L.A. Noire is merely O.K. Noire
I finished the homicide desk caseload in L.A. Noire and headed off for my first vice team assignment. As I sailed through 1947 Los Angeles (driving as if it’s Liberty City in 2008) it occurred to me that Team Bondi sure put a lot of work into a game that really only wants you to jump from crime scene to crime scene.
We still can’t get stadium crowds to look decent in any given sports title, but L.A. Noire offers a GTA-level living city as a backdrop. And then the game promptly encourages you to skip driving around and focus on twitchy, inexact clue-hunting and doesn’t-matter-anyway branching-dialogue interrogations. The environment has to be fantastically detailed in order to give the game weight and believability, but then you’re forced to play lie detector in a vague peg-and-hole game of matching evidence to testimony.
It’s a gutsy play; the conversationally bipolar Detective Cole Phelps would appreciate the game’s chutzpah.
Once you make peace with the fact that L.A. Noire is not Grand Theft Auto, it becomes very easy to fall into a pattern of ignoring the open world and concentrating on the cases. If you make your cop partner drive, you can skip the game’s most “gamey” parts: careening through quasi-busy streets, finding hidden collectibles, and stumbling into action-oriented street crimes. Even if you enjoy driving yourself to each locale, you can still avoid distractions since the heavy plot wants you focused on your assigned case.
Police work probably shouldn’t be fun, even if we expect that a videogame should make it so. L.A. Noire rather spectacularly ensures that it is NOT fun… both for purposeful reasons (yuck! bare-handing corpses!) and through weaknesses in design. Sometimes you have to keep spinning Phelps on the spot to get him to pick up a clue, which is an interface failure on a level far below what the game’s polish should accept. The highly vaunted interrogation sequences – where you have to identify witness statements as either Truth, Doubt or Lie – are hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll nail a guy in a lie and have just the right evidence to prove it. The next time, you’ll screw it up and not have any idea why because the canned conversations just keep on rolling.
And that’s my main issue with L.A. Noire. In the end, it does not particularly matter how you handle the questions, or how many clues you find, the storyline continues on. For all the hyper-reality of the facial acting, and the beautifully designed cityscape, the game simply does not care if you muff all the questions. Go ahead, strike out on that interrogation: somebody will be slapped in cuffs regardless, and the NPCs will still mutter “Say, isn’t that the hero cop who cracked the Big Case?” as you walk by.
It creates a gulf between Phelps’ reality and the player’s reality. Plus, it unintentionally alienates the player from the case stories since bad interrogations mean key details and answers are never revealed. And yet, the plot marches toward its inexorable conclusion. This is a very odd way to punish the player: implement a half-assed conversation minigame and then grenade the part of the game that works – the story and setting – when the player fails at it.
As Joe Haygood and I discussed on a recent Aeropodcast, what makes L.A. Noire particularly odd is that, in similar games, you get to a point where your dumb ass has to figure something out in order to proceed. If you are stuck on a critical puzzle in Professor Layton or Tales of Monkey Island, you are not allowed to move on until you solve it. L.A. Noire lets you blunder on through, No Gamer Left Behind.
The only downside to being a terrible cop (or, I should say, being terrible at interpreting how the game intends you to play things out) is that your “level” will increase more slowly. Which is precisely the kind of videogame-centric silliness that, in most situations, L.A. Noire studiously avoids. The level number is being used here to give gamers something to compare, something traditionally gamesque, but it’s hardly something the game itself pays much mind. I completed the game on level 15 out of 20. And I whiffed on a ton of questions.
Although some of Team Bondi’s risks do not pay off, L.A. Noire remains a very daring game. The facial motion capture is certainly leading edge (even if the hairstyle modeling is not), and the period-perfect details, expressions and music are a joy to discover. In the end, it’s that physicality that props up the rest of the game and makes it worth a playthrough. It’s graphics over gameplay… if there’s a sequel on the way, I hope Team Bondi finds a way to shore up the latter. The world of L.A. Noire deserves better than to be remembered as an on-rails detective game.Tags: editorial, L.A. Noire, rockstar, team bondi