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The Case that Shouldn't be Closed: an L.A. Noire Review

L.A. Noire is an ambitious, impressive, important, and flawed gaming experience that painstakingly creates an atmosphere and narrative that are often at odds with its gameplay mechanics.

[This is my first in-depth review using this stratification of elements and a 1-10 scale of rating; as I continue to review games, the format of these reviews are subject to change.]

 

I kept up with the development of L.A Noire diligently. I watched the interviews and developer's commentaries, I was stunned by the articulation and expression behind each character's face, intrigued by the atmosphere of a post-war Los Angeles and the idea of an open world full of places and, more importantly, choices to explore. The promise of a gritty, case driven, and dynamic narrative of crime, consequence, and an interrogation was more than enough for me to have the highest of hopes for Rockstar and Team Bondi's ambitious thriller. When I played through the game—after making it past those first few honeymoon hours one spends with a game bolstered by hype, critical acclaim, and the immediate sense that, if nothing else, this game is at least half as good as it fancies itself to be—I could not shake a creeping sense of disappointment. L.A. Noire is a game that, once a player puts some investigative work into its parts and intricacies, buckles under the weight of its lovingly ambitious ideas—but is likewise an indispensably important moment in modern video game storytelling.

 

Graphics:

[I own the PS3 version of the game, so all of my graphical judgments are based on that version]

 It is no secret that the current generation of consoles are beginning to show their age visually at a technical level, which is a reality that places a larger burden upon the shoulders of artistic direction. Thankfully, L.A. Noire manages to succeed in capitalizing on its superb artistic direction as well as pushing current generation graphical achievement as far as they could manage. The city of late-40's Los Angeles is dutifully realized in a sprawling city that, at its best, almost feels alive. Pedestrians are generally well detailed and walk the streets and alleys seemingly about their business, although their pursuits can appear aimless at times. Vehicles look marvelous, and those controlled by NPC's honk and usually act as they should, even occasionally getting caught in traffic jams—a gem of realism that may, in fact, be a byproduct of conflicting vehicle pathfinding (the phrase “happy accident” comes to mind). The lengthy draw distance helps a lot in this aspect, allowing you to see vehicles, buildings, and pedestrians for quite a ways off. As one might expect, the facial animations are phenomenal, even if the faces themselves have a sort of waxy veneer to them. Body animations are well done but are not nearly as much of a standout as the face work, which has, honestly, ruined many a game for me in its wake.

 The case areas in the game are densely detailed clue hunts reminiscent of classical point-and-click adventure titles, and feature many well-rendered and textured objects ready for inspection. Thankfully, not everything you can pick up is guaranteed to be a clue, and these objects are as meticulously detailed as the case-critical materials. L.A. Noire is not without its visual hiccups and tarnishes, of course; while objects one can inspect are highly detailed, many of the static objects suffer from low resolution textures, as do many of the ground and grass textures that are nothing less than dated. The water animations and textures are similarly rudimentary, which I find to be evidence of a careful attention to what could be realistically achieved on the aging hardware. On the whole, it doesn't seem right to overly criticize Rockstar or Team Bondi for this—it was a logical choice that payed dividends.

 

Gameplay:

In the most basic sense, this game has it all—melee combat, cover-based shooting, platforming, driving sequences, adventure-style clue hunts, RPG-style ranks, and an interrogation system unique to the game. It's too bad that, while each element isn't necessarily bad, each facet is too rudimentary and segregated from the others to coalesce. The shooting will feel familiar to anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto 4 or similar cover-based shooters, although some strange streamlines have been implemented. An ammo indicator is puzzlingly absent, you can only carry one weapon at a time, and the pop-out auto aim does most of the work for the player. The gunplay has its moments, but it's too shallow and sparse to be worth much mention. The melee combat is akin to Uncharted 2's, limiting your actions to a few simple, often quick-time style, actions; like the gunplay, melee combat is too bare-bones to stand on its own. The driving controls feel responsive for the most part, although I wish the same could be said for controlling Cole himself. The wonky, unresponsive controls often leave the venerated and then disgraced detective floundering about cramped crime scenes like a gangly puppet. This is frustrating (especially when trying to orient Cole at just the right angle so that the controller buzzes and recognizes a clue that is often right in front of you) but ultimately forgivable—that is, until you reach the game's plethora of platforming and set-piece scenarios that seem to require a finesse that the controls are simply not up to. I found myself failing many of the more action heavy sections of this game not because of the difficulty (L.A. Noire's action sequences can often be a cakewalk), but because moving Cole felt like sailing the world's most unwieldy boat while drunk. The fact that the game lets you skip these action sequences is perhaps the most telling indication of L.A. Noire's control issue—one that Rockstar and Team Bondi try unconvincingly to mask as a focus on narrative. The option to skip may seem like a device to keep the plot moving to some, but it is also a careless way to meander past what was obviously not meant to be the game's focus.

 

Story:

 L.A. Noire is a game about narrative, about detective Cole Phelps, the horrors of his tour in WWII, and the highs and lows of his career in the L.A.P.D. The aforementioned game play mechanics all seem to have been designed in service to and in support of this story, and while it sometimes succeeds, the rigid separation between different types of game play only serves to splinter any semblance of narrative cohesion. Each segment of gameplay, such as a transition from an interrogation to a chase sequence, is book-ended by some kind of cutscene or loading screen which contributes to an overall sense of disjointedness. The individual mechanics are just too weak to support themselves on their own, and the division between action sequences and investigative work opens up each element to a player's scrutiny.

 One could argue that the gameplay elements mimic the serialized and chapter-based case narrative presentation of L.A. Noire's story—offered as a series of vignettes strung together by the overarching narrative of Cole Phelps—but the handling of his story and the distance between him and the player seem to actively work against this. One of the major narrative twists in the game is supposed to be when we learn that Cole has cheated on his wife, and yet the only sequence we've seen of Cole's family life thusfar is near the beginning of the game. When the “bombshell” is dropped, there is very little reason to care. The fact is, a player will likely know very little about Cole by the time the game reaches its conclusion. The death of Phelps is no doubt intended to touch gamers, but because we know so little about him and who he was at home, it feels more like the death of an acquaintance. This lack of intimacy between the player and Phelps makes the ending fall flat, and it's a damned shame too.

 This distance between the player and Cole, while detrimental in its own right, is further mirrored in the consequence of in-game decisions—or, rather, a lack thereof. For a game that centers itself upon deliberation, deduction, and the supposedly dire stakes of deducing a case thoughtfully, it is ridiculously hard to fail a case. I admit, I didn't go back over the game and test to see how wrong I could be and still succeed, but this has little to do with my point. The narrator (who fades away after the first few cases) says near the beginning of L.A. Noire that every detective comes across the case that haunts him, a case that he mulls over constantly and that he may never fully solve, but the game doesn't allow for this kind of aching doubt to arise in the player themselves. The game is cinematic to be sure, and Rockstar and Team Bondi no doubt worked hard to make sure it was more of a game than an interactive cutscene, but L.A. Noire often attempts to maintain its status as a game in the worst possible ways. Music queues and other indicators make sure that a player knows, cut and dry, if they got everything “right” in a case, and this is a serious flaw in L.A. Noire's storytelling. By giving hard values to things such as clues, interrogation questions and witness numbers, etc., case work in L.A. Noire simply becomes a standard completion game; in many ways, L.A. Noire is a game that deserves to never feel complete. The game leaves no room for any doubts the player might have, whether it be anxiety over a clue not found, a character interrogated poorly, or a possibly false accusation; these values displayed after interrogations and at the end of missions rob the player of that aching feeling that the game's atmosphere tries desperately to produce. Replay value in a game like this should arise out of a player's anxious desire to set things right, not at the game's insistence that they've gotten something wrong. L.A. Noire's gritty detective story would have benefited from a redefinition of winning and losing in a game; rather than a “wrong” interrogation inquiry showing up as a “5/6 questions correct” value, it should be up to the player's discretion to replay. Some cases simply shouldn't feel right, and players should be asking how they could have done things differently, but the game flat out responds to an incorrect answer or action with “Do things differently”. Detective work in L.A. Noire's universe is often an infuriating shade of gray, but its game mechanics would have players believe that everything is black and white, right or wrong—and this is perhaps the game's greatest failure.

 

Conclusion:

 L.A. Noire is an ambitious, impressive, important, and flawed gaming experience that painstakingly creates an atmosphere that is often at odds with its gameplay mechanics. It succeeds at recreating a convincingly gritty Los Angeles for you to explore, but the game's rigid separation between gameplay elements, the narrative distance between the player and Cole Phelps, a lack of narrative consequence, and clear cut right or wrong completion statistics hold L.A. Noire back from the greatness it could have enjoyed. That being said, L.A. Noire is still an often satisfying and ambitious experience and will no doubt be remembered as a major contributor to the future innovation of storytelling in games—even if it is more for its failures than its successes.

 

Rating: 7/10

Verdict: Must Play

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