Charlie Broker referred to L.A. Noire as “the triumphant return of the adventure game,” but is that really a good thing?
L.A. Noire is a modernized adventure game set in 1940’s Los Angeles. The narrative is told in three interwoven parts: war hero Cole Phelps’ rise through the LAPD, memory flashes from the Battle of Okinawa, and the behind-the-scenes actions of one of his ex-comrades told through collectible newspapers. Progress is divided into a series of desks as Phelps pursues his career. Each desk contains several cases that are largely independent but are tied together by shady details that form the overarching story. Players who pay attention to minutia will be rewarded with subtly flawed characters that only serve to make the unfolding plot more interesting with their actions. Most will remain engaged throughout until they reach an ending that many are angered by but may later grow to appreciate.
In an industry that has grown obsessed with plunging head first into uncanny valley with high polygon counts and texture resolutions L.A. Noire shows us just how important movement is. Scenes are brought to life by complex characters with remarkably realistic facial animations (made possible by Depth Analysis’ MotionScan). Players who have seen Heroes, Fringe or Mad Men will instantly recognize actors not simply because someone plastered their face and voice into the game, but because their characters actually behave like those actors to a level of detail that is astounding. Eye movements, twitches, furrowing brows, it’s all there. Old Los Angeles was also impressively reconstructed, so aside from some texture pop issues there isn’t really anything to complain about with L.A. Noire‘s visuals.
Los Angeles isn’t exactly a circular city, and the elongated map can lead to some very long drives. You can have your partner drive as a form of fast travel, but the developers included an achievement that requires you to drive almost 200 miles on your own. The shape of the map also hinders the street crimes, a series of small side missions that appear while you’re driving around. In many cases your next main objective could be a mere minute away when you get called about a street crime that will require a ten minute round trip.
A case is generally comprised of a mixture of clue gathering, action, and interrogation. Searching for evidence has a certain novelty to it at first but it quickly grows tedious. I soon found myself walking around at random while waiting for the controller to vibrate and indicate that I was near something that needed to be inspected. I would repeat this ad nauseam until the music told me that I was done. Environments are jam packed with useless clutter and many of the items you need to find are impossible to see in the regular third person view.
Once Phelps has fully inspected one or several locations there tends to be some sort of action sequence. The simplest scenario involves pulling up to a gang hideout and shooting everyone on sight in competently implemented, cover-based third person combat. A suspect attempt to escape in their car, leading to a chase scene where you need to run them off the road or at least stay within range until a scripted event ends the chase prematurely. Every now and then you get to stealthily follow a suspect through the streets in hope of a lead. A few of these segments are infuriatingly restrictive, causing the mission to fail whenever you round a corner to soon or lag too far behind someone that you can clearly still see.
These stealth, combat, and chase parts of the game often feel like an afterthought and directly contract the sense of freedom that L.A. Noire tries to create. If you miss a clue or flub an interrogation the entire course of an investigation can be altered, but if you fail to maintain your cover or can’t keep up with a driver you’re simply forced to repeat the sequence until you either get it right or opt to skip it altogether. The skip option also brings up an important issue because it serves as a clear indication that the developers cared more about the player experiencing the story over the gameplay. I would like to take this moment to remind everyone that this is in fact a video game.
Interrogations were the biggest issue I had with L.A. Noire. Topics are chosen from Phelps’ notebook based on clues that were found earlier in the case. Once the suspect responds the player is given the options Truth, Lie, and Doubt. This means that you can accept their words at face value, express your distrust, or call them out while using evidence to back up your choice. This all sounds straightforward and intuitive until it is experienced in action.
As much as I would like to say otherwise, many of these conversations come down to guesswork while others simply do not make sense. Take the following quote for example: “Blow it off, greenhorn. You’ll get nothing from me.” Now tell me, is that a lie or the truth? What? I’m sorry, you just screwed up the case. I guess you’ll just have to replay the entire thing in order to achieve your five star rating.
Figuring out how to properly present evidence becomes a chore. L.A. Noire often demands that you be exactly as smart as it wants you to be at any given moment. I encountered many situations where I had already solved the case in my head and would later know that I was correct but had no idea how to convey this to the game. You’re restricted to the generally short list of questions that the game gives you and when you call someone out for lying you can only site evidence by selecting an item from a list. You could have a perfectly reasonable explanation for why you are referring to that item as evidence but there is no way to tell the game. This means you have to try to guess what the developer’s reasoning was and then try to figure out what item has some tangential connection to that thought process.
Imagine that you’re locked in a dark room with your mouth taped shut. You are being asked yes or no questions but can only answer them by pointing at one of the items on the table. You are asked whether someone was in the bathtub ten minutes ago, so you begin to frantically point at the wet towel in front of you. You can’t speak, but you desperately wish for the man to understand what you mean. All attempts fail. The items that would have worked was actually the rubber duck. You now have a good idea of what interrogation feels like in L.A. Noire. It’s just like the classic ‘adventure game logic’ scenario where you start rubbing random objects together to see if they’ll make something, except one of those objects is the suspect’s face.
Despite all of my complaints I have to say that I liked L.A. Noire. From a gameplay standpoint the title ranges from mediocre to competent, but the story and characters really made the experience something special. Ultimately L.A. Noire may have been best delivered through a difference choice in media such as a television series. If you choose to buy or rent it you should have some fun experiencing the story that is told over the game’s expansive campaign. Just don’t be afraid to use a guide online whenever you get stuck. In games like Portal when they player finally sees the solution they say “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!” In L.A. Noire many of the solutions only made me think “…really?”