Alice: Madness Returns is the much anticipated follow up (by me, anyway) to 2000’s PC/Mac game American McGee’s Alice – the dark and gritty telling of Alice’s post-Looking Glassadventures in what has now become a twisted version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. The original game had Alice following an anorexic, pierced Cheshire Cat around a grotesque Wonderland, presumably due to Alice’s inclement insanity, slashing her way through the Red Queen’s guards amongst other familiar faces from Carroll’s universe with a bloody knife, and the sequel delivers more of the same.
Let’s get this out of the way: you should probably play L.A. Noire. I just want to put that out there now for fear that my laundry list of complaints will detract anyone from experiencing this game which, flaws aside (and there are many of them), presents players with a radically new gameplay mechanic that turns out to be as fascinating as it is frustrating.
Let’s get ready to rumble…
As anyone reading this by now surely knows, L.A. Noire is RockStar & Team Bondi’s gritty take on post-WW2 era Los Angeles and the rampant drug peddling and gruesome crime sprees found within the city limits. The protagonist in this sordid tale is Cole Phelps – a recently returned war hero turned by-the-book police detective who rises the ranks of the LAPD throughout the course of the game. The game pairs Rockstar’s proven open-world, multi-mission formula with an exciting new face-scanning technology – MotionScan, developed by Depth Analysis – that for the first time allows developers to capture truly detailed visual performances by the actors voicing the game’s cast of characters.
And with that out of the way, let’s get to the opinionation… (if you’re wondering, mine is that the sun is gonna surely shine…)
As I’ve mentioned, I do have my gripes with this game, but there are a number of things it does exceptionally well. That seems like as good a place to start as any…
At its heart, L.A. Noire is a simple adventure game that explores the same well-tread ground as those excellent LucasArts titles from my youth. (I’ll give you a second to digest the fact that you played Full Throttle a full 16 years ago. If the game were a person, it would currently be old enough to drive.) But I digress… where were we? Ah, yes… gameplay: pick up the right items, say the right things to the right characters, use the right items with the proper characters – wash, rinse, repeat. If you’ve played games such as Maniac Mansion or Grim Fandango, you’ll be familiar with these patterns. And if you liked those games, you’ll enjoy that the bulk of L.A. Noire plays out in pretty much this same style. Yes, there are action and platforming sequences – which I enjoyed – but they’re skip-able, and these segments honestly feel a bit disjointed from the main narrative of the game (more on that later.)
With the level of detail of the story at hand, I actually found myself preferring the more linear nature of the title as compared to the open world-ness of GTA or Red Dead. (Honestly, did anyone know what the hell was going on by the time they got to Mexico?)
For me, the real joy of playing was found while investigating crime scenes and interrogating witnesses and suspects. This brings up a completely tangential side note, but an awesome gimmick at work while investigating crime scenes is that the ominous, investigate-y background music cuts out once all relevant evidence has been found. This should be a welcome addition to anyone that has tried to teach their parents how to play a game only to end up watching them wander around a level trying to interact with every piece of scenery and trying to open every wall panel in search of hidden doors. “Dad! I’ve already played this! You’ve found everything, I swear!”
This is why you
should need to play this game. The MotionScan technology developed by Depth Analysis provides the most realistic looking character faces and performances I’ve ever seen in a game. By a long shot. The excellent execution of this new tech is also a large part of why the things that work well here work as well as they do. Cole Phelps’ ever-furrowed brow comes across just as stern and furrow-y as it was when the actor (Mad Men‘s Aaron Staton) recorded the performance. Seeing actor’s performances come across with this level of realism in a video game is pretty dang crazy, and I can only imagine how emotionally gripping future games’ stories stand to become with the advent of a tool that allows developers to truly capture an actor’s performance at this level of detail.
In addition to being a big part of the core gameplay, the realism MotionScan provides allows the player to identify other actors in the game by means beyond recognizing a possibly familiar voice. I admittedly got a little excited when I spotted several other Mad Men alum (and there are lots of ’em) making cameo appearances as supporting characters. Cameos in games! Pretty cool stuff.
I have a love / hate relationship with the interrogation sequences in L.A. Noire. Let’s keep the Black Eyed Peas happy and make with the love now (it’s right here!), and we’ll get back to the bitterness later.
Every case in the game involves collecting clues, interrogating witnesses and suspects and drawing connections between the evidence and persons of interest. After every statement made by the subject of the interrogation the player is allowed to choose to believe it to be “Truth,” if they have “Doubt” about the information presented, or to call out the statement as a “Lie.” There is only one correct response to each statement made, which I believe to be a big part of this game mechanic’s problem… but this isn’t the appropriate section for complaints, is it?
The decision to believe, doubt or accuse the person of interested of lying is based on previously received testimony and evidence collected in your virtual notebook and by judging the subtle (sometimes extremely so) reactions of the interrogation subject. This is an exciting new gameplay feature and is the first time, as far as I can recall, that characters are rendered with such realism that picking up on such cues is even possible. I’m very excited to see what the future holds for MotionScan in games.
Look & Feel
RockStar has a proven track record of building expansive, insanely detailed worlds for us to explore, and the world of L.A. Noire certainly does not disappoint. The architecture, the wardrobe, the music all work together wonderfully to engulf the player in what I can only imagine is a pretty spot-on representation of Hollywood in the late 50’s.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the game is operating on the same engine that powered the visuals of GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, so as far as scenery and characters are concerned, there are no noticeable advancements in graphics when compared to those titles. That being said, as holds true with all of RockStar’s modern titles, everything was built and is rendered with such amazing attention to detail – this time around by Team Bondi – that even on a relatively dated engine, the game still looks amazing.
So, have I mentioned that this game is dark? Because this game is DAAAARRRRRKKK. We’re talking far less The Rocketeer and far more L.A. Confidential, which RockStar/Bondi seem to use as a reference as much as Scarface was a blueprint for the world of Vice City.
The crime scenes are all extremely graphic, hitting the player with as much bloodshed and nudity in a single title as I’ve seen since From Dusk ’till Dawn. (Dated reference you say? Perhaps True Blood?) At one point in the game, you’re presented with the measurements of a victim’s anus as evidence of anal rape, and I could have made a drinking game out of keeping track of how many times the coroner utters the word “semen.” (And who’s to say I didn’t?)
Conversely, as most of the game plays out very deadpan serious, there are definitely still traces of RockStar’s involvement, such as the movie props from the in-game film Gay Cowboys, an obvious tongue-in-cheek nod to Lonesome Dove.
I’m taking notes… IRL
Seriously. I’m taking notes. While the game’s virtual notepad is easily accessible and comes in handy on plenty of occasions, I needed to get everything down on paper to be seen all at once to help draw the connections needed to solve a case. Note taking is probably a bit unnecessary, but I’m constantly plagued with the fear of missing something that later in the game proves to be important. Also, I know I’m not the only one who has entertained the notion of physically taking notes (I’m looking at you, Ash.) Is this awesome to anyone other than myself? Probably not, but I find it to be pretty sweet.
Not Nerd Appropriate
And now we come to the point in my review where we dissect the ominous storm cloud found within the silver lining.
This Game is Hard… Really Hard
Let’s start with the interrogations. As stated earlier, every statement delivered to you during the numerous interrogations performed on witnesses and suspects alike has one and only one correct response: “Truth,” “Doubt,” or “Lie.” This means that “Doubt” is NOT a “Lie”-lite: It is not an option to play if you’ve got a hunch that the suspect is lying or if you think that a witness is withholding pertinent information but lack, or can’t decide between, pieces of evidence to appropriately back up your claim. Likewise, an accusation of “Lie” had better be reinforced by a single, specific item in your arsenal of evidence. If not, you’ve burned the question and have possibly missed some new information or plot progression, or are now tasked with tailing or chasing after a suspect to get the conviction that you need.
Do you have multiple pieces of evidence that could potentially be useful in proving a suspect’s pants are, in fact, on fire? Too bad – you need to pick the exactly correct item, as you don’t get a second chance to refute a statement.
I guess this could be chalked up to this being a game, but it can be endlessly frustrating and has lead to more than one instance of restarting my Xbox to attempt an interrogation a second (or third… or fourth) time. Some people would call this cheating, and so would I, but I was not satisfied with missing out on the extra information I could have squeezed out of a suspect had I, say, presented the torn panties instead of the witness’ letter from mom. This “flaw” also leads to situations where 1 wrong accusation out of 7 questions (that’s 6 that I got right!) prevents you from charging the perp that you know for a fact to be guilty, when in reality the correct, damning evidence could still be shoved in the suspect’s face.
How could this be fixed? Well, I’m so glad I asked…
Pair Phelps with a Vet
Pairing your character with a veteran detective – at least for the first couple of missions – to “show you the ropes” and assist in interrogation, or even to actually critique your poor performance in failed lines of questioning, could have been an extremely helpful solution to this problem. The issue is that when you fail you don’t really know why, which means you don’t know how to fix the mistakes you’ve made heading forward.
Highlight Relevant Evidence
During the course of an investigation, your virtual notebook (as well as my actual notebook… sigh…) can become cluttered with pieces of evidence, all of which become selectable options when accusing a subject of lying. Highlighting the clues relevant to the statement at hand could have alleviated some of the confusion that springs from trying to choose which piece of evidence will potentially extract some new, useful information as opposed to instantly killing off that particular line of questioning.
An Instructional Video
Even something as simple as a brief video tutorial on what to look for in a suspect to determine their tells and how to determine which pieces of evidence are actually condemning could have done wonders for the player’s experience and would have the added benefit of preventing several knuckle-shaped indentations from mysteriously appearing in my living room walls. The only “training” the player is given is a 3-question interrogation sequence of a witness in the early stages of the game that is repeated until successful completion. After that, you’re (virtually) handed a gun and a badge and thrown into the real world that expects you to think like a cop. Hey… RockStar… I’m not a cop, so being expected to think like a cop isn’t necessarily going to come naturally.
Also, come on… the Michael Jackson Experience has training videos, and that game is terrible.
Gunfights, Chases and Platforming, Oh My!
While the action sequences in L.A. Noire can be, and typically are, enjoyable, they feel disjointed from the game’s main narrative. These elements very much come off like RockStar was presented with the new facial-scanning technology and interrogation mechanic, and slapped on some tried and true elements they had laying around from Grand Theft Auto. I’ve heard and read complaints about the actual gunfight and chase gameplay – which I feel are slightly dumbed down versions of the very same action mechanics found in Red Dead Redemption – but I didn’t find any of these sequences to be particularly difficult (aside from driving… how have they not gotten that right yet?) I more or less found these sequences simply distracting from the overall mission at hand.
Ok, now you’re just being picky…
This is entirely just me complaining, but I feel like I’m missing out on most of the game’s amazing scenery during the its driving portions. This game is by far less “open world” than the GTA series, and as a result the player spends much less time wandering around and taking in the sights. While driving between crime scenes there exists an option to allow your current partner to take the wheel, but this simply skips right ahead to the intended destination, following any necessary dialog. I don’t think I’m alone in actually enjoying the wagon trips in Red Dead Redemption, where an NPC took the reigns and allowed the player to truly soak in the amazing environment and atmosphere.
Overall, given these drawbacks, I feel like RockStar had an opportunity to create a much more casual game experience – something more akin to an interactive movie – that could have still been enjoyable and challenging to hardcore gamers.
Ok, let’s get this sucker wrapped up. In summation, L.A. Noire is one of the most flawed “must play” titles I’ve ever played, but it’s still “must play.” Buy it, borrow it, rent it (can you still rent games??) but get your hands on it in any way you can, because I feel like this game will soon prove to be a crucial milestone in the evolution of gaming. In a way, this title made me more excited about what the future of (non-FPS!!!) gaming holds than it did about the game itself, but it’s still worth a play through.
Is this a great game? Almost. Does it have its flaws? Sure. Did this review take longer to read than the game took to play? Quite possibly. But at the end of the day, I can with all confidence say that L.A. Noire is in fact Nerd Appropriate.