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L.A. Noire Review: A muddled mess disguised by shiny packaging

Think back to when you were a child. In front of you are a pile of presents for your birthday, Christmas, or whatever. In the back, standing tall above all the rest, is a giant gift that promises hidden spoils like none you’ve yet received. You drool over it until your mouth goes dry. Thoughts of what wonders it might contain keep you awake at night.

Then the day finally comes. Rushing toward the magical gift, you can’t open it fast enough. Paper flies in every direction. The beautiful exterior is shredded as if by a cat on a catnip-fueled rampage. As the ruins of the colorful paper lie in tatters on the floor, you finally glimpse the package’s contents. This is the moment you have been waiting for. The truth takes a few moments to sink in. You don’t want to believe it at first. Inside is a giant box of tube socks. 

L.A. Noire is that giant box of tube socks. Its impressive visual wrapping quickly gives way to a mundane, repetitive, and unsatisfying gameplay experience that fails to capitalize on the wonderment it once instilled in you. All you’re left with at the end is frustration, disappointment, and a giant box of proverbial tube socks.

The reality of L.A. Noire’s muddled execution will take a while to sink in. The game’s truly impressive presentation will captivate you for quite a while until the cold, hard truth finally gnaws its way into your reluctant brain. Sporting mind-blowing facial animation technology, L.A. Noire will instantly make the conversational animation in every other game you’ve ever played look like utter crap by comparison. Where Avatar proved that CG graphics in movies could traverse the precarious uncanny valley and appear lifelike and believably emotional, L.A. Noire demonstrates that games can display levels of nuance to rival that of real-life actors in actual movies. This is a landmark achievement.

Well, it is so long as it is agreed that is best to only look at characters’ faces, not their bodies, which are still animated with a more traditional method that looks stilted and robotic next to the hyper-detailed look of the heads that have been stitched on top of them. One landmark achievement at a time, I suppose.

As much as I cherish Avatar’s ability to draw me into its world, its terrible dialog and cliched plot were a hindrance. I wish its technological advancements had been paired with an equally impressive story. L.A. Noire shares a similar fate. Its visual achievements will be remembered for years to come, but its painful missteps in other areas will render it a double-edged sword at best, its ability to amaze always held back by its tendency to frustrate and annoy. 

L.A. Noire is another in a string of recent attempts to revive the adventure genre in a modern context. Like Heavy Rain before it, the project’s ambition is commendable, but its mechanical execution is lacking. 

In other words, it may be beautiful to look at, but it’s no fun to play. Like Heavy Rain’s barely-interactive quicktime events, the bits of L.A. Noire where you’re playing it instead of looking at it fail to satisfy. 

Problems begin with the game’s calling card - that amazing facial animation. The team should be praised for not simply relegating the achievement to a bullet point on the back of the box. The technology is put to use as an actual gameplay mechanic; an attempt to do something that no other game has done before - force you to read human emotions, decipher motivations, and guess the truth of statements not just by analyzing their words, but by studying the wrinkles on the speaker’s face, the look in their eyes. 

This fantastic concept hits a snag a short way into the game when it becomes clear you’re really attempting to deduce the inconsistent logic the developers used to craft these speech puzzles and outguess the overly vague meanings of the dialog options given to you to respond. 

Cole Phelps, your character, is limited to three responses: “Truth”, “Doubt”, and “Lie”. The latter of these three is somewhat more consistent. You can only accuse someone of lying when, Phoenix Wright-style, you have evidence to back up your accusation of direct falsehood. “Truth” and “Doubt” might as well be meaningless. In any given situation, “Doubt” could mean either, “I appreciate your cooperation but feel you could be telling me more, so if you’d kindly cooperate that’d be great” or “You’re a murdering psychopath that eats babies for breakfast and if you don’t tell me your entire life story right now, I’m going to make sure your children don’t have a daddy tomorrow”.

Considering most characters in the game look like a three-year-old caught with their hand in the cookie jar when they’re being less than truthful - think darting eyes, sneering looks, or otherwise overly goofy facial expressions - you might think figuring them out would be fairly easy. True, figuring out when they’re being less than forthcoming is generally easy (here’s a hint: nearly always). The tricky bit is figuring out how to get the rest out of them. I constantly found myself not analyzing the facial expressions on display, but instead deducing what the developers meant by “Doubt” in this specific situation. The schizophrenic reactions of the overeager protagonist only adds to the confusion. It’s a mess of a system that lacks any sort of consistency, which is rather a problem for what amounts to a puzzle game.

Interrogations are only half of the game’s adventure genre revival strategy. The other key component is more familiar - searching areas for clues. PC adventure games of old were notorious for requiring you to hunt around with your tiny mouse cursor over every last pixel of the screen looking for interactive objects which you would then have to use in some absurd, non-intuitive fashion because the developer thought it was funny. 

L.A. Noire has decided that the solution to modernizing this formula is to drop the puzzle aspect entirely and replace pixel hunting with what is essentially the same thing only in a 3D space. Investigation requires you to wander around the crime scene aimlessly waiting for your controller to vibrate, signaling an interactive object. You then pick up and inspect the object, most of which are utterly useless and exist only to waste your time and create an illusion of actual investigation. If it turns out to be important it instantly becomes a clue in your notebook. Eventually, after you’ve picked up the same useless beer bottles and cigarette butts enough times, you’ll stumble across everything important and the game will give you a handy little chime to let you know that you’re done.

That’s all there is to it. There is absolutely no difficulty or thought involved whatsoever, which seems like a huge wasted opportunity. Examining crime scene evidence and figuring out what happened could have been a fantastic playground for puzzles and thought-provoking tests of mental skill. Instead it’s nothing more than a barely interactive way to fill out your notebook with the clues you’ll need in interviews. It’s admittedly novel for a while, another aspect of this game that’s relatively unique these days, but after the gimmick wears off they begin to grow tiresome quickly. 

This is problematic, because the game is far too long. L.A. Noire is stretched too thin. It does posses a complex story that’s worthy of giving time to unravel (though the quality of that story is another matter I shall address shortly), but mechanically it’s shallow and repetitive. What we have here is a game that can take twenty hours to beat yet has no difficulty progression or new gameplay ideas past the first few hours. The game pads out its length with monotonous filler segments you’ll see far too many times. I lost count of the number of times a suspect ran away for no reason, forcing a monotonous chase. The shooting segments felt like they were tucked in because Rockstar said the game needed guns in it, not because they belonged. The gunplay is saddled with clunky controls and a terrible cover system to boot.

My favorite part of L.A. Noire by far was simply driving around the gorgeous recreation of 1940s Los Angeles. I reveled in the retro atmosphere and immense level of detail. It makes one wonder why the developers didn’t actually use their expansive environment for anything worthwhile. The only thing to do in the city are side missions, which are simply variants of the tiring chases and shootouts. Even driving from place to place can be totally skipped by letting your partner take the wheel in what is essentially a fast-travel system. Aside from needing the occasional bit of space to house one of the chase sequences (which are too scripted to necessitate an open world setting anyway), there’s simply no reason for this to be an open world game. Yet again, L.A. Noire has managed to flush potential down the drain.

I hate to keep using the terms “novelty” and “gimmick” with regard to L.A. Noire as if it were some cheap magic trick, but I can’t help but feel the game provides the illusion of interesting content rather than the real thing. After the novelty (there’s that word again) wears off, it’s a grind to the finish motivated solely by your interest in the story.

Here we come to the truth of the matter. L.A. Noire’s story is the heart of the game. Much like Heavy Rain, the mechanics are there to give you something to do while the tale plays itself out. Fortunately, Team Bondi’s crime drama features far better writing and characterization than its poorly scripted contemporary (or Avatar, for that matter). Unlike Heavy Rain, your actions have little to no influence on the plot. Cole can be pretty much the worst cop in the world and the only consequence is a slap on the wrist in the form of a low star rating at the end of a case. The story will soldier on just the same regardless. 

This didn’t have to be a bad thing. Linearity is not inherently negative. Here again Team Bondi have found a way to make their game more aggravating than it should have been. More than once, L.A. Noire makes the fatal mistake of prioritizing story over player input. Entire strings of cases, multiple hours of gameplay, are rendered meaningless on more than one occasion because the game was more interested in building up to a larger conspiracy than it was in making sure its individual cases were satisfying to solve. They forgot that rendering hours of work null and void in favor of a larger criminal threat that is never brought to justice might kind of suck for the player. 

Even more damning, the game takes control away from the player at a pivotal moment late in the story and makes you watch as Cole does something monumentally stupid that transforms him from likable-if-naive-do-gooder to just as dirty and dispicable as the rest of the detestable (albeit superbly written) cast. It then spends the rest of the game punishing him for doing something so stupid, as if you’re supposed to care by that point. Cole was the single relatable human being in the cast. Every character in L.A. Noire is well-written, but none are likable. Cole was the one exception until the game felt the need to yank that away, rendering my interest in the story null and void. 

Which is just as well, because the ending shoots for an action movie vibe that feels completely out of place, largely shunting the investigation and interrogation aspects to the background. What you get is less adventure game and more clunky Grand Theft Auto. This awkward finale concludes with an ending that, fittingly, is frustrating and unsatisfying. The game rubs its dark attitude in your face and revels in its purposeful lack of poetic justice. For whatever it’s worth, it at least it seems self-contained, lacking the obvious sequel hooks so common these days.

To the game’s credit, most of these story elements are deliberate. This isn’t the result of incompetent storytelling. The fantastic dialog is proof of that. The developers achieved exactly what they were going for, for better or worse. Perhaps my issues with it can simply be attributed to the noir genre, something I have little experience with. Whatever the case, L.A. Noire’s story is competently constructed (with a few comparatively minor exceptions). Some might enjoy these thematics more than myself, but I found them off-putting and a poor payoff for suffering through twenty hours of clunky mechanics and boring logic guessing games. I almost wish I could blame the unsatisfactory story on incompetence, because knowing the developers screwed me intentionally only makes it worse.

L.A. Noire is the physical manifestation of wasted potential. Every mechanic in the game could have been better and the story left an empty hole where the satisfaction was supposed to be. It isn’t a terrible game, I wouldn’t even have finished it if that were the case, but it will constantly frustrate and leave you wanting more. It is an interesting tech demo and not much else. Its stunning recreation of a bygone L.A. and animation that gives a tantalizing glimpse into what the games of the future will (hopefully) look like provide a brief thrill that will soon be replaced by the desire for these elements to find their way into a game that’s fun to play. If Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire represent the fate of the adventure game in the modern era, then perhaps it’s best if this genre remains comfy in its little pine box.

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Reader Comments (2)

Nice review! I know what you mean about this game. I've been having many discussions about my sort of love/hate relationship with it. For me, the stuff I like about the game overshadows the stuff I don't like, but it is probably not a game I would like to revisit much in the future. The fun factor just isn't quite there.

July 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Haymes

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