffic patterns and smog levels, and every square foot of the city is rendered with extraordinary detail. The facial animations, meanwhile, are some of the most realistic I've ever seen in a video game. All of this historical and graphical fidelity comes at the expense of gameplay, however, as if developer Team Bondi spent all their time and money bringing this wonderful world to life aesthetically, and then forgot to design some worthwhile gameplay to bring it to life mechanically.

You play as Cole Phelps, a young LAPD officer and former war hero of the Pacific theater, going through a couple of quick calls from police dispatch, which serve as a basic tutorial for all of the game's major gameplay elements -- driving, shooting, chasing, fist-fighting, investigating, and interrogating. After demonstrating an affinity for thorough police work, Phelps finds himself promoted to full-time casework for the LAPD's traffic desk. From there, he works his way up to homicide cases, then vice cases, and finally arson cases, while three different storylines (flashbacks from Phelps' marine unit in the war, cutscenes depicting the stories behind newspaper headlines, and the events happening to Phelps during his cases) run independently and eventually weave themselves together in the game's final act.

Cole Phelps is awkwardly denied a drink at the end of a case.

It's pretty cool when you start to realize the significance of how everything's actually related, but it's difficult to care about any of the three ongoing storylines until you make some progress in the vice cases, roughly three-quarters of the way through the game. Everything is so disjointed until that point, with random characters you never see outside of their random cutscenes, that you have no context to understand the importance of what you're being shown. Even once the importance is made clear, you've probably long forgotten about everything you'd been shown previously.

Even the main story that happens in present time around Phelps comes off feeling awfully disjointed. L.A. Noire's case-based gameplay structure feels a lot like a procedural crime drama television series, where each episode is a stand-alone story with no continuity between them, because you spend basically the entire first half of the game solving random, unrelated cases. The case structure offers a nice rhythm for playing the game in smaller chunks with designated stopping points, but it was a bit tiresome to me. I felt like I was just repeating the same process over and over again without making any actual progress in the story, because the story essentially resets itself after every completed case. I hit a point seven or eight hours in when I had to ask myself "why am I playing this game? What's the ultimate point?"

The low point in the story comes during the transition between the third and fourth acts when it's revealed that your character has been having an affair with a German jazz singer. It's a major event in the story with major consequences for your character, and it happens mostly off-screen and completely beyond your control. Although you play a set protagonist with his own history and personality, you're left in control of Phelps for a lot of the game, and the game shapes itself based on your actions. An investigation will turn out a little differently depending on what you do, so it's quite easy to feel yourself in the role of the protagonist and I felt betrayed that my own character was having an affair behind my back.

Phelps visiting Elsa's jazz club.

The big reveal was made all the more irritating because Phelps had always been portrayed as too much of a straight-laced, by-the-book goody-two-shoes to cheat on his wife -- whom we only ever see for a few seconds in the entire game. He doesn't flirt with other women and dismisses the notion when others prompt him to; he berates his partners for drinking on the job; he insists that they have a moral obligation to the people of Los Angeles to do their jobs properly; and he showed no signs whatsoever of being unsatisfied with his home life. News of the affair gets out and he's immediately suspended from the police force, forced to turn in his badge and gun; ten seconds later, you're working arson cases without any kind of time lapse or explanation for why you're back on the force.

Even though the game is pretty good at immersing you in the role of the protagonist, it also likes to take control away from you by deciding when you can and cannot use your gun, usually in the most illogical and counter-intuitive situations. Once I had a suspect fleeing a crime scene and I had a clear shot either to shoot his leg out, or to hold my aim on him for five seconds to trigger the sequence-ending warning shot, but for whatever reason, I couldn't pull out my gun. The suspect got into a car and I was close enough that I could have easily shot the tires out, but once again, I couldn't do the most logical thing in that situation. I ran down the street looking for a vehicle; I saw a car on the other side of the fence and tried to climb over it, only to find I couldn't climb over a fence I should normally have been able to, simply because the game wanted me to get in the one, specific car they scripted into the chase scene.

In another situation, a suspect hijacked a trolley car and I had to race him around the city trying to disable it. Once I succeeded, I swerved to a stop and got out of my car, ready to apprehend the suspect. I was already at the door to the trolley car as he was getting off of it, plenty close enough to have tackled the guy and handcuffed him (like any good cop would), but for whatever reason the game decided this was supposed to be a scripted gunfight and I had no choice but to shoot him to death. Once I realized I couldn't even punch the guy, I tried shooting him in the arms and legs, trying to disarm or disable him non-lethally, but the game has no such system for wounding NPCs -- every hit simply whittles down their remaining health, and all I was doing was killing him more slowly by aiming for non-vital organs.

Punching a dude in the face, in the middle of the street.

These are just two examples of a recurring problem throughout the entire game -- in a game where you're supposed to be role-playing a police detective, it frequently makes you do the exact opposite thing a good police officer should be doing. Playing L.A. Noire is often an exercise of trying to guess the game's intended logic (or simply resigning yourself to its sometimes overly-restrictive script), rather than acting on your instincts to perform the most logical or appropriate action in a given situation, and this is no more evident than in its touted interrogation scenes.

The interrogation scenes are supposed to be L.A. Noire's strongest selling point, but the execution is so flawed that it basically breaks the entire game for me. The idea is for you to read a person's facial expressions looking for ticks and tells to determine if they're withholding information from you or hiding some kind of emotional reaction, and then you decide if they're telling the truth, if you doubt their story, or if you think you have evidence to prove they're telling a lie. Choosing correctly will get them to reveal extra clues; choosing incorrectly will get you nowhere or could even make the suspect uncooperative. It's a cool idea in theory, but the system is so illogically finicky that making the correct choice is usually just a random guess.

Whenever you accuse someone of lying, the game brings up a list of evidence that you can select from to prove it -- sometimes you'll have multiple pieces of overlapping evidence but only one of them is coded as the "correct" choice, even though all of them should be logical, reasonable options. In one scenario, a group is selling stolen cars by forging pink slips. I tracked down two suspects whose pink slips both list the same address, which I found to be a vacant lot. When asked to prove that the two are in cahoots, the two logical choices are "vacant lot" and "pink slips." Since you only know about the vacant lot because of the address printed on the duplicate pink slips, it might seem reasonable to point to the pink slips as the source, but apparently doing that is completely wrong and causes you to fail the interrogation.

In another scenario, a suspect tells me he wasn't involved in a shooting; I found his gun at the scene of the crime (traced the serial number to confirm it was his), and a witness testified to him being there. The gun doesn't necessarily prove that he was there himself, however, and the witness could have lied or been mistaken, yet if you (quite reasonably) choose to doubt his story, rather than outright accusing him of lying, then you fail that particular interrogation and gain nothing from it. The correct choice is to accuse him of lying and refer to the witness testimony, even though you'd think finding his gun at the scene of the crime would be an equally (if not more) important thing to bring up.

In another scenario, Phelps is sent to investigate an abandoned vehicle full of blood. At the scene, I find a pair of glasses that show signs of home repair. I head to the vehicle owner's home where I discover a glasses case of the same brand as those found at the scene. I ask the man's wife about his glasses, and she tells me he had just bought a new pair and left with them that morning; this directly contradicts the evidence at the crime scene, so my hunch is that she's either lying to me (for whatever reason), or that she's telling the truth as far she knows it because his glasses were damaged and subsequently repaired after he left the house that morning. I chose to pick the apparent middle ground by doubting her story, which led to Phelps getting ultra aggressive and coming just short of accusing her of murder. Needless to say, it was the wrong choice and she kicked me out of her house.

In another scenario, a girl says she went to a school dance and that her mom was supposed to pick her up, but she never showed, so she called her dad to come pick her up. In order to get her to reveal more of what happened, you're expected to doubt her story, even though what she says immediately afterward confirms that she was telling the truth. Why you couldn't have selected "truth" and simply asked her "and then what happened" is beyond me. In another scenario, you ask a guy if he knows a certain friend of a murder victim, and he says "not personally." Once again, the only "correct" response is to doubt him; doing so gets him to tell you a little more about the victim's friend, but it confirms that he was telling you the truth in the first place because he's only heard of the victim's friend through the victim herself.

Interrogating someone, different options in the upper left.

Then you've got weird situations where the prompts don't make any kind of sense in response to something a witness or suspect just said. At one point I asked one of the surviving victims about the suspect's motives; she told me "You let my husband worry about that man," and then the truth/doubt/lie buttons came on screen while I gave the universal "wtf gesture" with my hands, because that's a completely irrefutable statement. At other times, there's absolutely no correlation between what's said before and after your truth/doubt/lie input, making them seem arbitrary and random. Once I asked someone "did you see if [the victim] was wearing a necklace last night?" and the guy responded with "I didn't notice." He seemed to be telling the truth and I believed him, so I correctly picked the truth button, which led Phelps to follow up with "Do you sell much fruit after hours?"

Another major problem with the interrogations is that the truth/doubt/lie prompts are so vague that you never know if choosing to doubt someone will make Phelps rationally expose the flaw in their alibi, or send him on a psychopathic "bad cop" rampage. Besides having to put up with the game's fickle logic for what it deems the "correct" judgment/evidence during an interrogation, you also have to put up with Phelps' wildly inconsistent interpretation of the three prompts. You simply can't rely on sound reasoning or gut instincts to make good decisions because everything is ultimately an unpredictable crapshoot.

It's equally dumb that the system employs a type of backwards logic that requires you to make a conclusive judgment in order to produce the evidence that confirms your conclusion. It seems to me like a real detective would be skeptical of everything he hears, and would want to press for more information and collect as much evidence as possible before determining if someone is hiding something from him. When someone is acting suspiciously, you can't simply follow up with more questions attempting to rule out different angles and variables; you're forced to decide right then and there, in direct violation of the scientific method, if that person is telling the truth or if they're withholding information.

The reason for all this logic-defying inconsistency stems from a decision made late in the development process to change the three prompts the player chooses from. Instead of "truth, doubt, and lie," the options were originally "coax, force, and lie" -- the dialogue was originally written to reflect different approaches to getting people to reveal more information. After they recorded the dialogue, someone decided to change the three prompts from a proactive "how do I get them to cooperate" system to a reactive deduction game in order to place more of a gameplay emphasis on the facial animation technology. That desire is certainly understandable, but it's a decision that should have been in place from the beginning; by making the change so late in production, the system ends up feeling half-assed and broken.

For as good as the facial animation technology is, the interrogations still end up being a simple, shallow, formulaic routine each and every time. The faces are the most realistic I've ever seen in a video game, but the actors all seem to have been given the exact same direction for making it look like they're lying -- if they're fidgeting and avoiding eye contact then it's a sure bet they're not telling you the truth. The formula then becomes a matter of going down the list of questions in your journal, asking one at a time, listening to their response, watching them to see if they fidget/avoid eye contact, picking your response, being told if you guessed correctly, then starting the process over with another question.

The interrogations also feel pretty shallow because each line of questioning consists of only one decision with only one binary outcome. Consider the "social boss battles" from Deus Ex: Human Revolution; instead of being a linear series of completely unrelated one-response questions, DXHR's social boss battles featured a complex web of branching paths. Instead of reading faces, you had to evaluate your opponent's psychological profile and biosigns to select dialogue approaches that would be more successful with his/her personality. Instead of having the same three vague, unpredictable options for every response, you chose specific lines of dialogue. Instead of telling you immediately when you select a dialogue option whether it was right or wrong, DXHR masks your successes and failures until the end, requiring successive successes to win and allowing for the possibility of failure.

Investigating a murder crime scene.

These games released only one month apart from one another, and yet DXHR's dialogue system blows L.A. Noire's out of the water. Whereas DXHR's system is tense, fun, and rewarding, L.A. Noire's feels like a broken mess. The rest of L.A. Noire's gameplay isn't nearly as frustrating as the interrogations, but the other gameplay elements commit the cardinal sin of being utterly boring and pointless.

Investigating crime scenes looking for evidence -- the thing you probably spend the most time in the game doing -- requires no thought and very little observation. The only gameplay involved is slowly walking around the environment spamming the action button until you find all of the clues, and slowly rotating each item until the camera zooms in on the obvious piece of evidence. It's so simple and straightforward that you could probably do it blindfolded, just by bumbling around randomly. There are virtually no puzzles to speak of, either, except reading through ledgers looking for one or two familiar names, or fitting wrenches into their labeled slots on a pegboard, or arranging pipes into their completely obvious positions -- completely mindless tasks that any six-year old could solve.

Compare this to a game like Condemned 2: Bloodshot, an action-horror game in which you play a forensic crime scene investigator, which came out a few years prior to L.A. Noire. Crime scene investigations in Condemned 2 have virtually the same setup, but they take the form of small quizzes that test your observation and deduction skills. When faced with a dead body, you have to consider its positioning on the floor, study the blood splatters, look for wounds, and so on, to determine the cause of death and a probable murder weapon, selecting from a list of possible options. Your character doesn't just look at it and come up with the answer automatically; these are things you have to piece together on your own. Sometimes the evidence lines up rather conclusively and the answer is rather obvious, but other times you have to fill in the gaps using your own inferential or deductive reasoning.

Such a fun, interesting "puzzle."

The closest L.A. Noire ever gets to this level of engaging problem-solving is towards the end of the homicide cases, when you have to follow literary clues to figure out where the killer's next clue might be, and then cross-reference evidence in the hall of records. It's a rare moment in the game when it doesn't just give you the solution outright, but even then, the answer is easily found by reading the descriptions of various L.A. landmarks on the interactive city map looking for familiar concepts. That's also the only time in the game when it introduces any kind unique gameplay variety, like navigating a hedge maze, finding the correct path through a tar pit, balancing a teetering platform, and so on. None of this gameplay is all that remarkable, but it's the only time in the game that you do anything more interesting than the formulaic walking, chasing, punching, shooting, and driving.

The open world of Los Angeles certainly looks great, but it's excessively large and there's absolutely nothing to do in it except for scripted, instanced missions that take you completely out of the open world. When I started the game, I figured I'd play along and immerse myself in the setting by driving across the city following traffic signals; that got pretty boring after the first two cases when I realized it served no actual purpose in the gameplay except to prolong the game with pointless downtime. You can only get the side missions if you're driving around the city, however, so I started driving like a mad man with my siren on and then having my partner instantly drive us to our destination whenever a side mission popped up.

After a while, I realized that even the side missions weren't worth pursuing and gave up on them, too. In each case, the side missions are just a contrived excuse to get you to shoot, punch, or chase some random criminal(s). That's all you ever do -- there's no set up, no development, and no resolution -- they're just pointless two-minute distractions that play completely identical to one another. In one side mission, you're tasked with stopping a suicide jumper from jumping off a building; seems like an interesting change of pace, but literally all you do is walk around to the backside of the building and climb up a ladder. That's it.

Wandering about the city.

The only fun I was able to have in the open world was commandeering vehicles and lining them up in the street so they spelled my name. Other than that, all you can do is sit on benches, bump into people on the street, or search through 8-square miles of the city for police badges, hidden vehicles, and other completely useless collectibles that only exist for the sake of achievements.

Make no mistake: L.A. Noire is a completely linear game where you just go through the scripted story missions sequentially from beginning to end. There's nothing inherently wrong with that sort of gameplay formula, but it defeats the purpose of the open world entirely. One might argue that you can skip the open world sections and focus solely on the linear story missions, and that it therefore doesn't hurt to have the open world available for people who want to enjoy driving around finding historical landmarks. I agree that there's still some appeal in the open world (even if I don't particularly care about it), but it feels like an indisputable waste of time and money. If they weren't going to do anything worthwhile with the open world, then I would've preferred them to invest that time and money developing better gameplay.

Chase scenes, which occur in every single case, are probably the most anticlimactic thing in the game. They're obviously meant to give the game some form of exciting action, with you attempting to keep up with and run the suspect's vehicle off the road, but each and every one is scripted with a definite ending that negates any need to take part in the exciting action. If you just hang back and keep them visible on your radar, you'll avoid being hit by all the scripted obstacles that are meant to target you specifically, and you won't risk having the other car turn on an impossibly short radius and leave you flying ahead in the wrong direction. They'll eventually crash into a ditch or get t-boned by another vehicle, and you'll be able to calmly approach the disabled vehicle and apprehend the suspect.

Third-person cover shooting. 

Combat takes the form of third-person cover shooting, which certainly makes sense for a game where you play a police detective, but it lacks any kind of satisfying substance. The controls for getting in and out of cover are a little clunky, and Phelps makes no reaction whatsoever to taking a bullet to the chest. Enemies rarely move about the area attempting any form of tactical maneuvers; they typically just stay in one place popping in and out of cover waiting to die. Fights are usually so simple and straightforward that I was able to brazenly walk towards the enemies with my weapon drawn and kill each one the moment they popped out, not even needing to worry about cover. This isn't a huge issue since this is supposed to be more of an adventure game than a shooter, but it feels ineptly tacked on.

A lot of smaller issues also suggest that L.A. Noire just didn't get the kind of polish you'd expect from such a big budget game. Everywhere you go, you hear the same ambient lines spoken by NPCs, repeated over and over again: "I'm thinking of moving up to a .45, I want to put them down in one shot," "They say he's an honest cop. There's an oxymoron for you," "I say we bust in there and find the goddamn evidence," "I just don't know how to dance to bebop," and so on. If you try to make a jump the game didn't intend, you suffer "instant ragdoll death syndrome" the moment your foot steps off the ledge. If you bump into someone while calmly walking down the street, Phelps will sometimes stiff arm the poor bystander and knock them straight to the ground with a giant blood splatter.

One time I got out of my car in front of the police station intending to go inside, but there were a bunch of people crossing my path walking down the street. Since I'd already encountered the Phelps-stiff-arm-of-death several times, I figured I'd be polite and stand out of their way to let them cross before I headed inside, and one of the guys said to me "are you drunk mister, or just cracked?" And then I knocked him to the ground, and he walked away as if nothing ever happened. Because apparently, NPCs are programmed to make condescending remarks about you whenever you're not walking down the streets, even when it makes perfectly logical sense for you to be patiently and politely letting other people pass. That's the kind of thing they should only be saying when you actively bump into someone.

My smashed car, and my partner clipping through it.

Your car will get realistic scrapes and dents whenever you bump into things, and the game keeps tracks of how much vehicular damage you've caused over the course of each case. The damage to your vehicle is totally non-persistent, however; you can be driving a totally wrecked police car, stop at a bar to ask some questions, and find it's been magically repaired to pristine condition when you step outside again. On multiple occasions I quite obviously ran over some pedestrians with my car and suffered zero consequences for it, with $0 worth of injuries caused to L.A.'s citizens. Some things in the environment are destructible, but you'll sometimes find your car coming to an immediate halt when running into things like wooden picnic tables.

On another occasion, I was doing a main mission trying to help a friend escape police pursuit, and all of the police detectives started shooting at me before I'd done anything to interfere. For all they knew, I was still completely on their side -- and indeed, I was trying to stay out of the way and pretend like I was helping them out -- but the game had a set script already in mind, and the police officers had apparently read that script in advance and thus knew that I would be betraying them shortly.

Then there are the glitches. Oh, the glitches. On several occasions I tried getting my partner to drive to the next location, but he got caught in an infinite loop running in circles or getting in and out of the car. Once, I found a bus floating sideways across the street. My partner got stuck in a wall two or three times, and I sometimes got stuck unable to move in certain directions after examining a piece of evidence. I once had my car clip through the floor and plummet a hundred feet below the city.

The black and white visuals don't always look this nice, unfortunately.

Even things like the tutorial messages lie to you about how things work. When I started the game, it told me the music would stop playing during a crime scene investigation once I found all of the clues; I played for several hours pointlessly wandering around crime scenes thinking I was still missing something, wondering why the music wasn't stopping, before I realized the option was actually disabled in the settings. One of the other options is a black and white setting to better capture that film noir aesthetic, but the game relies on color to convey some of its vital information -- interactive doors are denoted by their golden handles, health loss is marked by the desaturation of the screen's colors, and you're often tasked with discreetly trailing a vehicle of a certain color. It's kind of sloppy to include such a novel feature without compensating for the loss of visual gameplay information.

Individually, these are all minor, easily disregarded issues, but their near-constant presence makes the whole game feel ridiculously nonsensical. For a game that strives to be so immersive, these little issues can easily take you out of the moment whenever you encounter them, which is basically all the time.

In summary, just about everything in L.A. Noire is either broken or boring. The worst offenders are the interrogations and the crime scene investigations -- these were supposed to be the game's strongest selling points, but they've been done substantially better in other games. I can tolerate the crime scene investigations being so simple and boring, but the logic-defying nonsense in the interrogations is enough to ruin the whole game. Other gameplay elements like driving and shooting are functional but feel tacked-on and uninspired, and the open world adds nothing to the experience because there's nothing to do in it. The only praise I can give for L.A. Noire is that it absolutely nails the theme and atmosphere; everything else is disappointing and underwhelming.

No comments:

Post a Comment