LA Noire caught me by surprise when a PC version was released. It was released on console first, with no indication that there’s be a PC port, and by the time it was announced the game had already seemingly been played by anyone who was going to play it. Apart from me, apparently. I picked up the Complete version, which includes all the DLC, for about £18, and have been playing to see whether it really is the flawed masterpiece it’s made out to be.
The big feature of LA Noire is the facial animation. Through a combination of black magic and Hannibal Lector-style face surgical face-removal (probably) Rockstar and Bondi have transplanted proper actors’ faces into the game in an incredibly realistic way.
The facial detail and animation is amazing. I actually recognised actors’ faces, rather than just their voices – and that’s a good thing, considering that half the cast of Mad Men is in it. In some ways it really works. There’s something recognisably human about the characters’ movement and emotions, and while there’s definitely a touch of the uncanny valley about the characters (and their weird shiny skin) it’s a far step beyond the barely-animated square-jawed space marines we’re used to.
And it’s not just pretty – it’s central to the gameplay. Your role as a detective is to interview witnesses, using their body language and facial tics to deduce whether they’re telling the truth or trying to hide something from you. It’s a great idea, and the promise of such subtle interactions between the player and the characters sounded like it has the potential to be something really special, but the gameplay isn’t quite the revelation that I was hoping for. Despite all the other advancements, it still feels like the meat of the game hasn’t progressed far from its roots in old-school point-and-click games.
The problem is that I don’t ever feel like I’m a detective unravelling a reluctant witness’ story – I feel like I’m playing a computer game, trying to guess what the maker of the computer game was thinking when they put this interview together.
In conversations you can choose to say a person is telling the truth, cast doubt on their statements or accuse them of lying. Each witness statement has a “right” answer that you determine by assessing their behaviour. This is where all those pop-psychology articles come in handy – signs of lying include fidgeting, not looking you in the eye and all that jazz. This bit is fairly straight-forward, because all you have to do is interpret the signs.
But where it gets difficult (and frustrating) is choosing what to do next. When you accuse a witness of lying you have to back up your accusation with evidence. I was interviewing a guy in a dodgy car workshop, trying to sweat the truth out of him. He claimed to know nothing about any stolen-car racket, and demanded that I show some proof. I check my notebook. I’ve got notes about a load of forged proofs of purchase, a big box of dodgy documents I found in his office, information about a car racket and a few other things. Frustratingly, I know he’s guilty, and I know that one of these things is the right answer, but in my head there are any number of ways each of these things could be connected – with only one attempt to get it right these sections can be pretty frustrating.
In these situations making the right choice is less about getting into the narrative and playing the game and more about trying to think which one of these things the game developer thought was the most appropriate. It’s like filling in a really annoying form, where an ambiguously labelled “ID Number” box might require a passport number, national insurance number or even some other random thing no-one’s told you about, but there’s no clue which is the right answer. Rather than just doing it, you spend the whole time second-guessing the author.
Fittingly for a game called LA Noire, these sections felt a bit like stumbling round in the dark. The facial animation is amazing, all the more so for how quickly I got used to it and actually missed it in other games – Skyrim’s population felt distinctly like furniture rather than characters, in comparison – but it’s a shame the rest of the gameplay hasn’t quite caught up yet.