Sunday, May 29, 2011

Game review: L.A. Noire takes open world gaming to the next level

As the company responsible for such globally domineering game franchises as Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, you might think that Rockstar Games was due for a dud. But you'd be wrong.

Instead, with the help of some serious game developing mojo from Team Bondi, Rockstar has produced not only another bleak, deep, long-playing and wickedly engrossing "open world" game, it has taken the genre it single-handedly created to the next level. L.A. Noire is not only everything you'd expect from Rockstar, it's everything you're going to expect of games if this ilk for the next decade. It's the new high-water mark for the industry, clearly.

And here's why: On the one hand, L.A. Noire is entirely familiar, with you as the dynamically evolving main character engaging in anything and everything the uninterrupted cityscape has to offer. It's also unnecessarily gorgeous with a visual flair of cinematic complexion - genuinely "film noire" flavoured for sure - putting to rest any and all "games aren't art" arguments. Well, the sweeping vistas and most of the cut scenes, but there's still a telltale stiffness in character motions, that marionette look of videogames - a look made all the more eerie with "motion scanned" faces pasted onto characters to perfectly emulate facial tics, twitches and "Lie to Me" nuances, all integral to the game, all kind of mesmerizing yet spooky.

In the grander visual scheme of things, the slow smolder of 1940's Los Angeles is palpable, wafting with the same crime and redemption anguish made filmic in silver screen mainstays from The Big Sleep to LA Confidential. For added authenticity, the many stories played out are all based on actual cases, Dragnet style.

But here's the real kicker: Unlike most previous "open world" games - and certainly unlike the Grand Theft Auto titles - L.A. Noire turns the amoral unambiguity and fostered lawlessness that comes with "sandbox" gaming and turns it on its ear. No, slams it on its ear and gives it a couple of rabbit punches to the kidneys while it's down.

You play a cop - and not a bad one, not "on the take" like you might expect of the car-jacking, prostitute-smacking, indiscriminately murderous Rockstar games of yore. A good cop with a moral compass rigidly fixed at true blue.

You start off as fresh faced rookie and decorated (and haunted) WWII hero, Cole Phelps, and thereafter raise him through the ranks by working different beats. While you might consider taking Cole to the dark side, opting for any old "above the law" action that might fast track the fun of it all, it doesn't work that way. Unbecoming behaviour or even slightly sloppy police work involving collateral damage, false arrests or just bad PR will just mar your record and wash you out in no time. You don't pull your gun unless that bad guys pull first, and you can't always tell the bad guys from just the "perpy"-looking denizens of L.A.

That's not to say it takes the go-anywhere, do-anything fun out of it, but if you need to commandeer a car, for example, you're better off flashing your badge and asking nicely rather than just tossing a driver into the street and jacking his ride.

That is also not to say that L.A. Noire is finally the Rockstar game you can buy your kids in hopes of letting them absorb the life-lessons of the morally righteous. This is still a cops and robbers game, and old school guns and gangsters affair that takes its noire-ishness seriously - none-more-noire, to misquote a phrase, all grit and exceptionally gruff. It's violent to the point of gory on occasion, and there are just as many f-bombs as any other such game duly rate M for Mature. Speaking of ESRB Ratings, the "Blood and Gore, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence" descriptors aren't kidding, either.

Be that as it may, L.A. Noire is not really a bang-bang shoot-'em-up cops and robbers game anyway. It is, in fact, a detective game, a Raymond Chandler-esque whodunit with a liberal smattering of bang-'em-up and gun-'em-down thrown in for good measure. But it is a game the requires your close attention at all times - not that you'll mind scrutinizing the scenery and those aforementioned facial tics because it's like scrutinizing a really good crime movie, albeit interactive and halting at times. But someone walking by as you sit on the couch transfixed to the HDTV will likely mistake it for a film. It's that polished, that accomplished, that excellent.

Final Score: 5 (out of five)

Platform(s): PlayStation 3

Publisher: Rockstar Games


ESRB Rating: N/A

CDN Price: $59.99

US Price: $59.99

Copyright Evergeek 2011.