‘L.A. Noire’ Revisited
L.A. Noire is a game that had an odd history. It was announced the best part of a decade ahead of release and a teaser trailer emerged not long after that. It went through a very long development time, innovating new technologies and approaches to an established genre, before turning the marketing hype train up to 11 in the final year before release. It was turned into one of the most anticipated titles of the year, garnering great reviews and becoming a best seller. Suddenly, only a few months later, it seemed to have drifted from public consciousness and was rarely spoken of.
A year has passed and while Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto are fondly remembered, L.A. Noire does little more than take up space of the pre-owned shelves. What was it about this popular and initially successful game that caused it be so easily forgotted? We took the time to replay the sucker and search for clues to solve the mystery.
Setting and Concept
This is a setting that by rights had to be on the cards since Grand Theft Auto let us run down our first pedestrian. If you want to treat a crime-ridden American city as your personal playground there’s few places as enticing as Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The glamour of the film industry mixed with mob rule and escalating gang tension, plus a few famous murder cases, gives the games designers and players a lot of great ideas to built on. When Rockstar flipped their usual base concept on it’s head and put the player in the shoes of a law enforcement agent things looked all the more interesting. This fits into the setting very well because the L.A. police force at the time was notoriously corrupt and it riffed heavily on the brilliant film L.A. Confidential (in the same way that the previous GTA games referenced various crime films).
Presentation wise the game is years ahead of the competition of the time. The motion capture used on the characters is nothing short of spectacular and it’s implementation into the game for the interview sequences is a clever use of the technology. On the whole the game is as good looking and sounding as it can get.
In summary, this is a great idea for Rockstar to centre a game on. It’s harkens back to the classic film noir movies – a style left largely untouched by the game development community.
Playing as criminals in previous Rockstar games has always been pretty straight forward. Get some firearms and vehicles and point them in the general direction of your enemies. Nature will take its course. Being a member of the underworld leaves the player free to cause as much harm and mayhem as they so choose in the course of their missions without any real consequence. Red Dead Redemption cast the player as a former outlaw trying to do right in his new life, but hunting bounties and tracking down violent criminals gives one similar freedoms. L.A. Noire puts Rockstar in a difficult position in that players could no longer do such things. It adds another level of challenge for players wanting to achieve the highest achievements, but the inability to cut loose in the sandbox always leaves one feeling stifled.
The crime solving side of things is pretty gosh darn involving. Upon arriving at a location the player can search through the area and examine clues, collecting knowledge from each one. It harkens back the point and click adventures of old. Ultimately it is an advanced scavenger hunt, but putting together the pieces of the puzzle is quite good fun. it feels sluggish at times, especially when you pick up a useless bottle cap and you have to wait until Cole has slowly picked up the item, talked out loud about it and slowly put it back down before you can move on.
When encountering a person of interest the player must ask questions of the NPC and accept what they say as truth, call doubt upon them or call them a liar which they must back-up with evidence. In order to uncover the correct answer you must observe the behaviour of the interviewee and kept track of existing evidence. Again, this is quite a well implemented mechanic that works fine the majority of the time. Cole’s attitude when calling ‘Doubt’ on someone is a mite unpredictable, such as when he explodes at an old lady whose house has been robbed and a tenant murdered and calls her an ‘old hag’.
Finally comes the action sequences, and this is the weakest area of the game. A simple cover system is used for the gun fights, along with a rudimentary auto-aim, whilst the car chases are lifted straight out ofGTA. The foot chases are merely brief interludes since you run as roughly the same speed as the criminal. It’s basic, but it does the job. Obviously Rockstar didn’t put much value on the action scenes as a couple of failures gives you the option to skip entirely.
Narrative and Character
So the gameplay and concept are fine – that leaves the all important story and character. When this much time has been spent on building the game engine and created the mind-blowing presentation, you don’t want to waste all the effort on a throwaway shoot-em-up. With the incredibly realistic setting also comes the unspoken agreement that an equally engaging narrative will be presented. Sadly, this is where the game really lets itself down.
Not that the story or characters are in any way poor, just sadly mishandled. The game presents a series of stand-alone cases that make up an over-arching narrative. A tale of corruption, murder and politics seems to fit the bill to a tee but by the time the finale rolls around the momentum has all but sputtered out. The trouble begins early on, and on a core level. With such a heavy emphasis on story, the narrative needs to keep on going no matter how much you screw up. Stuff up every interview and miss half the clues, it doesn’t matter because the case will get solved. With the option of failure the tension dribbles out of the game like it’s a soggy sponge.
During the time spent on the homicide desk it’s frequently implied (ie: the main character states it out loud several times) that all the murders are the work of a serial killer staging them to be pinned on the husband of the victim. In order to complete each individual case you must build the evidence up against the hapless spouse and send them to the gas chamber for the crime. When it is revealed that all those people are innocent (which you suspected all along) and it IS the work of a serial killer it comes as a real kick in the teeth to the player. It renders all the success they’ve had in the previous cases null and void and can take the wind out of the sails of the most dedicated player.
Towards the end of the game the ultimate corruption cover-up is unveiled to be a complex real estate scam. Not only is this drastically anti-climatic after serial killers, Hollywood drug busts and exploding factories, but spending the final hours of the game sifting through records is quite dull. People have to get paid to do this in an office, and here we’re doing it in the name of paid entertainment. The biggest poor decision of the developers comes in the form of the character Jack Kelso. He’s mentioned in flashback throughout the game and you cannot help but get the impression that you’re not supposed to like the guy. Cole Phelps, the hero of the game, often gripes about their time together in the military. It’s astonishingly odd when he is introduced late in the game that the player takes control of them and they act like more of a hero than the actual protagonist. You wind up controlling this character for the final few cases, even during the action packed finale, leaving Cole to pop his head in the final scene.
This is downright baffling. Why would Rockstar choose to build up their main character only to jettison him for an unknown at the 11th hour? Everything that the player has invested in a very long and often slow paced game is suddenly chucked out the window. Equally baffling is why they took the weakest aspect of the game – the gunplay – and made it the primary focus of the finale. After focusing a game on puzzle solving, interviewing suspects and finding clues the last half hour is spent running through sewers with a flame thrower. Even the final setting leaves very little opportunity to showcase the stunning graphics. It feels as though the designers fell out of favour with their planned ending and hastily replaced it at the final moment.
What this leaves us with is a game that has a great concept and mind-blowing presentation, but poor decisions made from a director’s office. The story could’ve been nicely ironed out with some proper thought, but the game is left unsatisfying and a tad confusing. Although L.A. Noire made a brilliant first impression it left us on a sour note. As a result the gaming community promptly forgot about it with the next eye catching game to be released.