Sunday, May 15, 2011

Preview Power: L.A. Noire

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

By now it would be pretty obvious that I really like games that feature cities. Whether it’s the big names in Liberty City or Rapture, or the smaller and perhaps more interesting locales such as Bullworth Town in Bully, or the many different towns and settlements that can be found in games like Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption, exploring, learning about and ultimately inhabiting these places is very appealing to me. Games by their very nature have the ability to take me anywhere I may want to go, either because it might be fun to do so or because we can gain a lot out of the experience. L.A. Noire’s recreation of a 1940s Los Angeles is, then, incredibly interesting to consider as we approach the game’s release later this week.

L.A. is, easily, one of the most famous cities around the globe and certainly a big name location to set a videogame in. Home to Hollywood, it’s synonymous with glitz, glamour and celebrity culture. It’s also known for its corruption, crime and character -- something Rockstar are also famous for. And there’s the other big name: this is Rockstar’s next big game. They might not have made it internally like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, and it’s most certainly Team Bondi’s baby, but Rockstar’s support and influence brings with it a level of respect and expectation that you can’t help but be excited about. Rockstar means ambition. It means attention to detail. It means pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the videogame medium and it means discovering what’s yet to come, too. Combine this with the city of L.A. -- and that’s before considering the technology, period setting and strong focus on storytelling L.A. Noire seems to be championing -- and you have a game, an experience, that doesn’t just deserve the attention, but strong investigation when it releases this week. But it’s that, too, which makes L.A. Noire so enticing: this isn’t a crime game in the traditional sense; it’s one where the police matter -- a key difference to games like GTA.

Just by virtue of playing a cop, L.A. Noire’s gameplay changes dramatically to games before it. Instead of breaking and entering, in L.A. Noire you are discovering clues and investigating them. Instead of receiving errand missions from wanted criminals, you’re hauling them in and interrogating them. Instead of causing murder, you are attempting to solve it. This distinction separates L.A. Noire by simply shifting focus, and the results of that will be intriguing to say the least. But how is clue investigation and crime solving going to be as exciting and fun as the crime is in other games, and how will it be balanced with the exploration and variety -- not to mention unexpected humour -- those titles bring? The answer lies partly in the impressive facial technology that currently has everyone salivating and justifies their anticipation. It also lies with what the game, hopefully, represents going forward.

Open world crime games are great because the crimes they portray and the actions they enable make for incredible, personal moments that change based on what the player wants to do. But these are usually exaggerated, over the top antics that, while fun, hold games back and restrict them to the kind of false maturity -- which is usually the opposite and, instead, immature -- that the medium seems so enamoured by lately. It’s where violence and gore reign supreme, and where sex is either a joke or an after-thought because it’s too risky to do properly, and will spark controversy as if games were child’s play, anyway. By focusing on the cop angle and, seemingly, toning down the action to let character development and case progression take centre stage, L.A. Noire has the real potential to be that adult videogame that everyone claims to want but so few are willing to actually try. It’s an opportunity to pioneer, once again, while everyone else plays it safe and releases yet another, probably unnecessary, sequel. It’s a chance to display the impact of violence, however brutal, in a way that doesn’t glorify it and instead highlights how serious it can be, and how it affects the people and society that is troubled by it. It’s an ability to display sex, nudity and anything that goes with that in a more tasteful, more -- dare I say it -- natural way, ignoring the sex for sex’s sake angle in favour of discovering why, for example, a murder victim’s body was left naked rather than fully clothed. On this point, the setting suggests that sex will still be celebrated to some extent, but treated right it can portray and even enhance the period that it exists in positively, whilst also being the most ‘modern’ videogame take on content that, in reality, we see and deal with on a daily basis. The ability to pick up a prostitute for a little fun on the side should be something left in the past; the chance to gain insight into prostitution because it’s relevant to a case (or something like that), on the other hand, could really change the way games are made in future, if not perceived as a whole.

Whether any of these possibilities are met remains to be seen, but it’s a testament to L.A. Noire that I can be excited about them while barely mentioning the things everyone else can’t wait to see, namely that facial animation and how it will affect games going forward from a technological point of view. A meticulously detailed replica of L.A. set in a period that oozes style and class, and one in which I get to investigate, both literally and figuratively, at my leisure. That’s why I want to play L.A. Noire, that’s an experience I want to inhabit, and if it manages to move things forward while delivering it, well even better. It wouldn’t be a surprise, though -- it is Rockstar and L.A. after all; dreams come naturally when they’re involved.

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