California Literary Review

Video Game Review: L.A. Noire

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June 2nd, 2011 at 9:57 am

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L.A. Noire box art
L.A. Noire

Release Date: May 17th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version reviewed), Windows, Playstation 3
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Sandbox(ish) Detective Thriller
ESRB: M for Mature

CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Confidentially, ‘L.A. Noire’ is a case of mistaken ambition.

The hard-boiled crime novel, with the grizzled, morally complex heroes of Chandler, Hammett, Leonard and Mosley, has been a fundamental part of the American landscape for almost a century now. When these tales turned up on the silver screen, their hard to crack cases, darkened alleyways, and frank depictions of vice and violence co-opted the Noir film movement to the point that the style became inseparable from the content. When we think “Noir” now, we imagine detectives covered in stark shadows, which is a bit odd since the word is just French for “black.”

Since their inception, video games have been incorporating conventions from both book and film into the genres available to gamers, and noir was no exception. For the most part the genre found its home in adventure games, with Déjà Vu, Under a Killing Moon, Snatcher, and Blade Runner games all being strong representatives. But when the market died out for adventure games in the late nineties, so did most games with a Noir bent (with Remedy’s Max Payne a major exception).

Last year Rockstar San Diego proved it could help resurrect both a genre and move storytelling in gaming forward with Red Dead Redemption. Something of a hat trick in gaming, RDR provided players with a well-constructed story, excellent action, and pitch-perfect atmosphere (not to mention a heaping helping of multiplayer for desert). All in a genre too often ignored — the Western.

Almost exactly a year later, Rockstar’s Australian Team Bondi brings us L.A. Noire, and they’re trying to do the same thing for pulpy Detective fiction. But has the team that comes from the land down under brought seedy back? Or is this just the gaming equivalent of a dime-store hood, wanting to play with the big boys of the genre, but falling prey to an ambition far greater than its means?

L.A. Noire video game

You probably don’t want to be in pictures in L.A. Noire, it’s bad for your health.

The year is 1947. The place is Los Angeles, California — “The City of Angels.” Home to the dreams Hollywood produces for the screen, and the nightmares that Mickey Cohen and his gang of cronies conjure at night, L.A. is large on criminals and in short supply of the heroes needed to stand against them.

You step into shoes of Cole Phelps (ably portrayed by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton), a veteran of the Second World War who has come to town in order to forget the past and forge a new future for himself as so many other GIs have. He finds a new home in the LAPD and due to his swift intelligence (and heroic war record) he’s quickly promoted to the rank of Detective. Working his way through the many “desks” of investigative work — from Traffic to Homicide — Cole ends up mired in the seedier side of life in the heart of Screenland and dragged into the heart of a case that reaches into his past and will control his future.

L.A. Noire video game

Meet Mickey Cohen. If you want to know more about him, check out the book L.A. Noir (no ‘e’), it’s a great read.

With the exposition taken care of, let’s get into the nitty gritty: Is L.A. Noire a good game? No mystery there, the answer is yes, most definitely. But is it a great game? Unfortunately no, not even close.

The issue doesn’t lie in the aesthetic, which like Betty Grable’s gams, looks expensive enough to be insured. Team Bondi has gone out of their way to craft an exacting virtual replica of Los Angeles circa 1947. The cars are period, the music on the radio is spot on, and the clothes are classic forties; three piece suit, fedora and tie (stylish!). The long lost Red Line runs from downtown to Wilshire, campaign ads for Nixon as Governor fly and you can visit copies of landmarks like MacArthur Park or Grauman’s Chinese Theater that are so perfect it’s kind of scary, all in a rather vast swath of L.A. that is yours to explore.

So the game world is very pretty, you got that. Is that so wrong? Well, no. But there’s little of interest to actually do outside story missions and having such fidelity in locations that aren’t used or songs rarely heard seems like a waste. This pretty, yet vacuous set dressing in the game becomes very apparent when contrasted with other art assets that actually are important, namely the facial animations.

L.A. Noire video game

The lengths some people go to for an overdue book. Sheesh.

I won’t go into too much detail on Bondi’s motionscan tech (that can be found elsewhere ), but it’s kind of mind blowing. Though not a perfect system, as the faces are recorded separately from bodies and so the two never quite match up, it helps bridge the gap over the “uncanny valley” found in most games, especially in close-ups. Due to the exacting nature of the system, if something seems wrong with a character’s facial animations you don’t have anyone but the actual actor to blame, as they’re probably just hamming it up.

Actually, this does become a bit of a problem, as a swarm of (mostly C-List) actors were culled for the game’s cast of apparently a zillion characters. Such a massive cast makes playing L.A. Noire a fun round of “Hey! It’s that guy!”, but it also means that many performances are from the “I’m ACTING!” school of dramatic arts. This matters, as reading the faces of people you interview during the course of your 21 main mysteries is a huge portion of the game’s most interesting component: investigation.

Investigations are a mix of traditional adventure games and Phoenix Wright: you’ll go to crime scenes and hunt for clues, adding them to your notepad instead of an inventory, and then interview persons of interest until either you accuse someone of the crime or the plot breaks in and turns into a dramatic action scene. Though it may seem complex, each component is rather simplified. As far as interviews and interrogations go, your actual options are fairly simple: you can agree with a suspect’s statement, press them if you doubt it, or accuse them of lying, though you’ll need evidence in order to prove an accusation.

Interestingly, the game doesn’t hold your hand here; if you misread a statement and make the wrong move you can’t go back and you’ll have to work another angle on the case. This leads to cases that offer a lot of variation, and a multi-layered approach to narrative flow: the way you solve the Red Lipstick Murder might be fundamentally different from the way your friend does.

It’s here at the cross between using human empathy and natural game flow where the game shines brightest. When you find yourself emotionally involved in a case because you know a suspect lied to you, but you can’t prove it, that’s when you truly feel like the Noir detective of modern legend. Yes the game has these moments, but notice I have yet to mention anything about the “action” of the game.

L.A. Noire video game

Most of the game is about reading people’s faces and using your intuition to see if the mook in front of you is a stand up fella or if they’re cracking wise.

Like a chimera, L.A. Noire has adventure game greatness stapled onto the body of a free-roaming shooter, so yes, it has action. It’s just . . . rather boring action.

Yes, getting into a shootout in L.A. Noire is boring. Why? Well it’s not due to the audio or visuals which are full of exciting music, loud bangs and dramatic animations. No, it’s that they’re incredibly easy due to a combination of regenerating health and infinite ammo, and very basic as it follows standard conventions without any novel hook or mechanic. Absolutely nothing was done to make these moments stand out, and it shows.

L.A. Noire video game

L.A. Noire’s action is riddled with as many problems as a snitch is with bullets.

Chases are better, but still flawed. In vehicles, the handling seems too loose, and when on foot most of your interesting actions (like jumping over fences) are automated for you. Plus most chases are scripted to reduce your options in them. There are mechanics to take down suspects without killing them via a tackle or firing your gun into the air, but these options are allowed rather rarely, and since you can’t disarm or arrest suspects in shootouts (you know, like a real cop), you’ll go through these moments with a heavy heart as you rack up an unrealistically high death toll.

Alright, the action is pretty bland, but even the investigation elements have major issues. Music cues make collecting evidence at crime scenes pretty easy and just time consuming, especially since they are lousy with pointless red herring clues. These aren’t clues that might lead you down a wrong path either, it’s just random junk like beer bottles and cigarette butts that make you question why you’re looking at them. Usually you don’t have to do any actual thinking about where to go either, the characters will discuss that amongst themselves.

L.A. Noire video game

That look of apprehension on Cole’s face isn’t out of fear, but boredom.

As far as interrogations go, it’s just not a very deep system and it’s rooted in vagaries. You can’t implore any sort of unique strategies, so there’s no “Good Cop, Bad Cop” technique, nor can you try to “pull a Colombo” and be cordial to suspects who would otherwise be too guarded. Once you learn that you can back out of the “lie” option, it becomes very easy to game the system, which wouldn’t be a problem if there was more complexity to it, but again there isn’t. Oddly enough, it seems that this was less due to fears that gamers couldn’t figure out what to do (though there is needless hand holding), but more due to directorial fiat, and this is what both makes and breaks the entire game.

L.A. Noire video game

Dear L.A. Confidential. If I can’t be you, I’d rather not live in this world! Signed, L.A. Noire.

Never in a long time have I seen a case of director’s chair envy quite as bad as what’s in LA Noire. Though at first it seems as if the rather long cinematics and lack of character control are due to the early tutorial section, you’ll quickly learn that, no, this game just has a LOT of them. I’d say this game easily breaks the Kojima barrier, especially if you start skipping the driving sections, and goes into a cutscene to gameplay ratio of 60/40 or possibly higher.

This really isn’t acceptable, especially when most of the actual gameplay is as scripted as it is. Plus, since this overbearing direction isn’t countered by much variety (the overly difficult bauble collecting is dull in such a dead city), it means that much of the game’s enjoyment can only come from the story and the characters. Unfortunately, L.A. Noire just doesn’t match up to Red Dead Redemption on this score.

While individual cases are well written (for the most part), it’s the overarching story that’s fundamentally flawed. We never spend off duty time with Cole, his family, or his partners and yet at several points we get shown scenes that would be far more involved if we did. There’s also a long running backstory that (while delivered in an intriguing manner via newspapers) breaks down at the end of the game due to poor choices, and the foreknowledge the player receives throughout the narrative cripples the plot of any intrigue. This means there’s no “big mystery” to solve, and leaves the ending of the game to rely on action scenes, but as already stated, these are pretty terrible. When you toss on a rather pointless ending it just becomes a major disappointment.

I’d ponder that this could be intentional if it weren’t so bad. Many noir tales end on misanthropic down notes, with little in the way of a happy resolution. L.A. Noire succeeds in this, just not in the way it wants to.

A common lesson for filmmakers is to “Show, don’t tell,” but the same lesson basically exists for gamemakers in “Play, don’t show.” L.A. Noire’s design just doesn’t want to be played, but rather watched. It wants to be judged as a film more than a game. If it were, it would be overly long and still contain the same story problems. As a game, it’s just a decent, not spectacular, foray into a genre that deserves better.

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L.A. Noire Trailer

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