A Case Study
It’s taken me a really long time to put my thoughts into a cogent review for LA Noire. So before I get to the review I thought that you would all indulge me in revealing some inside baseball (or cricket for any readers from the UK). Usually when I write a review for a game I lay out my thoughts mentally. It’s a careless thing on my part to write a review without first outlining it on paper. I take a few days and mull over everything that I liked and disliked. I give myself time to settle so that my judgment isn’t colored by hype or the euphoria experienced immediately after finishing a game. For the first time in a long while I have encountered a title that has been something of an enigma in terms of my feelings regarding it. Even before committing a word to the page I could already tell that reactions to this game would more than likely be divisive at best.
The central plot of LA Noire revolves around Officer Cole Phelps of the LAPD, in 1947 Los Angeles. To start with, all we really know about Phelps is that he’s a marine returning home from the Pacific theater where he was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Okinawa.Being a war hero and a Stanford graduate, Phelps has no problem getting a job with the world’s largest police force in LA. As the game progresses, Phelps rises through the ranks, and the machinations of sinister forces unfold around him as he solves cases and finds that his sense of truth and justice isn’t always shared by his fellow officers. Of course, it wouldn’t be a noir story without a morally gray central protagonist and, indeed, as the game progresses we find that Phelps has his own demons to face.
Within this central plot framework, LA Noire is a third person action title that feels and plays much like Heavy Rain but with a more distinct adventure game feel. It’s also an open world game, but unlike Grand Theft Auto 4, Infamous, or Prototype Phelps isn’t running around causing destruction and mayhem en masse. You’re a cop, and a law abiding one at that. So you can’t pull out your gun at will for the express purpose of causing chaos. In fact, there are even action sequences were you can’t pull out a gun to slow down a suspect. This conceit really doesn’t affect gameplay as much as you would imagine and improves the realism of playing a character who is a cop in LA. In fact, the action sequences in LA Noire have been stripped down so much that the on foot chases involve simply holding down the R2 button to run. Mounting barriers, climbing drain pipes, and leaping from rooftop to rooftop is all done automatically as you pursue a suspect.
Sometimes you’ll be able to pull out your gun and train it on a suspect. Keeping the reticle on a runner long enough allows you to fire a warning shot into the air and end a chase. Tackling someone is also a method for ending a chase, but most foot chases will make you kill the suspect in a shootout or beat them up in a fist fight to bring about a conclusion.
Additionally, driving around the virtual LA landscape has a distinct arcade style feel to it. The cars feel solid and responsive which is definitely a plus during some high speed chases. In these situations, your job is to steer your car close enough to a fleeing suspect so that your partner can shoot out the tires of the car you’re chasing. You can also end these chases by spinning a rival car out of control.
The adventure elements come from the investigation of crime scenes and the interrogation of suspects. The story is broken up into cases, or episodes, which are grouped into desks (such as Traffic or Homicide) and start out with a few cutscenes. After the scenes, Phelps and his partner (which changes depending on the desk that you are working) will head to the scene of the crime where you’ll be tasked with finding and examining evidence. Here LA Noire takes a rather unique approach by offering musical and vibration clues. As you near an object of interest or an object that can be interacted with, the controller will vibrate and a musical tone will play.
You can then investigate the object and rotate it in order to get a better look. Some items can be examined more closely to provide clues. Clues you gather are stored in your notebook along with locations and descriptions of people of interest. Once all the clues are discovered at a scene the background music stops signifying you’ve found everything relevant and that it’s safe to move on. The other adventure element is interrogating suspects.
Interrogating suspects and witnesses in LA Noire is undeniably the game’s biggest achievement. Using a new facial capture and animation technology called MotionScan, the characters in LA Noire look like the actors that portray them. The faces are so realistic that individual facial movements can be interpreted by the player in order to determine if a suspect is lying or telling the truth. Based on the clues and evidence in your possession when you interrogate a suspect, you’ll be able to ask a series of questions. Based on the character’s answers and their facial tells you can then choose whether a witness or suspect is telling the truth, whether you doubt the validity of the statement they provide, or if a suspect is lying.
This can be a bit confusing, especially when discerning the difference between a doubt and lie. A doubt in this context means that the suspect is acting suspiciously, but that you don’t have any direct evidence to prove it one way or the other based on the question asked. If you think a suspect is lying you will be asked to present the correct piece of evidence to back up your claim. Musical cues signify if you get a question right or wrong, and the more questions you get right the more evidence you obtain, and the faster you can close a case.
Given the aforementioned you would think that LA Noire would be a must have, 5 star title. Indeed, when I played through the game I really wanted to believe that, but as I became more and more embroiled in the way the story unfolded I immediately got the sense that something was missing. At first I thought that it was the ending, which is a bit of a sticking point for some of the games I play. The idea that something was missing is the principle reason that it took me so long to review this game. Upon closer inspection, for everything that LA Noire does well it does an equal number of things poorly or in a manner which is flawed, and, ultimately, is the reason why I cannot give this title 5 stars.
First off, the action sequences in LA Noire are more like minigames. This idea is furthered by the fact that there are small street crime missions in the game that are, effectively, a collection of 40 shootout missions. There are a few different ones thrown in for flavor and all of them have some interesting setups, but for the most part they all lead to a shootout which undoubtedly gets a bit repetitious. In the single player, action sequences such as shootouts or car chases can be completely skipped if you fail them three times in a row. It’s an option that you can switch off, but if you do choose to skip an action sequence it has no impact on your end of case rating.
I understand that Team Bondi wanted to place an emphasis on the police procedural aspects of LA Noire, but removing any consequences for dying repeatedly also removes any incentive the player might have to actually want to finish the sequences. Thus, making those moments completely trivial. Of course, I know that many of you will point out that you can turn off this option, but frankly, even if you are forced to go through the action stuff, most of those moments are so asinine and easy that it’s difficult to justify their inclusion for anything other than atmospheric reasons.
The control scheme for the action sequences is also something that I take issue with. The scheme feels similar to the shooting mechanics of GTA4 where L2 pulls up the gun and allows the aim assist to snap to a target with R2 shooting and R1 allowing you to take cover. If you remember, R2 is also the run button and sometimes the controls get a bit janky as you can end up firing a shot while running. Normally this isn’t too much of a problem since you don’t usually have a gun out during a foot chase. However, there were a couple of times that I remember where I fired my weapon while trying to run and inadvertently shot someone that wasn’t supposed to die. Thus, failing the case and forcing me to restart. It’s a stupid thing to bring up I suppose, but if you’re going to copy GTA4’s control scheme why not map the X button to run instead of R2 and have Cole autotackle a suspect when he gets close. It then frees up R2 and avoids any potential issues when you transition from walking to running.
The other major problem that I had with LA Noire was the narrative structure and the development of Phelps as a character. Speaking about the narrative first, the episodic nature of the game serves the puzzle style clue finding and interrogation moments well. Unfortunately, as a consequence it disjoints the narrative. This problem is resolved to some degree as the story draws to a conclusion, but still leaves some questions unanswered. However, this could have been purposeful since LA Noire could become a new Rockstar franchise.
Also not having enough evidence, blowing through a case without any regard for finding evidence or not getting questions right during an interrogation will lead to a lower end of case rating, but has no major impact on the story. I mean, you can effectively fail a case and jail the wrong person, but that outcome isn’t any different even if you ace some of the cases (especially the ones at the Homicide desk). Effectively, as with the ability to skip the action sequences, messing up a case has no major consequences on how the story plays out as everything is fixed. Even if you mess up a case, the game will give you a chance to do enough leg work to bring it to the same conclusion each time. It’s kind of infuriating that a person with no regard for mastering the mechanics of reading a person’s face can get the same overall ending as a person who takes the time to appreciate and master the nuances of LA Noire’s gameplay. It makes me wish that they had more directly copied the persistent story mechanics of Heavy Rain.
Unfortunately, this also leads to a problem with the development of Phelps’s character. By the end of the story, I had a hard time finding any reason to love or to hate Phelps. The problem is that the disjointed nature of the plot makes him a very hard character to meaningfully identify with in any way. In fact this problem seems systemic to nearly all of the characters in LA Noire.
There just isn’t enough backstory to empathize with any of them. The result is that they all feel very archetypal and wooden. It’s a damn shame too, given how much time and care was taken to create the setting and mood that pervades the rest of the world.
The last criticism I have relates to the MotionScan technology used for the facial animations. For me, spotting a person acting suspiciously wasn’t really a problem. In fact, there were times where the game just hands you the answer in the form of some texture popping glitches with the facial animation. On more than a few occasions when I was deciding between a truth or a lie choice, I found that if I waited the face would suddenly pop to a different orientation and instead of looking at me his head would just spontaneously pop into a turn and his eyes would wander. It broke the reality for me several times and disrupted the more tense moments of the interrogation sequences. I’m not sure if this issue is also present on the 360 version of the game, but it definitely shows up more than a once in the PS3 version.
Initially, LA Noire seemed like a dream come true. A fictional noir detective story set in a fully rendered 1947 Los Angeles. On the surface it’s replete with gangsters, femme fatales, hard-boiled cops, corruption, grittiness, and tension. However, somewhere along the line LA Noire stops being a game and begins to feel more like a glorified, overhyped tech demo that’s coupled to a mediocre interactive drama. But as much as I can bemoan many of the aspects of LA Noire, it’s important to remember that many of the things it does are experimental and that the game takes several risks in terms of its gameplay. On that point, I praise Team Bondi for crafting this experience, because despite its flaws LA Noire is still a fun (if easy) game to play at the end of the day, and is an interesting experiment in what can be possible in terms of the use of new technologies in video games. It’s just unfortunate that this particular execution incorporates some awkward design choices in many aspects. But if Rockstar and Team Bondi can learn from this pilot study, and indeed if LA Noire does become an annualized franchise, the next noir game they create could be a true tour de force.