L.A. Noire | Writer’s GOTY
I’m staring apologetically at my copy of Uncharted 3 as I begin writing this game of the year piece. It’s because it isn’t my game of the year, despite it being the best attempt yet to tie cinematic action with great gameplay and an emotional story. It is a sensational game, and it probably should be the game of the year.
I’ve gone for L.A. Noire instead though, and I’ll briefly explain why. At about this time last year, I decided I wanted something different in 2011. Don’t get me wrong, I looked forward to the big sequels and blockbuster action games as much as the next person did; however, I hoped for something more mature and thoughtful. I wanted a game that dares to be different. I wanted the next Heavy Rain, essentially.
L.A. Noire was the game that did that in 2011. For starters, it’s a detective game. When was the last time you played a proper big-budget crime procedural drama? I can’t remember either. Then there’s its style and setting; L.A. Noire is a game that harks back to the glory days of Film Noir. It’s a bold move. As everyone else went for gritty action games and FPSs, Team Bondi set its game in the classy and stylish era of late 40s L.A.
Mafia II shares a similar period, you may say, but that was more of an urban feel with tommy gun-toting Mafia bosses. L.A. Noire is much more domestic. It shifts effortlessly between the glitz of Hollywood and the conservatism of suburban life.
Cole Phelps (as he works his way through Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson) faces all sorts of themes, from domestic abuse and paedophilia to morphine addition and serial killers — he even comes across a chubby and dim husband who thinks faking his death to run off with a broad is a smart move. It’s not when Phelps is on the case. Poor pig.
Team Bondi have tackled a wider range of themes than any other game in 2001. More importantly, they did so in a mature and adult manner. L.A. Noire can shock, but it’s always respectful. It’s never crass. It’s also surprisingly full of great humour.
The excellent voice actors deserve credit for pulling it off. The cast, led by the talented Aaron Stanton (Mad Men), showed no signs of struggling to get into character despite having to record their sections with dozens of cameras close in on their faces.
L.A. Noire is the flagship game for MotionScan, which is the process of capturing detailed facial expressions with multiple HD cameras during the voice recording process. The process allowed Team Bondi to create characters who are rich with emotions,whose voices actually match the movement of their faces. It’s a big leap forward just about everyone who has played the game has been surprised by just how lifelike the results are.
The exciting thing about MotionScan is that it is integral to the gameplay. While Phelps interrogates suspects, you have to read the expressions on their faces and judge their body movements to find clues. Are they lying? Are they telling the truth? Are they holding out on you?
Interrogating is the best thing about L.A. Noire. It separates it from the competition and offers truly mature gameplay. It gives you a reason to pay attention to the acting and the investigating because you will need the evidence if you’re going to call your suspect’s bluff. The interrogations can be tense and challenging, but they are hugely rewarding.
On a personal level, I’ve always had a soft spot for graphic adventure games, and L.A. Noire captures much of what I loved about Broken Sword and others like it. It is witty and smart, and it indulges my curious urge to sleuth. The graphic adventure games died a slow death because they lacked the killer hook to add excitement, but Team Bondi has found that with the interrogations. They also fleshed out the gameplay with some decent action sections as well.
L.A. Noire isn’t without its flaws, of course: the driving, shooting and fighting could all be more exciting, and sometimes the Truth, Doubt and Lie system doesn’t quite fit the scenarios as well as it should. The flaws rarely put you off playing, but it’s obvious the format can be considerably refined — which is an exciting thought.
L.A. Noire had a troubled development cycle. Sony, the original publisher, dropped it after they saw the spiralling costs and not much of a product. It only made it to the shops because Rockstar came in to save the day. Not only did they fund the project, but they also added the meat and bones. Players are going to feel instantly at home with the controls because in many ways it feels like GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption. It is completely its own game though.
The final and main reason why L.A. Noire is my game of 2011 is its wide appeal. L.A. Noire is a game that has drawn interesting looks from people who don’t play games, from respected film critics to my loving PS3-disliking girlfriend. To say she didn’t have an interest in the PS3 is an understatement, but she adores L.A. Noire. She loves the lavish late-40s world, the fantastic music, the great graphics, the fantastic acting, interesting characters and the exciting investigating. She’s already completed it once and she’s gone back to five-star all the cases. I know this isn’t an isolated case. I’ve heard the same story from countless others.
In addition to drawing on attractive themes and styles, L.A. Noire has wonderfully accessible gameplay. It doesn’t require dextrous fingers because it’s more important to have a methodical mind and to be a good judge of character. This isn’t a cheesy Christmas party game. It’s a “proper hardcore game”, but it has managed to reach out to new audiences without sacrificing its “proper” game status. It is something worth celebrating. Uncharted 3 may have offered the most thrilling ride, but I’m picking L.A. Noire as my game of the year.