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What awaits Cole Phelps at the next crime scene? Will it be a couple of hopheads who overdosed on morphine and are now on the midnight train to nowhere? Or maybe a young lady whose dreams of Hollywood stardom were chewed up and spit out by the studios and who now lies naked in a park, the victim of a brutal murder? L.A. Noire confronts you with these sad situations and many more. Inspired by film noir classics and hardboiled crime fiction, this tale of a complicated and troubled cop in postwar Los Angeles makes the business of detective work absorbing and rewarding, and it’s drenched in so much authentic late-’40s style that you’ll practically be able to smell the acrid mix of glamour and corruption in the air. This PC release comes complete with the five cases that were released as downloadable content on consoles, making it the best version of L.A. Noire you can buy.
The City of Angels is one of the stars of L.A. Noire, and it gets the red-carpet treatment here. The game re-creates a vast swath of the city circa 1947; though it’s by no means accurate down to the tiniest detail, those who know Los Angeles will appreciate the tremendous amount of research that clearly went into designing this version of it. (You expect to see the historic Egyptian Theatre in its proper place on Hollywood Boulevard, for instance, but seeing the Pig ‘N Whistle right next to it, which has been there since 1927, is impressive.) Your journey takes you from filthy flophouses and hobo camps to elegant mansions and the sleek, modern offices of a company that’s shaping the development of postwar Los Angeles. The architecture, which includes cookie-cutter housing developments that are springing up in droves to capitalize on the return of soldiers from the war, as well as jazz clubs where cops and gangsters alike relax after night falls, is authentic and makes this Los Angeles an absorbing and immersive place.
And it’s not just these big things that the game gets right. As a detective, your work investigating crime scenes is often about the smallest details, and the richness of these details in L.A. Noire makes rummaging around grisly crime scenes and perusing the personal effects of victims a compelling process. The homes of murder victims feel lived in as a result of pictures on the walls, notes pinned on refrigerators, and clothing tossed on the floor and forgotten. Pick up an official document while rummaging through some files and you’ll see that it looks genuine right down to the fine print. This attention to detail makes the often unsavory business of being a detective deeply absorbing. On top of this, the period fashions, actual automobiles, and music of the era–along with a score that evokes the style of some of the great composers of film noir–weave an intoxicating spell that’s sure to stir the heart of anyone with a fondness for 1940′s style. The art direction that pervades every aspect of L.A. Noire is simply outstanding, and it’s a huge part of what makes this game such a memorable experience. And if you want the game to look more like Out of the Past than Chinatown, there’s an option to play in crystal-clear black and white.
But all that attention to detail wouldn’t amount to much if it weren’t in the service of a game that was worthy of it. Thankfully, L.A. Noire is worthy. You play as Cole Phelps, a young veteran of World War II who enlists in the L.A.P.D. in 1947. Phelps is played by Aaron Staton, best known for his role on Mad Men, and thanks to L.A. Noire’s use of an impressive motion capture technology, his performance goes far beyond voice acting. Phelps’ face is Staton’s face, and while motion scanning doesn’t quite capture all the soul of an actor’s performance, it nonetheless allows for a great deal of the subtlety of that performance to come through. It may take a bit of adjustment, seeing almost-but-not-quite-real faces on these characters, and there’s sometimes a bit of a blurriness around the lips that can be distracting. But for the most part, it’s very effective, allowing for rich and nuanced performances that seem to fully inhabit the world of the game. And this isn’t just for show. The story of L.A. Noire hits harder because its characters look and sound so believable. Phelps’ commanding officer Captain Donnelly has a passion for swift, merciless justice and a preacher’s gift for oratory, while the weathered face of Herschel Biggs, one of many partners you have throughout the game, speaks volumes about his years on the force. The performances have a concrete impact on gameplay, too. When you’re interrogating a suspect or questioning a witness, it’s the facial expressions of a real person that you’re reading when determining what approach to take.
You start out playing Phelps as a newly recruited uniformed officer. When a call comes in over the radio that a few homicide detectives need some assistance, you make your way to the crime scene and get your first crack at investigation. While investigating, you move Phelps around the environment and look for clues. Of course, not everything in any given location is going to be relevant to your investigation, and at first, the process can feel a bit silly. You might pick up empty beer bottles, hairbrushes, rolling pins, and other meaningless stuff, making Phelps move them around in his hand as if they might conceal vast significance while he mutters to himself (and to you) that these particular items have no bearing on the case. But as you progress, you develop a sharper eye for what things in an environment might be relevant. By default, the game indicates that you’re near something you can examine with chimes (and controller vibration, if you’re using a gamepad), but with this option turned on, investigations often boil down to just walking Phelps over every inch of an area, waiting for those indicators to go off. Turning these off makes investigation far more involving and encourages you to carefully study the environment looking for anything that might give you insight into the case. You still know when you’ve found everything important in a given location because the investigation music fades out, though if you like, you can also turn this indicator off.
Phelps goes above and beyond the call of duty to close this first case himself, but it’s not out of a selfless wish to protect and serve. He has a cold ambition to rise up the ranks in the department, and it’s not long before his drive pays off politically. This determination also isolates him from his fellow cops and makes him a bit hard to root for initially, but this only makes him a better noir protagonist. He’s a deeply flawed hero, and as the game progresses, you learn more about the experiences that turned him into the man he is today, and he develops in some fascinating ways as the narrative approaches its powerful conclusion. It takes quite a while for the story to build up steam, but the excitement of the later chapters makes the more deliberate pace of what came before well worth it. And you don’t need to be a fan of film noir and hardboiled crime fiction to appreciate this tale, but if you are, you may take particular pleasure in the inspiration L.A. Noire takes from many terrific sources. (James Ellroy’s bloody epic L.A. Confidential is a particularly clear influence.)
As Phelps makes a name for himself in the department, he’s called upon to start heading investigations himself, and that means questioning witnesses and interrogating suspects. During interrogations, you select something to question the witness or suspect about from a list in your notebook. (This is partly why thorough investigation of a crime scene is important; if you miss an important clue, you won’t be able to ask people about it, which may prevent you from getting vital information.) Once the person responds to your question, you have three choices. If you believe the person is being honest and forthright with you, you can select Truth, which results in Phelps responding positively to the witness or suspect and coaxing more information out of him or her. If you think a person is being less than entirely honest, you can select Doubt, which often translates into “press the witness or suspect harder,” and if your instincts are correct, this generally results in the suspect giving up something useful. But if your instincts are wrong and the person was cooperating, this approach results in him or her reacting negatively, which gives you nothing. Finally, if you think the person is lying to you and you have a piece of evidence that proves it, you can select Lie. In this case, you have to back up what you’re saying with evidence. For instance, if you ask a suspect what shoe size he wears and he tells you he wears a size 9, you can use the size 8 work boots you found in his home to prove that he’s lying.
Beat. Core. Void. Runner. Fate. Flux. The six games in the Bit.Trip series may sound like word salad to the uninitiated, but over the past two and a half years, these games have charted a unique course on the Wii Shop Channel. Each downloadable entry featured a different strain of simple gameplay that quickly grew into complexity to present a formidable challenge. These diverse challenges were bound together by an artful 8-bit aesthetic and dynamic soundtracks that intertwined with your actions to create an engrossing musical experience. Now all six games are available on one disc in Bit.Trip Complete, a compilation that includes a number of new features that make each game more accessible, more challenging, and more engrossing. With a bonus soundtrack CD and a bargain price, Bit.Trip Complete is an impressive example of a compilation done right.
The big new addition in Bit.Trip Complete is difficulty modes. Though the Bit.Trip games all have very simplistic gameplay and minimal controls, they quickly build to put forth a steep challenge that can be insurmountable to all but the most determined players. With the implementation of an easy difficulty mode, Bit.Trip Complete lessens the punishment for mistakes and makes it harder to plunge into the dreaded black-and-white view that tells you failure is near. With the exception of Bit.Trip Runner (in which the tantalizing gold bars are removed), the levels themselves remain unchanged. This lets you progress further in each game and experience the musical and visual variation of each level without climbing the exponential slope of difficulty. Furthermore, easy mode stops short of making the games too easy, preserving the tension and satisfaction of a challenge confronted and completed.
Easy mode is an elegant solution to the difficulty problem, but if you relish the challenge, the new hard mode makes you work for your success. You can flaunt your victories on online leaderboards that are divided up by game and by difficulty level, though you need to crack the top 10 to see your initials in lights, and any chart-toppers you earned in the individual games won’t appear here. Furthermore, though they are fairly unpopulated as of now, it’s easy to foresee a future in which a bunch of elite players (or identical maximum scores) crowd others out, rendering these leaderboards all but useless. There are also 20 new challenges for each game. These are short gameplay segments that test your skills in some playful and fiendish ways. As the name suggests, they can be challenging, but their short length makes a trial-and-error approach much less onerous than it is in some of the actual games. It isn’t just about survival here, though; you must perfect each one to complete it. It’s very satisfying when you finally nail one you’ve been struggling with, and you can get some interesting unlockables for your troubles.
These bonuses range from audio to video to text to images. Some are mere curiosities (especially the odd videos), but the notes on each game are actually very intriguing. The enigmatic cutscenes featuring the inscrutable Commander Video have always hinted at story themes, but these new notes give you something concrete to cling to when playing each game. Granted, the context is still fairly abstract, but it’s great to have a window into the creative process behind these inventive games.
The games themselves remain as appealing and addictive as ever. In Bit.Trip Beat, you slide a paddle up and down the left side of the screen by tilting the Wii Remote. The goal is to bounce the projectiles that come at you back to the other side, sort of like an intense Pong practice session. Things start off simply, but you soon encounter increasingly complex patterns and trajectories that stretch the limits of your tilting abilities. In Bit.Trip Core, however, motion controls are left behind in favor of the precision of button pressing. Here you must eliminate similarly mischievous projectiles by shooting lasers in the four directions of the D-pad. Moving into Bit.Trip Void, you encounter the most freedom of movement you ever get in a Bit.Trip game. Your job is to steer a black sphere around the screen, grabbing the black bits that come your way but avoiding the white bits. The more bits you absorb, the bigger your sphere grows. The bigger your sphere, the better your score, but you frequently have to manually downgrade to your original size to avoid white bits.
Bit.Trip Runner puts you in control of the bipedal Commander Video for the first time. His enthusiasm for the platformer experience is such that he doesn’t stop running, and it’s up to you to jump, slide, kick, and block your way past obstacles, all while grabbing gold and enjoying an increasingly complex soundtrack. Bit.Trip Fate continues the Commander’s exploits in an on-rails shooter in which you slide back and forth on the rail to avoid enemies and projectiles while pointing the Wii Remote to blast your foes and collect power-ups. The final game in the series, Bit.Trip Flux, harks back to Bit.Trip Beat, once again giving you paddle control and introducing a host of new patterns and obstacles. Though each individual game is distinct, they are all banded together by blocky, colorful visuals that evoke the era of 8-bit gaming. The dynamic soundtracks share a similar retro aesthetic, each changing and evolving along with your gameplay and providing an absorbing and enriching musical experience.
Bit.Trip Complete brings this diverse and delightful series together in a package that offers tangible improvements over each individual game. The new challenges and unlockables offer something intriguing for those who have played the games before, while the new difficulty modes make it easier to get more out of each game without compromising the engrossing blend of music and gameplay that makes the series so special. The added elements complement the original games and allow you to enjoy them like never before, making Bit.Trip Complete a shining example of how a thoughtful compilation can enhance an entire series.
The 104-disc DVD set hits shelves on Nov. 8 and includes 11 seasons that have never been released. Yep, all 456 “ripped from the headlines” episodes in one glorious place!
Special features of the 20-season set include tons of deleted and extended scenes, an interview with Dick Wolf about the creation of the landmark series and a tribute to Jerry Orbach featuring interviews with his former co-stars.
Tell us: Will you buy the ‘Law & Order’ complete series boxed set?