L.A. Noire (2011)

Otherwise known as James Ellroy: The Game.

Ah, I kid. Sorta. L.A. Noire is pretty indebted to Ellroy’s canon. It’s a mostly historically-accurate presentation of downtown LA in the 1940s, with some not-so-accurate versions of famous faces attached. It’s dark, long, a bit convoluted and full of wonkiness – but it’s as compulsive and endearing as any crime novel, largely because you’re made to feel that you’re in one.

We’re talking Los Angeles at the time of the Elizabeth Short killing. Corrupt cops, the birth of the freeway system, returned soldiers and streets awash with drugs and booze. There’s detailed clothing, excellent cars and bystanders who jump out of the way of your terrible driving with a spirited “Holy Toledo!”, while the movie plays on film noir tropes like there’s no tomorrow.  If you’re into Chinatown or any of the pulp writers, there’s probably enough in here to see you through.

Obviously, the soundtrack is also excellent.

L.A. Noire is a big game. A long game. Longer than I’d have expected on a console. It’s a kind of predictable story – rise and fall – and it does play a little like something we’ve seen before, but the dedication to the story is pretty admirable. You rise through various departments (from traffic to homicide and vice) and encounter low and high life figures. You’ll cruise past any number of LA landmarks, and you’ll kind of feel like you’re in an episode of Dragnet, so almost-cheesy is the approach.

Movie, anyone?

But it works, mostly.

The weird thing for me was how realistic the facial captures were. Half of Mad Men‘s supporting cast are backing up lead actor Aaron Staton, and you can easily see who’s who. The feeling of acting and of personal tics comes across curiously well. This is a good example of how it was done – if you’re even remotely interested in the crossover between tech/games and human performance, this short video is worth a look:

The problem is that the rest of the character animation tends to be a little wooden, puppetlike. This leads to some really odd uncanny valley moments where the face and hand movements are evocative and the body language is creepily robotic. So not perfect, but remarkable nonetheless. I mean, the fact you can look up during an interview and see facial tics is really something quite bizarre.

Is the game flawed? Yep. In order to fit in the questioning mechanic – something which implies a lot of freedom but really is just window-dressing on a set-in-stone narrative track – the actors portraying characters often ham up guilty responses. It’s pretty easy in that regard. The city also feels a bit empty – we’re in a bustling metropolis, but there’s also only a handful of people in it. Or, at least, a handful of different people – the same bodies turn up again and again in crowd scenes. It’s a production push issue, I understand.

“Dispatch, can we get some pedestrians here?”

It’s impossible to write about L.A. Noire without touching on the circumstances surrounding its creation. It was, in short, a clusterfuck: the behaviour of the writer/director/Team Bondi head honcho Brendan McNamara, coupled with new tech (both motion cap and the PS3 itself) combined to ensure an overlong development period of seven years and an absolute fuckload of staff attrition. It’s why there’s no Team Bondi today.

I don’t think that’s going to wash out.

The best take on how things went wrong in a big way is this article by Andrew MacMillen. It’s probably my favourite piece of gaming journalism, and this piece on the aftermath of the article is worth a look, too.

It’s a shame knowing that McNamara appears to be an a-grade cock as I am a big fan of his work. L.A. Noire was great in terms of creating something which – though flawed – shot for the style and resonance of a film. But I also deeply enjoyed the two PS2 Getaway titles, which had a similarly grim-and-filmic feeling to them. The guy’s obviously talented – or at least, is able to do that Tarantino thing where he’s able to funnel his influences into an engaging story – but it’s a shame he’s come out as such a knob.

McNamara’s [spiritual?] sequel to the game, Whore of the Orient is now under development at Australian company Kennedy Miller Mitchell, with government funds thrown in. I hope it’s as good as L.A. Noire, because flawed as it was the game really resonated with me.

Big story. Big setting. Big flaws. Play it and see how you balance it.

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