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2:04 PM on 10.20.2011

Review: LA Noire

LA Noire is many things. In here one can find Grand Theft Auto, Ace Attorney and Heavy Rain; some sequences are reminiscent of Assassin's Creed, Uncharted and even Silent Hill. While such diversity can often be the sign of a very scattered and unfocused product, LA Noire is impressive in that it manages to be so many things yet remain entirely singular and focused at the same time.

Set in a staggeringly vivid rendition of 1940's Los Angeles, the player assumes the role of Cole Phelps, a well-to-do cop and war hero working his way up the ranks of the LAPD by solving various murders and scandals which are somehow linked to a massive drug theft. The prevailing sentiment here is one of authenticity. LA Noire had a long development cycle and that very much shows. The sheer level of detail in this massive city is astounding. From the vibrant and animate streets to the folds and creases of a handwritten letter, evidence of the care with which LA Noire was constructed is ever-present. That's not to say it is faultless, but such a cohesive and professional level of presentation rare.

Much media attention was given to the game's facial animations – easily the most advanced to date. A character's demeanour is instantly recognizable, their faces accurately illustrating a whole range of emotions. This plays a significant part not just in aesthetics but in the interview sequences of gameplay where one is required to judge whether or not the interviewee is lying. Certain characters (or perhaps actors) will hide their secrets poorly - the most obvious tell being when they break eye contact. On the other side of this there are some exceptional performances here, John Noble's being particularly impressive. That said though, while the facial animations are superb, the characters' bodies can occasionally behave rather rigidly and seem robotic.

As mentioned before, LA Noire is quite varied. In fact the game itself is a strange patchwork of play styles – driving, examining crime scenes, interviews, chasing and apprehending suspects... As the game progresses, the player works their way through four different crime desks. Starting as a beat cop and moving on to traffic, this is where the basics of the game are learned. This then leads on to homicide, vice and arson, each providing a slightly different take on things. While traffic and vice are relatively short affairs without much substance, homicide and arson feature a more sizable and compelling set of cases.

The most significant parts of LA Noire are arguably its crime scene investigations and interviews. Examining a crime scene plays a lot like the Ace Attorney games, one scans the environment for clues relevant to the case - these are prompted by a controller vibration. Some are obvious and unmissable, like a naked and battered corpse, others not so much. While one can interact with many of the game's objects, they won't always be related to the situation at hand. Though some help is provided here, upon discovering all the clues in a given area, the music will conclude. There is also an intuition system which can be used to reveal the locations of all an area's clues in times of need. In general, these parts of the game are very slow paced and meticulous but discovering new clues and piecing together more parts of the case's mystery can be quite compelling.

Interviews are, again, somewhat akin to Ace Attorney though, in this case, much deeper. The notebook (which also functions as a menu when it comes to examining case information) contains a set of questions for the suspect. After listening to their response, the player is then prompted to choose one of three options, truth, doubt or lie. While truth and lie are self explanatory, doubt can be ambiguous at first. This option should be chosen when it appears that the suspect is lying or perhaps not telling the whole truth but the evidence to support an outright accusation is not available. While it's usually very easy to know when lie is the correct response (there will be a clue in Cole's notebook directly contradicting something in their statement), it's more difficult to know when to choose truth or doubt. Though this system plays out similarly to Heavy Rain with its 'what happens happens' attitude – badly handled interviews cannot be revisited – it's perhaps not as refined a feature. A messed up interview in the early stages of a case can often result in a lack of information required to correctly navigate later interviews or even to understand the case at its conclusion, which is frustrating. Thankfully though, the intuition system may also be used here to eliminate an incorrect answer or indicate how other players proceeded (which at this stage is basically the same as being given the correct answer). This can be very helpful as certain suspects can be frustratingly selfish when it comes to sharing information.

Driving plays a similarly large part in the game's events however it is, to an extent, optional. When travelling between locations one can opt to have their partner drive which simply skips ahead to the next destination – a nice option for those who are primarily interested in the investigation aspects of play. There are occasional car chases, however, so driving is not completely optional. Generally though, exploring Los Angeles' streets is the more rewarding choice.

Shoot outs are fairly simple here. The game features basic cover-shooting scenarios, along with regenerating health and automatic aiming. It's never challenging but it can be fun due to the location a particular scene might be set. A tense sequence in a labyrinthine series of underground tunnels was particularly memorable. But regardless, it won't thrill shooter fans and it won't annoy those who favor other styles of gameplay – it's simply there.

Finally, chasing and beating up criminals are two of the more minor parts of play. Chases, especially across rooftops can be rather fun and often provide some of the game's most scenic adventures. Fist-fights are, similarly, rather basic and not particularly deep but they are few in number and tend to last less than 30 seconds regardless. Like with shoot outs, these sequences aren't generally too thrilling or imposing but do serve their purpose.

Like any open-world sandbox style game, LA Noire has side missions. Lots of side missions. While going about their investigations, the player can respond to street crimes called out over police radio and take part in small scenarios like shoot outs, car chases, fist-fights, etc. Upon completion, one is rewarded with small amounts of experience. LA Noire features a rudimentary levelling system which has little impact on the overall game. Gaining levels generally rewards intuition points which, as mentioned earlier, may be used to ask for hints when stuck. Some other cosmetic awards like different costumes are also available. As well as street crimes, exploring Los Angeles and finding its various landmarks will also award experience. Finally, for the obsessive collectors there are golden film reels scattered throughout the entire city (Assassin's Creed flag collectors rejoice). The side missions here aren't massively significant but they are a nice way to experience more parts of the city that may not otherwise be seen during the main story.

It's fair enough to gather from all this that the plot is the main driving force of LA Noire. As mentioned earlier, some of the characters are fantastically portrayed; Phelps himself being one of them. The main issue here however is that, ignoring the side missions, LA Noire will take at least 20 hours to complete, 30 without rushing. This game is long, possibly too long. Certainly, it has some pacing issues. The plot peaks at about half way through and then takes a long time to regain its footing. The fact that the gameplay remains unchanged throughout its entirety contributes to this issue. There are times where it is necessary to push through some uninteresting cases in order to get to the more exciting ones. Certain aspects of the plot aren't woven particularly well either. About two thirds of the way through, a particularly dramatic event happens yet so many of the characters involved are barely noticed or mentioned up until that point that it is difficult to really care about what is happening.

Such criticisms might seem harsh when the overall standard of story in games is, generally speaking, quite low. The fact is that LA Noire has raised the bar so high with its presentation that it is difficult not to compare its story and plot to similar films or television shows rather than other video games. Make no mistake, it does a fantastic job and the complaints herein are the type made against a fantastic product that could be just a little better rather than a struggling title that needs to patch up gaping flaws.

With the reports of poor working conditions at Team Bondi and the recent news that they are no more, it is bittersweet that their final game was such a tremendous success. LA Noire masterfully meshes gameplay styles to provide a unique experience for its players. Though it may be too long for some and slow-paced in parts, anyone who appreciates the exploration and discovery of an intricately crafted world will certainly find something here to love. By pushing the boundaries of facial animation and employing such a large and in some cases, famous, cast of actors LA Noire has certainly set a new precedent in gaming. Even though Team Bondi won't be around to continue their legacy, it is certain that LA Noire will have a positive influence on future products.


4:11 PM on 10.19.2011

This Week - 19/10/2011 (LA Noire, Demon's Souls, Dark Souls)

In an effort to write more and to get into a habit of forming opinions about things I started writing casual weekly blogs about the games I've been playing. This post contains minor spoilers about LA Noire. If, like me, you didn't play this game on release and don't want to know anything, skip the 2nd paragraph!

In all honesty, this week was pretty bleak, it was also thoroughly awesome! I finished the final parts of LA Noire which certainly shifted my opinion of the game somewhat. Following that, I played and completed Demon's Souls. I had this game on my shelf for a long time and couldn't muster the patience to get past the initial difficulty curve until the coverage of Dark Souls pushed me into trying it again. Straight after Demon's Souls I compulsively rushed out to buy, yes, Dark Souls which on first impression is better, harder and, well, darker!

Before I flail about Demon's/Dark Souls, let's wrap up LA Noire a bit. I'm writing a review of it at the moment so I'll keep this somewhat brief. Last week I was fairly enamored with 1940s LA and how detailed and immersive the world was. This still holds true, however something I can't quite put my finger on was missing from the latter two sections of the game. For me, it totally peaked with the homicide cases and everything after that was only ok (or boring, as with vice). I didn't like how Cole's wife and family suddenly became a pivotal aspect of the plot considering how they were basically ignored up until that point. When the events at the end of vice happened I was mostly just wondering who I was supposed to be caring about. It was presented in such a low-key manner that regardless of whether or not it's a simple cliched situation, the audience lacks enough of a connection with most of the characters involved to really care about any of it – even the protagonist's feelings are obfuscated. The ending had much more of an impact though and I did really appreciate the shift in focus with the final set of cases. Overall I felt that LA Noire was a fantastic and polished game, it just suffered from some structural and pacing issues.

Demon's Souls was also something special. I had previously heard from so many sources that it was an incredible game, but for a long time I simply couldn't get past the initial difficulty of it. About four times I'd played it for 30-40 minutes and died. Upon being thrown back to the beginning I tended to go “meh, fuck it” and just quit. After making the push to get through the first level though, the rest came naturally and I totally began to see what people were talking about all along. After the fight with the Tower Knight I was absolutely sold. I played a melee character in the end, so I can't comment too much on the magic or ranged attack system both of which saw minimal use in my game. As someone who generally shies away from melee in RPGs I was pleasantly surprised with how intricate and varied it was in Demon's Souls. Different weapons require different timings and strategies and the stamina system works exceedingly well, forcing a balanced mix of thought and reflex. The main fault I could find with it was that there was very little benefit to wearing heavy armor. The increased mobility allowed by lighter wear seemed to far outweigh (sorry) the minimal protection that plate armor offers. As a result, my character ended up looking rather strange – a rogueish man in skinny leather armor wielding a huge metal shield and sword.

Looking strange is hardly an issue in this game, though, with the grotesque menagerie of enemies you face and horrific locales you travel to. The Tower of Latria was probably my favorite area. The sound design in the prison was outstanding – the wailing inmates, the monstrously dangerous, tentacle-headed guards chiming their little bells and then that strange lady singing at the top of her lungs. Following that up with the interconnected towers and walkways of its second area and the sudden downward detour to a bloody mire – I was completely entranced. The game's bosses were also particularly striking. Though some of them were disappointingly easy (Valley of Defilement and Shrine of Storms in particular), they all looked amazing. Tower Knight ended up being my favorite fight in the game, though Penetrator and King Allant came close. The only part I found annoying was the blue dragon in 1-4. It took me quite a few tries at running past it before I just gave up and stacked extra fire resistance in order to survive a hit. Also, the fact that killing it entails shooting arrows at it for 20 minutes wasn't particularly exciting.

From what I've seen of Dark Souls it seems to have improved on the faults I found with its predecessor. The most noticeable change is the fact that it is now an open world dotted with checkpoints rather than disconnected worlds linked to a teleportation hub. I was worried that this would result in a lot of excessive repetition of content but they've really excelled at cohesively intertwining the various sections of the game. It is still essentially split up into A to B paths like the original but they end up looping back on each other in very natural ways, maintaining both an open world feeling and a sense of linear progression. It's really quite impressive. On top of this, the rationing of healing items at checkpoints makes the difficulty much more consistent. It was possible to complete some parts of Demon's Souls quite sloppily simply because you had a huge stack of herbs in your bag – not the case here. One heal used because you failed at managing trash properly is a heal you won't have in the concluding boss fight, where you'll likely need it. Again though, I'm still relatively close to the beginning and have little ability to kindle bonfires (increasing the amount of healing items I receive at that bonfire by 5) which might change later on.

In terms or sheer epicness, the volume has definitely been turned up. Take for example a boss fight which takes place atop a cathedral roof, overlooking an enormous city... on a cliff. I also took a peek at a later area, a subterranean waterlogged ruin with a large beam of sunlight piercing through a gap in the ceiling making the whole area shimmer in cobalt blue; then I noticed that the sounds of my scimitar strikes were echoed by the environment. By all initial accounts, Dark Souls has the makings of a suberb sequel which has clearly learned hugely from its predecessor and I honestly can't wait to get back to it. I'll stop here as I get the feeling that Dark Souls is the only thing I'll be playing next week. I'll discuss it in some more detail then.

I have a copy of Dead Island making its way to me in the post and inFamous is another game I let slide from my radar for far too long (yes, the first one – contemporary relevence ahoy!). I might try a little bit of those but to be honest Dark Souls is just completely consuming. When I'm not playing it, I'm thinking about playing it. It's nearing World of Warcraft levels of obsession. Anyway, expect a review of LA Noire and Demon's Souls fairly soon.

Until next week!   read

9:22 PM on 06.19.2011

Review: Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

So, I finally got around to playing Assassin's Creed Brotherhood; managed to snag a used copy of it (with the DLC unclaimed!) for a fair price. I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this one. When it was first announced I kind of rolled my eyes and scoffed at it because it came across as a bit of a cop-out; an AC2.5 instead of the AC3 I was anticipating. Friends who played it on release told me it was actually pretty good, so I decided to give it a go when I had the money. Which is what I did, and it was... mostly ok! Mostly. This will be a thrilling post.

Just in case anyone is arriving even later than me to this party, ACB is basically another Ezio game. It uses the AC2 engine with a few new bits and bobs glued onto it; mounted combat, siege engines and assassin minions being the main additions. Aside from those changes, it features the same graphical style as before and another great score by Jesper Kyd. Gameplay is same old AC2 by the numbers – a good or bad thing, depending on how you felt about that game. There isn't anything here that will change your mind if you didn't like it (with perhaps the exception of multiplayer). If you're totally new to the AC series then I'd recommend starting at the beginning and working from there. ACB is a direct sequel and much of the storyline will be lost on you if you haven't been following the series up until now. If you don't care about story, this one offers the best standard of gameplay so far.

In my mind there are two things from ACB which stand out, one good, one bad. The bad thing is a sudden presence of forced-stealth missions (eg. an enemy sees you and you immediately die). What I always loved about Assassin's Creed is that it was ever only a semi-stealthy game. If you wanted to play the creep, you could skulk around, avoiding enemies and taking them out silently. If you didn't want to bother with that business, then you didn't have to; Ezio/Altair were pretty fearsome fighters and could hold their own in close combat. The stealthing was optional and good thing that it was. These games are streamlined for frantically jumping across rooftops, climbing around like a monkey and quickly escaping angry people. What they don't lend themselves very well to is avoiding detection in the first place. Thankfully there wasn't a huge amount of this faffery overall, but when it did rear its head I found it bloody irritating and I died constantly. It also painfully highlighted the Borg Collective that Rome's city guards seemed to be a part of. One guard spots you a splitsecond before you jab a knife in his face and all of sudden the entire legion is clamouring for you like you're one of Oprah's favorite things. But anyway, this is a fairly personal complaint. I haven't seen anyone else bitch about it so it must just be me.

Desmond! Desmond was the good thing. Well, actually, Veronica Mars (or Gossip Girl... Or Lucy, if you must) was the good thing. Desmond is still about as vivid as a block of cheddar. I suppose I should mention at this point that the sci-fi aspect of AC is what excites me about the series' story rather than the stuff set in ye olden days which I find fairly forgettable. While I do think Ezio is far more fascinating than Altair from the first game, I never really felt a massive connection with him. From reading about this game while it was being previewed I somehow got the impression that Desmond's story wouldn't feature here at all. It was pleasantly surprising to discover that ACB contained more Desmond-related stuff than any of the others – going so far as to have two fairly extended sequences where you play as him, along with another fantastic ending. Presumably this is all leading towards the inevitable Desmond-only game(s) which, as you might have gathered, I am eagerly awaiting.

Like I said before, this is basically AC2 with some new things tacked on. Of what returns, I suppose my main lingering gripe is the presence of Quests for Wankers. These are the ones that make you slowly walk from one spot to another or do some other mundane faff that in any game other than Heavy Rain would take place in a cut-scene. It's just plain ol' filler and if through some preternatural power of failure you manage to balls it up then it becomes the bane of your existence (or at least the bane of the next 10 minutes). Aside from that, it's mostly fond memories that make a show here. The platform/puzzle dungeons from AC2 were probably my favorite part of that game and there's some more of those here – though one is just a glorified rat maze. The renovation stuff also comes back, this time taking place in the actual city of Rome itself. I was never massively turned on by this as it eventually just swells into a meaningless flood of money that you need to somehow get rid of. Finally, there is another set of side-quests here in which one compiles a movie clip containing details about the Templar vs Assassin mythology. I thought these riddles were somewhat trickier this time around though overall, this aspect of the game is just as entertaining as it was previously. The eventual pay-off is superior to what we were given in AC2 however I must say that my experience of it was marred by a silly glitch.

Which brings me to another point. This game is buggy. Well, I should probably clarify that; my playthrough of this game was buggy. I spoke with friends about it and they didn't seem to have any issues, but I'm a bitter arse so I shall pose a list. I fell through the ground and died, in the middle of a mission. An NPC escort got stuck on the terrain, requiring a restart. There was the aforementioned bug with The Truth, which caused me to miss out on some dialogue about what was revealed. A Borgia Tower wouldn't ignite and I had to leave the area to wait for the captain to respawn so I could kill him again. Also, I played this on the PS3 and was rather irked by some noticeable frame rate issues in busy areas of the city (I haven't played it on the 360 so I can't speak of its performance there). At first, this all put me right off the game, however I stuck with it and am now glad that I did. The final parts were great enough to dispel any negative feelings over the earlier problems I had.

So, enough moaning. ACB adds new stuff to the AC formula and pretty much all of it is good. The biggest addition is the ability to recruit and deploy assassin minions. This also features a text-based mini-game which allows you to send your assassins on missions around Europe. Should they be successful, they return with money, experience and sometimes items. If unsuccessful, they shan't return at all. This is admittedly a somewhat shallow affair, but is ultimately engaging. The assassins themselves can be summoned to take out a target or aid you in combat. Honestly, they almost trivialize some parts of the game. I didn't use them very much, but they did prove useful on occasion (especially their Arrow Storm ability which basically kills every hostile target in the vicinity for you).

Also, there are a new set of missions revolving around Leonardo Da Vinci and his various siege engine creations. These take place in separate maps from the main game and generally involve infiltrating an enemy base, destroying the blueprints for the machine, stealing it and then causing destruction on a massive scale whilst escaping the area. They're basically the action/adventure counterpart to the platform/puzzle dungeons and are relatively entertaining. Many of them involve the forced-stealth style of play which I whined about earlier so they weren't necessarily my favorite part of the game but were fun nonetheless.

Horses play a more prominent role here. There's a few new moves such as attacking from horseback, leaping from one horse to another, etc. This is alright but never really does anything special. In truth I almost never used my horse as he just wasn't very well suited to maneuvering Rome's terrain. I found that while you do move much faster when mounted, losing the ability to scale walls and obstacles tends to just slow you down in the long run. Overall though, it's all good stuff here.

Lastly, there's the multiplayer. I'll admit that whenever I hear of a traditionally single player game adding a multiplayer mode I automatically assume that it's just going to be some tacked-on travesty borne of a cave-in to pressure from the publishers. Not the case here! Multiplayer in ACB offers some unique fun that you can't really find in other games. You and several other players are plopped down in an area filled with NPCs who resemble each of you. You'll be given a target to assassinate (a player) and multiple other players may be tasked with assassinating you. The person who has the highest score when the time is up wins. While you get points for killing your target regardless of your methods, those points are potentially quadrupled depending on how inconspicuously you manage to do it. The key to success here is generally to do the best NPC impression you possibly can – walking around, blending with groups of NPCs and slowly stalking your prey (while keeping an eye out for someone tailing you). There’s a few additional play modes, but that's basically the core of it. You level up the more you play, unlocking various items and abilities that you can use to improve your offensive or defensive prowess. It does occasionally have the problem of mismatching players, so you might end up in a match filled with high-level opponents who'll just steam-roll you. This can be frustrating but, in all, the multiplayer is satisfying, well-designed and something we haven't seen before.

And there you have it. Reading back over this I think it may come across that my feelings are more negative than positive. This isn't strictly true. ACB is a good game, the only real problem it has is that we have played it before. While the new additions to the formula help keep player interest afloat, the cloud hanging over Brotherhood's head is that it simply isn't Assassin's Creed 3. Thankfully it was saved from being a boring cash-in by a dev team which is obviously working very diligently within their yearly release deadlines and I certainly won't be the first to admit that AC Revelations is looking quite exciting. Essentially though, it is more of the same. This might be a good or bad thing depending on your inclinations but by definition this, unfortunately, prevents it from being a great thing*

*unless you're, like, really inclined (70 degrees or more)


+ Like AC2
+ Tons of content
+ Great soundtrack
+ Storyline more substantial than expected
+ Fascinating multiplayer

- Like AC2
- Bugs and FPS issues
- Some poorly designed missions

7/10 (Good)

Note: I should add that had I not had a such a bad run of it with the bugs and glitches, I would have awarded this an 8. I mentioned in the review that people I spoke with had no such issues to report so it's possible I was just unlucky. Irrespective of this, I have reviewed my own experience with the game and scored it as such.   read

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