Review: L.A. Noire (* star)

TL;DR – L.A. Noire’s combination of repetitive tasks, boring action sequences, and sometime brain-aneurysm inducing adventure sequences shouldn’t endear themselves to anyone who plays video games. Even at a cinematic level, L.A. Noire fails to inspire, being so derivative and lengthy that the game induces sleep rather than excitement or thought. Team Bondi’s artistic sense got ahead of their gaming sensibilities, and this is the result.

It’s nice to be the dissenting voice amidst a see of pathetic sycophantic game reviewers, right? Harsh, but true.

L.A. Noire, by any standard, isn’t a very good game. If it were released a decade ago, the complaints about how egregious this offense to good game design is would reach the top of the Tower of Babel. Not only does it have a poorly thought out cover system, but its much touted “adventure” sequences don’t require much logic at all. Cars drive horribly and melee combat equally take the crown for badly designed mechanics. Hey, when a game lets you skip a challenge because you failed too many times, I’d call that a failure of game development.

It’s sad to see, because L.A. Noire has a brilliant premise. Anyone familiar with the film noir style will absolutely eat this stuff up. The story of Cole Phelps and his progression through the LAPD would seem the perfect setting for a game. Structured in an episodic faction, the game start off with incidental cases such as wives leaving husbands and missing persons, eventually evolving to a grand conspiracy involving many of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles. As well, interesting side-stories appear throughout, especially one designed to ape the Black Dahlia murders. If you like watching episodes of a in-depth television series, this might be the game for you.

Still, Team Bondi doesn’t innovate or excel at storytelling – seriously, could Cole Phelps NOT detect that certain people are, by default, untrustworthy? There’s a big difference between following genre tropes and aping them to the letter; here, we see the copying of a style, rather than taking its content. The story of cynical cops who make compromise in order to survive flattens in impact when the game takes 25 hours to complete (note: I had the complete version, so that’s including all of the DLC content). This works in film form precisely because each movie exists as a “day-in-the-life”. L.A. Noire tries to make the uninteresting parts of detective work interesting, to its own detriment.

That’s not to say it doesn’t make an excellent first impression, though; for the first few cases, you’ll become genuinely enamored with the realistic facial animations and the Grand Theft Auto open world where, true to being a cop, you can’t actually run people over or kill someone on the street without repercussions. What you’ll find fairly quickly, however, is that L.A. Noire’s world isn’t interesting. You’ll drive to locations the first few times, sure, but a fifteen minute drive in a digital world isn’t my idea of fun. Any incidental dialogue with your partner can be heard simply by having them drive to the location instead, saving you lots of time. If you’re going to take me into a linear experience like this, why bother with the open world elements at all? All there is to do is explore for hidden cars (not doing that), shootouts, and landmarks (which becomes a problem later). None of those things are interesting, by and large; they’re tedious and boring task designed to give you the “feel” of the open world without actually giving you real content.

The majority of content is in the cases. Each case has a different progression, but the beginning: go to crime scene, search for evidence, construct what happened by speaking to nearby witness. “Searching”, in this case, requires pressing the same button over and over again next to everything until you pick something up. By default, the game uses “chimes” to signal what is a clue and what isn’t, as well as only allowing the player to pick up relevant clues. I turned these off; I figured that, if I’m a real detective, then why would I need these? Well, I found out quickly that the game devolves to random button presses to find relevant evidence; Phelps still tells you if an object isn’t helpful, so it’s basically the same hint system. You’ll swivel objects around constantly to find stuff. None of this is particularly interesting; it seems like a bizarre contrivance to reveal the next plot point. Sometimes you’ll miss evidence and be directed back to the crime scene, only to find out that you didn;t look at the other side of a box; this will happen to you at some point. One sequence requires knowledge of Los Angeles’ landmarks – if you didn’t search for them beforehand, good luck trying to find them on a blank map! Weird oversights like this plague L.A. Noire.

Interrogations, heralded as something that works like real life, couldn’t be further from it. Unless you’re looking for a high score (and who is looking for that in this game except for achievements?), you can literally press any buttons you want to get some entertaining, and hilarious, dialogue. The game’s internal logic frustrated me at points; I knew the right answer, but the game required a certain “order” to how things worked in order to get a confession or the right answers. Adventure games have always had this problem, but at least they were “games”; in L.A. Noire, this game-like elements completely ruin the immersion. Can you tell someone is lying by their facial expressions? Sure! The problem is that these segments don’t affect your ability to progress in any way. Fail, get every question wrong – there’s no concequences, as the story plays out the same. At least give me the illusion of control.

Not that it matters how well or how poorly you perform anything; every case will, inevitably, be solved. The game wouldn’t want you to feel bad, now, would it? I don’t think I have ever had the displesaure of playing a game where the game was functionally irrelevant. Even if you fail at something, the game will let you skip any sequences requiring an infinitesimal modicum of reflexes. I turned this off, to my own detriment. The shooting isn’t all that interesting, and the cover mechanics never work quite the way you’d want. They’re fun in the most basic way a digital shooting gallery can, but they’re hampered by that darn cover button. The game will, at times, attach you to the opposite end of a surface, leading to your death. Enemies aren’t that intelligent, which means this isn’t a problem, but it points to a deeper issues with the game itself. How can a game not even perform basic functions correctly?

Driving, for its part, is purely functional; there’s nothing fancy about driving post-World War II cars. If you want a high score, you’re going to replay certain driving sequences over and over again as the game penalizes you for hitting pretty much any object except the car you’re chasing. Given how loose these controls are, that would seem a near impossibility – ramming into another car’s wheel well will inevitably make you hit something else. Tailing another car so as not to be seen is entirely unrealistic; even if they can see you in their rear window, the game still thinks your “tailing” them. It’s as if a criminal isn’t observant enough to remember what car a police detective took to the crime scene. Same goes for the “stealth” sequences – it’s like they can’t see you sometimes, whereas in some cases they’ve got perfect 20/20 vision and psychic powers.

This doesn’t even begin to describe the myriad technical problems scattered throughout the game. Ever wonder why the “run” button gets mixed up with the walk button when you pause the game? I have no idea, but it happened frequently enough that I noticed. You can easily glitch into inescapable areas, requiring a restart of the case. Furthermore, there’s a few sequennce breaking bugs which, again, require a restart if you, by accident, did the wrong things in the wrong order. At least Nintendo gave a patch to fix Skyward Sword’s gamebreakers; there’s no such luck here other than the foresight to look at an FAQ. I had one chase sequence where, because the friendly care in front of me hit another car, he stopped moving and put the whole scene into stasis. The only way to exit without restarting was to shoot the friendly guy in the head with my gun. That’s immersion for you: dealing with glitches at every turn.

I’m surprised it got such good reviews; I haven’t seen many of these issues covered in a review, and the ones that have were glossed over as minor complications. It’s clear that the game’s mechanics were a secondary project to the lush visuals and “story”. Unfortunately, Team Bondi (which is now defunct, fittingly) didn’t give the game itself a great foundation, rendering the rest of the game as a grim reminder of ambitions gone wrong.

If L.A. Noire were a person, it’d be like Luke 6’s parable about the man who built his house on sand. Rather than follows the dictates of good game design, L.A. Noire indulges in its own excesses.

46 “ Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47  Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.”

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About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.