To say that L.A. Noire has visual appeal is an understatement. The people in the game look and behave so much like real humans, that it’s uncanny. Moreso than Heavy Rain or even Uncharted 2, it feels like a movie. In fact, you might have more fun watching than playing. The writing is top-notch, and it’s definitely Rockstar’s finest effort in terms of storytelling. The problem with L.A. Noire is that its epic story and captivating performances only momentarily distract from the wonky, uncoordinated game play. It’s almost annoying to have to pick up the controller again when a cut-scene ends. You can guess that whatever you’re expected to do will be less interesting than the short film preceding it. Maybe some players get off on walking fifteen feet across a room to dial a phone, or carefully and pointlessly rotating an empty cigarette carton, but I’d prefer to actively know what I’m doing when I’m supposedly solving a mystery.
Graphically speaking, L.A. Noire is a masterpiece. The game oozes charm thanks to its impressive recreation of body language, expressions and mannerisms. These come largely into play during the interrogation portions of the game, where you are expected to study a person’s verbal and non-verbal responses in order to tell whether or not they are lying. This sounds fun at first, but quickly becomes tedious when you discover that all interrogations can be easily solved (or failed) by rote. They rarely have bearing on the overarching story. This is a problem considering that they are the selling point of the game. Whether or not you do well with the interrogations, some loophole or piece of flimsy evidence will inevitably propel you to the next set piece, forcing you to perform some ridiculous task before the villain reveals himself.
To study the interrogation system is to delve into the core of the game. A player is given a few options to decide if a suspect is lying or telling the truth. If the suspect is lying, you may accuse them of it directly (providing evidence to support your claim) or indirectly (doubting their statement without supporting evidence). In order to successfully accuse someone of lying, you need to have the exact piece of evidence that refutes their claim. If you found the right piece of evidence, you need to select it from your notebook when prompted. If you select the wrong piece of evidence, the suspect will say something jerky and you will get a naughty X-mark next to that question in your notebook. The more happy check marks you accrue, the more clues you will have to solve the case. But when it comes to actually solving the case, there are always two outcomes. Either the killer will present himself by leaving the murder weapon next to his glass of milk on the bedside table, or the game will prompt you to choose between two likely suspects and charge them with the crime regardless of whether or not they did it. Your captain only cares about fast and thorough results, not the legitimacy of your evidence. This means that there is constantly grey area when it comes to solving cases, and regardless of how highly you are rated at the end of each chapter by the invisible detective-ratings-commission, there is a good chance that you are still miles away from solving the mystery.
There is a huge discrepancy between the quality of the writing and the way in which the writing interacts with the game play. Our main character, LAPD detective Cole Phelps walks just awkwardly enough to make the platforming elements of this game frustratingly awful. There is this weird compulsion in the mechanics to spice things up and make them more exciting, resulting in repeated fisticuffs and on-foot chase sequences that just feel redundant. Instead of re-committing to the player-as-human-lie-detector premise, L.A. Noire has moments of identity crisis where you’ll find yourself wading deep into tar pits or running like mad from an exploding movie set. These would be fun in a game designed for movement, but Cole’s wobbly turning makes him an unfit candidate for the job. It’s a game obsessed with realism, until the part where you have to shimmy up a drain pipe like Mario looking for his hat. It feels out-of-place amongst the grit.
This is not to say that all its action game play suffers. The shooting and driving sequences are largely indebted to the mechanics of Grand Theft Auto, and if you’ve ever played a game in that series, they will be largely familiar. Unfortunately, the cover-based shooting is a little clunky. To compensate for this, Cole is seemingly impervious to gunfire whereas the enemies take a few hits and drop. “Sorry we forgot to tell you there would be a lot of shooting in this game. There is. We ran out of ideas. Don’t worry, we made it really, really easy. Copasetic?” Another thing the designers forgot to tell you is that driving in Los Angeles is not a fun experience, especially when all of its most obvious and recognizable landmarks have yet to be built or weren’t included in the game. (Was Mulholland Drive too scary for you guys?) It might be a modern problem now that the city is a China-like wasteland, packed to the brim with wall-to-wall zombies hoping to suckle at stardom’s tea, but it just doesn’t feel like Los Angeles without the traffic!
Getting around is too easy, and damned if it isn’t boring. The game tries to rectify the boringness of travel with the ability to skip to destinations, but it’s only when you’re aimlessly driving around that you get the chance to do semi-boring side missions that amplify your detective ability by giving you cool auto-cheat points for perks like “reveal all clues,” or “make me a high-ball, woman!” (For that last one the combat system comes momentarily into play if she doesn’t move fast enough.) Oh, if the gameplay wasn’t boring or easy enough, your neat auto-cheat points allow you to deduce things faster and basically ruin the game in the process. There is a cool feature that lets you “phone-a-friend,” wherein you poll the online gaming community to see which answers they chose on average for specific interrogation sequences. What’s cool is that they are not always right. This is a great way of incorporating online game play into a single player experience. Unfortunately, you can only get more of these awesome cheat points by playing the arbitrary side-missions that are found while driving around like an idiot. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, there are no open world sandbox parts between missions. You can only drive around like an asshole when you’re in the middle of a more important mission, and the game often chastises you for not going to specific locations fast enough. So when am I supposed to drive around and hit, er, hurt, er, help people? It doesn’t seem like this portion of the game was thought out properly, and with over forty side missions and ninety different vehicles, it stands to reason that this game should have had a slightly more sandbox-y feel.
It all feels like a lot of work for nothing, especially considering the fact that the story unfolds whether you play well or not. The story is fascinating, well-written and structured like a great Hollywood movie. The problem is that it’s not really a mystery story, and it doesn’t serve the premise of the game. For example, you’ll find newspapers throughout the game that give you access to cut scenes with information that your main character never sees. That means the player has access to evidence that Cole can never use to solve mysteries. It’s frustrating to know more than the character you’re controlling, especially when your chief weapon is information. Worse yet, the newspapers and post-case flashbacks have more to do with the overarching story than any of your cases. Instead of wanting to skip the movies to play the game, you’re slogging through boring game play to get to the next movie. Why don’t you just read a book? No boring game play and you actually get to solve the mystery. Plus, there’s no incentive to buy add-on content!
I want a game to fulfill the promise of the premise. I want the mysteries to reflect the feeling of noir, not the sensation of driving around pre-smog Los Angeles. In a game packed with femmes, not one one of them was a fatale. Can you believe it? Haven’t you ever heard of tropes, writer/director Brendan McNamara? Formula exists for a reason and mostly because it works. If you’re going to buck formula, at least give it a good reason. You do a good job of making us care about cut-scenes, but by severely limiting the player’s interaction with our main character’s choices and dialog it didn’t always feel like I was directly involved. There were times when I had the right evidence, but the questions were so awkwardly phrased that I didn’t even know how to use it. Sometimes I would guess correctly and feel none the wiser. Other times I would just wander around rooms waiting for controller vibrations and meaninglessly tapping the X button in hopes of finding a clue. Inevitably I would find one, and be propelled into some sort of fisticuffs, which I would deftly win by continuing to press X repeatedly. Maybe the suspect will break free and run away and I will have to press X to tackle. Who knows? It’s a long game. The real mystery is how a writer so gifted at dialog can be so bad at communicating with the player.
I did not love L.A. Noire. I really wanted to, and was charmed initially by its polish and commitment to authenticity. Its subject matter was fun and interesting, but its schizophrenic game play really bothered me. I’m a fan of L.A. Noire’s attempt to introduce a new deductive game play element into the mix. It might have done better to re-commit to the style of classic Lucasarts adventure games. That would have made the puzzle-solving matter more and not seem quite like an exercise in rote. There is no reason to give the player solutions in a game about solving mysteries. Portal 2 didn’t need a cheat mode. Make the player work to understand something, and allow the player to be pleasantly surprised by the result. Don’t make the player work to understand nothing. That’s just an exercise in futility. There is something to this franchise, but it needs more focus on interrogation and less focus on picking up and rotating empty coffee cups. Clear dialog trees with the opportunity for morality-based cause-and-effect could really take this type of game play to the next level. Sometimes I would verbally accost a suspect on accident, simply because my character was compelled to do so. That signifies a lack of control, and the more I played, the more I felt like Cole would do whatever the hell Cole wanted to do, whether or not I was controlling him. Maybe Brendan McNamara should stick to non-interactive art.