L.A. Noire’s hype focused on its heavily-touted presentation. Using cutting-edge motion capture technology, Team Bondi hired a team of professional actors to star in an adventure game heralded before release as unrivaled and unlike anything that had come before. 1940’s LA was painstakingly recreated, giving players a game world grounded in reality as they solved grizzly drug crimes, serial killings and the occasional bit of arson. Like a Siren, L.A. Noire’s hype machine blasted us with beautiful images and videos, pulling us closer and closer until we were finally ensnared. But like Greek sailors, once the trance wears off, players quickly find themselves in trouble.
Players assume the role of Cole Phelps, an up-and-comer in the LAPD. The game opens with Phelps being called to the scene of a shooting to help find evidence. It is here where we’re introduced to the core gameplay of L.A. Noire: searching for evidence. Every case opens with Phelps being called to a crime scene. It’s a fairly straightforward affair. Basically, the player walks over the crime scene in the way a person would hover with their mouse over every object in a point-and-click adventure. Instead of a mouse cursor, players simply walk Phelps over every object in a given area, pressing the action button occasionally when the controller rumbles and a Pavlovian bell chimes to alert us. From there, Phelps picks up the object and we can further inspect it.
As the main source of actual gameplay, investigating is never very interesting. The mechanic isn’t very engaging, and the crime scenes are so void that it makes finding evidence extremely easy and inevitably dull. After the initial excitement and desire to pick up each and every piece of litter and debris in an environment just for the pleasure of seeing the fine detailing on fairly mundane objects, I found I was quickly losing focus on what I was doing and just simply listening for the auditory signal that a clue was nearby.
Perhaps part of the reason I turned my brain off in these segments is because L.A. Noire doesn’t have a strong, compelling narrative. Each of the four desks the player takes on has a small story associated with it, but they all feel like subplots that should be part of something larger. The game is largely a series of cases strung together that play out with the same flow and story arcs of TV shows like House or Law and Order, only without the character drama that draws the audience into those shows. L.A. Noire would have been better served if, instead of taking place over the course of years, it focused on a single, larger case over a shorter length of time. This would give the player time to develop relationships with the other cops and suspects. As it is, the only constant is the police captain and he only pops in every now and again. You go through several partners as you move between desks, but I can’t honestly remember any of the names of the guys I worked with.
After scouring a scene, Phelps always has a clue or two to work out. From there, the player must drive through L.A. toward the destination in what is by far the most boring part of L.A. Noire’s experience. Traveling through the city of L.A. is made unnecessarily cumbersome by a poor in-game map. L.A. Noire does not give players the benefit of a highlighted path indicating the best route to get to a destination, and though one can make the argument that GPS didn’t exist back then, one could also make the argument that detectives in the city would know how to get places and could be expected to relay such information to the player. The kick in the groin is that the player’s icon on the map is nearly impossible to see, making it incredibly difficult to plan your route since as soon as you scroll away from your icon you won’t be able to find it again.
Destinations are almost always varied, and unlike other games in the genre, you very rarely drive to the same location twice. This makes it far more difficult to learn the streets in order to get around more easily, since you’ll drive to some areas of the map only a few times. L.A. simply fills the space between small sets where the game’s real action takes place in the same way that Empire Bay did in Mafia II. Like a child in the backseat of a car on a long drive, after the initial excitement of seeing the beautiful recreation, you can’t help but ask if you’re there yet. You’ll chase down criminals on foot and in vehicles, but you’re always passing L.A. by and each block becomes a fleeting, fading memory.
Fortunately, the game gives you the option to skip the open world stuff and simply have your partner drive to each location for you. After driving myself through the homicide cases, the completion of which marks the halfway point, I gave up and started letting my partner drive instead. This moves the game along at a better pace, but from a narrative standpoint, the open-world driving segments don’t work well. The inspiration for the game’s structure is obviously television and the pulp fiction of the day, yet in those mediums they know better than to include these boring parts. No one wants to spend ten minutes watching their favorite CSI character drive to a crime scene, so why make players do it over and over and over again? Because truthfully, without the driving segments, there isn’t much more to the game.
Your evidence collecting leads to L.A. Noire’s interrogations. Interrogations begin with Phelps’ notebook opening up to present a set of questions that can be asked. After a selection, the suspect responds, after which the player must decide whether he or she is telling the truth, delivering a “doubtful” statement or downright lying. If the person is telling the truth, they stare stone-faced, unblinking. If they are telling a half-truth or lying, they look exaggeratedly anxious. From here, players must review their evidence to see if they can trap the suspect in a lie, or, if they don’t have the evidence, select the doubtful statement option to put the pressure on them to confess.
The main problem is that you don’t know where Phelps will go with his line of questioning beyond these one-word selections, and often, they don’t seem to match up. In one case, I suspected a woman wasn’t entirely telling the truth and selected the doubt option, at which point Phelps started berating her instead of gingerly coaxing it out of her like I assumed he would. I reloaded my game save, frustrated that I made the wrong selection, and the next time through the question, I selected the lie option. He then asked her, quite calmly, if she was stretching the truth. It almost seemed as if the developers made a mistake and the responses were switched. Well past the game’s halfway mark, this was not the first time that I’d dealt with this. I found the whole process murky.
Then, there’s the added issue that this is a game and there’s only so much interaction we can have with it. As a player, you’ll undoubtedly come up with your own theories as to who is behind each crime and think that the evidence that you’ve collected works a certain way to convict them. But games don’t work that way. Only a few item triggers the right response, and so, the player is forced to think in the way the game works and not in their own way. The game doesn’t prevent you from moving forward if you screw up interrogations, but I still like to do well when I play games.
This wouldn’t be such a problem, but without a real idea to where Cole will go with a line of questioning or even a hint of the tone he’ll take, it’s harder than it should be to get into the character’s head and to consistently do well. The game would have been better served with a more traditional dialogue tree in which the player selects from three options that better reveal the direction Phelps’ will take his next line of questioning. Perhaps it might have been too advanced, but I really do think an emotional component would have been helpful, too. Phelps’ yelling and berating of a rape victim instead of being sympathetic and supportive demonstrates the limits of both the character’s range and the technology on display.
Given the nature of how this game was produced, it was inevitable that there would be issues with the acting. Aaron Staton of Mad Men fame plays Phelps and does an admirable job. There are some times, however, where his tone doesn’t match the scene. He’s often shouting unnecessarily, or speaking more loudly than required given his proximity to other characters. However, the game does an excellent job at maintaining eye lines between characters and is the first that realistically captures eye movement. As I’ve previously said, L.A. is very beautifully recreated and is without question the most detailed city I’ve experienced in an open world game. Storefronts are full of items for sale, advertisements and billboards fill the sky and many of L.A.’s best sights pass by. It’s just too bad there’s nothing really compelling enough to inspire a casual journey through it.
L.A. Noire is a fairly dull detective game unnecessarily superimposed on an open-world. Most of the time players spend while playing L.A. Noire is doing things that are boring, mindless, rote. When the cases are interesting, as several admittedly are, the mystery is compelling enough to drive players through these rough patches. But when the cases fall flat, players can become quickly disinterested and the game starts to become wearing and tedious. The lack of a driving narrative, weak core gameplay and what I personally feel are unnecessarily vague interrogation mechanics keep L.A. Noire from being the game we all hoped it would be. I can’t help but feel that L.A. Noire is a better tech demo than it is a game.