Letting-the-dust-settle:-LA-Noire Letting the dust settle: LA Noire

   14/06/2012 at 10:17       Phil May       7 COMMENTS. - Score 5/5
 - LA Noire, Rockstar, Team Bondi, Multiformat, Detective Noir

Smokey Jazz and the seething sinful underbelly of Hollywoodland, two parts to a gin-fizz cocktail that's still as heady as it was over a year ago when LA Noire first sprang out of the loins of Team Bondi / Rockstar Games. It changed the way we look at character animation in games forever. 

Or did it? You see, I stupidly expected that it would lead to some sort of a divine revolution in gaming. One that never arrived, or perhaps one that was destined to be nothing but a pipe dream.

Something recently complelled me to go back to the game, play it through and see if the initial 'wow' factor had subsided at all. With this as my fourth play through I expected LA Noire to be a breeze, expected to remember intimately the conversations, the red herrings and the sleazy shenanigans of the game's bad (and good) guys but it's odd, selective memory and the utterly convincing performances by the game's character actors still catch me out just like they did the first couple of times around. 

So is LA Noire still as stunning and jaw-dropping to look at? Oddly enough it is (even though I seem to notice the glaring jaggies and pixel misfires of this generation's console games more and more), and it shows just how the industry so easily settled back into its stock-in-trade techniques and animation choices that it's still a jarring jolt to see LA Noire's characters properly lip-synching, properly moving with all those delicious little random chaotic facial (and in some cases body language) details that won me over when I first played the game.

Comparing and contrasting with cherry-picked in-game (not cut-scene) footage from this year's E3, it would appear that developers still think full facial animation and mocap are too much like hard work. The new Gears of War prequel still has the square-headed goons muppet-mouthing their way through their tedious dialogue. Square Enix's Tomb Raider reboot still sees Lara failing to range through a fair set of facial expressions despite being pounded, pummelled and kicked to pieces. 

Even David (Quantic Dream) Gage's best attempts to better the 'old fashioned' techniques (his words to describe LA Noire last year, not mine) employed by MotionScan still result in some weird android-like performances, not so much uncanny valley as Valley of the Dolls. 

Sadly it seems that Team Bondi were destined to spontaneously combust once LA Noire was completed, and despite heavy investment in time and money from Rockstar Games, the dazzling tech behind the game's stunning 'acted' performances seems to have been quietly brushed under the carpet, and not adopted elsewhere (certainly from what we've seen of GTA V and definitely nowhere in evidence in Max Payne either, despite the descriptions of how cinematic the game's action scenes are). 

On replaying LA Noire, one thing that screamed out to me more than anything else was how like a classic 90s adventure game it really is once you strip away the by-the-numbers gun fights or the oddly tedious and tricky driving (something I was wholly forgiving of first time around but with a year's worth of gaming between then and now, I really can't get on with the traffic in the game any more!) The interrogation scenes, and the gathering of evidence are still amazingly compelling and it's actually these gameplay mechanics that I'd love to see expanded on if anyone was ever brave enough to tackle a game of this scope again. 

Above all else though, it's the setting that wins it over for me. Shovelling down a gravelly dirty undercurrent of vice and corruption sliding away under a pastel-shaded facade of 1940s Hollywood, it's completely captivating and immersive still. Blink a few times (particularly in black and white mode) and you could be watching a classic film noir like The Maltese Falcon, with the completely unlikeable Phelps taking the place of Bogart. 

The neat segue between each case (with those big bold faux-perspective fonts screaming out the title of each chapter) ramps up the tension as you see a preview of the events leading up to you turning up, partner in tow, to sift through the remains of yet another human drama and even when you're replaying the game it's possible to pick up on things that weren't so obvious first time round, but catch your eye with the benefit of hindsight. 

Now and again the character performances throw you a curveball (particularly when you're interrogating women, in LA Noire they're just so bloody good at lying through their teeth while hiding the fact that they're cold-hearted murderers) but it adds to the experience of picking through the case to gain the highest commendation at the end without dropping horrible clangers along the way (though, as I originally said when I reviewed the game for her, it's actually worth seeing Captain Donnelly losing his rag, such a bloody superb performance from Andrew Connolly).

Just like a year ago, it's eerie picking through the game's IMDB entry and seeing the real faces of the actors involved in LA Noire, and instantly recognising them from the game (and vice versa), in fact I still see fleeting glimpses of them in films, using the same facial expressions (and often the same voices) and knowing exactly who they are. Testament to the fact that MotionScan was a technology that really did provide a solid basis for actors to extend their performances far beyond just lending their voices to characters. Imbuing them with their likeness in every respect must've felt like a breath of fresh air for most character performers working on the game. 

Rockstar is still pretty tight-lipped on the possibility of revisiting LA Noire, though it's not been ruled out. Brendan McNamara is still out there creating games and his next project, "Whore of the Orient" is a good long away away but you can bet as soon as it breaks cover, it's going to have the eyes of the gaming world scrutinising its emergence. 

There's still a ton of potential in games like LA Noire and Hollywood in the 40s and 50s is ripe and fertile soil to reap more stories from so let's hope that the game won't become a shining example of the current generation's technology being pushed to its limits to provide something that still wows to this day. 

 

Stars
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