|Detective Cole Phelps in Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire.|
This month marks five years since Team Bondi’s one hit wonder, L.A. Noire, was released for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles to critical acclaim. Its innovative game design and ground-breaking facial animation technology caused a stir in its heyday, earning the game an astonishing “perfect” rating from UK’s The Guardian and a score of 89/100 from Metacritic. While L.A. Noire undeniably set a new standard for certain areas of video game development, its use of Depth Analysis’ MotionScan technology to capture and recreate realistic facial expressions seemed to cause a baffling rash of critical blindness in 2011. L.A. Noire was a nifty game. But perfect? Definitely not.
L.A. Noire is a film-noir-inspired detective game set in an open-world setting of 1940s Los Angeles. You play as Cole Phelps (Aaron Stanton of Mad Men – in fact, a lot of the supporting Mad Men cast appears in L.A. Noire), a young veteran who returns from WWII to take up a career in law enforcement with the LAPD. Phelps is a bit of a keener, straight-laced and idealistic, much to the annoyance of some of his more colourful partners, which conveniently makes him a prime candidate for professional advancement. The player follows him through five “desks,” different “levels” in the game that start from his humble beginnings as a beat cop followed by rapid promotions to Traffic, Homicide, Ad Vice, and Arson; each desk boasts its own related cases to be solved in a set order and a self-contained subplot that slots into the larger story of Phelps’ career. L.A. Noire’s City of Angels is full of larger-than-life corruption – chock full of depraved criminals and crooked cops. Not for the faint of heart, cases tackle subjects like pedophilia, necrophilia, drug trafficking, adultery, and murder, drawing on documented historical events from L.A.’s past. Heavy emphasis is placed on the player’s ability to read people. Getting its money out of that MotionScan technology, L.A. Noire breaks the gaming mould by incorporating realistic interrogation sequences into all of its cases where the player must determine if a person of interest is lying, omitting parts of the story, or telling the truth (FYI, people are rarely honest in El Lay) based on individual facial expressions recreated from actors using 32 motion capture cameras.
So how does L.A. Noire hold up after five years of critical distance? Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good: There’s a reason the MotionScan technology dazzled critics in 2011: it’s genuinely impressive. While video game cut scenes often looked great in 2011, until L.A. Noire in-game character faces were stiff, animated in quadrants to make a series of ho-hum, robot facial expressions. The team of actors used for L.A. Noire’s characters are infinitely recognizable, a first for the video game industry at the time. Team Bondi’s use of interrogation scenes was innovative and unprecedented, both challenging and hilarious (imagine the faces people make when you know they’re lying) in turns.
L.A. Noire also had one of the most impressive commitments to realism I’d ever seen for an in-game environment, drawing on photos and maps of 1940s L.A. to recreate the city with astonishing accuracy. Roads are where they’re supposed to be and most buildings are accurate down to the smallest details. The game also boasts a slew of vintage cars available for Phelps’ driving pleasure. Fun fact: allegedly, a large portion of the vehicles were created using Jay Leno’s private collection of vintage cars to ensure accuracy. I barely drive and even I found them fascinating.
The game’s story writing was excellent. Team Bondi took a big risk placing the most grisly cases in the middle of the game during Phelps’ stint in Homicide. Some players criticized the game for peaking early, citing the Black Dahlia killer reveal as the inappropriately placed climax of the game. They aren’t wrong – but this is precisely what makes L.A. Noire’s story arc so perfect. Phelps’ reluctantly transfer to Ad Vice and eventual fall from grace into Arson fosters a feeling of loss, a kind of nostalgia for the “good old days” you played in Homicide several hours ago, which is actually perfect for the noir genre. Phelps fades out just like the parade of Hollywood starlets he sees trampled, like the down-and-out women murdered in train yards, like the canned soup mogul that turns to selling “wacky tobaccy” (they actually use this term and it is spectacular) because soup sales have dropped after the war.
The Bad: Once the initial shine of the MotionScan faces wore off, some critics and players were right to point out that L.A. Noire’s characters were “dead from the neck down.” Reportedly, the game cost Team Bondi a whopping $50 million to make in 2011, classing it as one of the top 40 most expensive games ever made. That this feat was accomplished by a relatively unknown company is incredible but the expensive use of MotionScan seems to have forced Team Bondi to cut corners elsewhere. Character faces are expressive and detailed but bodies are clunky and rudimentary. Only one pair of hands seems to be used for everyone (cut to the close-up hand scenes of Jerry’s “man hands” girlfriend opening jars in Seinfeld) and one startlingly atrocious sweater vest. Most offensively, clothes don’t move the way faces do – my favourite, the neck of a smarmy writer you encounter in Homicide seems to float above, in front of, and out of a bright, patterned block that appears to be an ascot.
The term “open world” is also generously applied to L.A. Noire. While a large chunk of Los Angeles is faithfully represented for your viewing and driving pleasure, very little of the environment can be interacted with. Store fronts are beautifully rendered but inaccessible: the game only allows you to enter buildings that are critical to the case at hand, and only during the case to which they’re relevant. Based on these facts, the sprawling map Team Bondi painstakingly created for their story often feels hollow, pointless, and unfinished.
The Ugly: Despite L.A. Noire’s critical and commercial success, Team Bondi went under following the game’s release, largely due to allegations of abuse, stolen content, and unethical working conditions. Development of L.A. Noire took the better part of a decade and reports of 12-hour work days, unreasonable demands, and a hostile working environment suggest that those seven-or-so years existed as some sort of horrific perpetual crunch time. Leaked emails hint at tension between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, the company who published L.A. Noire and is famous for titles like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. While conflicting reports state that these reports were largely exaggerated, it’s worth noting that Team Bondi never made another game.
Team Bondi’s corner-cutting in relation to realistic clothing physics and character bodies might be forgivable in light of their glorious contribution to video game faces but their sloppy game mechanics and obvious use of masking tools (devices used to prevent the playable character from going off the rails, e.g. killing vital non-playable characters or committing other offenses that disrupt the game’s plot) is not. For example, when Phelps hops in a stolen coroner’s van to drive to the next crime scene, the introductory cut scene will automatically switch Phelps back to “his” designated car, parking it not where you might have parked your sweet new ride, but where the game has decided it wants you to park. These features protect the game’s narrative, I suppose, but are implemented so awkwardly that they destroys the sense of player autonomy encouraged by L.A. Noire’s “sand box” open-world style, ultimately taking the player out of the game and doing the exact opposite of what they were intended to accomplish. Above and beyond the awkward and often hilarious masking techniques, the game controls are often hard to understand, changing subtly from case to case (sometimes Phelps can draw his gun in a foot chase, sometimes he can’t). In fact, controls are so sloppy that you can never trust them entirely – are you actually missing the nearby clue or is the game just not registering your button press?
The Verdict: Despite its numerous flaws, Team Bondi’s problem child five-year-old is still worth playing for the clever use of hitherto “new” technology, actor cameos, innovative storytelling, and stunning original score (did I mention the score?), but proceed with a hefty dose of patience and a good sense of humour.
– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.