I rarely watch TV. Now and then I might find something worth my time on Netflix or Amazon. Where I spend most of my time, though, is on YouTube, the home of original noir films. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a quick Google search brought forth the following:
“Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood's classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.”
Think The Maltese Falcon, or more arguably Casablanca. Those two are obviously very well known and remain popular today, but YouTube has archives of dozens of films from that genre free for the asking. For whatever reason, the older movies, with their often witty dialog and somber, grainy filmography, appeal to me far more than the more contemporaneous “blow everything up, and it it moves, shoot it” tripe that’s been coming out of Hollywood for decades.
With that intro, you will not be surprised to learn that I have played completely through LA Noire twice. If you are not familiar with that either, well, I’ve got you covered:
“L.A. Noire is a neo-noir detective action-adventure video game developed by Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games.”
You play the role of a young, energetic police officer in 1940’s Los Angeles. Through you exemplary skills and untiring effort, you get promoted to Detective. In that role, you strive to solve murder and robbery cases, as well as work through an overarching serial murder case. It’s your job to investigate the crime scenes, search for evidence, interview witnesses and suspects, and generally do police detective kinds of things. At the end of each case, you either nail the perp or you don’t. When you don’t, you try again. All of this happens in a well-crafted representation of Los Angeles as it was back then. You drive from the crime scene to various other destinations as you work each case. You search homes. You play good cop/bad cop. You keep a notebook containing locations, clues, and other salient facts about the case. You even get into fights with nasty people now and then. It a good time.
LA Noire: The VR Case Files is NOT LA Noire VR - it’s important to mention that right up front. The VR Case Files is a subset of the collection of cases worked in the full game. As such, you get to work some of the more interesting cases, but you will not have the cohesive storyline that you would get in the flat games. In fact, a lot of things won’t make any sense at all - you just have to roll with it. Characters will make references to previous experiences that you haven’t had if the VR Case Files is your first and only experience with LA Noire. This is unfortunate in that it makes the game feel far more like a tech demo or a vehicle for future DLC cases than a full-blown game. Is that a show stopper? Well, maybe. Certainly I would have preferred to work through the entire story again in VR, but on the other hand I found the cases that are included in the VR set to be a whole lot of fun to play through and I didn’t especially miss the backstory. Without knowing the reasons for not being able to bring the entire story into the VR world, be they technical constraints or that it was simply far too much effort, I can’t get too upset about not having the entire story.
So, starting at the start I should also mention that my PC setup is below the minimum specs recommended by Rockstar. Because of that, I expected to find slow load times followed by even slower frame rates; nothing could have been further from the truth. Load times were quite reasonable (perhaps due to the game having been loaded onto an SSD drive) and I had no problems whatsoever with frame rates. I cannot promise you the same performance, of course, but chances are you will get similar performance to whatever other “heavy” games you’re playing with your VR setup. I should also note that I played on an Oculus Rift - other hardware may behave differently.
It is also notable that there have been subtle and not so subtle changes to some aspects of the VR version versus the original version. My memory is hazy on the subject so I don’t remember what happened in the original game, but many altercations with recalcitrant rapscallions in VR seem to lead to fisticuffs. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the fist fights and found them to be one of the highlights of the move to the more interactive and immersive VR environment. There’s just something about popping a loudmouth perp right smack in the kisser that I couldn’t seem to get enough of. It was actually a disappointment to find that I couldn’t start fights with strangers walking the streets.
This is an area where VR version really shines; hand-to-hand fighting with the Touch controllers is simply incredible, while fighting with buttons on a game controller hardly rises to the level of just barely interesting or fun. This may be just me, but fighting with the game controller seems to alway devolve into nothing more than frantic button smashing. In VR I find that I actually try to box - ducking, weaving, jabbing… it’s all there and feels as natural as a fistfight can feel to someone who has never actually been in one.
As you’re working through the early cases, you do kind of start wondering why you aren’t equipped with a pistol. That question gets answered in the typical way of a sliced-up game: all of a sudden, and before you’re ready for it. When you do finally get to use your pistol, you will likely find it to be simultaneously one of the more compelling parts of the game, as well as one of the most frustrating. The play action is great in the gratifying way the opposing characters react when shot, the moving from cover to cover keeps the pulse up, but that’s only just enough to balance out the horrible mechanics of using the gun with a Touch controller. The way they have set it up, I found it next to impossible to use my pistol without dropping it.
Consider a reload: I use my left hand to grab a new magazine, slide it into the butt of the pistol, and then try to grip the slide to release it and chamber a round. Dropped gun. Repeat ad nauseum. I eventually learned that it was far easier, and of course far less accurate, to just pull the trigger twice - that seemed to me the most reliable (and terribly inaccurate) way to reload. That helped, but the awkward shape of the Rift Touch controls and the off-angle way the gun is held in your virtual hand does nothing whatsoever to improve your aim, so you get to practice reloading under pressure more than you might like.
There are a couple of other areas where VR makes a huge difference in the quality of the gameplay. One of the more critical is interviews. There’s something about having a life size character sitting across the interview table from you, with facial emotions clearly on display and verbal emotional outbursts that carry such force that you recoil in your chair. A mouse and a flat monitor just can’t convey that kind of visceral non-verbal communication. There’s a lot of shouting in law enforcement, it would seem. The VR makes it easier to read the expressions of the folks you’re talking to in order to determine the veracity of what they’re saying, even with the graphical limitations inherent in today’s technology. This has always been an important facet of the overall LA Noire experience, and it is something I remember often getting wrong. I did miss one or two close calls in the VR version, but overall I was much better at deciding how to respond to an interviewees words and behaviors.I also found the overall ambience in VR far superior to the flat world, but that isn’t exactly a revelation. Still… when I peeked over the edge of a roof and saw the sidewalk far below me, I couldn’t suppress the instinctive recoil away from the edge that my autonomous nervous system demanded. An amazing moment, that.
There was another type of situation that was more emotionally impactful in VR than flat, and that was the hands-on examination of dead people. Examining each corpse typically offered up one or two clues, but the feeling of grabbing the vic’s arm or chin and moving it was…. creepy. Lifting the lapel of a suit jacket to see what might be hidden in an inner pocket - that was awesome!
Naturally, not everything is better in VR. Driving, as a prime example, takes awhile to get used to. It does get better with practice, but I never really got comfortable with it. Steering is done by gripping the steering wheel, while the gas and brake pedals are operated with the right and left triggers, respectively. For the longest time I tried to drive with my only my left hand and use my right hand just for the accelerator. This caused problems in sharp turns - if I turned enough to have my left hand move to the right-hand side of the steering wheel, it would let go. That always ended in a crash. I eventually started driving with both hands and that was a good improvement, but I was still a very terrible driver. You do have a big, huge city to drive around in though, and once you get accustomed to driving around sightseeing with your middle fingers extended on the controllers to avoid accidentally releasing the wheel it can be a relaxing drive.
One of the biggest, thorniest challenges in moving from the flat world, where everything is controlled by a game controller, to the VR world is the issue of mobility. All of the regular challenges to character movement exist in Noire, such as how to allow smooth movement for the players that aren’t susceptible to motion sickness and alternative methods for those who are. Noire VR offers a few ways of doing it. The easiest and most comfortable way is to focus your view on where you want to go. If the area highlights in yellow, you just press the A button and watch as your character’s soul breaks away from its corporeal prison and walks to the selected spot, or you can tag a destination and use the A button just as in the previous example. The funnest way, and probably most innovative, is also the one that got me the closest to falling over with vertigo: you press the A button, then swing your arms as if you were walking down the street. That avoided the shock of seeing your inner self suddenly striding off into the distance, but replaced it with the very real opportunity of seeing your inner stomach contents suddenly pouring out onto the floor. As always, I appreciated having the choice and tended to use different methods for different situations.
One of the areas where I expected big gains from VR was in the examination of pieces of evidence found at crime scenes, but in more than one occasion it actually caused a bit of grief. One case in point: I picked up a pistol and took a close look at it. I was rewarded with the discovery of an engraved manufacturer’s name and a serial number. Great! I then spent two hours trying to figure out why the game wouldn’t advance. I eventually determined that there was a 2nd clue to be found on the gun, but I had not positioned the gun in my vision precisely enough to the clue to trigger, if you will. That happened three times throughout my playing of the game, and it was frustrating.
So, should you take a look at The VR Case Files? That depends. If you are brand new to LA Noire, probably not. The fragmentation of the story is going to be confusing. The case difficulty is also going to ramp up more quickly than it would when playing through the normal progression. It is quite likely that you will find yourself stuck on a case with no idea as to how to proceed. On the other hand, having previously played all the way through the original game will help enormously in that you will understand some of the more arcane investigative techniques and allow you to more fully enjoy the familiar experience delivered in a far better way. That having been said, I find myself hoping that The VR Case Files actually is a tech demo of what comes next; if LA Noire 2 - VR were to come out, I would be one of the first in line to buy it.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.