L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is the debut VR title from Rockstar Games, and a remake of unique action-detective game L.A. Noire which was released in 2011. LA Noire VR draws upon the same foundation of impressive facial motion capture that was a hallmark of the original; the remake offers up several cases from the original game that have been reworked for VR.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files Details:
Developer: Rockstar Games
Available On: HTC Vive (Steam, Viveport, Rockstar Warehouse)
Reviewed On: Samsung Odyssey (using workaround)
Release Date: December 15th, 2017
Note: I played some of the original L.A. Noire when it released back in 2011 but didn’t complete the game and haven’t revisited it since. This review judges the game against other VR titles and without nostalgia for the original.
Set in 1940’s Los Angeles, L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files puts players in the shoes of detective Cole Phelps, an officer with the LAPD. The game’s core activities involve driving from point to point, investigating crime scenes to uncover clues, interrogating witnesses and suspects, and occasionally fighting with fists and guns.
Because LA Noire VR offers just a handful of missions from the original game, you’re getting an abridged version of Phelps’ career, and one that has little narrative cohesion from one mission to the next. Left on often anti-climactic endings, between missions you’ll be unceremoniously teleported back to Phelps’ office which acts as a glorified mission selection menu for the game.
Upon selecting a case you’ll be treated to a short opening vignette that introduces your mission, and then you’ll be plopped out into a large open-world slice of Los Angeles. Although the map is quite huge, there’s virtually no reason to explore most of it, and it mostly serves as a (fairly fun) driving mini-game to get you from point A to point B using a little GPS map on your dashboard. Cars handle very arcadey but are ultimately a fun break from the occasional monotony of your detective work. They also offer the most consistent and useable motion control in the game, but I’ll talk more about that in the Immersion section below.
When you hop out of your car you’ve got three methods of locomotion which are all awkward in their own way. First there’s the ‘arm-swinging’ mode which works ok for moving you quickly across largeish spaces while maintaining comfort. Unfortunately its capacity for fine-movement is almost non-existent, so don’t forget to physically move around your playspace for smaller movements around corpses and clues. You can also snap-turn and quick rotate 180 degrees using the trackpad.
The next method is a node-based teleport function which lets you click on glowing objects around the environment to teleport to them (after watching your body walk toward the object from a third-person view). This is the least immersive of the movement modes, but very pragmatic—navigating around crime scenes without this mode would be painful, not only because it helps you get around quickly and usually puts you in a decent location for grabbing objects, but also because without the glowing nodes you’d probably have a hard time knowing where you should be looking.
The third method of movement involves double-tapping your right trackpad to bring up a face-aimed reticle; tap the trackpad again to walk to the location of the reticle. This one felt sluggish and awkward to use, so I stuck to a combination of arm-swinging and nodal teleportation. There’s also an option for free locomotion which can be enabled in the options; I found the arm-swinging method kept me more comfortable than free locomotion. The game doesn’t make use of any FOV vignetting for turning or movement.
A Scavenger Hunt Without a List
Though the game hopes to make you feel like a detective, exploring crime scenes amounts to little more than a scavenger hunt which can frustratingly devolve into a game of ‘touch everything until you touch the right thing’. I got stuck on the very first mission and resorted to simply looking around to find all the glowing things and click to walk to them to see if I could find the thing I was missing. Eventually I clicked on a tilted window on a second story building, and that’s when “I” spotted a gun on the roof of the adjacent building thanks to the reflection in the window—except it wasn’t actually, but ‘my character’ who audibly made the observation, without which I doubt I ever would have spotted the gun.
Truly feeling like a detective would have been neat, but too often the game feels like a scavenger hunt than a puzzle. The worst part about this scavenger hunt is that you often don’t know what you’re looking for or even how many things you need to find. I can’t count the number of times I cursed the other characters who would unhelpfully say “I think you missed something,” every two minutes as I scoured every nook touching every object I could find in the hopes that it would be the right object to touch to let me move on.
In one case I spent at least 30 minutes wandering around in frustration not knowing which clue I had missed (without which I couldn’t proceed). I eventually resorted to looking it up online only to find out that the answer was to grab a tiny matchbook that I had already examined 50 times, but I had to use an awkward gesture to open it (something that wasn’t clearly indicated as even possible, nor something I had ever done in the game prior, or would ever do again later) in order to ‘discover’ the clue and be allowed to go on to the next thing.
Good Cop, Bad Cop
Once you’re done scavenging for clues, you’ll have moments of questioning and interrogation of witnesses and suspects. Opening your notebook, you’ll pick from a list of topics to question them about, and then you’re presented with three options: Good Cop, Bad Cop, and Accuse. It wasn’t until about 60% of the way through the game did I read through the PDF manual and find out that you should pick Good Cop when you believe someone’s statement, Bad Cop when you doubt them but lack evidence, and Accuse when you think they’re lying and have evidence to prove it. This was either not communicated in the game itself at all, or it got past me entirely, like a few other key bits of information, like how to manually get my notebook out to review objectives and other information.
POW, Right in the Kisser!
Beyond driving, scavenging for clues, and questioning people, the game’s action comes in the form of fist and gun fights.
Fist fighting is well intentioned—physically dodge or block punches and counter-attack when your opponent is open. The problem is that it’s way too easy to dodge and takes way too many punches to down an opponent; it doesn’t seem like the difficulty from the first fights builds over the course of the game either—you’ll be bored of fighting by the time the fight is over.
Gunplay in LA Noire VR is competent but unremarkable. You’ll use a pistol 90% of the time and physically hide behind cover as you wait for the enemies to come out from their own cover to get shot. Your normal locomotion is disabled during gunfights and you have to use node-based teleportation from cover to cover. Physical reloading of the gun by inserting a clip and chambering a round by pulling the slide is appreciated, but, like the fist fights, the depth of gunplay doesn’t grow over time. Oddly enough, I was taught in a tutorial mission how to use a shotgun, and it turns out that mission was the one and only time I would use a shotgun in the game.
The game took me roughly 10 hours to complete, and there’s still some collectibles hidden that I didn’t care to look too deeply for. About 20% of those 10 hours consisted of sheer frustration of not being able to find the thing I needed to find at a crime scene in order to progress.
From the very start of the game, the forthcoming levels of immersion are called into question as you see floating, flashing icons indicating that you are watching a cutscene and therefor cannot do move or do anything. Foreboding indeed.
The game’s overt use of forced teleportation to keep the action moving along is a constantly disembodying experience. When doing something as simple as pulling your car up to the location of a crime scene, you’ll be ripped forth from the vehicle—before you even bring the car to a stop—and teleported to some fixed location, sometimes several hundred feet from where you just were, to have some light exposition fed to you.
At one point I was teleported so far from where I initially arrived at the crime scene that I didn’t even know that there was a major area I hadn’t explored because I was disorientingly teleported past it on my way to the scene.
Another time I was teleported in a matter of seconds from one scene to another… miles away… on a different day… and into a different person. None of which was communicated directly to me in the game; I only discovered the latter part when I picked up a phone and my character said his name (not matching the name of the person whom I thought I was) to the person on the other end. Later, when I thought I was Phelps for a portion of a mission, I only discovered I wasn’t when the game showed a view of me in third person. It’s not just hard to follow the story like this, it’s hard to even maintain a strong sense of embodiment.
“Am I Me?” – And Other Questions You Never Ask Yourself
Even worse, the game frequently teleports your view to locations outside of your body to watch yourself do something from a third-person view. At seemingly every disorienting teleport I would wonder “Am I me?”—the very last question you want to frequently prompt your players with if you’re seeking to immerse them. To answer the question I had to look down to see if my hands existed: sometimes they did exist (which meant I was in my body) and sometimes they didn’t (which meant I was seeing the scene as detached observer); between distant teleports you can never really be sure.
Worse yet, when you’re pulled into the third-person view, it’s either for something entirely mundane—like watching yourself walk into a room—or for something that would have been much more fun to actually do yourself (instead of watching yourself do it)—like handcuffing the bad guys or locking them in the back of the paddy wagon.
♫ These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things ♫
Rockstar made a good effort to bring interactivity to the game by revamping the models of lots of objects littered throughout LA Noire VR, and by allowing you to pick them up and check them out. You’ll step into stores full of shelves of objects that you can grab and look at. The effort is mostly wasted though. Yes, you can pick up the objects, but 99% of them are just set dressing. The illusion ends up getting broken anyway as there are lots of objects, sometimes on the very same shelf, that—for whatever reason—you can’t grab. Usually the objects you can and can’t grab look almost identical, which means you end up in a situation where you have to reach out (and sometimes crouch down) and attempt to grab an object in order to discover whether or not it can be grabbed—a recipe for frustration and annoyance in VR.
Perhaps the game’s best take on VR interactivity with its cars. You can open and close the doors physically, turn on the car by turning the key, steer by gripping and turning the wheel, initiate some badass drifts by pulling the handbrake, and press a button to turn on your siren. Optionally you can use the shift lever to switch between drive and reverse, which is more immersive than the default left trigger reverse throttle. Unsurprisingly then, LA Noire VR’s car gamplay is some of its most engaging and immersive, but unfortunately it lacks depth, and is most often just a mechanism to get you from A to B, or occasionally to follow someone. To understand just how little weight the driving segments actually hold in the game, you’ll find a handy ‘Warp’ level in your car which takes you instantly to your destination with no penalty.
A World Without Meaning
The game world is impressively detailed: you’ll find cars driving, trolleys clacking along, and people strolling the streets and walking around stores. The map is quite huge, but like the game’s objects, 90% of it is virtually useless. Yes, you can drive or run anywhere that you want, but the game offers you no reasons to do so—there’s zero activities scattered around the map beyond the mission you’re on (except, I think, for discovering certain locations, though this is more oriented toward collecting). You can wander into a cafe and marvel at the detail, but the illusion breaks down quickly when you realize that character’s mouths don’t even move when they speak, and there’s absolutely no reason for you to be there anyway so you wouldn’t bother to do it more than once.
A Face Betrayed by Its Body
And what of the, at the time, state-of-the-art facial motion capture that was touted in the original LA Noire? It’s relied upon heavily; every character you talk to has detailed facial motion capture which can look really good (as long as you don’t get too close) and usually effectively avoids the Uncanny Valley.
When you’re face-to-face with these motion-captured actors in VR, however, you’re on much higher alert for the sort of oddities that break the illusion compared to if you were just playing on a TV. The impressive face capture can look very convincing but also occasionally terribly creepy when you see a shoddy transition from one captured animation to another.
Another illusion-breaker is tons of funky and awkward body animations that completely betray the great face capture. Sometimes you’ll see an impeccably animated head attached to a completely static body; it just doesn’t look right. I would love to see this facial capture approach seamlessly combined with modern body motion capture. The results could be exceedingly engaging in VR, unfortunately LA Noire VR’s execution falls a bit short, likely due to not being conceived initially for VR.
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Overall the gameplay has occasionally interesting interactivity, but the mechanics never build or reinforce one another. You’ll be frequently led by the hand by floating instruction text about how to do something (like use a piece of charcoal to trace a map), and you’ll only ever do it one time in the entire game. That leaves you feeling like you have little control or mastery over the world around you.
Thanks to its range of movement options, the bulk of LA Noire VR should be comfortable for most players. I found moving to be comfortable (if unwieldy), and driving too. There is however a rather annoying fade-to-black system which attempts to maintain comfort when the game sees that you’re about to get into a high-speed collision. It’s a good idea—cars can get going quite quickly in the game, and if you slam into a wall the sudden deceleration could be very uncomfortable. Instead, the game fades to black for a few seconds to hide the sudden change in motion.
The problem is that it often happens on foot too, even if you are just going to bump into a trashcan or a wall. On foot the fade-out somehow caused me discomfort each time it happened, I would have happily turned it off for non-car movement if possible.
There were a few other comfort-related issues, such as it being difficult to grab and return my notebook from and to my coat pocket.