Game: L. A. Noire

Genre: “Open-World” Action/Adventure, Third-Person Shooter

Developer: Team Bondi, Rockstar Games

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Platform: PS3, Xbox 360

Score: L.A. NOPE

My review for L. A. Noire began, unlike other games, upon hearing about it.  The description given while in development was “a strong narrative game, with revolutionary technology, that has you solving crimes as a 1940’s detective.”  That sounds like a cool adventure game.  I like crime and solving things.  I especially love suits from the ‘40s.  Then I heard the words “sandbox,” “free roam,” and “Rockstar.”  Hell, they didn’t even give me time to get fully excited. Sandbox gameplay is the antithesis of strong storytelling. Way to shoot yourself in the foot before a marathon. The absolute best this game could possibly achieve now is ‘could’ve been great, but-.’ I ceased to care at that moment and moved on with my life.

So then the hype got high and even some friends expressed curiosity. Okay, fine; time to play it. I’ve been surprised by games before.  Surprise would be a good thing here: it would show that sandbox gameplay doesn’t by definition hold back a strong narrative. More importantly, I’m a reviewer.  I can rein in my prejudice to better inform the masses.

So opening the case, I suspended my disbelief completely.  Film reel prints awaited me inside the game box.  They were clues for some in game thing.  I didn’t intend on playing this mini-game, but it was clear Rockstar was really using every gimmick at their disposal to disarm my skepticism trying.  Red Dead Redemption and Bully weren’t so bad.  Running through the list of Rockstar games, I realized setting was sort of their strength.  The neon marquee, harsh black and white of the title screen, and opening music showed they were starting in the right place.  If L. A. Noire was just me and Rockstar exchanging significant glances over how much we both enjoy noir and the ‘40s, I could have some fun.

With an open mind and my love for a hard boiled crime story poised by the smooth sax and black and white menu, I select new game.  A narration delivered by a 50-something chain smoker sets the backdrop nicely.  All that was missing was a classic protagonist.  Enter Cole Phelps, a returning World War II hero with something to prove.  L. A. Noire, as advertised, allows you to control Phelps as he works his way up from patrol officer to increasingly hardcore detective duty.  The storytelling is devoted mostly to the cases at hand.  Phelps’s back story works its way in from time to time, usually in the form of flashbacks between cases.  Near the end of the game a combination of the cases he’s working and his personal story begin to share the stage.  The overall plot is quite good, eventually.

I do have a problem with Cole’s love interest.  We all know that dames are central to any good noir plot.  The dame Cole takes an interest in could’ve used a little more screen time.  The opportunities are there but the cutscenes involving her are half as long as they should be.  That’s the main problem with the game’s storytelling in general.  There’s a story here, and it’s a good one – you just don’t get the time to enjoy it.  A story like this, in a setting like this: the camera should linger. Instead we get snippets of back story in between the option of GTA Idiocy. The story really gets cookin’ by the last three missions – ’till you find out that these are the last three missions and the rushed, too-little-too-late feeling of disappointment sets in.  It’s a damn shame, too, considering how good the ending was.

There are some excellent noir moments.  Call them throwbacks or rip-offs, but they’re good.  I waited a long time for a buxom lounge singer with an accent to stroll into some gumshoe’s office.  When it finally happened I applauded.  There were a number of these tropes.  Each one of these moments was like a delicious morsel I ate up.  I think Rockstar, to my surprise, was careful not to overload the game with them. They made an honest attempt at creating an enjoyable experience. Scratch that Rockstar bit, I lay the blame for these successes at the feet of Team Bondi’s founder, Brendan McNamara, who directed and wrote L. A. Noire.

The aesthetic noir moments are more prevalent.  Andrew Hale composed the original score of the game; noteworthy artists from the period fill in the gaps.  The soundtrack was the first mood setter for me and stays strong throughout.  The corruption, drugs, and moral ambiguity of film noir, the more characteristic elements, show in varying degrees.  Let’s get this next part out of the way: Is it in black and white?  The answer ends up being: Do you want it to be? A menu option fixes this potential problem handily.

The core of L. A. Noire’s gameplay is the actual case solving.  It plays out much like any detective game.  You walk around a crime scene fondling corpses and picking up objects like you would the puzzle pieces of any adventure game.  Some things are relevant to the case at hand, some aren’t.  The real difference L. A. Noire tries to make is in the interviewing of suspects.  Real-time global illumination and a new technology called MotionScan are used to help create the facial expressions for the people interviewed.  Some will lie to you, others will tell the truth.  It’s up to you to use the evidence collected and their reactions to decide which.  I’m happy the industry is inventing new technologies for the advancement of gaming but I think they need to put this one back in the oven; it’s not done yet. The emotions were mostly spot-on, it’s just that most of the models (especially the women) look very off. They looked wrong in ways that I thought the industry had moved past. That aside, this was the most enjoyable aspect of the game.

If you’re anal about getting everything correct the game will punish you in very thoughtless ways.  You cannot save at will.  The auto-save feature is sparse during cases and usually happens when traveling between locations.  If you select the wrong option during an interrogation, you’ll have to quit the game, and reload.  This usually places you at the beginning of an unskippable dialogue, or worse, at the beginning of the full investigation of an area proceeded and then followed by an unskippable cutscene.  More puzzling is the fact that some cutscenes are skippable and others are not.  I’m not certain the reason for such schizophrenic pacing but I’m leaning towards “it wasn’t an artistic decision, it was an oversight.” Well, at least there aren’t scripted vehicle scenes.

That was a joke, because this is a Rockstar game.  That means L. A. Noire has the Rockstar  Gameplay Package. This normally includes: terrible movement controls on foot, terrible driving controls, terrible shooting controls, as many scripted vehicle / chase scenes as possible, inane sidequests, horrid AI, and more! But with L.A. Noire…

The overwhelming majority of the gameplay, beyond the awesome investigations, are all scripted chase scenes.  Sometimes you’re on foot, sometimes you’re in a car, but you’re always lagging behind until the game decides it’s time to catch up. How can I describe the controls? It’s like thumb wrestling with your hands submerged in molases – which is connected to a car battery. At the risk of sounding repetative, just as an example, the button you hold down to run is the same button you press to take out and shoot your gun. Phelps is riding an invisible unicycle when on foot. You’ll walk past a clue, try to turn around, end up walking forward and around a few feet, turn and stop. Objects in the environment will be clipped out or into each other; you’ll miss a ladder or drainpipe.  You can never just turn a corner without banking a little bit. Shooting is functional but still bad.  The in-house engine used for L. A. Noire seems to have taken a step backwards from Red Dead Redeption. Wondering about that ‘normally’ I italicized even though all of those things turned out to be true? Trust me, it feels worse to realize it by playing the game.

Finally we get to the free roam, added in because Rockstar wanted an objectively worse game. The big map and all the sandbox gameplay is packing peanuts to the story. Pure fluff. Pure, expensive fluff that wasted great deals of money that could have been spent on making the whole game’s story as good as the last few missions – with decent controls, even. Were they afraid no one would buy a Noir Story Game without GTA Idiocy? How hard shall I gloat about being 100% right with my initial judgment of the game based on its premise? So hard. Enough to fill half a review with, at least. Unfortunately, my vindication is hollow – no wait, that’s the sandbox game play.

Can I find anything nice to say about all the wasted time and effort put into the huge map with a million collectibles and achievements? Well, some places are crime scenes that you can solve – and those are worth doing.

This game was reviewed on the PS3.