I’m playing LA Noire at the moment, and it’s just starting to grow on me. As usual with me — particularly in a game with a lot of controls to remember, like this one — the main barrier to my enjoying it is that I’m still getting use to which button does what, which means that, even though I’ve been promoted from uniformed cop to traffic to homicide (“This is the big time, Phelps!”), I’m still a danger to the good citizens of LA while simply driving at low speeds from location to location (and a lot of this game involves covering the eight square miles of 1940’s LA streets that makes for its backdrop), let alone when giving high-speed chase. And when faced with a genuine armed perp, I’m as likely to jump out from behind cover and start frantically re-loading my fully loaded gun as I am to actually shoot the guy. (So far, all the gun-wielding perps have been guys, but there have been some pretty shady dames…) The thing is, there’s always a few controls you get used to more quickly than others — moving around, picking up objects to examine them for their clue-potential — while others, usually the more emergency-oriented ones, like taking cover when being fired at, or blocking a punch, or applying the brakes in a moving vehicle(!), you only need to use in situations of dire emergency, so you don’t get used to them till you really need them. But that’s just me. I’ve never been a power gamer and never will be. As I’ve said before, what I play games for are immersive stories.
LA Noire‘s big selling point is its “revolutionary new facial animation technology”, by which actors’ expressions have been used to program the reactions of suspects to the questions you fire at them, and you then have to use their body language (alongside the evidence you’ve gathered) to judge whether they’re telling the truth. So far it’s not been too difficult. If, after answering a question, the suspect looks you in the eye with a relatively placid expression, they’re telling the truth, but if they immediately start looking at anything but you, they’re lying. (Though I did upset a female clerk in a shoe shop by calling her a liar when she was probably just upset her boss was lying in a bloody pool on the pavement outside.) The thing is, they keep doing their reaction while the game waits for you to make your choice of truth, doubt, or lie, so it’s not like you’re checking for telltale micro-expressions. What this aspect of the game hangs on is the realism of the faces, and I’m happy to say that I find the faces believable enough to react to as faces, rather than the weird things you found looking back at you in games from only a few years ago (those starey bubble eyes in Oblivion always made me a bit uncomfortable).
So far, LA Noire has been pretty forgiving of my kack-handed way with the controls. I haven’t been kicked off the force for the not inconsiderable amount of injuries to pedestrians and car prangs I’ve caused while heading to the next location. Also, if you fail an action sequence (such as a chase, car-tail or shoot-out) three times, you’re given the option to skip it at no game-cost. So far, I’ve only skipped one, and that was accidental because, the first time I was given the option to skip it, I didn’t read the message properly. (One annoying thing about all these lush new immersive games coming out at the moment is they really need you to have a big, preferably HD, TV. On my old CRT one, the tiny text is often near-indecipherable. I’m beginning to feel a bit technologically outmoded.)
It’s got me thinking about interactive stories, though. There are two ways interactivity can add to your enjoyment of a story. One is that, through your actions, you can change the outcome, and that’s usually seen as the holy grail of interactive storytelling. The other is that, because you get the chance to explore and examine the environment at your own pace and in your own way, you really feel as though you’ve stepped into the game world, and so feel much more involved in whatever story you’re being guided through. And really, it’s the latter I prefer. As far as the former is concerned, I think a story has a pretty fixed structure, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Influencing the outcome is okay for minor changes, but usually there’s one correct way through a story, and you either hit that or you fail. I’ve never really been fussed by that sort of game, anyway. (Perhaps because I’m not much of a re-player.)
LA Noire — so far at least — has been pretty well structured in terms of its stories. After all, these are crimes that have been committed and there’s only one correct way to see them through, which is to arrest (or kill) the criminal responsible. (I’m not sure at this early stage if it’s possible to arrest the wrong person, yet. But certainly there are a few shady characters who don’t get arrested, even if you feel they should.) It would be nice if the investigations themselves were a bit more free-form — at the moment, you’re pretty much guided to each succeeding location or suspect till you’ve gathered all the necessary evidence, but I’ve a feeling things will be getting more complicated as the game progresses. (Hopefully, I’ll have figured out the difference between the punch and drop-your-guard buttons by then.)
And, of course, it’s the setting which is a big part of the fun of playing LA Noire. LA in full, sunny colour isn’t really a very noire-ish place (you can play the game in black and white if you want, but what you really need are stark shadows and shady personalities, and they’ll come through equally well in colour or mono), but the cynicism is certainly there. It’s an immersive world of forties slang, seen-it-all-before detectives, glamorous broads and drunk no-hopers, sleazy bars and cheap hotels, fading starlets, dodgy vice squad officers, drugs, blood (a lot of blood), corpses, fast-talking wise guys, strong-arm dumb gangsters, dodgy psychiatrists and an awful, awful lot of waiting at goddamned never-changing red traffic lights.
Trouble is, I’m just too honest a cop to use my siren except when it’s a real emergency. But as soon as I do, you get to see mailboxes, street lamps, and even innocent pedestrians fly!