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Marston or Phelps? A Comparison of L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar Games is hitting its stride now. Two straight games that are genre defining, and potentially revolutionary, they’ve released now, both of which to fan and critical acclaim. But which one is better? Team Bondi’s homage to film noire or Rockstar San Diego’s western classic?

I’ve already stated on this blog that Red Dead Redemption is among my favorite games of all time, and L.A. Noire was my most anticipated game of 2011. But, which game will I say is better?

I have to warn you, this post contains spoilers for both games. If you haven’t finished it, I suggest you wouldn’t read the “plot” section of this post.

Both games are beautiful. No one’s disputing that. However, L.A. Noire’s graphical prowess has been widely discussed. And considering that L.A. Noire was released almost exactly a year after Red Dead Redemption (RDR was released in North America on May 18, 2010, and L.A. Noire was released in North America on May 17, 2011), and has a potentially revolutionary facial animation feature that was highly touted during promotion of the game, you can guess which game is going to look better. L.A. Noire runs smoothly, with no framerate lag, even with the new motion-scan technology. L.A. Noire is one of the best looking games around

Occasionally, certain textures load slowly on L.A. Noire, but that’s the only graphical hiccup I can think of.

When Red Dead Redemption came out, it was a beautiful game. It still is a year later. However, framerate lag plagued Redemption and, as time has worn on (even though it’s barely been a year), better looking games have come along. It’s still a great looking game, but it’s been eclipsed at the top of that mountain. A mountain it was barely at the top of to begin with.

Both games look great, but we have to give this one to the newer release. EDGE: L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire had to be different from it’s Rockstar predecessors, as now you’re put in the shoes of a straight-laced detective rather than just an I’m-just-here-to-kill-people badass. There’s still gunplay in Noire, but there’s a lot less of it. Plus, you can only hold one gun at a time. Your handgun and a longer weapon, like a shotgun or Tommy gun (or the flamethrower in the final mission). Because there’s so little gunplay, though, you’ll only find it in the incredibly action oriented parts of the game, like towards the end, is when you’re going to be using a shotgun or Tommy. His handgun is usually all the stopping power Phelps needs, as you rarely take on more than three enemies at one time during most of the game.

L.A. Noire has a lot of different gameplay aspects, as there has to be in a Rockstar game that’s completely different than any Rockstar game before it. Trying to find all clues at crime scenes and trying to read the faces of the people you’re interviewing will be easy at first. But once the first few missions are out of the way, the game stops holding your hand. Clues are in harder to find places. Faces are harder to read. It will get harder to tell whether if a person is telling the truth or lying.

The one and only surefire way to know if a person is truly lying is if you have the evidence to call them out on. If you don’t, but are pretty sure the person is lying, you can call the response into doubt. It’s rare when a person is telling the truth. One of the only times when I got a person telling the truth was a little old lady who owned a boarding house in north LA. And even she tried to lie to me with the third question I asked her. I guess no one is angelic in the City of Angels.

Noire also has more platforming. Not in the Mario/LittleBigPlanet sort of way, but you’re gonna be climbing ladders and shimmying up drain pipes a lot in L.A. Noire. Like a whole lot. Seriously, it’s every other action sequence. It’s a bit confusing about how to run up a fire escape when a person you’re pursuing on foot, as the camera will stop following you, and instead do a cinematic thing where it will show you from the side, and it gets disorienting, as you’re not sure which way to push your analog stick.

Red Dead Redemption was pretty much the same as Grand Theft Auto. I’ve always hated when people used “it’s just Grand Theft Auto on horseback” when talking about Redemption, because I always felt Redemption was so much deeper than that. But that’s mostly because of the plot. The one truly new gameplay aspect in Redemption is Dead-Eye, which slows down time so you can shoot enemies better. Sure, you grow more attached to your horse in RDR than you ever did to any car in GTA. But besides Dead-Eye, the plot, the fact of me almost crying when my horse accidentally died, and the setting, what else is truly different between Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV?

Detective work is getting the tally. EDGE: L.A. Noire

Open-World Aspects
Both Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire had a much more linear storyline than the other major Rockstar series, Grand Theft Auto. Noire, however, gives off more of a Mafia II feel, as it seems you’re just driving to the next cutscene and action sequence. Sure, there are side missions that come over the police radio, but many of them are very far away from your current location, especially when you’re on the Vice desk. I can’t tell you how many times I was in Hollywood investigating musicians who overdosed on morphine when there was a street crime going on miles away!

That brings me to a larger point: Los Angeles in L.A. Noire is massive. Easily the largest and most detailed world Rockstar has ever produced. But, the amazingly accurate Los Angeles is simply too big. If you’ve played Just Cause 2 you know what I’m talking about. The island nation of Palau in Just Cause 2 was too massive to move around easily. It’s harder in L.A. Noire, because there is nothing drivable that flies in L.A. Noire to move around the world quickly. At least you had planes in Just Cause 2.

There are collectibles in L.A. Noire, like the golden film reels spread throughout the city, the hidden vehicles marked with question marks on the full map, and the Los Angeles landmarks at their actual street addresses, but beside that there’s really no reason to explore Los Angeles, and it’s so big that it’s often awkward to do so.

On the other hand, there seems to be an endless amount of things to do in Red Dead Redemption. I’ve had the game for a year and I haven’t run out of things to do. It seems to be the opposite with the much more linear L.A. Noire.

Red Dead Redemption’s world was decently sized for a sandbox game, but also very detailed and calming. The world in Red Dead Redemption seems to be living, while I get a vaguely “Truman Show” feel for L.A. Noire. That’s not saying Los Angeles isn’t detailed, quite the contrary, but it doesn’t feel like it’s “living” as New Austin/Nuevo Paraiso/West Elizabeth were, or even Liberty City was, in the preceding games.

As has been the consensus throughout this section, I’m giving the open world aspects to Red Dead Redemption. EDGE: Red Dead Redemption

Main Character
John Marston is an ex-outlaw who just wants his family back. Cole Phelps is ashamed of what he did in World War II and is one of the few straight-laced cops left in 1940s Los Angeles.

Personally, I like Marston a lot more. He seems more like the average person doing what any of us would do faced with our family being taken without our consent in the old west. He seems like a kinder, gentler person, even though he’s committed many more atrocities than Cole Phelps.

Phelps seems scarred by his actions in the war. He’s over-educated, and occasionally comes off as pompous because of that, at least in my opinion. Phelps’ decisions during cutscenes (with no input from the player) for the pure process of continuing the occasionally stupid plot are frustrating, and often leave you hating Phelps.

I’m giving this to Marston. He’s the single best character Rockstar has ever made. Cole Phelps, Niko Bellic, Carl Johnson, Tommy Vercetti; none of them compare to the Man from Blackwater. EDGE: Red Dead Redemption

[spoiler intro=”Plot”]Among the recent Rockstar releases, plot has become a central factor, rather than the background as it had been during the company’s PS2 games, as L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption don’t need the zany violence of the Grand Theft Autos to hold the game up.

I’ll be honest, though. I’m not a fan of L.A. Noire’s story. It’s long, confusing, convoluted and takes forever to get to get going, and is occasionally pointless. Choices Phelps makes towards the end of the game are completely out of the blue, and are given no explanation other than to move the plot along, which you don’t care about because it took so long to get going. Because of the cutscene decisions made by Phelps, you end up hating him by the end of the game.

For the final few missions, your point of view is taken from Phelps to Jack Kelso, an insurance fraud investigator with California Fire and Life turned Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Special Investigator. Kelso served under Phelps during World War II, and Phelps uses Kelso to investigate faulty housing developments in the Wilshire district, as he’s frozen by the LAPD because he commits adultery with lounge singer Elsa Lichtmann (as adultery wasn’t stripped from the law in California until 1976). Kelso is good, but the game then teases you with cuts to Phelps trying to find atonement while stuck in the LAPD purgatory of the Arson desk.

When the game shows what Phelps is doing while you’re playing as Kelso, I can’t help but thinking that I’d rather be playing as Phelps and investigating crime as him, even though Kelso is the one actually advancing the plot. Maybe it’s because of the fact that the plot really doesn’t start to get going until about halfway through the third act. The ending is very depressing, and sort of odd. I honestly felt sad at the end of L.A. Noire, and a bit betrayed. A bit like I felt after Red Dead Redemption, only with more betrayal.

Despite similar endings, L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption’s stories are totally different. Red Dead Redemption’s story is simple: do whatever it takes to get your family back, and maybe try to help people along the way to atone for the hurt you caused while you were in outlaw. Regardless of the cliché, that’s still a classic story that will stand the test of time. While Marston gets sidetracked often along the way, which has led to a metric crapton of complaining by some people who’ve played the game about Marston being nothing more than an “errand boy”, the characters you meet along the way of Red Dead Redemption are practically real people. You go through so much with some of them that it’s almost sad when one of them leaves. No amount of motion-scan technology can make a person truly real. Sure, they’ll look real, but it’s what’s inside those pixels that counts.

Both have good stories, but this one goes to New Austin rather than Los Angeles. EDGE: Red Dead Redemption[/spoiler]

I loved the music in Red Dead Redemption, composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, so much so I bought the CD of it. The music was minimalist when you’re just riding through the plains, but set the tone for a horseback chase. L.A. Noire’s music is 1940s jazz that sets the time period perfectly.

While some may argue that L.A. Noire’s music is more akin to the actual time period, it’s my opinion that the music in Red Dead Redemption is more varied and simply better. Red Dead Redemption is among the greatest video game soundtracks of all time.

To be honest, I liked L.A. Noire’s soundtrack a lot better than I thought I would. I especially liked the menu music. In fact, I liked the menus a lot more in L.A. Noire than I did on Red Dead Redemption. Seriously, the menus in Noire are sweet.

But we’re not here to talk about menus. We’re here to talk about music. And if I had to choose, I’m choosing Bill Elm and Wood Jackson of Red Dead Redemption over Andrew Hale of L.A. Noire. EDGE: Red Dead Redemption

It’s far too early to think about any prominent DLC coming L.A. Noire’s way. All that I can really talk about is the extra missions that came with certain preorders and launch day purchases.

The PlayStation 3 gets an extra mission, the Traffic case “The Consul’s Car”, about the stolen car of the Consulate General from Argentina to the United States in Los Angeles. No one, outside of Rockstar and Take-Two, has played The Consul’s Car, as it requires a redemption code in the PlayStation Store, which is unfortunately unavailable.

Separate cases also came with certain pre-orders and launch day purchases, as stated above. GameStop offered “The Naked City” Vice Case, about the supposed suicide of a famous fashion model, and the Badge Pursuit Challenge, collectibles hidden throughout Los Angeles for an extra incentive to go through the open world. You got both of those with a pre-order from GameStop.

Wal-Mart also offered a separate case, another Traffic one, “A Slip of the Tongue”, about how Phelps’ investigation of a car theft turns into an investigation in the largest auto fraud racket on the west coast.

Other bonuses were extra weapons and suits. Since no one who has a PlayStation 3 has played any of these, including me, it’s impossible to compare them to Red Dead Redemption’s DLC. It’s safe to say that every one of these will end up on the PlayStation Network eventually, as pre-order bonuses always do.

Until October, the DLC for Red Dead Redemption wasn’t that great. Run-of-the-mill stuff, like things to spice up online play, extra weapons and the like. But then, Rockstar released perhaps one of the greatest DLC packs of all time. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. If you read my review for Undead Nightmare, you know it’s an absolutely wonderful expansion to Red Dead Redemption. It’s almost like a full game added, with (a lot of) new single player missions, two new multiplayer modes, and even new characters.

It’ll be a tall task for L.A. Noire to compare to Undead Nightmare alone in terms of DLC. Only if Rockstar releases a DLC that puts you in the shoes of Cole Phelps during his time on the Burglary desk (unseen in the game) and offers a way to save cars (you can’t in L.A. Noire) could L.A. Noire possibly beat Red Dead Redemption in terms of DLC. EDGE: Red Dead Redemption

Box art
So, we’ve come down to the most superficial of all my criteria. But, if this was the 1980s and when there was no Internet and your mom wouldn’t let you get Electronic Gaming Monthly, all you had to go on when choosing a video game was the cover. Yes, that is the only justification I’m giving to having this section.

Red Dead Redemption:
Minimalist. The protagonist, Marston looking badass, gazing slightly to his left (our right), holding a shotgun, looking like he doesn’t care about the potential ramifications of his actions. All that matters is getting “redemption”. Guys riding horseback in the background to show you that we ain’t in Liberty City anymore, stranger. The font (Chinese Rocks) has become well known as the “RDR font”, as your eyes are immediately drawn to the title after gazing into Marston’s shameless, pity-less gaze. A great cover. However, it’s not necessarily unique, and almost on the boring side. It’s great, but I the designers could’ve done better.
L.A. Noire

Much more active than the Red Dead Redemption cover. Again, we have the protagonist, Cole Phelps, holding a gun and looking angrily off at our right side of the box. Instead of predominantly red, we have predominantly blue with a touch of red. Personally, I like L.A. Noire’s cover art much better than I like Red Dead Redemption’s. The fonts, the colors and the art style are all better in my opinion than RDR’s. EDGE: L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption are spectacular games, and are among the best ever for this generation. Both are genre defining, no matter how small those respective genres are. And if you don’t have one or both, I highly recommend you go and buy one of them. But, there has to be a winner. One game has to better. And that is…
Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption is still among my favorite games of all time. I’m not sure if L.A. Noire will even crack the top five at this point. Redemption’s deep story and masterfully crafted characters edge out L.A. Noire’s revolutionary graphics style and intuitive gameplay.

This doesn’t mean L.A. Noire’s a bad game, by any means. Both are phenomenal. It just means that I think Red Dead Redemption is the better of the two. Pick up L.A. Noire right now for $59.99 and Red Dead Redemption used for about $23 and new for about $35.