Friday, 3 June 2011

“You’re being economical with the Truth”

I recently finished LA Noire.

Like many recent R* games - yes, I realize it was actually published by R* and developed by Team Bondi – LA Noire kind of snuck up on me. I didn’t go into the game with too many preconceptions. I really, really enjoyed it, but I can see why going into it with the expectations that it’s Red Dead 1947 or Grand Theft Noire would be disappointing. I adored the atmosphere, and even played through in Black & White mode for the authentic cinematic experience.

As I was playing I was struck by how similar it was to a traditional adventure game. You find items, talk to characters and use things from your inventory. I guess the closest game to it would be the Phoenix Wright series, with the witness interrogations and crime scene investigation, though it does cut out the cartoon campness of the Ace Attorney games (to the point where it could perhaps be accused of taking itself a little too seriously). Mainly, though, I was surprised by how neatly they sidestepped a lot of the adventure game niggles that have plagued the genre for years.

Graphic adventure games have traditionally fallen back into ‘pixel hunts’. So, one particular item in the background is interactive, requiring careful combing of the screen with the cursor to find it. This is often exacerbated when only one particular item will satisfy the game’s peculiar requirement. Maybe a stick is needed to reach something just out of reach, but of course it’s only possible to use a stick for this, and in fact it’s not possible to take any other path round the puzzle.

LA Noire uses subtle musical cues and controller vibrations to highlight when your character, Phelps, is near an item he can examine. It even lets you know when you’ve found all the important items in a scene. There’s a limited pool of ‘intuition points’, which are replenished as you progress, that can highlight all the clues you need. I think most critically of all, you can even progress through the story without finding all the clues in an area.

Putting all this together you dissolve the frustration of not finding the correct item. LA Noire retains the satisfaction of solving a puzzle the correct way. At the same time, by allowing the player to progress without requiring them to collect a backpack full of the kind of things you’d find Wombles throwing away, it means players don't spend an hour trying everything in their inventory on everything in the environment. It should also be mentioned that the game lets you skip action sequences too so you can focus on investigating.

The other facet of this is to introduce a measure of replay value to the game. This is something helped by the game’s episodic nature. Each installment has the scope for some branching based on player choice within it without majorly affecting the overarching plotline. But on top of that, there’s an opportunity to go back and pick up any clues you’ve missed; in one case, I entirely missed out questioning a suspect by visiting the locations out of order and, although I still got the right guy, there was about half an hour of the case that I missed.

I’d also like to say a word about the scarcity of the action. In Grand Theft Auto, when you pick up a mission, you know pretty much what lies ahead. You’ll drive to a place, shoot some people, then drive somewhere else. Sometimes you’ll chase someone in a car, sometimes they’ll chase you. All well and good, but it begins to feel like the beginning of an episode of Casualty; When you start a simple sounding mission, you’re waiting for the inevitable complication. You know, you just know, that your job to deliver a package to a contact will end in violence.

LA Noire has much less action, and the action is a fair bit clunkier than other similar R* games, but because it’s unexpected and almost restrained it works brilliantly. You turn up to question a suspect, you’re always aware they might try and run away, but because they don’t always when they do it is much more effective.

I think I’ve said everything I’d like to about LA Noire. Other, real websites have spoken at much greater length about what it does well and where it’s lacking. I was just excited when I played it that the changes made to broaden the genre's appeal mean we may get more strong story-based adventure games.

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