L.A. Premonition vs Deadly Noire

I have just recently finished playing two of the Xbox 360’s most talked about detective games, and it feels like it’s time to do a completely meaningless, arbitrary and objective comparison chart to see which tickled me more and why. In fact, they are so different, the whole exercise seems redundant, but maybe my attempts to string them together will amuse and inform enough to make it worthwhile.

In the red corner, we have Rockstar’s big bucks 1940s thriller L.A. Noire. In the blue, a real underdog, or just plain dog, of a game, depending on how you look at it – Access Games’ Deadly Premonition, a quirky survival horror/open world/story quest mash-up.

Let’s take a look now at how they shape up against each other in some key areas.


Story and Influences

Cleaning up the scum on the streets of Los Angeles 1947 or solving a murder in the quiet town of Greenvale?

L.A. NOIRE

An apparently 90% faithful rendering of Forties Los Angeles is your playground, and its dark underbelly is a rich and juicy world to inhabit, so the crimes you solve range from jealous murder and drug rackets, to fallen starlets and government cover-ups. L.A. Noire wears its myriad influences on its well-pressed sleeve, drawing as much from the pulp crime novels and hardboiled detective dramas of the period (some displayed on the cinema marquees around town) as it does more modern interpretations, especially the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Indeed, there are 50 Gold Film Reels dotted around town named after movie classics which serve no other purpose but to list a bunch of key titles. On a case by case basis, L.A. Noire delivers the goods; wading knee-deep through the shattered lives, hopes and dreams of L.A. life does take its toll, but that just shows the strength of the mood it creates. It’s a shame though that the main plot is so boring. As the cases start to tie up into a great big seedy conspiracy with far-reaching implications, it all becomes fairly dull and plodding thanks to the tedious expository newspaper cutscenes you encounter.

7

DEADLY PREMONITION

A simple set-up (popular teenage girl in small town found brutally murdered and an FBI agent called in to investigate) belies the slow burn unfolding complexity of a game that is driven as much by character as it is by narrative. Everyone’s a suspect, so getting to know the townsfolk is not only useful, but just as compelling, hilarious and downright odd as picking over clues at crime scenes. Tracking down the identity of the legendary Raincoat Killer is just part of the fun. Oh, and that it’s all a very obvious homage to Twin Peaks. Characters, themes, and plot-points drawn directly from the brilliant David Lynch/Mark Frost TV series abound. The premise in itself is identical to the series, and many of the inhabitants and landmarks of the town of Greenvale here are obvious facsimiles of those in Twin Peaks. When you flip into survival horror mode, there’s certainly more of a Silent Hill vibe, and some of the gameplay and kooky humour has a touch of Suda 51 (and more specifically Flower Sun Rain) about it, but this is about as Twin Peaks as a slice of cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.

10


Characters

Detective Cole Phelps (L.A. Noire) vs FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan (Deadly Premonition)

L.A. NOIRE

Detective Cole Phelps is a war hero turned cop who rises through the ranks by being a rather bland goody two-shoes. That’s not to say there aren’t twists, turns and revelations in his personal and professional life, but he is a bit of a bore, prone to shouting for no good reason and making wild accusations (though that might be just because of my own poor decision making during the interrogation sequences – more on that later). Phelps’ backstory is told through frequent cutscenes charting his military action in World War II, and his clashes with his fellow soldiers in their fight against the Japanese. His ex-compatriots crop up during the main gameplay and become increasingly and inextricably linked to the cases you are tasked with solving, but the emotional resonance never comes through as strongly as it should, so your reactions rarely synch with those of the characters.

5

DEADLY PREMONITION

Special Agent Francis York Morgan of the FBI has a split personality, spending a lot of time talking to his ‘friend’ Zach (by extension you, the player) about 80s B-movies and his favourite rock bands, and trying to solve a grisly murder with a child-like enthusiasm. He’s joined by police cohorts are Naomi Watts lookalike Emily Wyatt and human gruffalo George Woodman, both providing a perfect foil for your peculiar investigation methods. From time to time, York, as he prefers to be called, also seems to enter a mental state in which shadow monsters appear and try and kill him, as well as having dreamy flashbacks in a limbo neverland. He’s nuts but that makes him all the more endearing. That he’s surrounded by some equally strange locals, with soapy relationships and murky pasts, adds to the general weirdness.

8


Graphics

Brawling on a rooftop, standing in a supermarket car park - both lovingly rendered

L.A. NOIRE

L.A. Noire’s key selling point is its lifelike facial rendering, almost directly transferring an actor’s performance to their in-game character. It’s slightly creepy in the same way attempts at human replica robots are the stuff of nightmares, but impresses more than it unnerves. The main problem though is that it is still attached to a clunky videogame body, so the smoothness and subtlety of facial expressions doesn’t correspond with the rest of the character. Barring that though, it’s still quite the achievement, and the in-game world itself is practically faultless.

8

DEADLY PREMONITION

Deadly Premonition can’t escape what must be some of the worst graphics of this generation. Acceptable perhaps ten years ago, but the migraine-inducing textures, stiff character animations and aesthetically upsetting detailing prove to be a stumbling block for today’s gamers used to the sweeter stuff. But give it a chance and you’ll soon see past it’s very obvious visual flaws. Game director Swery 65 has recently suggested there may be a re-release with spruced-up graphics, and although this would remove some of the game’s lo-fi charm, they could hardly make it look worse.

3


Sound and Music

Elsa Lichtmann (L.A. Noire) and Carol Maclaine (Deadly Premonition) - both on smoky sexy vocal duties

L.A. NOIRE

With the entirety of the actor’s delivery and not just their voice included in the game, it’s hard to comment specifically on the voice acting, but it’s mostly fine,  a few undercooked performances aside. Having a bunch of recognisable Mad Men regulars amongst the cast certainly helps (with Phelps himself played by Aaron Staton aka Ken Cosgrove). Unlike its GTA forebears, music is used more as a part of the overall audio experience than a pick-n-choose soundtrack. Golden oldies are piped in the car radio from time to time, as well as bars and shops, but its sparing use adds flavour – a case where less is more. The original score is similarly effective, complementing the action when it needs to, but largely settled on jazz-inflected melancholy and mystery.

8

DEADLY PREMONITION

Deadly Premonition’s score is eclectic, overpowering and practically omnipresent. At first listen, you wonder how you’ll be able to cope with the mix of manic saxophone, 70s cop show cheese and rambling folk guitar. But you’re gradually beaten into submission and you’re soon humming and whistling along like a fruitcake. Add cheeky rip-offs of Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ and Super Mario World Overworld theme and you’ve got something that extra bit special. The dialogue is wildly variable (it’s a wonder any of the cast charged with delivering Deadly Premonition’s script managed to make it through the recording sessions intac), but regardless of whether they constitute a good or bad performance, it all sounds rather fitting, matching the off-kilter mood where anything goes. There is also something equally hilarious and creepy about the shadows monster ghoulish wails of “I don’t want to die!”.

8


Detective Work

That's one shifty looking grocer. Meanwhile, York thinks he's got a point.

L.A. NOIRE

The face performance capture was originally hyped to come into play during your interrogations – facial tics, shifty eyes and nervous twitches are meant to help you detect if your subject is lying. However, it’s better in theory than it is in practice, as you’re watching an actor pretend to act guilty or innocent and then rendered in a videogame, so you have to work through a few layers of falsehood, and that’s before dealing with potential bluffs. Okay, so actual police investigation requires guesswork, but it’s particularly frustrating when you’re not sure even how hard your line of questioning will be (your choice of ‘Doubt’ can either a simple case of one-upmanship or a wild angry accusation). It’s largely random stabs in the dark – I got one star ranking on one of the later missions, and five star the next. However, it does mean there’s replay value, as a different approach to interviews and the order you approach your leads can change the course of the case. Gathering clues at crime scenes is pretty straightforward though, and it does all make you feel like a detective despite its flaws.

7

DEADLY PREMONITION

Deadly Premonition’s detective work is very much of the linear story-led variety, driving from point A to interview suspect B. It’s still an entertaining and interesting story, with York getting raging clues from symbols in his coffee as much as hard physical proof. The survival horror worlds offer a chance to use your ‘profiling’, which involve grainy stills of the act of murder linked to evidence you find, and occasionally pop up in the odd multiple choice memory quiz as you type up a summary of your investigation every now and then. So while it gives the pretence of actual detective work and it does a good job of keeping its cards close to its chest about the identity of the Raincoat Killer with a surprisingly deep story which confounds expectations, the reality is there’s not a lot to it gameplay-wise.

6


Action Gameplay

Capping crooks and shooting shadows.

L.A. NOIRE

Apart from a few ill-fitting and silly segments (involving balancing on planks and a hedge maze) that seem taken from a completely different title, L.A. Noire’s action sequences are short and slick. The car and foot chases are fun, the shoot-outs exciting, and the odd bout of fisticuffs a nice break from the gunplay. Its efficient gameplay stripped back to its essentials, which suits the rest of the game well, even if the controls are not always as responsive and tight as they could be. And although at the start, driving around is a bit of a lark, as it’s such a vast area to play in and there are a lot of opportunities to crash into things, it’s all too easy to skip to your destination, particularly to take on a side mission miles away, rendering all the hard work detailing every corner of the city somewhat obsolete.

8

DEADLY PREMONITION

The action sections are the weakest part of the game – creepy and fun and that, but it’s all a bit wonky. It’s rather standard shooting fare, a half-hearted attempt to replicate Resident Evil 4. At least you get lots and lots of weapons to unlock and choose from. But there are a few too many times where an evil ghostie shoves their arm in your mouth because of an unresponsive button press. Added to that several poorly implemented quick-time events and joystick-destroying waggling sections, and it’s not looking good. Even driving’s a bit of a chore, not helped by a godawful map which switches direction constantly. You are invited to go off-road and explore the unexplored, even if all you may stumble across is a badly animated deer in a horribly textured field.

5


Extras

Sure, visiting Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood's Golden Age is nice and all, but it's no fishing mini-game!

L.A. NOIRE

Experience points are all the rage here – successfully complete a line of questioning, or nail a side mission, and you’ll rank up. More often than not, an intuition point (which help you search for clues or aid an interrogation) will be your reward, but you also unlock secret vehicles and a few extra outfits to strut around in. Beyond cars to collect, landmarks to spot and the aforementioned gold film reels, there’s not a whole lot else to seek out though. The side missions are fun, but often far too short and just simply retread gameplay elements used in the main game without much of a spin on the formula. A few mini-games or even a personal base to call home, just to get a flavour of your character’s life outside work, wouldn’t have gone a miss.

5

DEADLY PREMONITION

Money makes the Deadly Premonition world go round and you’ll get a handy wage packet at the end of each chapter, but you’ll also get cash for killing baddies, shaving (!) and collecting the incongruous Sega arcade game-style spinning floating medals strewn across the landscape. Likewise, you can also get fined for pulling your gun out near innocent bystanders, damaging public property and not changing your clothes (with the wonderfully named ‘Stinky Agent’ penalty). Outside of your principal investigation, the 50 side quests are fundamental to enjoying Deadly Premonition, as they give you a chance to get to know your colleagues and the inhabitants of Greenvale outside of work so to speak. There’s variety too, from gaming archetypes such as fetch quests and block pushing puzzles, to more unusual tasks, including a medical knowledge quiz and transporting a crazy lady across town before her pot of mysterious food gets cold. This you do several times. Items you buy or earn include a huge variety of weapons, costumes, food and drink (to keep your hunger and tiredness levels steady), but completing your in-game trading card collection is the side goal worth obsessing over. Add to that racing time trials (yes), darts (yes!) and fishing (YES!!!), there’s lots to see, do and find here.

9


Final Scores

L.A. NOIRE 48

DEADLY PREMONITION 49

A close call, but Deadly Premonition wins! Well, I could have just said I enjoyed it more than L.A. Noire at the very start, but where’s the fun in that? My advice? Ah, play them both – they’re fun in very different ways, and represent two different extremes in the great gaming spectrum.

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One response to “L.A. Premonition vs Deadly Noire

  1. Pingback: Hannibal – Digesting Season One | Viewing Gum

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