Saturday, June 04, 2011

Growing up in LA: have games come of age?

By now, the vast majority of us have at least dabbled in Rockstar’s latest addition to their stellar roster, almost exclusively comprised of open world games. We’d already embarked on epic ascendancies up the criminal ladder of America. We’d adorned our stetsons, saddled up, and rode off into the sunset. But no matter how urban or rural our surroundings, we went about our business with a decidedly uncomfortable trigger finger. So itchy in fact, that the spiralling body-count left in our wake was more comparable to mass genocide than your run-of-the-mill case of ‘survival of the fittest’.

Essentially, both Belic and Marston were typical antiheroes. Although their moral compasses were undoubtedly askew, deep down, they were supposedly acting in the interest of the greater good. Albeit, by shooting first and asking questions later (an ingrained mentality in the world of the overtly violent videogame protagonist). LA Noire’s Cole Phelps concerns himself with the reversal of that mantra. Make no mistake, ex-marine Phelps can still spray bullets with the best of them if need be, but asking questions certainly takes precedence over sharp shooting.

He’s straight laced (though perhaps not so in the marital sense) and law abiding - The All Round Good Guy. Rather than becoming embroiled in the seedy world of corruption and criminality, his morality governs his outlook and his actions. He only kills if threatened and does so solely in the wider interest of a better society. The same could not be said of Phelps’ Rockstar stable mates, but, as almost every LA Noire review we’ve read has swiftly pointed out, this is not Grand Theft Auto.

Exactly what LA Noire is then has bought about a degree of speculation. Some have drawn parallels with old point-and-click adventure games, others with the methodical pacing of titles like Heavy Rain and Deadly Premonition. However, although certain similarities can be noted and comparisons made between LA Noire and other games, this dark 1940’s crime-thriller is certainly unique. Where point-and-click adventures were often heavily laced with a dose of humour and fantasy or Deadly Premonition wallowed in it’s own obscurity, LA Noire’s adult themes and macabre undertones offer the player something we rarely see in videogames - maturity.

A common criticism that has been levelled at the game is that there isn’t an abundance of action. Sure, there’s intermittent shoot-outs and car chases, but the emphasis is very much on hunting for clues, interrogating suspects and meandering from location to location. This is at the heart of LA Noire, with sporadic gunplay or foot-to-the-floor pursuits most certainly playing second fiddle. It’s a game that makes no apologies for its non-combatant approach; offering an action-skip option if Phelps dies more than a couple of times in a given fire-fight, with street crimes being entirely optional and avoidable all together. The combat system now feels fairly tried and tested to say the least, but in a game that regards it merely as a means of tying the real content - the cases - together, a cutting edge mechanic simply isn‘t needed. LA Noire’s refusal to swagger along the Hollywood blockbuster route, and instead, lurk down the shadowy thriller path is a testament to its maturity as a game and to the source of its inspiration.

GTA's Liberty City is a lovingly created replication of modern day New York, while the sparsely-populated western frontier of RDR offered a licence for creativity. In LA Noire, however, we get an authentic historical representation that captures not only the look, but the mood and feel of the era. In Liberty City’s case, the source material is close to home and still reasonably easy to reference. Not to detract from the achievement of its creation, but in terms of re-imagining modern American culture and that from six-and-a-half decades ago, the latter truly embodies the painstaking amount of research and work which must have been conducted.

From the detailed street layout (so we hear that there may be some inaccuracies here and there but we’ll give the devs the benefit of the doubt) to the iconic vehicles, landmarks and songs of the time, LA Noire is as close as you can come in any medium to actually living and breathing US 1940’s culture. This dedication to authenticity is indicative of the extent of games have grown since their humble beginnings; from crude representations of fantastical space battles to the meticulous rebuilding of iconic cultural periods.

Of course, one of the main talking points regarding LA Noire is the motion capture technology it employs. This is where we can talk about its maturity in a literal sense. LA Noire already approaches its subject matter with careful consideration and sheds the typical gung-ho attitude of many other videogames, but its most groundbreaking feature can be seen at face value (seriously - no pun intended). Faces have always been an area where videogames have never quite got it right. With bodily motion capture we’ve been given realistic representations of gesture and limb movement for quite some time now. But faces? Well, the old uncanny valley has been more like a gaping canyon until now, with unconvincing expressions and questionable displays of ‘emotion‘ from our characters.

At first it’s rather disconcerting. We’ve become so used to robotic, featureless facial animations that anything other than the established norm feels almost worrying in its lifelikeness. Admittedly many of the captured expressions are over exaggerated - especially during the early cases - with lies literally plastered all over a conniving criminal’s face. But that’s beside the point. The level of detail here is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and how MotionScan recognizes the finest and subtlest nuances in movement sets the benchmark for future releases. LA Noire’s technical advancements tell just as much of a story as the maturity of its content.

However, it’s is far from the perfect game, and the point of this piece is not to review it (find that here) but to take a look at it in a wider context. There are plenty of negatives: the arguably repetitive gameplay, the lack of interaction with the city around you etc... but for every fault we can highlight, there’s an abundance positives.

These reflect not only how the approach to the development and experience of videogames has changed, but how the medium itself has come of age. Hopefully, given time, titles like LA Noire will alter the perception of games from those who reject their value as a part of modern mainstream culture. Cole Phelps’ escapade through the seedy world of 1940s LA takes us back to the past, and simultaneously shows us what the present and future of games is capable of.