L.A. Noire Review

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L.A. Noire Publisher: Rockstar Games (Take-Two Interactive)
Developer: Team Bondi

Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3

World War II is finally over, and Cole Phelps is back from fighting in the Pacific to join the Los Angeles Police Department and help a growing Los Angeles make it through the late 1940s. Stoic Officer Phelps is determined to suppress his past, be an honest man, and follow procedure in a world where corruption is the norm, opportunity is rampant, and a returning marine needs to find his place in a strangely peaceful world.

Kyle Ackerman

L.A. NoireSomeone once explained to me that a video poker machine in a casino is just a slot machine that you can screw up. L. A. Noire is just a movie that you can screw up. With video poker, that increased risk and interactivity is exactly what makes it more entertaining than a one-armed-bandit, and that's why I enjoyed sitting through days of L. A. Noire's plots. To be more accurate, L. A. Noire is more like an extended television crime serial than a movie, and the interactivity is uneven. Sometimes it means seeing scenes from angles or perspectives more exciting than a director could frame, but it also means repeatedly running into buildings during what should be a dramatic car chase through the alleyways of downtown L.A.

While interacting with this crime serial can be exciting, such as when I found critical pieces of evidence hidden on the crime scene, sometimes it felt like I was being commanded to pedal an exercycle to make the show go on, like when I'm using a warehouse crane to move boxes away from an entrance. L. A. Noire is so insistent on handholding, that it won't let you screw up. Musical cues ensure you'll find all the evidence available in the game, so there are really only two ways to screw up – say the wrong thing in an interview or do so much damage to vehicles and property while driving around L. A. that the city wants your hide.

Order Season One and Start Pedaling

L.A. NoireThe analogy works surprisingly well, even for an open-world game. The collectible items scattered around the world, such as film reels and badges, are like that nearly-pointless hidden-object game in the DVD menu, and the street crimes are like DVD extras or TV show webisodes that get put on the DVD set when released. Many of the street crimes are brief, top-notch moments – scenes that never should have been cut – while others feel like filler that sensibly never made it into the main plot.

Just like an extended television crime serial, there's an overarching plot that involves the highest-ranking members of Los Angeles society. Each of the individual crime investigations, compelling as they are, may or may not touch upon that story of new-found peace, corruption and star-struck culture. There are action sequences that are as irritating thanks to poor gunfighting controls as they are a welcome change of pace. It's also compelling to see the period reconstruction of Los Angeles, but after a while that ceases to be reason enough to drive around and a motivation to skip experiencing Los Angeles' 60-year old traffic patterns.

Police Academy is a Waste of Time

L.A. NoireIt's always struck me that, unlike real officers, cops in Rockstar games (like Grand Theft Auto 4 are the worst drivers in the universe. They'll plow through any obstacle, run over scores of pedestrians and sometimes just miss the road while pursuing a suspect. Now I understand. That's because training for cops in a Rockstar games amounts to something like: "Press R2 to accelerate, press L2 to brake and press L3 for the siren." There are no complicated tests or driving practice, and I'm as much a menace on the road as any of them. The only real difference between driving in L. A. Noire and any other Rockstar game is that, at the end of a case, I rate lower than I would of if I hadn't flattened every street lamp on Figueroa. The way I drive, the game feels far more like Archaic Lethal Weapon than any sort of noire film.

Training for detective work is similar. A simple tutorial tells you to pick everything up and move it around until the music stops, and to interview suspects and witnesses by looking for exaggerated facial expressions that indicate horrible discomfort. In many witnesses, extreme bowel discomfort means they are lying. Anything else can be easily confused.

I don't want my flippancy to detract from the fact that the game is incredibly entertaining, but again: it's like interactive TV that you can screw up. Most of the time, things go swimmingly, but sometimes a missing piece of evidence grinds the plot to a halt, and screwing up interview questions means you just get less of the story. Worse yet, I often knew what was going on in a scene, but tying a lie to the right piece of evidence is occasionally like those old-school adventure games that required you to combine a wad of chewing gum and a hair brush to unlock an ancient temple. It made me feel foolish to know what's happening, but not the right steps to investigate.

Cops and Disembodied Heads

L.A. NoireSo much of L. A. Noire revolves around human interaction – particularly interviews – such that every case I play in L. A. Noire makes me think of Futurama, the animated sitcom from Matt Groening and David X. Cohen. It's not that the two share anything like theme or content in common. It's that L. A. Noire does marvelous motion capture on character's faces, and then positions them on the usual herky-jerky character models. It feels a lot like Futurama's heads-in-jars, where the perfectly preserved and expressive head of a long-gone star is placed in a nutrient-filled jar and transported on a robot body or podium. Ultimately, I spent a long time gazing at those heads-in-jars to decide if they held truth.

There's also something about the technology that causes the motion-capture to make characters look old. The developers went to great lengths to fix that on the main character, but not on most of the ancillary characters. The technique is so good that many actors are instantly recognizable, and the post-middle-aged men look spectacular. It's just that the ingénues and sexy starlets also end up looking like post-middle-aged men when they move their faces. The technology is marvelous, but feels either half-developed or only half-implemented. We need real characters, not real faces on grotesque mannequins.

Human Weakness or Weak Plot Device?

Don't get bogged down in the criticisms. As I've mentioned before, I enjoyed the game, and played all the way through. The stories are clever and pulled me in for investigation after investigation. The biggest issue is the overarching plot. It's OK that many of the characters are corrupt monsters. It fits with the genre and makes things interesting. The problem is the lead, Cole Phelps. The protagonist in a game is different from that in a film. If you expect me play from the perspective of a character, I need to be able to project aspects of myself onto that character. He should be likeable, or at least neutral. The game makes it impossible to identify with Phelps. He starts as cold and rigid, which is tolerable (given the genre), but by the time he's working on the Vice squad, he becomes intensely dislikable, and is probably even less compelling for female players. Cole is so cold that even his infidelity seems more like Deus ex Machina than human weakness.

I found it alienating that for enormous stretches of the game, I was working on behalf of entirely reprehensible characters. There's a reliable and interesting coroner, a gruff-but-honest arson investigator and a character that becomes prominent in the end who is eminently sympathetic, but Cole is your vehicle into the world of L. A. Noire, and he's not relatable. If I'm going to spend days with a game, that game has to make accommodations for my emotional involvement, and that was the biggest problem with L. A. Noire. I felt like I was pedaling in place to make the plot play out, and most of the time I wanted to see how things would unfold, but sometimes I felt like I was going to all that effort for someone who didn't deserve it. That's the only time I wanted to get off the hamster wheel and bring things to a premature conclusion.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 19, 2011 9:13 AM.

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