Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Off the Record, On the QT and Very Hush Hush

If I had to pick a quote to sum up the present state of hardcore gaming, I’d have to go with an old Philip Marlowe line: “Seems there are so many guns around town lately and so few brains.” Don’t get me wrong sweetheart, I enjoy a good cross-hair simulator as much as the next Tom, Dick or Harry, but it’s nice to see a game take on problems that can’t be solved with bullets for a change. Bioware’s branching narratives flirt with that sort of thing through dialog trees that feature options for intimidation and diplomacy, but at the end of the day, you’re picking lines from a list. There’s not much game there.

Funny that the box art's pallet is so vibrant and high-contrast when the game actually features a very muted color scheme. You can even play it in black and white.

Enter Rockstar and Team Bondi's LA Noire. In addition to snooping around crime scenes through a dolled-up point and click adventure interface, you must also interview a menagerie of shady suspects, shaken victims, and snarky witnesses. Almost everybody you meet will lie to you at least once, forcing you to read their facial expressions and leverage the evidence you’ve gathered to call them out on their bullshit. At the same time, they’ll tell you the truth when it suits their interests, and doubting them when they are on the level can be as damaging to your case as believing every little detail they feed you. The system isn’t perfect. The characters’ mo-capped facial expressions are impressively detailed, but they are also fairly bombastic. Excessive blinking. Shifty glances from side to side. Long pauses. Yet, despite these obvious tells,  it is very difficult to strike a distinction between a vague, untrustworthy answer (which you should “Doubt”) and an out-and-out lie (which you must contradict with the right evidence).

All the same, seeing gameplay that relies on communication and deception is fresh and gratifying. This is a system that rewards situational awareness, logical analysis, and purposeful, involved play. The feedback system is also unobtrusive and subtle; you get a intriguing jazz flourish when you make the right call, and a melancholy jazz flourish when you screw up. On paper that sounds kind of dumb, but in practice its amazing. Imagine if Zelda's "item get" music went through puberty, dialed things down a couple notches and became all suave and sexy. The satisfaction and frustration of cracking a tough case is intrinsically rewarding and rewarding to the narrative. Developers take note: I'd like to see more stuff like this, please.

Admittedly, every case in the game involves more familiar Rockstar staples as well; car chases, fisticuffs and shootouts. The systems for these mechanics are all solid enough, but they feel somewhat simplified compared to their presence in GTA, Bully, and RDR, respectively. But the balance between nuanced, narrative-rich puzzle-solving and hardboiled action makes for a well-rounded, satisfying experience,

I have to point out, you've seen most of LA Noire's ideas elsewhere. Phoenix Wright features dialog-driven puzzles where you have to consult evidence to catch liars. Assassin’s Creed features a similar eavesdropping mechanic. Heavy Rain did the crime scene investigation thing (and the CSI games too I imagine, but has anybody actually played those?). But LA Noire blends each of these little features in a way that makes you feel like you’re acting out an episode of Dragnet if it were done up with modern-day Hollywood production values. One stand-out moment in the early part of the game has you eavesdropping on a suspect’s phone conversation by sitting in a booth and pretending to read a newspaper. It’s a scene you’ve seen in dozens of movies and shows, but its implementation in the game is wonderfully organic. It is an experience I would describe as “cinematic,” but not in the over-scripted (COD), non-interactive (MGS) sense; you do stuff that makes you feel like Joe Friday or Philip Marlowe.

In many senses, Noire delivers on the lofty (some might say pretentious) “Interactive Narrative” promises that Heavy Rain presented and promptly failed to deliver on. The writing is sharper and more sophisticated with a complicated frame narrative, a number of self-contained episodic missions, and an over-arching plot in the vein of LA Confidential; the film which was clearly Rockstar and Team Bondi's most prominent influence in crafting their dark 40’s take on the City of Angels. Just as the Uncharted series tries its hardest to make players feel like Indiana Jones, Noire wants you to step into the shoes of Ed Exley, and it partners you up with characters cut from the same cloth as Bud White and Jack Vincennes to boot. I might be outing myself as a James Elroy fanboy, but it was a role I was thrilled to inhabit.

My biggest criticism against the game is sort of false importance of interrogations. Even if you misread multiple key witnesses multiple times, the game will let you limp through the case to completion. You will receive lower rankings, but your character will still be rapidly promoted to move the story along. If you lose a firefight, or fail to tail a suspect successfully though, it’s game over. The former is understandable, seeing how your character would be dead or crippled if you lose, but if I can fuck up an interrogation without serious repercussion, I ought to be able to botch tailing somebody and try again later. The ideal solution of course, would be if the course of your investigation accurately reflected your performance. What happens if you fail to catch the bad guys repeatedly? Maybe you get stuck stopping street crimes until the force takes you seriously again. I don't really mean to advocate reputation grinding in a very focused and engaging experience, but it would be interesting if you could not only be a crooked cop, but an honestly bad one as well, and have to deal with the consequences that entails.

If you are a big Grand Theft Auto fan, this game may not necessarily scratch your itch. You can drive like an asshole (god knows I do), but you can't go around picking up hookers and knee-capping people with a shotgun. It's a lot more restrained than Red Dead Redemption, or even Bully. But it's also more different and exciting. A popular criticism of RDR was that it was essentially "Grand Theft Horse." It's an assessment that strikes me as a little unfair, since the natural setting (complete with wild flowers and demonic cougars and wild horses that can be broken in) contributed a hell of a lot to the mood and tone of the title. That same brilliant world-building is on display here, but there is more legitimately new stuff to do thanks to interrogations and investigations. So yeah. Five stars, A+, and all that jazz. Give it a try.

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