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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #29—L.A. Noire

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OnlySP Favorite Games 29 - L.A. Noire

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game goes against the grain of many of our choices; neither a massive franchise nor a forgotten diamond-in-the-rough, but a modest success that was cut off at the knees.

L.A. Noire promo

#29. L.A. NOIRE, by Damien Lawardorn

L.A. Noire may be Rockstar Games’s most out-of-character title ever, but that comes down to the fact that it was not developed by the house that Grand Theft Auto built, rather by Australian developer Team Bondi. Absent are the self-aware satire, penchant for excess, ultraviolence, and misanthropy. In their stead is a game that plays itself as straight as its upstanding veteran-turned-police-officer protagonist, Cole Phelps.

After returning from World War II as a decorated hero, Cole joins the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.), quickly becoming a poster boy thanks to his proficiency as a detective and unimpeachable character. However, the job is not one suited to a paragon. The force is rife with corruption, and moral ambiguity can seem the best way to get ahead.

Nevertheless, Cole forges forward, dedicated to the tenets of truth, justice, and all the qualities deemed most virtuous. As he does so, he uncovers a sprawling crime racket that links street drugs to murders and a massive insurance scam, encompassing many of the cases that he works on alongside the player. The intricacy of the interconnectedness of this investigation is jaw-dropping, but one area that might have benefitted from deeper treatment is Cole’s personal journey.

L.A. Noire gameplay 1

Later in the game, the star detective becomes embroiled in a personal scandal that damages his reputation. However, players receive only the barest glimpse of this series of events. For all of its literally game-changing effects, Cole’s personal life dangles just outside the player’s ken, and L.A. Noire suffers—ever so slightly, perhaps—from this lack.

As valid as that critique may be, one thing that must be remembered is that developer Team Bondi never aimed to tell a personal story.

Rather, as the name implies, L.A. Noire is about a city, a time, and a mood. In this respect, the game is an undeniable triumph, every part of the world dripping with a mixture of post-war hope and existential dread. Grand theft auto, violent murder, statutory rape, and much more; the game shies away from little in its depiction of a city of devils.

L.A. Noire gameplay 3

The cases that comprise Cole’s time with the L.A.P.D.—across the Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson desks—draw from news reports of the time. This incorporation of fact enhances the fiction, bringing it to vivid life and lending each investigation a sense of truth. As a result, any potential sense of tedium that may arise from the processes of investigation and interrogation falls to the wayside, subsumed into the heady hunt for that most elusive of things: the truth.

Nevertheless, the question of whether the game would have outstayed its welcome without that veneer of realism is doubtworthy. Admittedly, the find-a-word style of investigation at crime scenes could have been spruced up more often, but they are only ever the first step. The game shines when Cole walks up to a witness or tracks down his perp. At the time of release, much was made of the revolutionary MotionScan technology: a 32-camera set-up that captured every nuance and tick of the actors’ facial expressions, which were then transferred wholesale into the game. Technology has improved since then, but no other developer has sought to use motion capture to invest the player into the experience in quite the same way.

Here, in the interrogations, the player becomes complicit in Cole’s mission. No longer the action hero, the gamer becomes the active observer, watching every movement for the telltale signs of truth or lies and responding accordingly. However, Cole—at least in the original release—got a little weird during interrogations. When pushed to doubt the witnesses, he would often lash out, his responses sometimes seeming almost sociopathic.

L.A. Noire gameplay 4

After release, creative director Brendan McNamara remarked on this dissonance, revealing that the prompts were changed late in development. Players of the more recent PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One ports were lucky enough to have those prompts changed from “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie” to the more fitting “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop,” and “Accuse,” in just one of the examples of how remasters are capable of improving on their source products beyond just updating the visuals.

Regardless of the update, in some ways, this snafu may be read as symbolic of the reportedly shambolic production cycle. A prominent criticism of Team Bondi (which has since recurred in other Rockstar products) revolved around alleged unjust work practices, including excessive crunch time and the failure to provide credit to approximately 130 people who were involved in the game’s creation. The problems went further, though: a seven-year development, a change in publisher from Sony to Rockstar, a stream of delays, rumours that Rockstar wrested creative control from McNamara late in the process.

A lesser game might have been crippled or even killed by these setbacks, but L.A. Noire proved to be Sisyphus successful. The game launched to a rapturous reception, generally lauded by critics and becoming the best-selling new IP in gaming history—a record it would hold until the 2014 launch of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.

L.A. Noire gameplay 2

However, the success was not enough to save Team Bondi. One of Australia’s last major studios, the team moved on to the controversially named spiritual successor Whore of the Orient, which promised to explore a corruption-ridden 1930s Shanghai. By that time, the death spiral had already begun. Team Bondi was sold to film production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell (Happy Feet, Mad Max) and later almost silently put out of its misery.

Since then, the L.A. Noire name has been dredged up from the depths, remastered and also repackaged as a VR experience, but absent of any apparent movement to move the IP forward. Once upon a time, Rockstar indicated that the franchise was important in the publisher’s portfolio, but nothing has yet arisen and, given Rockstar’s development rate, nothing will likely appear for years yet.

And that may be the biggest crime of all.

L.A. Noire gameplay 5

VIDEO CRIMES

Even though crime video games are never rare (and might as well have grown up along with the medium) the inimitable L.A. Noire cannot be said to be similar to many others. That said, these games were not left behind with the failure of Team Bondi, and several other crime sagas, gangster stories and such have since carried the torch: if not in technology, than at least in cinematic ambition.

Sleeping Dogs was more the traditional kind of Grand Theft Auto-derived open world gangster game, but from the perspective of an undercover cop. Set in Hong Kong, the game brought with it visual inspiration from Asian crime stories rather than the standard American ones. Unfortunately, positive reception and millions of copies sold were not enough to offset much larger costs incurred by Square Enix in acquiring the game (Sleeping Dogs began as a new entry in the True Crime series) and promoting it as a mega-blockbuster.

With two predecessors that were as close to L.A. Noire as anything 2K Games released—being both praised for highly scripted, cinematic stories and criticised for their empty open-worlds—Mafia III was a departure, developed by a new studio and taking an approach inspired by Far Cry‘s outposts and Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system. The game sold much better than Sleeping Dogs, but apparently not enough to guarantee a Mafia IV. Still, Hangar 13’s work was praised for being one of the most detailed works of historical fiction in video games.

Fans of the Yakuza series were excited to hear of Judgment, the Yakuza team’s new IP that puts players in the shoes of a Japanese detective. Having been received rather well at its initial release last year, the English-language version of this investigative drama will release later in 2019.

And of course, players can always find solace in the excellent Red Dead Redemption 2.

Thanks for joining us again for a look at our favourite games. Next week, a totally different franchise at a very different speed—in the meantime, why not share your own favourite one-hit-wonders like L.A. Noire? As always, you can keep locked to OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #17—Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

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Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is a classic—a founding title in a genre loved by many to this day.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night gameplay screenshot 4

#17. CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT, by Daniel Pereira

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is truly a special game. Few titles within the industry can be labeled as a work of art, and Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is, without a doubt, one of them. Being born of an ideology that a new direction could be what was best for the series after three iterations  of the same style, Symphony of the Night took a leap of faith for the franchise, and looking back on its success, players will have no question that the leap paid off.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night takes place five years after the events of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, where Richter Belmont traversed Castle Dracula to take down the main man himself and once again reset the Castle’s reappearance cycle .

What is interesting about Symphony of the Night was that  the game begins as Rondo of Blood ends: with the climactic battle of Richter and Dracula in the throne room. Once the battle is complete the game transitions and players are now reintroduced to Alucard, Dracula’s half-vampire son with a human woman. This game is the first time players had seen Alucard since Castlevania III (1989), and this time he is the primary playable character.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night gameplay screenshot 2

Alucard’s introduction within Symphony of the Night as the playable character created a whole new dynamic for the player to wrap their head around. Since Alucard is not a vampire hunter nor a member of the Belmont family, he does not use a whip to slay monsters. Instead he uses a variety of weaponry that players can discover throughout their journey into the castle. Interestingly, the game starts the player off at what is essentially Alucard’s peak performance, as he is able to slice and dice his way through any enemy before him—that is, until Alucard is reunited with Death, who strips him of his abilities and gear forcing the player to start their adventure empty-handed.

The developer ’s choice to start the player completely fresh and weak contributes nicely to the game’s new direction. Unlike previous playable characters, Alucard can equip different armor, weapons, and abilities to further aid him while traversing the castle. Ultimately, Alucard’s goals are to figure out why the castle has reappeared only five years after being destroyed, and locate the missing Richter Belmont. Despite a narrative that captures player attention  immediately, Symphony of the Night proves that its new gameplay direction is what will ultimately steal the show.

As a revolutionary new direction for the Castlevania series at the time, Symphony of the Night was the first entry that did not end after a stage completion or boss fight . Instead, Symphony of the Night surprised players by simply continuing forward. In previous games, after completing a stage, the player would be taken to a map screen to select the next area of play; however, in Symphony of the Night, the map can be toggled with the press of a button and only indicated areas that were visited by the player, with everything else nonexistent until discovered. This promoted exploration and returning ventures to familiar areas, allowing the game to really showcase its roots  and establish a formula that would usher it into the history books.

In addition to the new approach to level design for Symphony of the Night, what is most surprising about the game, and perhaps what solidified it in most gamer’s memory, is the fact that after what would seem to be the final boss fight, the castle would then invert and could be played entirely upside down. For this event to conspire, the player would have to complete specific tasks before and during the boss encounter, and whether or not those tasks were done would determine if the game ended there or continued with the Inverted Castle. As a truly remarkable feature, Symphony of the Night‘s Castle Dracula was designed to look just as beautiful upside down as it was during the normal playthrough. Not only was the aesthetic of the castle perfectly preserved in its inverted state, but it also played just as seamless as it did right-side up.

As a testament to the wonderful art and craftsmanship by the developer for this title, the gothic horror atmosphere combined with the excellent sound design of the game only attributed to how incredible Symphony of the Night‘s Castle Dracula was. That the artistic integrity of Symphony of the Night has withstood the test of time is truly astonishing. At a time when the industry was shifting to 3D models, the team behind Symphony of the Night chose to go against the grain and create what feels like a swan song for the 2D gaming genre.

Recently, director Koji Igarashi released the long-anticipated Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. OnlySP had the privilege of reviewing the new game, and although it exceeded our expectations and presents itself as a worthy successor, it cannot replace or recreate the zeitgeist that was Symphony of the Night. The 2.5D graphics of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night are outclassed by the 2D pixel art  of its predecessor. A style decision, yes, however one cannot help but wonder what the final product would have looked like with a 2D template.

Of course, Symphony of the Night cannot be truly praised without mention of its greatest contribution to the industry. Without this game, players would have never known that man is a miserable pile of secrets. Thanks to Symphony of the Night’s original intro battle, the industry will always remember the significance surrounding Dracula’s rhetorical question of “What is a man?”

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a stylish love letter to fans of the series. More importantly, however, is the game’s contribution to the industry and the Metroidvania genre as a whole. To this day, Symphony of the Night is recognized and referenced as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Metroidvania game of its generation.

From the outset, players might question how this game could come with such accolades, but the easiest answer is more often than not the simplest one. For one to understand what makes Castlevania: Symphony of the Night so great and worthy of a spot on OnlySP’s 50 Favorite Games, all they need to do is play it.

Thanks for joining us as we take a look at one of the founders of the Metroidvania genre. Join us next week as we look at a very different game from a different genre—but one that has remained inspirational for years nonetheless.

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